Yesterday at SteynOnline we marked Dean Martin's hundredth anniversary this coming Wednesday with a celebration of Dean on screen. So, for our Sunday Song of the Week, I thought we'd pick a selection from the Dino songbook.
As noted yesterday, the Martin centenary observances are nowhere near as extensive as the Sinatra centenary observances were. Frank and Dean were fast friends - until, at a difficult time for both men, a Rat Pack reunion led to a serious falling-out in 1989. But they had an entirely different approach to their craft. In their Vegas heyday, whatever Sinatra did, Sammy Davis and Peter Lawford tried to do too, sometimes pitifully and desperately; whatever Sinatra did, Dean just did the opposite. "I hate guys who sing serious," he once said. And no one was more serious about singing than Frank.
So on stage, while Sinatra pushed himself through "When Your Lover Has Gone" and big art-song arrangements of the Soliloquy from Carousel, Dino contented himself with some perfunctory, somnolent Neapolitana and some sloughed-off Sammy Cahn parodies - "When You're Smiling" rendered as "When You're Drinking". "I'd like to do some more for you," he'd hiccup, "but I'm lucky I remembered these." You notice the difference in their big 20-minute extended medleys: Frank's songs are some of the greatest ever written ("I Get A Kick Out Of You"), Dean's are pop trifles ("Memories Are Made Of This" - with Sinatra doing the "Sweet sweet" vocal fills).
And yet and yet... In part because he didn't "sing serious", he was remarkably versatile. He meandered up to rock and country far more plausibly (and amiably) than Frank ever did. When Sinatra founded Reprise Records, he brought his pallie along for the ride and then watched as Dean gave the company its first Number One record. Reprise producer Jimmy Bowen took a 20-year old tune by Dean's pianist Ken Lane (whom you may recall from his regular spot on the old TV show), stuck a choir on it, and a vaguely rock'n'roll beat, and sat back as "Everybody Loves Somebody" knocked the Beatles' "Hard Day's NIght" off the top of the charts. You can see the versatility in his TV duets: He's happy to kick a couple numbers around with the Everly Brothers or Glen Campbell, but, if Bing wants to an Al Jolson medley or Lainie Kazan some fragrant Tin Pan Alley Americana from the turn of the century, he can do all those novelty songs or hoary old parlor ballads more credibly than Frank ever would.
And on the rare occasions he chose to sing at least semi-serious the results are impressive. "Everybody Loves Somebody" is a fine song, although on stage Dean co-opted it into the drunk act, substituting for "If I had it in my power" the line "If I had you in my shower..." Yet he also made a lovely, intimate ballad treatment of the song - disfigured only by the very last note, which isn't flat but is sufficiently off-center to raise eyebrows. Presumably everybody in the control room heard it, but by then he was out the door and off to whatever was next that day.
Then there's his marvelous take on "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" from My Fair Lady. Alan Jay Lerner lifted that title more or less from Bernard Shaw in the original Pygmalion: "I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance." Put like that, it sounds rather clinical. But nudged just a little and set to Fritz Loewe's beguilingly conversational melody it both stays true to the play yet also expresses something more universal about the kind of love that steals up on you. Nevertheless, Lerner wrote it specifically for the clipped talk-singy style of his leading man, Rex Harrison. Dean's wonderfully bleary recording couldn't be more different: it sounds like a guy waking up in his bachelor pad and discovering that last night's divertissement has decided to stay for breakfast, and you're okay with that. This is Dean at his very best - as, in Stan Cornyn's words, the epic sloth. As Alan Lerner said to me many years ago, "That's when I knew the song had a life outside the show."
Oh, and speaking of sleepovers, let's not forget the lullaby-themed album Sinatra conducted for Martin, Sleep Warm: You can hear the title song on my audio special with Alan Bergman.
But these are exceptions to his non-serious rule, and I feel we ought to meet Dean on his own terms, with one of his big, easy, irresistible signature songs. This one was given a new lease of life thanks to Norman Jewison's film Moonstruck, but I'm pretty confident it would still be around anyway. The two guys who wrote it have, respectively, one of the biggest and one of the smallest catalogues in popular music.
