From '50s teen idol to '60s folk singer, Bobby Darin never stopped packing a handful of startling singing careers into 15 short, debauched years. Not bad for a balding, illegitimate bongo player who wasn't meant to live beyond the age of 16.
Bobby Darin had presence with an assurance beyond his years, he took the stage with Rat Pack cool, "like an old, old pro pushed in a 24-year-old body," as '60s DJ Barry Grey put it. Smooth, shark-suited. "I've been on stage like a guy who's been on 30 years," said Darin. "Humility? Humbleness? The biggest thing between you and I is God. That's the only source of my humility." With the music of Sinatra, the moves of Sammy Davis Jr. and the ego of a man on a mission, Darin wasn't going to let anything stop him.
It's this Darin we see in Kevin Spacey's recent biopic Beyond the Sea: The full-on razzmatazz tornado single-handedly taking on Vegas and redefining the meaning of showbiz energy - moxie, verve, zip. Hits like "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea" not only defined Darin's sophistication, but positioned him at the cutting edge of the late '50s adult entertainment industry. Who else could have taken the songs of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Charles Trenet into the US charts?
But Bobby Darin had many sides. At home in the nightclubs, he was equally at ease with and fascinated by R&B, swing, folk, country - it all went in the mix and emerged invigorated. All music was fair game. Championing and nurturing talents that a Sinatra or Dean Martin wouldn't have had time for, in the search for his own voice Darin explored folk, tutored Roger McGuinn in the music business, introduced Tim Hardin to the world and metamorphosed into a consummate singer-songwriter. Bobby Darin was always running, trying to escape an early death.
Born illegitimate on May 14, 1936, Walden Robert Cassotto suffered his first attack of rheumatic fever at the age of eight. When the doctor arrived to examine him during his fourth bout, Bobby was aged 13 at the time, he overheard the doc informing those at the bedside that the kid wouldn't live to see 16.
His mom Vanina - known to all as Nina - lived with her mother when she became pregnant. Nina's father, Big Sam 'Curly' Cassotto, a small-time crook with mob links, had died in Sing Sing in 1935. Protecting the family's reputation became paramount. Young Bobby was told that Nina was his sister and that grandma was his mom. The deception worked, even after Nina married in 1942.
Ignoring the health warnings and oblivious to the lie, Bobby joined a high school dance band, the Eddie O'Casio Orchestra, and headed off to the Catskill Mountains resorts in 1951 to play a summer season. Trumpeter Dick Behrke commented that Bobby “wanted to get out of the slum desperately. The world we wanted to belong to was fairly sordid. Cheap showbiz is not really terrific.” Bobby gained a reputation not as a drummer but for his boldness about sex. Girls hanging around the resorts’ bands said he didn’t care if the whole town saw him being jerked off.
Another summer season was followed by spells as a drama student and bongo player for an exotic dancer. Haunting Broadway’s all-night drug stores, Bobby struck up friendships with other hopefuls, like singer Connie Francis." I have to make it very fast, because I’m going to die,” he told his crowd. Sliding into the role of Francis’ boyfriend, Bobby said sex with other girls was essential to keeping his skin clear. The relationship floundered when Bobby heard her dad was after him with a gun.
The break came in 1956 when Bobby recorded a cover of "Rock Island Line." Although a flop, its legacy was to recast Bobby Cassotto as Bobby Darin – the name from the faulty sign above a Chinese restaurant called the Mandarin. After a few more stiffs, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun heard Darin practicing blues piano outside his office and arranged some studio time. An hour-and-a-half session in April 1958 fashioned "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop," both hits, both self-penned. It had taken seven years for Bobby Cassotto to become Bobby Darin, pop star. He’d never take as long to do anything again.
By 1962 the teen-idol Bobby Darin of 1958 had evolved into a sophisticated and arrogant adult entertainer. "Dream Lover" had been followed by "Mack the Knife," a sly, rolling and threatening interpretation of the song from Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Darin had, convinced Atlantic that his second album – That’s All – should be a set of standards. “With rock ‘n’ roll I’m like a thousand other guys, I’ve got to prove I can sing.” Funding the sessions with his own royalties, he was proved right when album track "Mack the Knife" became a single after demand from fans.
