Four out of every ten kids Bobby Darin knew ended up in jail. Hard-faced gang leaders held councils of war on the front stoop of the Bronx tenement where Bobby, who Splish-Splashed his way to the top of the music charts recently, spent his childhood. Bobby grew up with the ominous rumble of gang wars threatening his neighborhood, poverty clinging to him like a poisonous vine and every possible temptation-stealing, cheating, lying, drinking -- luring him on to be a bigshot the "easy" route.
But Bobby beat the slums. He fought back on his own terms. He lived a real life drama that stands as inspiring proof of one kid's victory over poverty. He is, in other words, the kind of new, young talent it gives me a great thrill to introduce you to.
"I was raised in the Bronx," is the typical way he under plays those 21 long years of hardship. You have to pin him down to get more. But finally he'll open up and tell you about it, take you back -- depending on how much of the hard truth he thinks you want to hear -- to the scenes he can never forget. Endless tenement stairs, sullen teen-agers, angry men out of work and, of course, the constant din of street fights.
The Darin family was a tiny fragment of the whole teeming picture. Bobby lived with his mother, who had once been a singer, and his sister. His father had died just before he was born.
"In most ways," Bobby recalls, "we were just like everyone else on our block. Mom worked while my sister and I were in school. We worried a lot, and never stopped hoping that some day things would change. In the evenings, we'd sit together and talk about our dreams -- how Mom would have a piano again so she could sing to us like she used to, how we'd leave the city and have a house with trees and grass and flowers. Sometimes, when we were really way out, we'd talk about how we'd even live next to a lake. To city kids like me, there's nothing so great as a lake. It's like a miracle."
But the Darins were different, too. They had something that set them apart. Something that made Bobby and his sister stand out from other kids, and gave their mother a peace and calm that none of the other mothers seemed to have.
"You could walk into our house and you'd never see any great furniture or anything," as Bobby explains it, "but the love would hit you right square in the teeth."
The Darins were poor. "As poor," Bobby frankly admits, "as you can be in a slum. But we were rich, too. Richer than anybody else I ever knew in that broken down old neighborhood." Their wealth -- love-was to make it possible one day for all their dreams to come true, for the family to leave the slums, to hold up their heads and breathe clean air, for Bobby to carve out a new life for himself and the people he loves best in the world. It was their key to escape.
"Mother never forced anything on us," Bobby says gratefully. "She told us anything we wanted to know. She gave me a free hand and trusted me enough to let me do whatever I wanted." He knows now it was that loving trust at home that helped him dare to be different from the other kids, to stay clear of street gangs, to grow up lonely -- but straight.
"Most of the kids I knew didn't ask questions. l've found out since that's typical of kids in slum sections. Most of them never knew how to do anything but grow up running scared. It's not that they were stupid; most of them had alert minds. But after a while, running with the pack becomes a habit."
He remembers one of the first street fights he ever witnessed, and what it taught him. He was just 7. "I was coming home from school one day," he recalls, "when I heard shouts on the other side of the street." He looked over and saw a knot of screaming, squirming kids. "I was curious," he smiles wryly now, "so I walked over. Half a dozen kids were clustered tightly around watching two older boys pummeling each other mercilessly. One had a streaming cut under his eye. The other's face was bruised and scratched. I wondered why nobody tried to break it up. Something told me to get out of there, fast, but something else, horror and fascination I suppose, made me stay. I moved in closer and then, without warning, somebody threw a rock. It missed the crowd and caught me on the face. I was stunned. My cheek felt wet and when I touched it, my hand was covered with blood." Bobby remembers looking around, as little boys will, hoping confusedly for someone to lead him away from there, wipe the blood away and make the awful hurt stop. But nobody came. A couple of kids glanced over and pointed at him. "Hey, look," one of them said, "he's 'bleeding.''
"So," came another voice harshly, "let him bleed."