To take the big guy first: The tune is by Harry Warren. Who? Well, Harry Warren is probably the most successful songwriter ever to be totally unknown. He's not a household name, but he has a gazillion household songs: He wrote "Lullaby Of Broadway", "You'll Never Know" and "On The Atchison, Topeka And Santa Fe", just to name his Academy Award-winners ("Ah, I use 'em for doorstops," he'd growl - though, as he once told the merely singularly victorious Dorothy Fields, "Walk two Oscars behind me"); oh, and also "Jeepers Creepers", "Remember Me" and "I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo", just to name some of his other Oscar nominees; and also "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me", "With Plenty Of Money And You", "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby", "September In The Rain" and "I Had The Craziest Dream", just to name a handful of his dozens of Number Ones. In the Twenties, he composed big Tin Pan Alley pop hits like "Nagasaki"; in the Thirties, the first of four great American train songs, "Shuffle Off To Buffalo"; in the Forties, the number that earned Glenn Miller the world's first gold record, "Chattanooga Choo Choo"; and in the Fifties, big Italiano ballads like "Inamorata". In the Sixties, Chris Montez had a hit with "The More I See You", and in the Seventies Art Garfunkel with "I Only Have Eyes For You". In the Eighties, his score for 42nd Street provided Broadway with one of its few homegrown blockbusters on an otherwise Lloyd Webberized Great White Way, and in the Nineties his big orchestral theme from An Affair To Remember did most of the heavy lifting for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle. And in the Oughts a creamy ballad he wrote for a long forgotten film called Orchestra Wives became, mainly thanks to the influence of Etta James' record, one of the staples of every soul and r'n'b singer's obligatory standards album: "At Last". And we haven't even mentioned "Lulu's Back In Town" or "Serenade In Blue" or "There Will Never Be Another You" - or our Song of the Week #13, that wonderfully evocative slice of Americana, "I Found A Million Dollar Baby (In A Five And Ten Cent Store)".
Between 1935 and 1950, Harry Warren had 42 Top Ten hits. The only other composer to come close was Irving Berlin with 33. But everyone knows Irving and no-one knows Harry. You could understand why, as the Second World War approached its climax, Warren sourly remarked, "They bombed the wrong Berlin." ASCAP, the songwriters' collection agency, had a big gala for its star earners at Lincoln Center in New York and, as Warren told Max Wilk, "I arrived in a tuxedo at the door, and the fellow stopped me. He didn't stop the other people. He stopped me. He said to me, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'Where the hell do you think I'm going?' That's the story of my life." Literally. On the very first record of a Harry Warren song - "Rose Of The Rio Grande", recorded by Vincent Lopez and his Orchestra in 1922 - they left his credit off the label.
So why isn't Harry Warren a household name? Well, for a start, too many households already have his name or something similar pinned on their mailboxes, whereas how many Gershwins do you know? Or, come to that, Berlins or Kerns or Hammersteins. Harry Warren was born Salvatore Guaranga in Brooklyn on Christmas Eve 1893, and you can't help thinking he'd have been better off sticking with that. But by the time Tuti (as he was known to his parents and siblings) started school, the family name had been Americanized to "Warren", and Salvatore was registered in class as "Harry". Nothing to stop him changing it back, of course - and Tuti Guaranga would be eye-catching on a folio. But he didn't. And Ira Gershwin's admonition that "a title/Is vital" goes not just for songs but for songwriters, too. (Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin wound up writing a score for the last Astaire & Rogers picture, by the way.)