Anyway, life as pin-up wasn’t going to offer Darin much in the way of longevity. He didn’t have the looks and it was an open secret that he wore a toupee. He’d declared to Life magazine that he “wanted to make it faster than anyone has made it before. I’d like to the biggest thing in show business by the time I’m 25.” To Family Weekly magazine he’d boasted of the “the egomaniac you read about.” Once he’d hit with "Mack the Knife" the assault on showbiz began, helped by his manager, confidante and life-long friend, Steve Blauner. He conquered the nightclubs of Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas in 1959 and invaded Hollywood. In August 1960 he began shooting his first film in Italy. Come September was forgettable froth, but it did introduce Darin to his co-star, the virginal, sweet-16 Sandra Dee. By the end of the year they were married.
As for music, everything went in the pot. “He wanted to sing all kinds of music,” says Blauner. “When he did the country and western album (1963 You’re the Reason I’m Living), he did it with a big bank and Shorty Rogers, a jazz arranger. Capitol Records weren’t happy. I always had this fight with Bobby and I always lost it. Now I’m glad I did. I said, “You can’t be all things to music, they won’t allow it. When someone comes into a store and wants to hear Sinatra, they know what they are going to get. With you, you’re jumping all over. He just looked at me and smiled.”
Folk music was another pet love and Darin was on the lookout for a suitable guitarist to feature in his live act. Catching a Lenny Bruce show at LA’s Crescendo Club in July 1962, Darin took note of the support act." I was playing back up – guitar and banjo – The Chad Mitchell Trio,” recalls Roger McGuinn, then Jim McGuinn. “I was exploring other avenues and thinking of going with The New Christy Minstrels. Bobby said, “You’d get buried in a big group, come and work for me.” I was earning $150 he offered $300 a week, a lot of money.
“He made an appointment with me for eight the following morning, which was an ungodly hour,” continues McGuinn. “I think he was testing me, to see if I could get up early. He wanted me to sing harmony and play 12-string guitar behind him. He represented a pop idol a waning pop star. I had respect for him, but he wasn’t a hero of mine, like Elvis. He really had a passion for folk music and his commitment to it was sincere. I'm not sure what his sources were, but he probably heard a lot of Harry Belafonte. The songs that come to mind are "Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad" and "Alberta." Bobby’s attitude was socially conscious.”
McGuinn played with Darin for the next year, contributing to 1963’s Golden Folk Hits." Bobby was a mentor. He was very encouraging, took me under his wing and gave a lot advice. I would ask him questions about how to make it in the business. He was also very tough. We were playing at the Cocoanut Grove. After I finished my set I sat with my friends in the audience drinking and laughing. Bobby sent his road manager, who dragged me backstage. Bobby said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again while I’m on-stage, it’s distracting and disrespectful.’ I’ve never done that again, it was a good lesson for me.”
On the road, McGuinn also gained insight into Darin’s favored recreational activities." His fun was sex. He would have girls on the road. He was definitely a swinger.”
Darin’s non-stop drive took its toll in July 1963 at New York’s Freedomland Amusement Park. Despite a stage-side oxygen cylinder, Darin gave up half-way into the show, to boos from the audience. Taking the hint, Darin focused on film, acting, recording and running his publishing company from New York's Brill Building. McGuinn tagged along and spent the second half of 1963 as a desk-based songwriter, attempting to magic up chart-friendly pop tunes. “I was paid $35 a week, it wasn’t enough to live on,” he recalls." I'd go to the Village and play the coffee houses to make up the difference. I told Bobby there was this kid in the Village called Bob Dylan and he laughed. He thought someone was trying to rip off his name. Bobby used to dress in different characters. One day he’d have a blue blazer, with white pants and a captain’s hat like Bing Crosby. The next day he’d have a blue serge suit and tie. He was role playing, living out a fantasy.”
