Bobby Darin knew he was in a race with time. If it was a race he would inevitably lose as a result of the heart condition he fought for his 37 years, Darin accomplished more in that short period of time than many artists who lived twice as long. A master of reinvention, Darin successfully transformed himself from teen idol to sophisticated hipster to folk troubadour and back again before his death in 1973. He also left behind a catalogue of impressive size at Atlantic, Capitol, Motown and his own Direction label, most – but not all – of which has been reissued on CD. But, with Darin departed for more than 40 years now, any discovery of new music from the singer is cause for celebration. As such, Edsel’s release of The Milk Shows – with some 96 songs on two CDs, only a couple of which have ever appeared anywhere before – is a major event for fans of The Great American Songbook and one of its most famous proponents.
96 songs on just two discs, you might be asking? Wouldn’t that have been too herculean a feat even for the perennially cocksure Bobby Darin? In the early 1960s (likely 1963), Darin recorded a series of five-minute, five-song radio shows for NBC sponsored by the American Dairy Association, hence the title The Milk Shows. Naturally, his performances range from mere seconds (14 seconds of “Fools Rush In”) to nearly two minutes in length (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” and “Climb Every Mountain”), but these recordings are not mere throwaways. Not only did Darin invest them with the full range of his interpretive skills, but he performed many songs he didn’t otherwise record. In addition, the format was an unusual one for Darin. Rather than utilizing the full orchestra he often had at his disposal, The Milk Shows were recorded with just an ace jazz quartet of Richard Behrke on piano, Ronnie Zito on drums, Milt Norman on guitar, and Billy Krist on bass. When Darin’s manager Steve Blauner and archivist Jimmy Scalia turned up these recordings in 2002, they set about transferring them into a digital format and organizing them into a cohesive album. The result, these many years later, is The Milk Shows.
As the recordings employed no overdubs or multi-tracking, The Milk Shows grants listeners an intimate audience with Darin, up close and personal. Each disc begins and ends with a show introduction, and there are a couple of commercials plus occasional chatter from Darin, but by and large, these rare recordings have been sequenced not to replicate the original broadcasts but to present wall-to-wall Bobby Darin.
The programs are announced as “from New York,” but were apparently recorded at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios; Darin was recording for the label at the time. The appreciative applause heard throughout was apparently added later, despite Darin’s referring to it often. A great number of the selections were, naturally, plucked from the decades-spanning Broadway songbook, representing true songwriting royalty. George and Ira Gershwin (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “Standing on the Corner”); Johnny Mercer solo (a hot Latin-style “Something’s Gotta Give”), with Henry Mancini (“Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses”) and with Harold Arlen (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”); Richard Rodgers, both with Lorenz Hart (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “Blue Moon”) and Oscar Hammerstein II (“Hello, Young Lovers,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Climb Every Mountain”); and Cole Porter (“What is This Thing Called Love?”) are just a sampling of the talents whose songs are heard here.
Pour yourself a glass – of milk, of course! – and join us as we dive into The Milk Shows after the jump!
Numerous weeks had specific themes. Irving Berlin was one composer to get a special spotlight. Darin refers at one point to a Day 2 of a “Darin Sings Berlin Week,” and twelve of the songwriter’s composer’s (described by Bobby as “the great-granddaddy of all composers”) songs are here. From a week dedicated to the music of the 1940s, Darin sensitively croons “La Vie En Rose” in its English adaptation. “Strictly from Darin” week celebrated the singers own compositions to mark the show’s 6-month anniversary. Darin is cool and low-key revisiting his own “Dream Lover” and even “Splish Splash” in fresh reinterpretations. Of his hits which he didn’t write, there’s a brief swing through “Beyond the Sea” but surprisingly no “Mack the Knife,” other than in the show’s theme. Darin turns in a smoking hot vocal on “That’s All” from his 1959 Grammy-winning LP. There’s also a plug for his then-new You’re the Reason I’m Living album and a few reprises from that country-themed album including the title song, “Be Honest to Me,” “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” and the twangy, rocking “Who Can I Count On.”
In one introduction, Darin expresses his admiration for the music of Bing Crosby before launching into “Sweet and Lovely.” He channels Crosby’s supreme effortlessness and distinctive phrasing with an almost-supernatural understanding of the great singer’s style, yet amazingly, still sounds like Bobby Darin. He revisits Crosby’s catalogue at numerous times over the course of these two discs, as on the soft “Please” or lilting “Too-ra Loo-ra Loo-ral.” Darin’s abundant gifts of impersonation also come in handy on playful renditions of “Buttons and Bows,” “I’m an Old Cowhand,” the comically drawling “Up a Lazy River,” and Frank Loesser’s Most Happy Fella standard “Standing on the Corner,” on which he adopts an exaggeratedly pinched sound. Darin’s sense of humor shines through many of these recordings. He jokes during “Tea for Two,” substituting milk for the titular beverage in Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar’s tune.
Darin was anything but a traditional singer, and an air of the unexpected permeates The Milk Shows. While this set won’t disappoint those looking for Darin in brash, swinging mode, he delivers a gorgeously restrained “Autumn Leaves” with soft, bossa nova-style percussion; “Fools Rush In” takes on a light samba sound, too. A sensitive voice-and-guitar performance of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” (which he had recorded in early 1963 at Capitol, though the track went unreleased for decades) is striking. He recites Mercer’s lyric to “The Days of Wine and Roses” over Mancini’s melody; a more traditional recording of the tune would appear on 1964’s From Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie.
He’s loose and casual on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s dramatic “This Nearly Was Mine” but mines the full range of emotions of the duo’s stunning “I Have Dreamed,” even with its diminished length (just under 2 minutes). There are plenty of showtunes from the more recent Broadway scene, too, including a relaxed version of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “Just in Time” and a hushed, plaintive reading of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “What Kind of Fool Am I” (“only about a year or two old … and already a standard,” Darin enthuses – and was he ever right!). He tackles Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Put on a Happy Face” with a jazzman’s phrasing and is bright on Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Hey Look Me Over!”
Occasionally some of the cross-fades and edits on these two discs are awkward, but this is by and large a beautifully produced treasure trove, and without question an indispensable addition to the shelf for any fan or collector of classic vocals. Darin historian David Evanier supplies a fine and entertaining appreciation for the liner notes, and Tony Hodsoll has designed an attractive package for project coordinator Val Jennings of Edsel in the same case bound book format the label has used for reissues from Belinda Carlisle, Todd Rundgren and others. The lone disappointment is that no information is given as to the original broadcast date or episode number for each track.
The final song on The Milk Shows is Styne, Comden and Green’s “Make Yourself Happy” – one of the most big-hearted songs ever composed: “Once you’ve found her, build your world around her/Make someone happy/And you’ll be happy too …” Though his life was sadly curtailed, there’s no doubt that Bobby Darin’s timeless music made many a someone happy – and still does.
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