It’s funny how each person’s opinion of legendary artists and their music can differ depending on their age and what stage the artist’s career was at when they first fell in love with them. David Bowie was any number of characters: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke… but to me he was also the grown-up version of the boy from Channel 4’s version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, who had been so traumatised by flying around with a snowman, he had taken to dicking about empty buildings with a blouse-wearing Mick Jagger in the video to Dancing in the Street. It was around 15 years later before he became one of my favourite artists ever, and I’m still not over his death.
Anyway, back to my point. To many, Dean Martin is a bona fide musical icon, and Memories Are Made of This is one of his most popular tracks. But my opinion is clouded by two things: the film The Cannonball Run (1980), and Bisto gravy. More on that later.
Dino Paul Crocetti was born 7 June 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio. He spoke only Italian for his first five years, and would be bullied for his broken English. When he was a teenager he took up drumming, and after dropping out of high school he tried his hand at bootlegging liquor, and by 15 he was a welterweight boxer known as Kid Crochet. A broken nose, scarred lip and several lost fights later, he became a blackjack croupier at an illegal casino.
While there he began singing with local bands, calling himself Dino Martini after opera singer Nino Martini. Influenced by crooners such as Perry Como, he developed his style with several groups, and in the early 40s it was bandleader Sammy Watkins who suggested he become known as Dean Martin.
As 1956 began, Dean Martin was coming to the end of his 10 years as one half of a showbiz duo with Jerry Lewis. He and the comedian had become hugely popular and were household names. However he was becoming disillusioned with the feeling he was playing second fiddle to Lewis. After all, his own music career was going from strength to strength. That’s Amore, Sway and Mambo Italiano had all been big hits in the previous few years, and Memories Are Made of This had recently topped the Billboard chart.
It had been written by Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr, and Frank Miller. According to Gilkyson’s daughter, this sweet little number in which a man looks back on his life and loves was simply her father paying tribute to meeting his wife and starting a family. Unusually, the writing trio decided to perform the backing vocals themselves. Calling themselves The Easy Riders, their doo-wop stylings feature throughout the otherwise sparse backing, and are an important ingredient of the song. Whether you like them or not is another matter…
I can’t fault Martin’s performance of Memories Are Made of This. I’m a fan of his voice. I like the way he often sounds like he’s drunk (apparently Martin didn’t drink anywhere near as much as his reputation suggests). The Easy Riders, I can do without. I find the backing vocals irritating and distracting. They’re too catchy. I can understand the song’s popularity, but as mentioned earlier, the associations I have are problematic.
To me, Dean Martin will always be Jamie Blake, the tipsy, priest-impersonating bad guy from the comedy The Cannonball Run, who constantly ridiculed his sidekick, Morris Fenderbaum (Martin’s Rat Pack friend Sammy Davis Jr). When you read how much Davis Jr was picked on by the other Rat Pack members, their roles in the film now leave a sour taste. But I loved that film as a child. So much so, I confess I used to pretend to be Jamie Blake. Me and other kids down my street used to have pretend Cannonball Run-style races on bikes, go-karts and skateboards down my street as a child, and I’d often pretend to be Martin’s character. Strange? Absolutely.
This song was then used in a long-running advert for Bisto gravy in the mid-90s, and it ran for so long I got sick to death of it. So when I hear Memories Are Made of This, I can’t help but picture a drunken Dean Martin, in a priest outfit, pouring gravy while singing. Not the memories the writers had in mind.
Memories Are Made of This was Dean Martin’s only UK number 1. Later that year he and Lewis officially split, and refused to speak to each other for 20 years. Martin became the bigger star, lending his star power to movies, music and television. As rock’n’roll became the main force in pop, he focussed on films, and had ambitions to be a serious actor, but such was his louche charm, he was usually cast in comedies, and won a Golden Globe nomination for his role in Who Was That Lady (1960). That same year he starred alongside his Rat Pack friends in Ocean’s 11.
His most famous song, Everybody Loves Somebody was released in 1964, and a year later he launched his NBC variety series The Dean Martin Show, which ran until 1974. Two years later, Martin and Lewis reconciled publicly on a live telethon by Lewis. They stayed friends, though would only perform once more, in 1989 for Martin’s 72nd birthday.
Although his reputation for drinking was exaggerated, he was a heavy smoker, and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993, four years after Davis had died from it. He rejected surgery and died on Christmas Day 1995.
Martin was a hugely charming star who touched the hearts of millions. On the day he died the lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honour. His crypt features the lyric ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’.
Written by: Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr & Frank Miller
Producer: Lee Gillette
Weeks at number 1: 4 (17 Feb-15 March)
Author Andrea Levy – 7 March