A year ago the only people who knew of Bobby Darin were a batch of teen-age rock 'n' roll rooters. Today everybody-kids and grown-ups-digs Darin the deepest.
Twelve months back, practically the only place you could eye Bobby-at that time just another R&R singer-was on scattered TV shows as follow-ups to his rock 'n' roll hits, Splish Splash, Queen of the Hop and Plain Jane. Today, as a result of his hit disc for Atco, Mack The Knife, he's being clamored for by top television shows and fought over by every nightclub in the country. And each offer's the swingingest yet-TV spectaculars, Ed Sullivan's show, The Copa and The Sands in Las Vegas. Bobby will also sing the title song of "Tall Story", the Warner's picture starring Anthony Perkins.
While the Jerry Lee Lewises and Tommy Lymans-at that time also top tunesters-have gone Nowheresville, Darin has catapulted to Hitsville. The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, made up of the music business' creative talents, voted him "The Best New Artist of 1959" (against such com- petitors as Edd Byrnes, Johnny Restivo, Mark Murphy and Mavis Rivers) and voted his Mack the Knife platter "The Record of The Year." The topper? Paramount snagged Bobby's signature onto a contract, so he'll soon be box office bait, too. All this has whooshed him out of 19 years of sheer poverty e, into the quarter of a million bracket as pop- dom's most exciting new songseller.
How did all this happen? What changed Bobby Darin from just one of many rock 'n' rollers into the rave of not only kids but adults, too?
The answers lie in 22-year-old Bobby himself. He can't stand still. When things aren't buzzing right, he clean-slates everything. Such was the case in 1957. After a dud year of "folk-pop" (as Bobby calls it) with Decca, which left him feeling like a rocket gone blah on the launching pad, he got himself a new manager, cut his own master ("with lots of guitar"), and headed for Nashville where he sold it and himself to Atco Records. The results were not long coming. "I laid three more bombs for a grand total of seven," says Bobby. Then Splish Splash, which he wrote, hit for him in June '58 and the kids first came to know the boy named Darin.
Despite follow-up hits and rising success as an R&R pusher, a different kind of song nudged his insides. With an older sister in the house, Bobby had been brought up on the swing,rhythm, jitterbug beat and blues of The Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald and company. Too, Bobby always considered himself an actor rather than a singer— "singing is acting,"' he says—and as such, he was always out to sell the lyric. (He couldn't do this with rock 'n' roll.) "Besides," says Bobby, "the kids are demanding lyrics that make sense." Result? The swinging, hard-driving, lyric-loaded Mack The Knife. In fact, Bobby went so way out in bowing to the past that he never figured Mack would zoom. "I thought it was too adult," he says. Of its ban by WCBS in New York Bobby says: "They sold more records by banning it. Soon as they said the lyrics were 'non grata,' people began listening to 'em to see what was being banned."
Bobby's periodic sweeping changes —he had four managers before hitting it right with Steve Blauner—--were all part of finding himself. He has a "nothing I can't do" philosophy which, whether he truly believes it or not, his fans admire. It helps give him the confidence one needs in the enter- tainment world. His motivating beat, an unashamed determination to be show biz's #l kingpin some day, stems, some say, from the one thing he was most ashamed of his whole life—being poor. "The worst thing about poverty," says Bobby, "is that you feel poor. You're surrounded by it; you're embarrassed by it. You're always wearing someone's outworn clothes, and wearing 'em every day."
Is Bobby running from his past more than he's searching for a future? If he is, it's understandable. Yet success, to Bobby, is not security. "There is no security in show business," he says. "You're as good as your last record, and there's no end to the game as long as you're breathing."
Despite this belief, Bobby strives desperately for success. He feels he has got to be somebody.
"In my neighborhood—East 135th Street in The Bronx—if you didn't fight to improve your standards, you'd never get anywhere," says Bobby. "If it wasn't for my bug for show business and the desire to claw my way out of an area that offered me nothing, I'd be a gangster by now." He says this not to jolt you, but matter-of-factly. "I'd rather not count," he adds, "the number of guys I know who ended up behind bars."
Bobby's father, Sam Cassotto, a cabinet maker and inventor of Coney Island pop-up dummy games ("and he was the first to put ice cream on a stick," claims Bobby), died three months before Bobby was born. Because his mother was too sick to work, Bobby and his older sister, Nina, were supported by his brother-in-law Charles Maffia, in a tiny railroad flat. Times were tough, and the family was on relief. To keep the calories coming, New York City issued them food coupons which were traded in for extra eggs, milk and other eats. One day they were allowed to stock up on eggs —nine dozen. Bobby liked eggs, for playing rather than eating, and before his mother could say "Humpty Dumpty," Bobby rolled the eggs off the kitchen shelf—108 kerploshes onto the floor!
As a kid, Bobby needed as careful handling as eggs. Sickly, victim of heart-weakening rheumatic fever, he was even pronounced dead by a doctor during one crisis, but a miracle pulled him through.
As a result of his "on-borrowed- time" living, Bobby "was spoiled. "But with a sense of values," he adds. "Mom treated me as an adult. She always explained why I shouldn't do something, even when I was five and six."