Tiring of singing at night and working all day, McGuinn drifted off to LA. It was no loss to Darin , who hardly viewed music publishing as a full-time activity. He had enough distractions elsewhere. In 1963 he filmed his histrionic Oscar-nominated cameo as a cracking-up GI in Captain Newman, M.D. The breakdown of Darin’s relationship with Sandra Dee was also eating up time. As catalogued in Dodd Darin’s biography of his parents, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Loves of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, childhood sexual abuse by her stepfather created problems for Dee which weren’t alleviated by hard drinking. Darin had no idea how to deal with it. One of Dee’s favorite put-downs was to tell Darin that his toupee was on crooked.
With his eye off the musical ball, Darin was in danger of being left standing in the atomic-age post-Beatles world. 1964 ended with no hit singles and a From Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie album which peaked at 107 in the Billboard chart. While his mentor had returned to Broadway show tunes and standards, McGuinn was off inventing the future with The Byrds. America finally came up with a compelling riposte to The Beatles in June 1065, when The Byrds’ "Mr. Tambourine Man" charted. Darin took notice of the success of his former protégé. Folk rock was something graspable, so he quickly penned "When I Get Home" and "We Didn’t Ask To Be Brought Here," a stunning pair of Byrds-styled singles. The Searchers – a prime influence on The Byrds – recorded a Number 35 hit cover of "When I Get Home" in the UK.
The folk rock experiments were put aside for Darin’s 10th Anniversary tour in early 1966, all slick tuxedo and bow-tie showbiz, with sessions at LA’s Cocoanut Grove and Las Vegas’s Flamingo. Darin – whose spilt from Sandra Dee was announced in May 1966 – still hadn’t found a contemporary way to express himself musically. Then he discovered the songs – and voice – of Tim Hardin.
New York producers, Charles Koppelman and Don Rubin had pitched a selection of the songs they handled and Darin chose Tim Hardin’s "If I Were a Carpenter," then unreleased. The choice effectively unveiled Hardin to the world. Recording Carpenter in August 1966 was a meticulous process. “We found out that Darin recorded it with Tim’s version going through his earphones,” explains Hardin’s widow Susan." Tim didn’t know, he had no idea that Darin was doing it. We were driving along in the country and "Carpenter" came on the radio. I said, “Woah, it’s on the radio! Next thing I knew there was screeching of brakes, Tim pulled over and was screaming and yelling at the side of the road, and I had no idea what was going on. He came back and said, “That’s not me.” When it quietened down I realized it wasn’t Tim. He went screaming back to the house and called New York.”
Darin’s Carpenter was virtually a clone of Hardin’s as-yet unreleased track. “Tim couldn’t believe that Koppelman and Rubin did it, adds Susan. “To be undermined like that. It’s one thing to have the album come and then have someone do covers, but beforehand? After Tim found out the real situation he was never angry at Bobby Darin – Darin had no idea, he was just pitched a song. He was initially upset that Darin was mimicking him. Darin was the man of a thousand voices.”
Carpenter returned Darin to the Top 40 and trailed two great, intimate albums, If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out which showcased seven Hardin songs – all of which appeared on Hardin’s first couple of albums. Also covered were songs by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, who argues that Darin “was a guy who could access what was going on to move music in another direction. Just as he had with Mack the Knife, he was trying more with it. There were two worlds here, the street and bit-time showbiz. Darin had certainly graduated to big-time show biz. (Recording my songs) seemed like an awkward piece of slumming for him. To me Bobby Darin was "Splish Splash," and I really liked that.”
Never settling on a style, Darin followed the brace of Hardin-inspired albums with the bizarre Bobby Darin Sings Doctor Dolittle in August 1967. He seemed to sense the tactical error, and stepped into a new role, that of the political campaigner. Darin’s credentials were sound: he’d given Richard Pryor his first Vegas show and joined Martin Luther King Jr on the civil rights march to Montgomery Alabama in 1965. He hit the convention trail for Bobby Kennedy. Darin’s mother Nina – still playing big sister – realized she had to tell the truth before journalists went digging. Discovering he wasn’t the son of a minor Mafioso, but of an unidentified one-or two-night stand, stripped Darin of his self-image. Learning that the woman he knew as his sister was actually his mom led Darin to say, “My life has been a lie.” His family’s deception was, he said, symptomatic of the corruption he saw in society. Nina “robbed me of my dream to show Mama, wherever she was, what I could do,” he wrote.
