The tragic death of singer Bobby Darin cut short a career that looked set to eclipse Sinatra's. Later this year, Kevin Spacey brings him back to life in Beyond the Sea, the story of the wayward genius who excelled at everything he tried.
Whichever way you measured it, he was slick. He wore a tux, a bow tie as broad as Catwoman's mask, and shoes that shone like spotlights across the stage. In front of the cameras for Mack is Back, a 1973 US TV extravaganza, Bobby Darin was showbiz incarnate. He finger-snapped his way through Broadway standards, then shifted into soft rock or hard country, uptown soul or down-home blues - inhabiting each personality as if he'd been born in that disguise. As he sang, his hips swayed and his feet moondanced. He reeled off one-liners like Groucho Marx, then slipped into well-worn impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Stewart. Through it all, he commanded the stage like no one before or since. Bobby Darin was king of the world. He was 37 years old, with 15 years of hit records and an Oscar nomination behind him, treated as an equal by the Rat Pack and movie stars alike. But now he was dying. Within nine months Darin's life would be over.
Between songs, he'd shake his hand ferociously as he stepped over to the piano or reached for his guitar. The crowd thought it was part of his shtick. But, as his manager Steve Blauner reveals, "He was trying to get the circulation back in his fingertips. That's how sick he was." Darin's friend, record producer Phil Ramone, noticed something else. "He'd run off stage for a few seconds - to get a shot of oxygen. He was determined not to stop."
Since his childhood bouts of rheumatic fever, Darin had known that his life would be brief. He'd recently survived heart surgery, but that only postponed the inevitable. "He could hardly get up the steps on the stage," Blauner recalls. "But when the lights were on, he came alive. When they went off, it was like he was mummified. He was practically dead."
His death that November (webmaster note: Bobby passed away December 20th) was a three-day wonder in the world's press. They remembered the hit singles, especially "Mack the Knife", and the arrogance that led him to declare, "I want to be a legend at 25." For Ramone, it wasn't just a star who had gone: "The grand old tradition of showbiz had reached the end of its trail. TV had killed off the variety shows. Even Sinatra had retired. But when Bobby was on stage, all that was still alive. He had the cocky walk, the tuxedo, the big band, the jokes: he was the real deal."
In Darin's absence, other legends filled space in the pantheon. Sinatra came back, Tony Bennett was reborn, and Darin was remembered only as one of the "Bobbys" - Vee, Vinton and Rydell - who, according to Jerry Lee Lewis, had killed rock'n'roll back at the start of the Sixties. But afterlife brought unexpected rewards. Neil Young claimed him as a hero, the man who'd convinced him it was possible to be more than one person in a lifetime. Darin was elected in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame; George Clooney chose one of his songs, "Artificial Flowers", on Desert Island Discs; Robbie Williams revived his spirit for his swing album; and now the Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea" is finally due for release this November after its star and director Kevin Spacey struggled for years to get it made.
Darin would have accepted all this as his due. He laid out his ambition from the start: "I want to tackle every single medium that exists in this game, and to be good at it." His main game was music, and there he had few peers. "He had a better sense of time than almost any singer I ever worked with, " says Atlantic Records found Ahmet Ertegun, the man who signed legends like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. "No matter what he did, he was always swinging. He had soul, which was something that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin never had." Ramone agrees: "Plenty of white singers have the borrowed the black R&B sound, but Bobby Darin was one of the few who really understood it, and felt it. He was totally comfortable in that world. And he was a killer when it came to delivering a lyric. He was a true musician."
To the delight of the teen fanzines in the late Fifties, Darin's was an authentic rags-to-riches tale. But despite his unerring confidence on stage, his life was stalked by tragedy and angst. Born in 1936, he was raised in the Bronx, New York City, like a star in a soap opera. He was well into his thirties before he discovered that the woman he knew as his mother was actually his grandmother, and that he was the secret child of his big sister. He'd grown up believing that his dad was a mafioso betrayed and killed by the Mob - something that coloured his relationships with the men who ran the USA's most prestigious nightclubs. He never discovered the identity of his real father. Sick almost from birth with rheumatic fever, the landscape of his formative years was relentless pain - and constant attention. He claimed that his mother was taunted as she pushed her baby carriage round the city streets" "Whaddya wanna wheel that thing around for? It's gonna die." But at home he was the chosen one who ate before the others and accepted their sacrifices as his birthright. Young Walden Robert Cassotto, as he was named, carried a twin-edged destiny: the threat of premature death that could strike at any moment, and the certainty that he had something special.
