Bobby Darin

Rock Singer or Cabaret Crooner?

This article, written by John Pidgeon, appeared in the weekly magazine The History of Rock in 1984.

BOBBY DARIN has had the misfortune to be lumped together with Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" proteges, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian, in discussion about late Fifties rock artists. Darin was far more talented than any of them; but he did come from a similar background, and his early career may, perhaps, be counted one of the high points in the story of Italo-American rock.

Darin was born Walden Roberto Cassotto on 14, May 1936 in the rough and dangerous ghetto of New York's East Harlem. His father, Saverio Cassotto, was a smalltime hoodlum but his mother, Vivian Walden, was the daughter of a prosperous Chicago mill-owner. Saverio died before Bobby was born and Vivian was left to bring up the boy on welfare in conditions of poverty. (Editors NOTE: It is now widely known that Vivian was in fact Bobby's grandmother and his sister Nina was his mother. His father was unknown.)

A far from robust child, Bobby suffered an attack of rheumatic fever at the age of seven, the first of a series of attacks which almost proved fatal. But Bobby was tenderly nursed back to health by his mother and when he was too weak to walk she would push him around the block, despite the callous remarks from neighbours - "Whaddya wanna wheel that thing around for? It's gonna die!"

Vivian was determined that her son should escape from the squalor of their East Harlem tenement block and instilled in Bobby a fierce ambition to succeed - no matter what the circumstances. And succeed he did by passing the rigorous public entrance examination into the Bronx High School of Science.

Bobby was not destined for academic life, however. He was something of a rebel at school, but also taught himself to play guitar, piano, drums and the vibraphone. From school he organized a dance band which played in the fashionable Catskill Mountain resort area near New York. There Bobby, aged 18, met a 31-year-old dancer and had a tempestuous love affair with her. Although little is known, the 18-month affair had a profound effect on Darin and seems to have left him even more aggressive and ambitious.

In 1955, following the break-up of the relationship, Darin returned home to East Harlem. There were few work opportunities at this time and he worked at a variety of manual jobs, including that of janitor in a machine shop. It was then that he dropped his name of Cassotto for Darin, which was picked at random from a Bronx telephone directory.

Life began to look up for Darin when he met Don Kirshner, then a young and struggling song publisher. They teamed up professionally to write and perform commercials for a New Jersey radio station. A few demonstration records were cut, one of which came to the attention of George Scheck, the manager of Connie Francis. Scheck thought Darin had talent and decided to manage him; he took Darin along to Decca who signed him up. But Darin did not find success with Decca. His first release came out in 1956 and was a cover of "Rock Island Line;" it sold poorly, as did his other Decca releases.

Although Don Kirshner's business relationship with Darin had been a short one, he was instrumental in convincing Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun of Darin's potential as both a singer and a songwriter. Thus when Darin's contract with Decca expired in 1957, Darin was happy to leave them for Atlantic. At the same time his management was taken over by Steve Blauner of General Artists Corporation (GAC). Blauner left GAC to devote all his time to Darin, and with his ruthless energy he was able to steer the still relatively inexperienced Darin in the right direction. A Colonel Parker figure, Blauner fought hard for his protege's interests and at one point fended off New York gangsters trying to cut in on Darin's career.

The singer made an unpromising start at Atlantic, however, recording three forgettable singles for the subsidiary Atco label with Herb Abramson as producer. Nonetheless their failure did nothing to diminish Darin's ambition to become a rock'n'roll star, although Abramson's apparent reluctance to cut a fourth single increased his feelings of frustration.

Bobby, Ahmet and an unidentified man in the late 1960's

Darin was sitting on two songs which he was convinced were hits, and he was so uncertain about his future with Abramson and Atlantic that he went back to Decca with one of the songs - "Early in the Morning" - and recorded it under an alias, the Ding Dongs; the other he stopped trying to sell to Abramson and took direct to Ertegun instead. This second song was a novelty number he had written at the home of the mother of disc jockey Murray Kaufman; it was entitled "Splish Splash." When Darin visited her one day, she had taunted him to compose a song with the line "splish splash, I was taking a bath." A ragbag of rock 'n' roll cliches, it nevertheless impressed Ertegun, who agreed to produce it himself although the extent of his enthusiasm might be measured by his allocating no more than 90 minutes for the recording session.

In fact, that hour and a half was more than time enough to record "Splish Splash." Darin also put down "Queen of the Hop," and a couple of B-sides. The session took place on 10 April 1958 and as Darin and Ertegun walked out of the studio they little realized they had just cut two million-selling singles.

"Splish Splash" made Number 3 in Billboard's Hot Hundred in July 1958 and remained in the Top Twenty for almost three months. "Queen of the Hop" gave him his second American Top Ten hit, but not before the appearance of the Ding Dongs' "Early in the Morning."

When it was learnt, that the Ding Dongs were Bobby Darin, Atlantic recovered the record and released it under another pseudonym, the Rinky Dinks. Decca, with a fat order-book and no wish to relinquish sales along with the master, immediately re-recorded the song with one of their own artists, Buddy Holly. In spite of Holly's popularity the Rinky Dinks' version sold better in America, perhaps because of Darin's superior handling of the gospellish material.

Having shown himself with "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop," to be an accomplished and inventive copyist of the rock 'n' roll idiom, Darin set about constructing more durable musical monuments.

