Darin at the Copa: A Portrait of Bobby Darin as a Live Entertainer

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez
January 6, 2015

After a month-long period of silence during the holiday season, I return to The Vintage Bandstand to start the New Year right, as Irving Berlin advises us to do, by dusting off my copy of Darin at the Copa, a live album that Bobby Darin cut in the summer of 1960 and that shows that by that time he had become a consummate lounge act that worked perfectly well in a nightclub setting. Let's begin 2015 in style by rediscovering a record that is a lot of fun from beginning to end. And, paraphrasing one of Frank Sinatra's Columbia recordings, let's meet Bobby Darin at the Copa tonight.

By 1960, multi-talented vocalist Bobby Darin had made a successful transition from teen idol rock'n'roller to swinging crooner. He had changed "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop" for "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea," and even though the rock records he made in the mid-'50s are valuable examples of the early stage of his career, the switch arguably meant that he was growing up musically and artistically. In the summer of 1960, Darin began an engagement at the Copacabana in New York, and so Atlantic Records decided to tape some of his concerts there and issue a live album, Darin at the Copa, documenting his much-publicized Copa appearances. It would not be, by any means, Darin's only live recording, but in my opinion, it is undoubtedly his best because it captures the singer at his swinging peak, having fun with the musicians and the audience and mixing hits like "Mack" and "Dream Lover" with standards like "Some of These Days," blues-inflected tunes such as "Alright, O.K., You Win," and even ballads like "I Have Dreamed." The musical variety is astounding (Darin even has time to sit at the piano and do Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman") and Darin's fun-loving attitude on stage is simply infectious throughout.

Some critics feel that perhaps Darin should have taken the Copa engagement a little bit more seriously (in this respect, you can read, for instance, John Bush's review on Allmusic here and refrain from horsing around with the lyrics and joking with the audience so much. I disagree, however, because I feel that the idea behind this album was to document Bobby Darin as a nightclub act entertaining a standing-room-only audience—and he totally succeeds at that, and the listener, even almost 55 years later, benefits from Darin's playful attitude as he interacts with the public in attendance. Thus, during his rendition of "Dream Lover," he chats with a little girl, and upon learning that she is eight years old, he jokingly inquires, "Are you married?" Darin also enjoys playing around with the words to almost every song on the set list, and he even does an impromptu imitation of Louis Prima, seemingly because singer Keely Smith, who was married to Prima at the time, was among the audience that night. He also makes constant asides to the band, proving that he is really enjoying himself on stage, inspiring the musicians to swing harder here and there, and in turn feeding off the band's energy himself. The result is sheer fun precisely because Darin is having fun performing these songs and entertaining the nightclub crowd.

The repertoire is classic Darin from before he decided to try his hand at folk music in the mid-'60s, and so we find him tapping into the Cole Porter songbook (a beautiful rendition of "Love for Sale" and an all-out swinging treatment of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to") and offering his own readings of classics such as "Some of These Days," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "Bill Bailey." The album starts off with a medley of the traditional "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and Gene Austin's "The Lonesome Road," two songs loosely linked by their common religious theme, and toward the end of the LP, Darin essays a medley of "By Myself" and "When Your Lover Has Gone," two ballads that are hardly ever sung together, which is a shame in view of the thoughtful treatment that Darin affords them. This medley in particular—together with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "I Have Dreamed"—shows that not all is unrestrained fun on these dates but that Darin can be a fine balladeer when he so chooses. Of course, there are songs closely associated with Darin, such as "Dream Lover," "Clementine," and "Mack," which he mockingly introduces as a "very beautiful Bolivian folk song." Perhaps a foreshadowing of his future involvement with folk music? No, probably not! The album closes with an uptempo version of "That's All," the outstanding ballad written by Dick Haymes's brother, Bob, which reminds me how good a ballad it really is and makes me wish that Darin had kept it at its original slow tempo.

The orchestra that supports Darin throughout this Copa engagement is billed as Paul Shelley's Copacabana Orchestra but is conducted by pianist Richard Behrke, who wrote some of the arrangements, although charts by others, including Buddy Bregman and Richard Wess, were also used. The drummer that keeps a steady beat throughout the record is Ronnie Zito. Fortunately, Atlantic Records reissued the album on CD in 1994, without any notes or bonus tracks, but with a reproduction of the original back cover, which includes snippets of reviews of Darin's Copa act by famed columnists such as Lee Mortimer, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Walter Winchell, who also writes a witty "Sonnet for Bobby Darin." Here is what Ms. Kilgallen had to say about Darin's opening night: "Bobby Darin's debut at the Copacabana last night was a triumph—he has a good voice, fine arrangements, an almost completely tasteful selection of songs, and the nerve of a bank robber. The Copa isn't apt to have any empty tables showing during his engagement." Listening to the LP, it is hard not to agree with her assessment, although it remains unclear why she describes the song choices as "almost completely tasteful." Overall, the album is absolutely recommendable, and one even wishes that it were a little longer, or at least that Atlantic had reissued it on CD with bonus tracks.

(Thanks to Shiying for this interview.)

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