My father learned at an early age that charm, good looks and a smile could help him find everything from employment to hot bread at the Steubenville Bakery. He was, at different times, a milkman, a gas station attendant and a store assistant.
He loved to sing, which he did at any opportunity, never passing up an invitation to entertain. He had a beautiful voice and enjoyed sharing it. The idea of making a living from singing first came to him when some friends pushed him onto the stage of a club called Walker’s Café. He was 16. “Go on,” they urged, “you can do it.”
Cracking jokes between songs — with lines like “You should see my girlfriend, she has such beautiful teeth … both of them!” — Dad won over the crowd and soon started to pick up a few extra dollars singing at other venues around town. His role models were the Mills Brothers, who were fellow Ohioans, and Bing Crosby, whose records he played on a windup gramophone until he wore them out. Dad looked good and sang great, was well-mannered and had impeccable taste in clothes and girls. The combination made for a heady mix.
But the salary for a nightclub singer was meager at best. Forever humming tunes in his snap-brimmed hat, he began running errands for those making the most of Prohibition. He did everything from dealing at illegal card games to delivering bootleg whiskey.
My aunt Violet used to say to him, “Dino, you never have any money.”
He’d smile and reply, “I don’t need money, Vi, I’m good-looking.”
Dad kept working, taking on different jobs and accepting donations from friends who subsidized his pay so that he would keep singing. His only alternative was a career in the steel mills of Ohio and West Virginia — something he tried briefly. “I couldn’t breathe in that place,” Dad told me many years later, shaking his head. “I have nothing but respect for those guys. They’re tough, but it wasn’t for me.”
He traveled the state, working as a croupier or a roulette stickman in numerous clubs across Ohio. By the time he was in his late teens, he was a worldly-wise young man earning twice as much as his barber father. He knew what he wanted — the world beyond the river. The dream was crystallized by a road trip to California with a friend in 1936. There he soaked up the atmosphere of Hollywood and wondered wistfully if one day he would be part of its magic.
His greatest desire was to pursue his singing career, and in 1939 he was finally offered a full-time job as the lead singer in the Ernie McKay Band in Columbus. He was 22. It was Ernie who gave him his first stage name, Dino Martini, in the hope of cashing in on the popularity of a heartthrob Italian singer named Nino Martini. Not long afterward, Dad was lured to Cleveland by Sammy Watkins and his orchestra. Sammy insisted on another name change, and this time it would stick. In a rented tuxedo and under an entirely new identity — Dean Martin — Dad sang the romantic songs that were to become his own. The stars were aligning.