Review of David Evanier's Book by Peter Feniak

Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin

Rodale, 253 pages, $35.95


"Listen," Bobby Darin once said to long-time manager Steve Blauner, "you know what I see when I get up in the morning and look in the mirror? "I see a short, big-nosed, bad-chin, pot-bellied Italian. When I walk out that door, I'm Rock f***ing Hudson."

Transformation was a specialty with Bobby Darin. At 19, he was stealing bagels from delivery vans, a skinny kid from the Bronx named Bobby Cassotto, who survived working weekends as a drummer in the Catskills while he tried to make it in Brill Building Pop. By 22, he was teen idol Bobby Darin (he had grabbed a name from a half-burned-out Mandarin restaurant sign), with top-10 hits such as "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover," which he'd penned himself.

At 24, after an unheard-of career left turn, he had become a riveting nightclub entertainer, admired by the show-business elite, winner of two GRAMMY Awards for his big-band reinvention of Kurt Weill's classic dirge "Mack the Knife." Three years later, in 1963, he was an Academy Award nominee, married to blond Sandra Dee -- then the biggest female box-office draw in Hollywood. Five years on, after spending all night at the graveside of his murdered friend, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and after shocking revelations about his own parentage, he took off his toupee, gave away his possessions and moved to a 14-foot trailer in an apple orchard in Big Sur. Would he come back? Of course: He was Bobby Darin.

Darin's determination was legendary, but it wasn't just will that made him a star; he had plenty of talent, a Mensa-level IQ and charisma to burn.

He was also one mixed-up guy, with, as a colleague observed, "a chip on his shoulder the size of a grand piano." Though he had a loving family, he hated their poverty. He was humiliated at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science when a cockroach crawled out of his clothes.

Darin's short, tumultuous life is highly visible this season, as Kevin Spacey stars in and directs Beyond the Sea (named for another Darin hit) on the big screen. New York music writer David Evanier's Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin is a virtual tie-in, with Spacey's enthusiastic endorsement on its cover. Nevertheless, it's a brisk, readable treatment of a fascinating life, with new interviews and a passion for music that puts it well above the usual quickie show-biz bio -- a worthy companion to the account by Darin and Dee's only child, Dodd Darin, and Maxine Paetro, Dreamlovers: The Magnificent, Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.

Bobby Darin burned bright. He knew his time was short. A sickly child whose heart was weakened by rheumatic fever, he suffered heart fibrillations and kept an oxygen tank in his dressing room. But he hit the stage transformed. Entertainers knew that Darin was different. He was aloof from the teen idols he toured with -- "way ahead of his time," as Paul Anka put it. He had "great ambition and endless vision," Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun said, "He could see no limit to his potential."

Darin was the first white artist signed by Atlantic, home to R & B greats.

It was no coincidence, Evanier says. Darin, who could do a passable Gene Krupa imitation on drums, had a great sense of timing. Sammy Davis Jr. marvelled, "I'm black, and he's got the rhythm." Rhythm made Darin a tremendous vocal stylist, able to reinvigorate mothballed tunes like Bill Bailey and Clementine and make them hits.

For a time, he was heir-apparent to his idol, Frank Sinatra, as the greatest nightclub star. Onstage, Darin's energy was incandescent. "Jeez, I can't do any of this stuff," Elvis Presley muttered, watching Darin sing, dance, mug, croon and shout his way through his Las Vegas act. Hip-swinging, shoulder-shrugging, finger-popping, mike-straddling, Darin had "the nerve of a burglar onstage," one admirer said.

How intense were those performances? Evanier quotes dressers who affirm that Darin always put on a condom before he took the stage.

Darin could be generous and loving with fans and friends, but he had another side. He was cruelly indifferent to his own family, who scraped and sacrificed to give him music lessons. His moods could turn on a dime, lifelong loyalties could be instantly dissolved; his temper tantrums were explosive.

As a child, he sat transfixed in theatres, watching the performers in the twilight of vaudeville. "He was from [that] mentality," says onetime Darin sideman Roger McGuinn, who went on, at Bobby's suggestion, to create folk rock with the Byrds. "Your shoes are polished, your suit is pressed, you're on time and in tune, and you hit the mark every time, instead of what I ran into later: Rock and Roll, where you're late and stoned and out of tune."

Ultimately, though, Darin's momentum drowned in the rock tsunami launched by the Beatles. And the nightclubs -- from the Cocoanut Grove to the Copacabana -- were fading. When he tried to reinvent himself as folk/protest singer Bob Darin, no one was really buying it.

He spent much of his final years in physical decline and emotional turmoil. Darin had believed the refined Polly Walden -- a vaudeville singer and widow of Sam (Big Sam Curly) Cassotto, a small-time associate of Mafia capo Frank Costello -- to be his mother. In reality, she was his grandmother. When Darin considered running for public office, his family told him the truth: The loud, obese woman who made him cringe was not his sister, Nina, but his mother. "My whole life is a lie," the bitter star said. Who was Bobby Darin's father? Nina took that secret to her grave.

Darin's friends -- from long-time mentor George Burns to Carol Lynley, a leading blond starlet of the 1960s whose comments illuminate Roman Candle -- eventually persuaded him to end his isolation. Shedding his jeans and beard, Darin made a successful return to nightclubs in the early '70s and scored with a hit TV show. But his heart was failing, He died on December 20, 1973, at the age of 37, whispering, with remembered joy, his family's first telephone number, "Cypress 2-6725."

"Maybe he didn't get to do it all," jazz critic Gene Lees wrote. "But he came close. Oh, could he sing."

Peter Feniak, a Toronto writer and broadcaster, still has an ATCO 45 recording of "Mack the Knife."



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