Though his heart was in vaudeville, he broke through in the late Fifties as a teenybopper star. "He was a rock'n'roll singer," remembers his manager Blauner, "and I didn't even like rock'n'roll. He was the opening act on a show in Bridgeport. He came out on stage singing rock, and my mouth fell open. He was the greatest performer I'd ever seen, except maybe for Sammy Davis. He could sell any song. So I went back to the office and told everybody that this kid would become one of the biggest stars of all time. They all thought, "Who is this crazy nut?"
Blauner encouraged Darin to switch from rock to Broadway standards, and chivvied Atlantic's Ertegun into releasing "Mack the Knife" as a single. It was No. 1 for nine weeks, but beyond its commercial appeal, it was perhaps the greatest swing performance ever captured on record, by a man young enough to be Sinatra's son. "Darin has the talent and the personal magnetism to become the dominant entertainer of his generation," said the veteran comedian George Burns, who took Darin under his wing. "Nothing can stop him but himself."
His talent was never in question. By the time he reached 25, celebrating with a TV special alongside Bob Hope, Darin had piled up a stack of hits: "Splish Splash", "Dream Lover", "Beyond the Sea", "Artificial Flowers." But the same drive that propelled him from extreme poverty and sickness to the stage of New York's hottest niterie, the Copacabana, also sent him careering over the boundaries of showbiz etiquette.
"If I get a smart-aleck question, I've got to give you a smart-aleck answer," he once admitted. "I've got to bury you. That's my defense mechanism." It operated whether he was facing the press, or his showbiz superiors. "He should have been championed by someone like Sinatra," says Ertegun, "but he rubbed him the wrong way. He got on the wrong side of Perry Como on a TV show, because he walked in and before he was introduced, he said, 'Hi, Per!' That wasn't showing due respect. He did little things like that, half in jest, but they put people off. Bobby would not play second fiddle to anybody, but you can't be in the driver's seat when you're with people who are bigger names than you are."
Sinatra's hackles were raised when Darin was quoted as saying that he would soon become bigger than his hero. "I don't think he actually said it," explains Ramone, "but that's the way it was reported." Ol' Blue Eyes never forgot: Darin was scheduled to star in the movie Come Blow Your Horn until Sinatra was booked for the role of his elder brother and insisted that Darin's role should go to his son-in-law, Tommy Sands, instead. But, Ramone says, Sinatra never underestimated Darin: "When we cut 'Mack the Knife', Frank said to me, 'I don't know if I can bring anything to this song that Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald haven't already done.' So he appreciated Bobby's talent."
Darin's genius as a performer was never in doubt, but humility was more difficult for Darin to achieve. "We had a rehearsal for a BBC radio show," Ertegun recalls, "and they were trying to be nice, so they offered to go over his spot first so he could get away. And he took it as an insult, because he was a star, and should go on last. He was offhand with the musicians; he tended to speak down to them. Then the band took a break and he started to fool around with the drum kit. The drummer came over and said, 'Get the f*** off my drum stool.' Bobby got very angry, and wanted to leave. I said, 'Look, this is the biggest show in the country. You can't go.' He said, 'F*** it, we'll go to the other network.' I said, 'Bobby, this is Britain. There is no other network!'"
Ill health restrained him from some of the temptations of stardom - but not all. "He wasn't a drinker," says Blauner, "he wasn't into any kind of dope. I guess that his biggest drug was sex." As a teen idol and movie star, sex came easily to Darin. On the road, he employed Charlie, the man he thought was his brother-in-law but who was actually his stepfather, as a gofer. One of Charlie's perks was first shot at the fans and showgirls who came backstage in search of the star. Once Charlie had taken his pleasure, Darin would walk into the room naked and say, "Now how about some of this, baby?" One of Darin's touring band took his new wife on a train tour across the USA. After a quick lunch in the restaurant car, he came back to find his boss and his bride naked in his compartment. The marriage ended there.
