In May 2012, I visited the National Underground on East Houston Street in New York City to hear John Gill’s National Saloon Band play a few glorious sets, with music ranging from Chicago jazz of the Twenties to Bing Crosby in the Thirties to Jimmie Rodgers . . . see the expansive range of John and the band here and here.

The management of the National Underground might not have had the most solid understanding of what John’s audience would have understood as appropriate background music — but they did the best they could for “older Americana”: a Dean Martin compilation CD.

I always thought Martin was vastly underrated as a swinging singer, and recall with pleasure the words of the late John S. Wilson, jazz critic for the New York Times (he had a seminal radio program on WQXR-FM, which began with Ellington’s ACROSS THE TRACK BLUES — evidence of Wilson’s deep good taste):  he wrote that Martin deserved to record with the best jazz background then possible — a small band featuring Joe Thomas, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Ben Webster, tenor.  (I think that band could have made Raymond Massey swing, but no matter.)  It never happened, and I didn’t have any sense that Dean Martin had actually recorded with a swinging background.

The compilation CD went through the familiar Martin recordings and then arrived at one new to me, a song that borrows elements from a half-dozen songs, not the least of them being I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER.  This lyrical conceit is more vindictive than lonesome, addressed to a presumably unfaithful or duplicitous lover, I’M GOING TO PAPER MY WALLS WITH YOUR LOVE LETTERS.  But listen closely to the band:

The opening ensemble reminds me of the Rampart Street Paraders — neatly “arranged Dixie,” in the manner of Matty Matlock or Billy May, with the string bass playing in two, a descending “Dixieland” figure scored for the horns, then a clarinet obbligto making its way in as the chorus continues — it could be Matlock or two dozen other players to my ears.  After Martin finishes his first chorus, things get looser and more heated.  Is that Dick Cathcart on trumpet?  Clyde Hurley?  And the trombonist, expertly maneuvering around in the middle and low section of the ensemble, could be Moe Schneider — lacking the violent swashbuckling of Abe Lincoln.

But wait!  There’s more!

At 1:27,more or less, the veil of polite behavior lifted, the businessman’s-Dixie got put aside, and the Masters came out to play.  To my ears, the drummer is Nick Fatool, the trombonist Lou McGarity (based on the shouting entrance into the solo).  This deliverance lasts less than thirty seconds, but it’s a wonderful surprise.  (And — so reminiscent of the 1928-31 “hot dance”records that had a peppy orchestral rendition of a danceable melody, then a winning but restrained vocal chorus — with a fiery eight or sixteen bars of jazz improvisation in the last chorus . . . if the prospective buyer had gotten that far, the sale was complete and Mother or Father were not going to scared off by some unbridled devil’s music.)

The closing chorus is slightly more emphatic than the first, but it’s fairly clear that the players have gone back to the manuscript paper: the whole recording, presumably from the middle Fifties, has a sweetly nostalgic air, harking back to Bing Crosby and the John Scott Trotter small groups.

I confess that what has appeared above has very little solid evidence to support it.  I could find no hard evidence of personnel, recording date, and location: the only evidence I have is that the song was recorded by The Ravens and the Andrews Sisters . . . my guess is that this order is right.  If anyone knows more than I have offered here, please chime in.  Until then, I invite you to savor Martin, the band, and that brief hot interlude in the middle.  Eckhart Tolle tells us that it is not our true work to name the beautiful bird or plant that we encounter in our travels, but to enjoy it . . . so if it turns out to be  someone entirely unknown to me on drums, on trombone, I will be surprised but I will live through it.

And this post is for the fine trumpeter and subtle singer Andrew Storar, who told me two days ago that Dean Martin was his favorite.

May your happiness increase.


  1. Ross Firestone

    Among his many other accomplishments Jerry Jerome produced records for the Apollo label in the 1940s, One of his sessions was with Dean Martin, probably the first recording he made. “Walking My Baby Back Home” — I think I have the tune right — got a lot of local airplay in Washington, DC when I was growing up, and although I was no fan of pop singers it caught my attention for the splendid jazz clarinet that was featured all the way through. When I asked Jerry about this many years later, he remembered the date clearly and said the clarinet player was no less than Johnny Mince. So you could say that the connection between Dean Martin and jazz was forged very early.

  2. Sonny McGown

    I have a Dean Martin CD on Capitol titled “Swingin’ Down Yonder” and it has that track. The date shown in the liner is 3/3/1950. I absolutely concur that the clarinetist is Matty Matlock and the trombone solo is by Lou McGarity. For comparison I recalled that I had a Jo Stafford 78 on Capitol and it has Jo acompanied by Paul Weston and His Dixie Eight. That session was recorded about 2 months later on 4/27/1950. The personnel listed on the label is: Clyde Hurley (tpt), Lou McGarity (tbn), Matty Matlock (clt), Eddie Miller (tnr), Nick Fatool (dms), Jack Ryan (bs), George Van Eps (gtr) and Milt Raskin (pno). The arrangement and sound is similar indeed.

  3. Ezra Millstein

    Dean was always underrated as a singer, not least because of the novelty numbers and his boozy stage persona. He was a very talented guy and, as you’ve proven, he could swing indeed.

  4. A swinging tune…and the vocal by Dean Martin is great!! I did listen to the band closely…What a band!!! I loved it!!

  5. Mr. Steinman, what a wonderful reflection on the many many talents of our Dino. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool….oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth. Know that your prose is bein’ shared this day with all the pallies gathered ’round ilovedinomartin.

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