When it comes to the composition of popular songs, certain chord sequences have been particularly useful to songwriters. C/Am/F/G7 deserves special mention for long and distinguished service. Printed on a page those cyphers leave the layman cold, but when translated to vinyl with appropriate instruments and voice and put on a radio playlist these simple but exhilarating sounds are invariably a winning combination.

On "Dream Lover," recorded on 5 March 1959, Bobby Darin permed them as prettily as any songwriter before or since, and the lyric he laid on top throbbed with male adolescent angst. The arrangement was more sophisticated than on his previous records and this, allied to more elaborate production, accounted for the 32 takes it allegedly took to complete the recording. "Dream Lover" became Darin's biggest seller in Britain, topping the charts for five weeks that summer; it did almost as well in the USA where it reached Number 2 in the Billboard listings.

In record industry parlance, 'follow-up' often means more than the next record. The term hints at well-tried formulas, repeated patterns that have proved successful in the past. But the only sense in which Bobby Darin's next single, "Mack the Knife," was a follow-up was that it came out as "Dream Lover" finally dropped out of the charts.

Stylistically, it was a startling turn around. The song itself was 30 years old, a Kurt Weill composition from Berthold Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" (though it had been revived successfully in 1956 by Louis Armstrong). Darin clicked his fingers and made it Number 1 in the charts. His approach was so hip that it bordered on a parody of the cool crooners
rock 'n' roll had swamped.

The success of "Mack the Knife" was followed by a sequence of swinging standards, among them "Beyond the Sea" (1960), "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" (1960) and "Lazy River" (1961). Although "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" turned up on the recording schedule for June 1961 as one more oldie for revamping, it emerged from the sessions altogether more vigorous than the others and reached the US Top Five.

The change in Darin's recording style was paralleled by a more general change in his career. The singer had by then embarked, in the fashion of the time, on a movie career and had moved to the West Coast. A dozen teen idols had been lured to Hollywood in the wake of Elvis, and several proved more adept in front of a camera than a microphone.

Darin did not have the looks of a leading man. Although his features were regular enough, there was something almost smarmy about him. He could act competently - in some ways his singing career had been a series of cameo roles - but he wasn't going to steal any parts from Ricky Nelson. Throughout the Sixties he made war movies, westerns, thrillers, romantic comedies, without ever losing the air of a dilettante.

Bobby and his co-star Stella Stevens in "Too Late Blues" ( 1962)

Although the films he made in Los Angeles did little to enhance his reputation, the records he cut there offered further evidence of his songwriting talents. Two in particular, "Multiplication" (1961) and "Things" (1962), were masterpieces of pop and he performed them with infectious ease. But the move to the West Coast was also reflected in a change of label from Atco in New York to Capitol in Los Angeles.

The period at Capitol was less fruitful than his time with Atco, yielding the schmalzy "18 Yellow Roses" (1963) and one gem earlier that year called "You're the Reason I'm Living" (1963), a composition that underlined the considerable influence of his former Atlantic colleague, Ray Charles. (Darin also recorded an LP entitled BOBBY DARIN SINGS RAY CHARLES.) Arguably the most interesting record to come out of his stay at Capitol was the folk album EARTHY, which allowed Darin to escape from his role as all-round entertainer; it was not a commercial success, however, and had only a short run.

Almost inevitably his career suffered in the mid Sixties; the British invasion brought great changes and Darin found himself out on a limb as Capitol concentrated on the youth market, promoting new stars like the Beach Boys, Peter and Gordon and, of course, the Beatles.

Darin returned to Atlantic in 1966 and had a major chart success with a song written by one of the new generation of singer-songwriters, Tim Hardin. "If I Were a Carpenter" showed he still knew a good thing when he heard it, and the song was a Top Ten hit in both America and Britain for Darin and his new label.

The move to Atlantic brought another change of style: the big-band, uptempo arrangements were now replaced by a softer, more melodic style. Two good albums, IF I WERE A CARPENTER (1966) and INSIDE OUT (1967), reflected this new approach. Hardin wrote seven songs on the two records and all the tracks were sympathetically arranged by Darin.

The change of musical direction was paralleled by a new personal style. The tuxedo was returned to the wardrobe in favour of more casual look of jeans and a moustache. Darin was nonetheless a shrewd businessman, and if the Top Twenty hits had dried up by the late Sixties, his investments in real estate had made him a millionaire.

During the early Seventies an attempt was made to relaunch his career as a Las Vegas entertainer, but it met with only limited success. Moreover, his health was poor and in 1971 he underwent open-heart surgery to have two artificial valves inserted. This proved only a temporary respite, and on 20 December 1973 Darin died following an operation to repair one of the valves.

Bobby Darin can never be considered a front rank personality in the history of rock music but his talents as a songwriter and his versatility as a performer place him above the teen idols he was associated with in the late Fifties. One of the best criteria of his work can be seen in the number of his songs that have been recorded by other artists: they include "Splish Splash" (Loggins and Messina), "Dream Lover" (Rick Nelson and Tanya Tucker/Glen Campbell), "I'll Be There" (Elvis Presley), "Wear My Ring" (Gene Vincent) and "Things" (Nancy Sinatra and Dean Martin).

That is the truest measure of his achievement.

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