Mama Cassotto, as she was known, didn't believe in school, but in edu- cating her children herself. Under pres- sure, however, she finally started Bobby in school when he was seven-and-a- half. When she tried to have him placed in an advanced grade, the first grade teacher challenged her with: "Can he read?"
"I remember," says Bobby, "Mom drew herself up proudly and said deliberately: 'The Child reads!' So the teacher picked up a volume of Shakespeare from her desk and dared me to read from Julius Caesar. I did—-with gestures!"
Bobby still had to start in first grade—rules. But he "skipped no less than five times and finished the scho- lastically-tough Bronx High School of Science (English and French -were his hip subjects) at a cool 16 with an 81 average. After a year at Hunter Col- lege, he quit because he felt books were keeping him from his first love— acting.
During those teen years, Bobby's mother made things as easy for him as she could. "Time enough to grow up and work hard," she'd say. But a question continually plagued Bobby— how to improve his lot. One way, he figured, was to work. After book- worming at school, he'd clerk each night in a cleaning place. Summers he'd odd-job it at mountain resorts. After college classes, he demonstrated toys at Gimbels, made steel garage doors, worked in a machine shop. Even as a kid of six, he did the shoe shine bit, or at least tried to. His brother- in-law spiffed up a shoe shine box that was so heavy squirt-sized Bobby couldn't carry it! Three years later, Bobby still scratched the scales at only 52 pounds.
The struggle for necessities and the grim surroundings that were the East Bronx and later, Delancy Street, have made Bobby hard . . . or so he would have you believe. He talks hard, too. About people: "I ignore 'em. If I didn't, I'd go buggy." About marriage: "I'm against all marriages until the man is financially secure. Too many end up in divorce. Parents of some friends of mine married young and didn't have a chance to get an education. As a result, they didn't have much to pass on to their kids. And many of my friends did exactly the same thing . . . married too young and started raising children. They'll never get out of their poverty—never!" About looks: "It's only initially important. Look at me, I'm not good looking." About himself: "My biggest fault is I talk too much. I say exactly what's on my mind. If it hurts, I can't help it. I couldn't live any other way." His sister Nina says, "Bobby likes to think he's hard, but he's not really. Why, he even cries in a good bawl movie! And rather than having made him tough, his life has given Bobby one of the finest senses of humor I've ever seen. Next to Mom's, of course. She had to have a sense of humor to survive her hard life."
Life tossed pain into Bobby's path, too, the kind that leaves scars. When he left college, Bobby did some road work with a children's theatre group. He had confidence; he was on his way. But back in New York he was hit—and hard—by love. He was 18, she was a much older girl, a dancer who promised to get him into show business. Bobby flipped over her, but within a few months she threw him over for somebody else. The upshot? Bobby became bitter and doubtful. He lost faith in everything and everybody. In talking with him about it, it's easy to see that he's still not over the hurt and unhappiness.
As a release for his unhappiness, Bobby plunged himself into writing songs—"love mush." It took a friend, Don Kirshner, to give him back his faith. With Don, Bobby made his first show business buck, inking jingles-for WNJU, a New Jersey radio station.
"They're still playing 'em," says Bobby. "I heard a furniture store one and an appliance dealer jingle just the other day."
Then, one April Monday in 1956, Bobby took a tune of his. "Timber", to George Scheck (Connie Francis' manager) hoping to peddle it. Upon hearing Bobby's live demo, Scheck's ears fired up and he sent Darin over to Decca Records. Tuesday Decca paid for Bobby's signature and four days later he was on his first TV show, the coast-to-coast Tommy Dorsey Stage Show. The following Monday he debuted his first club date, the Gay Haven in Detroit. It was a quick, won- derful, wacky week which changed Darin the songsmith into Darin the singer.
The jazzed-up treadmill that 5'9/ 155-pound Bobby has put himself on has detached him from the real world, with one exception—there is no "outside" of show business. Everything's either "in" or "around." The one off- shoot from the orbit is the 5-room house and guest cottage at Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey, where he lives with his sister, her husband and their kids, Vivi, 16, Vana, 12, and Gary, 4. Bobby bought the house for them and for his mother, but Mama Cassotto didn't enjoy it for long. She died a year ago, just as Bobby was flying high, and the void she left will always be with him. Yet the house has many pleasures for Bobby; the love of his sister and brother-in-law, to whom he owes so much, and his nieces and nephew. And it's there you'll see the rare evidence that Bobby sometimes relaxes: the Hitchcock and Manhunt magazines, the toys he brings home for Gary, the stock of spaghetti for playing chef. "I cook up a wicked bowl of the stuff with a sauce that goes crazy from hours of simmering." Because Bobby is so show biz busy, his mind is closed to most other things, including marriage. "At least for now," he says. It took him a long time to do the social swing after the heartache he suffered-with his early romance, but now he and a girl singer (whose name he keeps-under smog) have an agreement. "We both date each other, and others. Being a singer, - she understands me and the business, and the way I am. It should work out well once we make the move."
Bobby's sister says he has always been old beyond his years. And so it seems, for he always knew the direction in which he was heading. Now he's plotted a specific goal—the biggest, brightest spotlight in show business. Who's to knock him for aiming at the top? No one. The only question is: Will he make it?
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