But there's another reason why he didn't become famous. Years ago, I asked the aforementioned Alan Jay Lerner, author of My Fair Lady and Gigi and Camelot, why some composers and lyricists were known to the public and others weren't. Leo Robin had just died and I thought it sad that a fellow who'd written "Thanks For The Memory" and "Blue Hawaii" and "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" and (with Harry Warren) "Zing A Little Zong" wasn't more celebrated. And Alan said: "Well, they know the writers who write for the theatre. Because the theatre is a writer's medium. You go to see the new play by so-and-so. But film is a director's and the stars' medium. And so that's why the public doesn't know the songwriters in Hollywood." Warren started in Tin Pan Alley, but dreamed of crossing the tracks to Broadway. Then Wall Street crashed, and put a lot of producers out of business at exactly the same time Hollywood was switching to talking pictures. It proved to be a second California gold rush: For New York songwriters in 1929, "taking the Chief" - the train to the coast - was a welcome escape route from the Broadway drought. That was the year Harry Warren was dispatched to Los Angeles by Warner Brothers to write a handful of additional songs for a film called Spring Is Here. He returned to New York, wrote a few numbers for a couple of revues, but Warners talked him back west for his first full score for what would prove a landmark in film musicals, 42nd Street.
Two decades later, things weren't going to so well for Harry Warren. He had had two enduring partnerships with great lyricists - Al Dubin at Warners in the Thirties, Mack Gordon at Twentieth Century Fox in the Forties. Now, as the Fifties dawned, he found himself in the awkward position of being half a songwriting team. In 1952, Bing Crosby called at six in the morning to ask him to compose the score for a Paramount picture called Just For You, which produced the aforementioned "Zing A Little Zong" - "Zing zing zing a little zong with me/Although we're not bezide the Zuider Zee..." A year later Jerry Lewis phoned and inquired of Warren if he'd like to write the numbers for an upcoming Martin & Lewis picture about golf. If you're thinking, hang on, Martin & Lewis? Isn't Lewis the comic and Martin the singer? Why's the funnyman picking out the composer?
Well, because, in the Martin & Lewis partnership, Jerry made all the business decisions - even though Dean was the older man by a decade. So Martin was off playing golf ...and Lewis was snapping up the songwriters. Jerry was a great admirer of Harry Warren and sought him out for almost every picture he'd make in the ensuing years. He asked Warren who he wanted as a lyricist, and Harry shrugged.
So Lewis suggested Jack Brooks.
Well, he's even less of a household name, even more obscure than Harry Warren. In fact, Warren had never heard of him. Which would make him the obscurity's obscurity. He was born on Valentine's Day 1912 in Liverpool, whence came those Beatles that Dean Martin subsequently knocked off the top of the hit parade. Being a Liverpudlian songwriter wasn't quite so lucrative in Jack Brooks' day, so he got on the boat and went to America. In 1946 he had a biggish hit with Hoagy Carmichael on "Ole Buttermilk Sky", which was our Song of the Week #35 and which I love so much I asked Michael Duffy to play it when he interviewed me on his "Counterpoint" show in Australia a few years back:
Michael Duffy: Let's have a change of pace, let's have a song, and I know you've suggested 'Old Buttermilk Sky' by Hoagy Carmichael. What does that do for you?
Mark Steyn: It's funny, you were talking about my childhood...I think when a guy wants to be a writer it's because at some point he starts taking an interest in language. And the way I took an interest in language was I heard pop songs and I heard phrases in them that I didn't understand and it made me think about words and what they meant. And I always liked this song, it's like a western song from a movie. You mentioned Hoagy Carmichael, he wrote the music, a guy called Jack Brooks wrote the words. Do you know Jack Brooks?
Michael Duffy: No, I don't.
Mark Steyn: His really only other big hit was, 'When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, That's Amore', which is the complete opposite of this. But the title is lovely, 'Old Buttermilk Sky', which I think if you're an old Aussie sheepman from the late 19th century, you would call it a mackerel sky, I think that's really what we call it down here. And it has a lovely phrase in it, 'Hang a moon above a hitching post, hitch me to the one I love'. And again, a hitching post is that little post outside the old general store or the saloon that you tether your horse to when you go in for a beer at the end of the day. So I never forgot first hearing this song and thinking about the specificity of the imagery, which I still love to this day.
Michael Duffy: Yes, it's a great line, isn't it, 'Hang the moon above a hitching post'.