Such shenanigans were ignored by the showbiz press of the Fifties and Sixties. It preferred to chronicle the tempestuous marriage between Darin and one of the USA's biggest film idols: 16-year-old Sandra Dee. The pair shared the billing in a handful of movies - 'frothy comedies," says Blauner, " they short-changed his career" - produced a son, Dodd Darin, but divorced in 1967.
At the beginning of their marriage, though, Darin seemed unassailable. He'd captured the teen market with rock'n'roll, and the cabaret audience with his standards. TV networks were clamouring for his time. And still Darin wasn't satisfied: he wanted to be a genius songwriter. In time, he became a brilliant pasticheur, who could turn out perfect replicas of swing tunes or Bacharach medodies. But the process wasn't flawless, as Ertegun discovered: "Phil Spector had become a buddy of mine. I thought he was a charming fellow, very bright, so I hired him as my assistant. We went out to Bobby's house, and by this time he had a big place in Beverly Hills and a movie-star wife. He wrote a lot of songs, and it was my habit to listen to what he had, which sometimes was not that interesting, while I waited for something we could use. So Bobby sat by the pool with an old guitar and started playing these songs. After the first one, I said, 'That's nice, what else have you got?' The second, the same. The third, I said, 'That's terrific, Bobby. Got anything else?' Spector couldn't stand it any longer. He stood up and said, 'That sounds terrific? Are you out of your mind? These songs sound like s***!' And Darin threw us out.
"A year later, Bobby said to me, 'Some of these young kids are making great records. There's this guy, Phil Spector, who's really hot. Do you think we can get him?' I said, 'Bobby, that's the guy you threw out last year!' So that never happened."
Darin's urge to succeed soon enticed him away from Ertegun's label: "We were making hits. We won the Grammy for Best Record of the Year. But then Darin moved to Hollywood, and when we'd have a meeting, there'd be these Hollywood agents who thought they were God's gift to the world of showbiz - but they were just schmucks. They would sit around and openly discuss how everything was so great in his career, except for the fact that he was on an independent label. They kept talking about how Capitol Records had built this amazing building, the Capitol Tower - the ugliest thing, it was atrocious - and how Sinatra had been on Capitol, and Dean Martin, and he lapped it up. As soon as our contract was over, boom! He signed to Capitol."
Not content with rock'n'roll and swing, Darin used Capitol's studios as an adventure playground, cutting folk, country, soul and sophisticated pop, all with the same devilish self-confidence. "I used to fight with him," Blauner remembers, "and say, 'You can't be all things in music. People won't accept it. If they buy a Sinatra album, they what they're getting. With you, they never know.' I'm pleased I lost that battle, because his legacy is spectacular."
Hollywood's hometown business proved more difficult to master. "He wanted to do this movie called Too Late Blues," Blauner says. "I hated it, and so did the public. Then there was Hell is for Heroes, which had trouble written all over it." His co-star in Hell.....was Steve McQueen, who fought with the director, had him fired, and then started a feud with Darin that soured the production. Another Hollywood icon sabotaged what could have been Darin's defining screen moment, as Blauner recalls: "Bobby was on the Mike Wallace show in New York, a hard-hitting talk show. Robert Rosen (director of The Hustler) saw it and said, 'That's it, I've found the Hustler.' It was a great part, and it would have made him a movie star forever. Then we were at the track in LA, where Bobby was in a celebrity chariot race. This agent came up and said, 'Gee, it's too bad about The Hustler.' I panicked, made a call, and discovered that Paul Newman had suddenly become free and they'd given the part to him."
Searching for a hit, Blauner discovered a movie called Captain Newman MD: "I sent Bobby the script, and I'd marked up the pages he was on. It was only a cameo. He called me up and said, 'Why am I doing this movie?' I said, 'Because this is the kind of part that Academy Award nominations are made of.' Two years later, he got the nomination. But it never led to the kind of offers he deserved."
Darin's music career was also stalling. He was only four years older than John Lennon, but in his tuxedo he looked like the Beatles' uncle. He'd turned down hit songs like the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?" Intrigued by the self-expression of rock music, he cut a poignant Tim Hardin tune, "If I Were a Carpenter", and reinvented himself as a folk-rocker. By 1968, he was writing his own Dylan-esque songs, and billing himself as "Bob Darin." He returned to the Copa in New York, scene of his early triumphs, clad in denim, and performed a set of protest tunes. The crowd was baffled, and the management appalled. "You dress right when you come here," a well-connected Italian gentleman told him. "It's a matter of respect."
