When the moon hits your eye like a bigga pizza pie...
That's Amore! Joe Queenan investigates the origins of Dean Martin's cheesy hit
Thursday July 26, 2007
Rare is the music buff who feels a need to question the genesis of a song containing the lyrics: "When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool." Like dental floss, Belgium or, for that matter, pasta, such songs are viewed as frothy confections that slip into existence, amoeba-style, at some juncture and hang around forever - in gangster movies, in commercials, in films starring Cher - without anyone ever devoting much time to a comprehensive investigation of their origins.
Unlike Pachelbel's Canon or Hot Legs, works intimately identified with those who wrote them, a tune like That's Amore or How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? usually has very little stature independent of the artist who made it famous. Much like oxygen, leotards or vodka, songs such as That's Amore! are viewed with great affection, but nobody really cares where they come from. It is enough that they are here. Perhaps, more than enough.
Be that as it may, That's Amore has a fascinating back story. Cooked up by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Jack Brooks in 1952, the song was written for the film The Caddy, starring Dean Martin (né Dino Crocetti). Martin at the time was the straight man in an enormously popular comedy team, partnering with the infantile, almost cretinous Jerry Lewis, his co-star in The Caddy. Martin and Lewis would later split up in, launching the longest-running, least-explicable feud in American show biz history.
At the time of the rupture, it was generally assumed that Lewis would become a huge star all on his own (which he did, after a fashion) and that Martin would gradually fade away into the woodwork. Martin flummoxed the naysayers by developing a winning alter-ego as the affable, slightly pickled playboy who forever played sidekick to Frank Sinatra in the Rat Pack. He went on to a remarkable career as a singer, actor and TV variety show host, though his songs have outlived his films. Taller, better-looking and far more likable than Sinatra, Martin radiated a tipsy urban suaveness that failed lushes of all ages envied, in part because, unlike calculating postmodern hipsters, Martin did not seem to be faking it. It is not going too far to say that to this day Martin is viewed by his countrymen as one of the most beloved Americans to ever draw breath.
That's Amore was recorded in Martin's pre-suave era. A charming, if goofy, parody of popular Neapolitan organ-grinder music, That's Amore was one of many songs from the early Fifties that helped rehabilitate Italy's image as a land of magic and romance that had somehow been lured from its festive moorings by the glum fascist Benito Mussolini. No one ever tried to do this with Germany. There is no evidence that the man who wrote the music for That's Amore went out of his way to let people know that this was the fruit of his labours. This is hardly surprising, since the brilliant but somewhat overlooked Warren had spent most of his career co-writing sophisticated material with titans ranging from Ira Gershwin to Johnny Mercer. The fact that he was now churning out cheesy novelty songs like That's Amore was a pretty good indication that his glory days were behind him
Warren, over a career that spanned three decades, composed more than 700 songs, including the music for 42nd Street, Lullaby of Broadway, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, You'll Never Know and September in the Rain. A regular collaborator with the legendary producer Busby Berkeley, Warren won the Oscar for best original tune three times in the 1930s. It is worth noting, however, that since Warren had also supplied the tune for such hits as Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Jeepers-Creepers, he was not entirely a stranger to mundus schmaltzibus. Nor was his name reallyHarry Warren; it was Salvatore Antonio Guaranga.
Jack Brooks, who wrote the words for That's Amore, had a less illustrious career. His second-most-famous song is Ole Buttermilk Sky, which he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael (Georgia on My Mind, Stardust). It is no longer clear what an ole buttermilk sky is. For the longest time, it was assumed that Warren and Brooks simply went about their business and wrote their song for the movie, and that was that. But in his 2005 tell-all Dean & Me (A Love Story) published 10 years after Martin's death, Jerry Lewis reported that he secretly took $30,000 - a Croesian sum today - out of his own pocket and paid Warren and Brooks to write the song because he felt sorry for his partner. The way Lewis recalls it, Martin had recorded a few small hits in the early Fifties, but desperately craved a breakthrough chartbuster. Lewis thereupon made a clandestine visit to the songwriting team and said, "I need a hit for Dean." At which point, they obligingly wrote That's Amore. And just like that, Dean Martin had his monster hit.
In the book, Lewis asserted that although he felt like a "martyr" for suppressing the truth about the song's origins, he never told his partner that he had personally assured his mammoth success by going to two songwriters and declaring, "I need a hit for Dean," apparently because he was afraid it would hurt Martin's feelings. Nor does he ever explain why he did not subsequently go back to the songwriting team and say, "That was great, fellas. Now, since songwriting seems to be such a snap, I need another hit for Dean."
Despite its renown, That's Amore never reached No 1 on the US charts. The song it could not dislodge was Vaya Con Dios, performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford. The Gibson Les Paul model, the most famous guitar in the world, was designed, unsurprisingly, by Les Paul. Mr Paul is still performing in Manhattan clubs at the age of 92. Ironically, it was Dean Martin's Everybody Loves Somebody that knocked the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night out of the No 1 slot on the US charts in 1964. A Hard Day's Night was written by two natives of Liverpool, one named Paul. Scant weeks before the Titanic sank, Jack Brooks was born in Liverpool.
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