It's impressive for a bloke from the back streets of Liverpool, where there aren't a lot of hitching posts, and even fewer buttermilk skies. It's so good that you wonder why it sits there in the middle of the 1940s as Brooks' only hit, unlike anything before or after. He certainly wrote other songs, plenty of them. In fact, he kinda sorta wrote one with Harry Warren, although Warren had forgotten it at the time Jerry Lewis pitched Brooks to him. Three years earlier, in 1950, Warren was writing Summer Stock at MGM for Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, with his longtime lyricist Mack Gordon. They finished up, moved on to something else, and somewhere along the way the studio decided to keep Warren's tune but dump Gordon's lyric and replace it with a new one by ...Jack Brooks: "You, Wonderful You." So Harry Warren wound up writing a song "with" Jack Brooks, and not finding out about it until the picture opened.
By the time Jerry Lewis mentioned Brooks, Warren had forgotten all about that. Which makes you wonder why Jerry was so keen to team an A-list composer who'd worked with Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer with a Z-list lyricist like Jack Brooks. Answer: Because Brooks was Martin & Lewis' pal. He may not have written a hit since 1946, but he churned out efficient special material for nightclub acts, played the piano engagingly, and affected a cigarette holder, which is not a common Liverpudlian accessory. So, in contrast to the curmudgeonly Warren, the stars enjoyed his company. Lewis brought Jack and Harry together, and they got to work.
In The Caddy, Jerry plays the title role, and Dean's a pro golfer. But the picture opens with the two of them on stage at the Paramount Theatre in New York, playing to all intents and purposes themselves, and singing a rather pointed song:
Oh, What Would You Do Without Me?
What would you do, boy?
To which Jerry replies:
I'd sell my car and hock my ring
And go right out and hire Bing...
But as he ultimately concedes:
I'm for you!
And as Dean responds:
I'm for me!
At one point Dean takes Jerry back home to meet his Italian-immigrant family: dad Joseph Calleia (a British subject from Malta), mom Argentina Brunetti (a brunette from Argentina) and sister Barbara Bates (a Coloradan from Denver). The scene called for them to welcome Jerry with a sentimental Italian tune. "What they were going to use," said Warren, "was some traditional Italian song like 'Oh, Marie'." That's an old Eduardo di Capua composition that Louis Prima hepped up and Dino had had a modest success with in 1947.
But Jerry Lewis had had it with Dino's modest successes, and had other ideas. He had become concerned that Dean's successes were rather too modest. Lewis was a big-time comic, and it seemed out of whack to pair a big-time comic with a small-time crooner. As Jerry put it:
After he had a couple of small hits on Capitol in the Fifties, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Was I being overcontrolling? Maybe. But I needed to protect our act.
As Lewis tells it, he went to Warren and Brooks and gave them $30,000 out of his own pocket - a huge sum in 1953 - and told them: "I want a hit for Dean."
So the traditional Neapolitan tune was gone, and instead Jack Brooks wrote one of the greatest openings of any popular song ever:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
America's first pizzeria, Lombardi's, had opened in 1905 on Spring Street in Manhattan (where, a block away from its original location, it still operates today). But it was GIs returning from Europe after the war who'd acquired the taste and given the dish mass appeal in America. It was still "pizza pie" in those days, which is rather easier for a lyricist to work with: What rhymes with "pizza"? Beats-a me.
But, as with "Ole Buttermilk Sky", you'd never know the guy was from Liverpool. Two hits, both with the most tired image in popular song: the moon. And yet one's hanging above a hitchin' post and the other's hitting your eye like a big pizza pie, and both images are utterly original and just right for their respective moods.
How do you know it's a great opening? Because it's been much parodied, by wags who can rely on everyone knowing the original. Allan ("Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah") Sherman:
When you walk through the park
And get grabbed in the dark
That's a moron!
The trick with parodies, as Sherman well knew, is to stick as close to the original as you can. This gets even closer, although it reads better than it sings:
When you're diving at night
And your feet feel a bite
That's a moray!