For the first time in his life, Darin found a cause more vital than his own career: Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. The crusade ended with RFK's assassination in June 1968. "With him in the ground," Darin lamented, "part of me went too." By Kennedy's graveside, he experienced what he called "metaphysical illumination." Long after the mourners had left, Darin remained rooted to the spot, unable to move. In the small hours, he was granted a vision: "I saw things with a peace and a calm I had never seen before. All my hostilities, anxieties and conflicts began to fly away into outer space."
He emerged a prophet for a new world order: "There's no longer any place for phoniness in my career or my personal life. I've reshaped me, and now I'd like to take a part in reshaping the universe." Abandoning Beverly Hills, Darin moved into a trailer overlooking Hollywood, shunning the material world. "It turned into a Kafkaesque prison," he ruefully recalled later.
Gradually, the real world intruded on his fantasy. There was alimony and child maintenance to pay, so Darin returned to Vegas and dusted down his tuxedo. Meanwhile, the health crisis that had shadowed him since childhood closed in. He survived one brush with the heart surgeon's knife, but the sense of impending doom rarely left him. "I was with him up in Lake Tahoe, maybe six or eight months before he died," Ramone recalls. "He was so fragile, sitting there with a cylinder of oxygen that he'd draw on every few minutes. He knew he was going soon." Blauner agrees: "It affected his whole life, the knowledge that he had so little time."
"I think that's been overdramatised by people," says Ertegun. "Even if people tell you you're going to die, you still think you'll survive. It's human nature. So I didn't feel as if he was speeding toward death. But there was something else that always hung over him. He fantasised himself as being much bigger than he ever became. And when he hit any failure, it rested very heavily on his mind, because he was really a winner, and didn't want to accept defeat of any kind. Somehow he didn't become the great movie star, or honoured as the greatest singer of all time, and he wanted to be all that, and more. And he could do all that. When he was on stage, he had the audience in his hand, and he was swinging, and they were roaring with laughter, and he was dancing - then he was a total showman. He was in complete control. The only person who could match him was Sammy Davis Jr, and Sammy didn't get hit records the way Bobby did. Anything that any of those people could do, Bobby could do it just as well."
When Blauner resumed control of Darin's career in January 1973 after a nine-year break, Darin had a network TV series, nightclub and concert bookings, and a new record deal with Motown. He was also seriously ill. "It was as if he had Alzheimer's," Blauner recalls. "He would call me up first thing and say 'Meet me on Friday at ten.' Then an hour later he'd call again, and have no recollection of the previous conversation. And he'd keep doing it. Or else he'd be on the street, and he'd walk into a wall, like he was drunk. Eventually they discovered it was a complication of the rheumatic fever: he wasn't getting enough oxygen to the brain."
After the final TV special in March 1973, Darin struggled to fulfil his engagements. "It was the most difficult year of my life," Blauner admits. "Oh God, I still live with the guilt of not stopping him from working, because I was the only one who could have, but he knew he was going to die. He was trying to put away money for his family." He had now married again, to a woman called Andrea Yeager, but as his condition worsened, he stepped out of her life: "He didn't say a word. He just left me and walked off. He never came home," she said. Two days later, she read in the papers that they were getting divorced. "No matter how hard I pleaded for him to slow down," she explained, "he wouldn't let up."
In November 1973, Darin was hospitalised again. He promised: "I'm not dying. I'm going to make a comeback. I'll be up and running and making records before you know it." He talked of directing movies, producing other singers, writing musicals. Two weeks later he had an operation to replace a faulty heart valve, and never came round from the anaesthetic.
Steve Blauner maintains that, "Bobby lived life to the fullest. He wasn't cheated out of anything." But everyone who knew him is still nagged by the loss of what might have been. "If he was alive today," says Ertegun, "he would be sustaining the legacy of singers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin - but with soul." Blauner has no doubts: "He would be the king. He was the chosen one from his generation, and still would be."
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