Bobby walked away then, the voices echoing back and forth in his mind. "I didn't feel like crying. I wasn't scared -- I don't remember being afraid of anything for more than a couple of moments in my life. When I got home, my mother washed the blood away and then I went off by myself to think. I vowed then, no matter how mad I might get, never to fight in the streets. Never to follow the mob. Never to wilfully hurt anybody else. But never to let myself be hurt, either, like I was that day."
He realized for the first time that the life he saw wasn't for him. "I began to feel that I had to find out about certain questions. What was I here for? Did I have a purpose? I knew you couldn't find the answers on a street corner."
He looked at the other kids more closely than ever and saw that, in nearly every case, there was one thing none of them had: an education. He decided then that, "Education is more important than just somebody saying it is."
He began to study hard. By the time he reached junior high, he had skipped five times. Then, after a childhood of association with "nothing but brawn," he went on to one of the stiffest high schools in the nation, Bronx High School boasted justifiably that 98 per cent of its graduates entered professions like law, medicine, engineering. For the next three years, he came up against "nothing but brain." He studied biology, physics, chemistry, math. There was just one catch. He had decided, almost without thinking about it, that he wanted to be an actor, or something like it. "I wanted that solid education with a passion," he says, "but I began to see that I was right in the middle of the opposite of what I was looking for in life. There was no heart in that school -- just books. My grades were passing, but they were considered very poor there. If you got less than A's, you didn't swing socially." Bobby stuck to his studies, but he wasn't happy. All during high school, he felt cut off. He had rejected the world of street gangs, and now he felt out of place in the realm of bookworms. He decided, "There had to be a happy medium -- intelligence isn't enough by itself. It has to be mixed with soul."
He graduated at 16 and enrolled at Hunter College. He went there for a year. Then, as he puts it, "I got tired of wearing the same dungarees and shirts to school every day."
One afternoon he slammed into the house late and found his mother reading alone. He pulled up a chair and asked a question that had been kicking around in his mind for many months: "Mom, tell me about show business." Mrs. Darin knew then what she had suspected for a long time. No other way of life would satisfy her son. "She told me everything she remembered about it," he says. "She never actually encouraged me, but I think she knew right from the start that I had enough natural ham qualities to steer me in that direction."
Meanwhile, Bobby had been teaching himself to play the piano. "We never had the money for music lessons, so I used to skip lunch and spend noon hour hammering away on a beat-up old piano in the school cafeteria. I'd one-finger it at first. Gradually, I learned to put two hands together, though even today my left hand still doesn't always know what the right is doing." He didn't sing till he quit college. He was fooling around at a piano by himself one day when he just opened up on impulse. It sounded rough and amateurish but it felt right. Suddenly, learning to sing seemed to absorb every waking minute. "It was as if I had discovered myself, plus a whole new world," He practiced alone, working tirelessly around the clock. It took several months to get up enough courage to start knocking on record company doors with a couple of demonstration records in his pocket.
Miraculously, one of the first companies he approached, ATCO (subsidiary of Atlantic Recording Company) liked him. They agreed to take him on for four trial records. That was nearly a year ago. At first, Bobby thought his big break had arrived. Then he began to cut records, and with each successive waxing, his hopes skidded downward. One after another, his first three records were rushed out on the market and left to die. He doesn't even like to remember their names. All were sung in a tried and tested, familiar and unoriginal ballad style. It was becoming painfully clear that a Sinatra, Martin, Como, or Fisher he was not.
He had one last record to cut, and he knew he had to do something fast. Change his style, his voice, his beat -- anything. He couldn't fail now, with success almost within reach and his family still trapped in the tenements.
He was home brooding over his fate one afternoon last spring when the phone rang. It was a friend who knew something of his song writing-singing attempts. "Guess what," said the friend, "I have a title for you." Bobby was mildly interested. He asked what it was.
"Splish Splash," said his friend.
"Huh?" replied Bobby.
"That's it," the friend explained. "Splish Splash." It's my mother's idea."
