Sam Cooke is the greatest American vocalist, which means that Sinatra lands somewhere around fourth or fifth in the top five. So where’s that leave Dean Martin? Who knows? Who cares? The man’s place in American popular culture is forever secure. Rat Pack. Handsome. Martin and Lewis. Golf. TV. The whole 18 holes. So, the double disc Dino: The Essential Dean Martin and its more compact companion, Classic Dino: The Best of Dean Martin, are probably not going to offer you anything you aren’t expecting. Martin was a charming guy with a good voice who recorded some memorable songs, and attempts at deeper analysis seem almost heretical for a man who made his name in an era where the illusion of glamour, immortality, and star power (read: the superficiality of celebrity) reigned supreme.
The stuff the casual listener—the dame or dude who, like me, wants to have some Dino on hand for holidays and dinner parties—really wants what occupies the single disc Classic Dino set. They’re all there—“That’s Amore”, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”, “Volare (Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blue)”, and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”—and each reveals Martin’s uncanny ability to lend warmth to a simple melody and make us unashamed to embrace lyrics that ask us to believe in the impossible and smile all the while.
But the dual disc Essential tells a far more remarkable story. There’s an attempt to sound like the King: “Memories Are Made of This” is a dead ringer for Presley’s “Return to Sender” and you can almost hear Dino curling his upper lip as he works from verse to chorus and back again. There’s pure schmaltz: “Angel Baby” is almost unbearable in its sentimentality. There’s the sentimental that is square, schmaltzy, and yet somehow bearable via “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” and a foray into something that wasn’t quite pop and wasn’t quite country in the form of the thoroughly enjoyable “Gentle On My Mind”.
Elsewhere “Standing on the Corner” is pure entertainment, an ode to bird watching that is too innocent to work in any other time but its own. “You Belong to Me” is another Presley-esque number with one of the more lovely melodies that Dino wrapped his cords around; “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” is Martin trying his hand at country and western and almost getting by. “The Door Is Still Open (To My Heart)” even manages to transcend backing singers who threaten to derail an otherwise appreciable song and “In the Misty Moonlight” is another Dino gem, the kind of thing you probably never imagined you’d fall in love with.
In the end, it seems appropriate to encourage listeners to dig a little deeper into Dino, even if some considered him a lesser singer than you-know-who. He didn’t manage to rub shoulders with the major talents of his day without having a major talent himself and what’s collected here offers only the best of a man whose recording career wasn’t filled with wall-to-wall hits. In the end, Martin’s kind of like one of those guys you knew in college, the guy who cracked you up in class, the guy you had lunch with a few times, the guy you might even have invited to your wedding, but, ultimately, the guy you never really got to know because there really wasn’t much there. You have to at least appreciate him for being so damned affable.