The Kennedy campaign gave Darin some sorely needed validation, but it all ground to a halt in June 1968 when Kennedy was assassinated. “They had dropped (Darin) in San Francisco where he had an engagement in a club,” recalls Blauner. “Then they proceeded on to LA and Kennedy got murdered a day later. Bobby went straight to the grave and everybody left. Bobby noticed they didn’t cover it, they were going to come back the next morning and cover it in. Bobby wouldn’t leave until it was covered, and slept there that night. He had a vision where all of his anxieties were in a ball, a flaming ball that flew away. I said, BS, you were just freaked out by being in a cemetery at night!”
Kennedy’s death and the news from his mom moved Darin to explore his identity. He founded Direction Records and sold his publishing company. September’s Born Walden Robert Cassotto album was a moody, self-penned collection of sparsely arranged introspection ranging from reflections on image to the troubling "In Memoriam," Darin’s eye-witness account of Kennedy’s casket being lowered into the ground. Testing out his new material at the Cocoanut Grove in October 1968, he’d appeared newly mustached and sporting a tuxedo, then changed into denims for the more serious material. Billed as Bob Darin at New York’s Copacabana in January 1969, he ditched the toupee and wore denim throughout. “He decided that the tuxedo and the hairpiece was a sham because of what was happening in the world. Bobby was in his jeans with a four-piece group behind him and people were walking out,” says Blauner. The club’s Italian management told him not to be disrespectful. Decamping to an oceanside trailer in Big Sur in ’69, Darin took stock. Getting sicker and running out of money, “he left the trailer and said he was going back to the tuxedo and hairpiece,” says Blauner. “He said, ‘I don’t want to stand in line for medical treatment.’ He had all these bills to pay. He did the same show as when they were walking out, and he got standing ovations because he was in a tuxedo. He’d do "Mack the Knife" as song number three to get it out of the way, and then do a Laura Nyro song, James Taylor, and then Hank Williams. Bobby used to say to me, “People hear what they see.”
Heart valve replacement surgery in 1971 seemed to work and Darin began trading on his past with two variety TV seasons in 1972 and ’73. He even signed with Motown in 1971. But he looked detached and mechanical on TV. Bassist Billy McCubbin, who backed Darin in this period, says that “he always had an oxygen tank in the wings. When he sat down at the piano to play his hands would stiffen up. He’d yell at his hands, ‘Work dammit,’ He had to stop playing the drums. We didn’t see him much during the day, he ate carefully, and he wasn’t drinking and had to save his energy for the show.”
For reasons known only to himself, Darin stopped taking his post-operative anti-coagulant medicine. In winter 1972, after routine dental work, Darin failed to take antibiotics prescribed to prevent infection. With serious blood poisoning, he was admitted to hospital for congestive heart failure in October. Checking into Cedars Sinai Hospital in December 1973, he died on the operating table on the 19th, just after doctors discovered that a replacement valve had stopped working and that his heart, was riddled with infection. He was 37.
Darin had outlived his expectations. His achievements outstripped those of virtually any other ‘50s teen idol, taking on any music, acting, the business side. Roger McGuinn says, “He could do just about anything if he put his mind to it. He as a great entertainer, a very talented guy. He was an overachiever.”
Whatever he did, his image will always be frozen as the slick, finger-clicking stage lizard, out-Rat-Packing the Rat Pack. But there was so much more. Had he lived, it’s impossible to guess what he might have done. Steve Blauner says that he’d still be transforming himself. “I think about him every day. He’d had loved rap. He would be rapping, he’d have loved today’s technology. He would never have stopped.”
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