At that point, the humor of the situation struck Bobby and he broke up. But after he hung up, the words kept sloshing around in his mind, "Splish Splash." Crazy. Might be something to it at that. "I thought it was kinda cute," he admits. "SplishSplash" turned out to be a potential rock 'n' roll hit that dictated a complete switch in sound, style and delivery.
When he walked into what was supposed to be his final recording session for ATCO, "I felt confidence like I'd never known before. Somehow, I knew the song would move. It felt so right when I sang it."
In less than two months, Bobby's entire way of life changed. He discovered things, including money, he had never known before. For instance: "I found out it can be fun getting dressed. I love to get dressed up and go out now. I feel comfortable in my clothes for the first time in my life, because now I don't have to wear what I'm ashamed of any more."
Today, at 21 ("I was 19 for a while -- then I decided I ought to come up to date"), he's good looking, though he thinks he isn't, with a hard, lean, 5,10" build, brown hair, brown eyes that look sharply at the world. "I used to see the family down the street in the bar every Friday and Saturday night while their kids were running around half naked. I decided then if you're gonna drink, you don't do it that way. I don't need it. I've seen it take too many tolls."
He kids about his good manners -- especially on dates: "I'm disgustingly a gentleman-walk on the street side, hold doors open, all that stuff."
One of the most meaningful experiences of his life has been getting out and meeting lots of different kids from all parts of the country. He's finding out, happily, that there are plenty of youngsters who, like himself, aren't afraid to ask questiom or find the answers to "Why am I here?" "The more kids I meet," he says, "the more different types and factions I find. I wish people wouldn't try to put teenagers either into the >I>Blackboard Jungle or Bernardine categories. Kids aren't all-criminal or all-goodie-goodie. That's a phony view."
He feels strongly about something else, too, something he wishes he could get over to youngsters everywhere: "Even when the growing up years are bad, they can still be beautiful in a way. When you're young, you're like a sapling. You have no responsibility except to grow up strong. It should be the most wonderful experience in the world. Eventually, when you start to grow branches, you get the responsibility for holding up those branches." Bobby is wise enough to know that even his "growing up years," while not the kind you read about in children's picture books, "are part of my make-up. Growing up in a poor neighborhood was just as much of a challenge as singing is to me now."
For kids like himself, who have to fight for every opportunity, he says, "A kid shouldn't be considered doomed just because he's born in a slum. He can escape. Once the hope of escape is planted in you, it never dies. But it has to be planted -- it doesn't just happen by itself -- and it has to be given at least a tiny chance to live.
Sure, there's safety in numbers. But to do as others do just because others do it is the most dangerous thing a young person can do. You're not fulfilling your individuality that way. Just going along with the gang is more than stupid -- it's a trap."
But most of the time nowadays, Bobby doesn't talk too seriously if he can help it. You might say he's going through a reaction to a whole life of seriousness. His most pressing ambition at the moment is, "To have fun. I'm headed for the free and fancy life," he promises with a happy little grin. "You can't blame me, can you?"
Yet, even in the midst of all this sudden, chaotic success, there is something more important to him than counting record sales and accepting personal appearance bids. You see, Bobby and his family have left the slums forever. As soon as enough money rolled in to swing the deal, he took his mother, his sister, his sister's husband and their two young daughters away from the tenement smoke and grime. They spent a couple of the most glorious weeks of their lives hunting for a house of their own in the country. They finally found it, in New Jersey, with grass and trees and flowers.
Bobby goes there every chance he gets. And even though the lawn, the curtains at the windows and the fresh paint on the shutters are like nothing he's ever known before, it feels like home every time he opens the door. For inside, it's just like it always was -- with "lots of laughs and lots of love," the kind that "hits you right square in the teeth" and in the heart.
There's something else, too, I almost forgot to mention. The Darins' new house sits overlooking a lake. A real, honest to goodness, bright, clear, sparkling blue lake. That's how Bobby and his folks can tell for sure those vivid memories of the slums are really only memories after all. Because, "To a city kid, there's nothing so great as a lake. It's like a miracle ... "
It had to turn out that way, of course.
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