Bobby Darin

The First Superstar

This article, written by David Sprague, appeared in
the December 6, 1998 issue of the New York Post.

NOTE: We see a few errors in this article. Bobby did not have a congenital heart condition, no one is born with Rheumatic fever.
Also, he wasn't the reason the movie "Pepe" stunk, he was one of the best things in it!

In Woody Allen's "Zelig", the title character's biggest asset - and biggest flaw - is his ability to change form and take over on the characteristics of whoever he happens to be with.

The same could be said for Bobby Darin, whose chameleonic style allowed him to bridge the gap between Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra - with enough personal innovation to keep him relevant 25 years after his death.

Darin whose career is the subject of the documentary "Beyond The Song" which airs Wednesday night on WNET at 10 p.m., was the first crossover performer of the rock era.

From professional beginnings that paralleled such non-entities as Fabian and Frankie Avalon, the slender singer quickly established himself as a songwriter, arranger and actor with an appeal that extended well beyond the poodle skirt set.

But in doing so, he often blurred his own image to the point of unrecognizability: He admitted as much in a interview taped shortly before his death in December of 1973, saying that "In playing the role of Bobby Darin, I am assuming someone else, since the easiest way to put myself across is through other people's characters."

Indeed, in the world of Bobby Darin - or, as his birth certificate reads, Walden Robert Cassotto - nothing was quite as it seemed.

The constant finger-snapping during performances was no mere hipster conceit. Although he poked fun at the tic, Darin was actually using the motion to combat poor circulation that stemmed from his congenital heart condition.

"Bobby Darin is one of those performers that it's almost impossible to get a handle on," says Cliff Morgan, editor of Black Slacks, a magazine devoted to the music of the 50's.

" He had success in rock, but his heart never seemed to be in it. Then when he moved into more easy listening, he brought a sensibility that was more rock 'n' roll. He was neither fish nor fowl, and that wasn't always a plus."

Most music professionals take a kinder veiw of Darin's genre-jumping - particularly his fellow performers. It's said that Sammy Davis Jr. frequently stated that Bobby was the only performer he would never follow onstage.

" A lot of fans think that, had he not died, Darin would have picked up the Rat Pack mantle when those performers started slowing down," says Rory O'Shea of Footlight Records, a Greenwich Village store that specializes in pre-rock. " We see a lot of crossover between fans of his and those of Sinatra in particular."

The parallels between Darin and Ol' Blue Eyes are fairly striking: Doted-on sons of a tight-knit Italiian families, both possessed plenty of book smarts ( Darin graduated from Bronx Science at the age of 16 and entered Hunter College a year later ) that they used to push ahead in the entertainment world.

Likewise, both performers quickly tiered of teen-idol image-making that accompanied their ascents and forged ahead into other media.

Despite discouraging words from tastemakers like Dick Clark - who recalls telling Darin to stick to rock' n' roll - the singer was soon trading riffs with Jimmy Durante, and eagerly pursuing serious film roles, rather than the sock hop fluff his handerlers would have preferred.

On screen, when he was good - as in his Oscar-nominated role in " Captain Newman M.D. " - he was very, very good.

But just as often, he was horrid, as evidence by digressions like " Pepe, " a three hour south-of-the-border comedy where he was forced to play second fiddle to Cantinflas.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a pivotal, wracking year for Bobby Darin. Drawn into the political arena for the first time in his adult life, he stumped strenuously for Robert Kennedy - accompanying him on the campaign trail until the day before Kennedy's assassination.

While that event shook him, the shock was nothing compared to the bombshell that rocked his personal life the same year.

At the age of 32 Darin discovered that the woman he grew up believing to be his older sister was in fact, his biological mother.

Pregnant and unmarried at 19, Nina Cassotto agreed to her mother's suggestion that young Walden be raised as her sibling - a deception Polly Cassotto facilitated by moving the family from Harlem to the Bronx while her daughter lie in the maternity ward.

All though his formative years, Darin accepted his grandmother as his birth mother: Even an early 60's appearance on the past-examining TV series "This Is Your Life " didn't unearth the truth, as it might in the 90's. But when Darin was ultimately let in on the family secret, he took it with unusual stoicism.

" Bobby was never quite the same after that," one friend confides in an on-screen interveiw. " He became very introspective."

Taken in combination with the breakup of his six-year marriage to actress Sandra Dee ( with whom he had one son, Dodd ) the news sent him into a tail spin.

For much of the late 60's he was torn between his old-school showbiz values - the ones that kept his name emblazoned atop some of Las Vegas glitziest marquees - and the nagging feeling that the times truly were a chang'in.

Darin an avid supporter of Robert Kennedy, became increasingly involved with politics as the decade wore on. And unlike many of his peers, who were satisfied with merely trading tuxedos for denim, the singer actually expressed the change in his music as well - going so far as to risk getting booed offstage by casino crowds for performing his " Simple Song Of Freedom."

" When people saw him durng this period, they didn't see someone trying to express what he felt inside," Dodd Darin told the makers of " Beyond The Song."

" What they saw was an overaged hippie singing peace songs."

As the 70's dawned, Darin did seem to strike a new balance. As a recording artist he continued to experiment,covering songs by performers like Randy Newman and Bob Dylan.

Darin - who briefly rechristened himself " Bob" to underscore his new earnestness - also knew that his continued survival depended on trotting out "Beyond The Sea" for the Vegas crowd.

It was in Las Vegas that Darin last took the stage, completing a nine date engagement despite a rapid deterioration of his physical condition. On December 20, 1973, Bobby Darin died after undergoing open-heart surgery.

" Obviously, the tragedy of his death has contributed to his legacy, but I don't think it's the most important element," says Shannon. " If he had lived, I'd imagine he'd be in that upper echelon of entertainers that everyone would go and see when ever he came through town.

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