LIFE MAGAZINE

January 11, 1960

'I Want to Be a Legend By 25'

HIT SINGER BOBBY DARIN HAS BIG AMBITIONS, PROSPECTS TO MATCH

By Shana Alexander, LIFE Correspondent


 
Bobby with manager and friend Steve Blauner.
Thanks to Shiying for these photos.


IN his dressing room before a performance, Bobby Darin is nothing special to look at. He is a slight, sleepy-eyed, rather worn young man of 23 whose face suggests a putty mask of Perry Como. As he gets into his ruffle-front shirt and inserts the diamond-and-sapphire cufflinks, he says, "I want to make it faster than anyone has ever made it before. I'd like to be the biggest thing in show business by the time I'm 25 years old." In the dressing room this seems like a forlorn hope.

A moment later Bobby steps on stage, and suddenly it becomes clear why he has been one of the fastest-rising singers in recent years and has earned the right to dream big. As the band vamps the opening of his "Mack the Knife," number one bit record for two months, the small figure hangs suspended for an instant in the blue light. As he begins to sing, the fingers snap, the shoulders twitch, and the figure seems to grow taller. Now the head bobs, the limp body bends and straightens, the elbows and knees move in tandem, even the neck undulates, like that of an East Indian dancer. Surely this would be the easiest performer in the world to imitate with a marionette. Approaching the climax, he doubles over -- for a moment the invisible strings go slack. Then he finds the big note somewhere in the pit of his stomach. As the note builds, the body arches backward, the arms spread wide, and the hands twitch in rhythm. Loud applause, a floppy marionette's bow, more applause, and the spotlight goes black.

It is a stylish, surefooted performance. On the bigtime saloon circuit, Darin's showmanship has the appeal and punch that nightclub patrons demand. On records, his souped-up crescendo of sound has already been bought by seven million fans. It has won him awards as the best new singer of 1959.

Darin also has a slow ball and he showed off his change of pace to advantage a few weeks ago on the big George Burns TV show. Midway through a song-and-dance with Darin, the veteran Burns, a model of stage restraint, glanced over his shoulder and was shocked to see the singer dancing with even smaller steps and fainter gestures than he was. The audience was watching not Burns, but Bobby.

Visually or vocally, Bobby Darin will be on public exhibition every day in one way or another for the foreseeable future: nightclub dates (including a Copacabana engagement in New York next June), personal appearances, recording sessions, television guest shots. He has signed a one-million-dollar movie contract with Paramount, is discussing another million-dollar contract with NBC. Between times he attends to his own publishing and recording companies, Tweed Music and Addison Records. (Ownership of music companies by disk jockeys or performers who might affect the market has been viewed with suspicion by payola investigators. Darin recently was interviewed by the New York district attorney's office in connection with the payola investigation of disk jockey Alan Freed - Darin had appeared a few times on Freed's show. But the ownership of music companies was not discussed. Bobby was told that he was not personally implicated in the New York probe.)

Incorporating as King Kong, Inc.

FROM all these sources, Darin's 1959 income was approximately a quarter of a million dollars, and for tax reasons he has been advised to incorporate at once. Self-incorporation is a standard money-saving device among today's high-bracket entertainers: Frank Sinatra is Hobart, Inc.; Pat Boone is Cooga Mooga, Inc.; Eddie Fisher is Ramrod, Inc. Bobby Darin will soon become King Kong, Inc.

Though still short of his goal -- "to establish myself as a legend by the time I'm 25" -- Darin is moving in the right direction at a dead run. Summing up his progress to date, the impatient proprietor of King Kong, Inc. says, "With Mack I have knocked down my biggest door. The public knows me." Recognition has also come from big league entertainers. His friend Sammy Davis Jr. proudly dubs him "the shtarker," which means "strong one" in Yiddish, and in show business denotes a muscular, bullish personality. Darin's prized diamond-and-sapphire cufflinks, initialed are an impulsive good-luck gift from Jerry Lewis. Attention from stars of such magnitude renders Darin almost speechless. "I want to be in the upper echelon of show business to such an extent it's ridiculous," he says.

Until four years ago, there was no such person as "Bobby Darin." Not even the name existed, much less the shtarker personality. Before mid-1956 Bobby was a frail, rather naive youth named Walden Robert Cassotto. He grew up in a cold water tenement in the Bronx, and lie was such a sickly baby that, he says today, "The neighbors used to stop my mother on the street and say, 'Whaddya wanna wheel that thing around for? It's gonna die.'"

In high school Bobby, who could play drums, joined a band which performed at school dances in winter. In the summertime they worked at adult camps in the Catskills where Bobby was able to indulge his taste for showmanship for the first time. Between musical numbers he made up comedy monologues and impersonations, sang songs and acted as master of ceremonies.

The summer he was 18, Bobby got a frantic call at the Catskill camp from a dancer in New York City. She said she was about to leave on a South American tour, her drummer had just quit and a friend recommended Bobby. Did he play bongos? "Sure," he lied. Yes, he could leave right away. That night the campers threw a farewell party. Bobby Cassotto was going into show business.

Eighteen months later Bobby and the dancer finally split up. There had been no South American tour and very little show business. The interval had been one long romantic binge which left Bobby feeling like an emotional basket case. "Before I met her, I was just like any other kid in the Bronx. Afterward I was the most disillusioned human being in the world. But I was no kid."