To accompany those words, Warren wrote a lilting waltz tune, with a deceptively simple twice-repeated three-note phrase descending to those low declarative notes on the title that bring out all the gorgeous warmth of Dean's vocal tone. Indeed, if you just wanted four notes to demonstrate what Dean Martin's about, "That's Amore" pretty much covers it. It sounds like the kind of tune you might have heard from a Neapolitan organ grinder and his monkey back when Eduardo di Capua was still in business, and before Mussolini and Fascism and the Axis all came along and put a crimp in Italy's image. Harry Warren inclined more to Puccini than "O Sole Mio" or "Funiculi, Funicula", but, after a career spent hymning Buffalo and Kalamazoo and Nagasaki, Tuti Guaranga finally got to win one for the old country. The Fifties was a golden decade for pseudo-Italian pop music ("Mambo Italiano", "Volare", etc), but "That's Amore" was first and covered all the gourmet bases:
When the world seems to shine
Like you've had too much wine...
When the stars make you drool
Just like pasta fazool...
That was as mystifying as a buttermilk sky to my younger self. I knew bolognese and carbonara, but pasta fazool? In Italian, it's pasta e fagioli - ie, pasta and beans. But in Neapolitan that's pasta e fasule - ie, pasta fazool. Did you know that "That's Amore" is not the first American pop song about pasta fazool? From 1927, by the pre-Martin & Lewis vaudeville act of Van & Schenk:
Pastafazula make-a weak-a man-a strong!
Pastafazula make you live-a very long!
You wanna be a great big sheik?
Make the women bite-a you cheek?
Don't be a fool
Oddly enough, that doesn't make me drool half as much as the throwaway reference in "That's Amore".
Warren had fun with the tune - it's twice as many bars as a standard 32-bar song, and with enough melodic material for two. The middle is so notey Brooks gives up trying to fit words to it:
Bells will ring
And you 'll sing
Stars will play
Like a gay
And then the parenthesis:
But the composer saves his lushest, most lyrical material for a kind of extended tag:
When you dance down the street
With a cloud at your feet
You're in love!
When you walk in a dream
But you know you're not dreaming, signore...
The long note on "love" and the high note in the middle of "signore" are really very expert writing by Warren, and by that point Brooks has all but singlehandedly rehabilitated Italy from Mussolini: pizza pie, vita bella, gay tarantella, pasta fazool, scooza me but you see...
"I want a hit for Dean," commanded Jerry. And Warren and Brooks obliged. If it was that easy, you wonder why Jerry didn't order up another next time round. But "That's Amore" was the only hit to emerge from the Martin & Lewis films, and the best of all the cod Neapolitana to come out of the most Italian decade in the American hit parade. Years ago, I heard the late Jack Finnigan hosting the Trivia Show on CJAD in Montreal. (For Americans, Jack was the father of Jennifer Finnigan from The Bold and the Beautiful.) A listener called in to answer a question about Cher in Moonstruck, and off Jack went:
'When the moon hits your eye/Like a big pizza pie...'
That's a happy song. Makes you feel happy just to hear it. Not like 'I'm gonna get my gun/I'm gonna shoot that cop...'
Indeed. When it took off, Dean invited Jerry to hop into his car and they drove down to the Music City store in Hollywood, parked outside, and admired the life-size poster of Dino in the front window next to a pile of platters for "That's Amore".
Did Lewis really pony up thirty grand out of his own pocket? If so, Martin never knew about it: Jerry saw no reason to be straight with his straight man. But, if he did, it was a greater gift than a steaming plate of pasta fazool. The song fit Martin like a glove - and, through the decades of his long feud with Lewis, it was the only thing to survive from the double-act days. On this hundredth anniversary, it's there on all the post-Jerry greatest-hits compilations, and it always will be:
But you see
Back in old Napoli
~A couple of weeks ago we invited longtime readers to become Founding Members of The Mark Steyn Club. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other features, but one thing it does give you is the right to gambol and frolic across our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you have strong views of "That's Amore" or pasta fazool, then feel free to lob a comment away below. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.