The experience left Cassotto despondent for months. Then his despair dissolved in a new-found ambition: he would battle his way alone to the top of show business in the shortest possible time. It was the finest way he could think of to restore his shattered self-esteem. To go with his new aggressive personality he wanted a new name. He found "Darin" in the telephone book. Today Darin credits the love affair with giving him impact and authority as a singer. "I know what I'm singing about," he says. "I don't confuse a lyric with just words."

When Bobby Cassotto became Bobby Darin, he was an unemployed musician (piano, drums, guitar), an unknown singer and an unpublished songwriter. His chances of becoming a show business legend by the age of 25 appeared remote. But much of show business was then under the domination of the rock 'n' rollers. Darin was able to make this deplorable situation work to his advantage. A rock 'n' roll hit could be created with such primitive musical tools as the nasal twang and jungle beat, and one hit record could make a singer famous overnight. Cleverly disguised in the accepted tribal dress -- wavy sideburns and a big guitar -- Darin infiltrated the rock 'n' roll ranks.

Bobby's 12-minute hit

IN May 1958, he cut a rock 'n' roll record titled Splish Splash. He had written both words and music himself in exactly 12 minutes. Within three weeks of its release the record sold more than 100,000 copies. The would-be legend was on his way, but his thoughts at the time were strangely unexultant: "Now I am in the worst situation I've ever been in. I have a rock 'n' roll hit. This makes me one of a thousand other guys. Now I got to prove I can sing."

The proof came in the form of an LP album, That's All, which the singer paid for himself out of his "Splish Splash" earnings. One of the tunes in the album was the old Kurt Weil assassin's song from Threepenny Opera entitled "Mack the Knife." The rest is jukebox history. "Mack the Knife" is much-modified rock 'n' roll. But in it Darin shows that he has individuality of style that can enable him to weather the current decline of rock 'n' roll. Darin included Mack in the album because he found that audiences in the small clubs where he was then working liked it. "I had to get beyond rock 'n' roll," he explains. "Mack introduced me to the adult world."

Darin's present life in the adult world is conducted at a hopped-up tempo which suits him fine. "I hate pauses. I can't stand cessation. Everything should segue," he says, using a musical term meaning roughly, to follow. His home is a hotel suite in whatever city he is working, and his roommates, manager Steve Blauner and pianist Dick Behrke, are his family. His possessions are portable: a closetful of new clothes, a guitar, some new fishing gear which he has used once, a brace of six-shooters with which he practices fast-draws.

On the road he sleeps most of the day and breakfasts with his roommates at sundown. Aside from Blauner and Behrke, Darin has none of the hangers-on who clutter the lives of many other performers. "I only like people with a function," he says. "It's not open house here, not a party going on all the time. I don't have the entourage because I don't have the insecurity." Then he adds, "Of course, if nobody comes into my dressing room between shows, that bugs me too."

Many of the visitors are fellow performers who drop in for shop talk. Not long ago he fell into a conversation about the various kinds of appeal which are a big part of every singer's equipment. "There's animal appeal-that's Sinatra, or Elvis or Sammy Davis," he said. "There's boyish, gentle appeal, like Como or Boone. Crosby has pantherlike appeal. It's refined and casual. Only the look in the eyes lets you know. The point is, you have to have lived a little before you can sell a song. Hard luck things are necessary. I'm not saying you must suffer to be an artist, exactly. But take Sinatra's voice, for example. It has a wonderful grinding sound. That throat's been trod on."

Darin yearns for the respect of the successes like Sinatra and George Burns. "These people should say: 'Yeah, you belong in the center of the circle, kid.'" To this end, he has begun to work harder toward achieving a stage personality all his own. Darin's forte on stage, he believes, is to be "a singer who moves well, a singer who moves like a dancer. That's my billing, and I intend to sell the hell out of it."

The off-stage Darin

OFF stage also, Darin has the practical good sense to look hard at himself and try to understand what he sees. "At the bottom of Bobby Darin," he explains, "is a bewildered, confused, soul-searching, grasping artist who is desirous of truth in art-sickening as it may sound. Now you gently simmer and you lay over this bottom stratum a little bit of human being who craves social acceptance. Sprinkle with a few years of childhood environment. Add years of plain poverty and simmer some more. Add the ability to think as an individual, bake for 19 years, top it off with a very bad experience emotionally, place in oven for three and a half years more, and you've got me.

"Now, stratum by stratum, it must all be torn down. I haven't begun to do that yet. Right now I could have a roomful of awards and it wouldn't mean beans. I could be the greatest entertainer in the world, and I'd still look at Van Cliburn and eat my heart out -- and I don't even know if he plays that well."

Tearing down the strata, in Darin's vocabulary, means growing up. When that day comes, he believes, "There'll be no more need for the pressure, the yelling, the ring-a-ding-ding stuff. Everyone will say, 'Who's that quiet powerful guy over there?'"

Darin's dilemma was neatly summed up recently by his friend Jerry Lewis, who should know. Drawing Bobby aside in the corner of a TV studio, Lewis warned him: "Right now, your head is full of a million ideas. Just keep them all sloshing round and round in your brain. Listen to everything, watch everybody.

"Do you realize you're alone in your generation? Sammy, Dean and I are all ten years ahead of you. Unless you destroy yourself, no one else can touch you. If you louse it up, it's only going to be your fault. Because you have the talent, kid. You're alone. You're alone."




Thanks to Ed Snell for this contribution.

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