Session Notes

The Splish Splash Session


  • Date: Thursday, April 10, 1958 (15:30 - 17:00)
  • Location: Atlantic Studios, 156 West 57th Street,
    Manhattan, New York City
  • Producer: Ahmet Ertegun
  • Arranger: Ray Ellis
  • Engineer: Tom Dowd
  • Songs recorded: Splish Splash (Darin / Jean Murray),
    Judy Don't Be Moody
    (Don Wolf / Ben Raleigh),
    Queen of the Hop (Darin / Woody Harris).
  • Personnel: Bobby Darin, vocals, piano; Al Caiola, guitar; Billy Mure,
    guitar ; possibly Wendell Marshall, bass; Jesse Powell, tenor sax ;
    Panama Francis, percussion. Plus unidentified chorus on "Judy Don't
    Be Moody."

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the "Splish Splash" session. If it had not been for this session, it is very doubtful if we would be here together in cyberspace today. After seven flop singles (four on Decca and three on Atco), it finally gave Bobby the breakthrough that he was so desperately looking for.

One of the remarkable things about this session is that all three songs recorded ended up as million sellers! Admittedly, "Judy Don't Be Moody" got a free ride on the flip of "Splish Splash," but even if you don't count "Judy" as a separate million seller : 2 out of 3 is a fantastic score by any standard. It is even more remarkable considering the fact that this was not a standard three-hour session (in which usually four songs would be recorded), but a split session. Bobby was only allocated 90 minutes, after pop-jazz singer Morgana King had recorded "Since I Fell for You" and "My Reverie." In Michel Ruppli's Atlantic discography (1979), these two songs are erroneously credited to BD and as a result, they were included in a list of Atco/Atlantic recordings on the website, as mysterious unreleased tracks, until they were removed at my request in August 2001.

Bobby had been signed to the Atco label by Herb Abramson, who had co-founded Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun in 1947. Upon returning from Germany after two years of belated military service in 1955, Abramson found Jerry Wexler sitting at his desk and working beside Ahmet in the studio and there was no easy way to push Wexler out. Abramson was given his own label, the newly formed subsidiary Atco Records. He became responsible for signing new talent to the label, organizing the sessions, and overseeing promotion and distribution. Herb supervised three unspectacular sessions by Bobby, in May and August 1957 and January 1958, resulting in three unsuccessful singles. For his next session, Bobby came up with "Splish Splash," a novelty rocker he had written in twelve minutes at the house of upcoming NYC deejay Murray Kauffman. Kauffman's mother, Jean Murray, had suggested the title and the first line ("Splish Splash, I was taking a bath") and was amply rewarded with a co-writing credit. Abramson didn't like the song at all and temporarily delayed the session until Bobby came up with "better material," indicating in the process that he didn't see much of a future for BD at Atco.

Desperately anxious to have a hit, Bobby went into the other office and demonstrated the song to Ahmet and Jerry. The latter was not overly enthusiastic, but Ahmet liked the idea and agreed to allocate half of a forthcoming session to Bobby. By 1958, Ertegun rarely went into the studio himself, leaving most of the production jobs to Jerry Wexler and the duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Under Abramson, about the wildest thing Bobby had cut was "Pretty Betty," a song that called to mind "Tutti Frutti," but then in the clean-cut, sanitized version by Pat Boone, not the Little Richard original. Apparently it took a new producer, Ertegun, to showcase Bobby with a complete lack of inhibition.

The CD, Rare, Rockin' and Unreleased contains several outtakes from this session and gives an invaluable picture of work-in-progress and Ertegun's way of producing (relaxed, giving clear instructions and encouragement, very professional). Tom Dowd had only just installed his new toy, an eight-track stereo-capable tape machine, built especially for Atlantic. Ertegun had just received the sad news that one of Atlantic's major stars, Chuck Willis, had died that morning, at the age of only 30. Nevertheless, judging by the studio chatter, the mood is fairly ebullient and everyone is gunning for a hit. The surprising thing about the first take of "Splish Splash" is that it is not all that far removed from the hit version. A few lyrical amendments are apparent ("dancin' on my living room rug" is at this stage a "front room rug") and of course the sound effects of the gurgling tap water have yet to be inserted (these would be overdubbed later by Tom Dowd), but everything else seems already in place. Prior to take two, Ahmet asks drummer Panama Francis to lay back on is "eights" on the neck of the cymbal whilst Tom Dowd adjusts the level on the guitar. Also included on the CD is take 6, which falls apart in verse two. Bobby asks if they can pick it up from there, hinting at the practice of editing takes as they go. Ertegun though declines, telling everyone to go back to the top. Take 7 is almost a master, but crumbles a little around Jesse Powell's second tenor break.

The Rare, Rockin' and Unreleased CD includes no less than five takes of "Queen Of The Hop" (take 5-9), of which only take 9 is complete. Despite the false starts and the breakdowns, Bobby urges the players on by hollering, "It's starting to cook!" The most notable difference at this point to the eventual single is the misguided use of a Coasters-style bass voice that repeats the title throughout the chorus. Over the pre-take chatter of Take 9, Bobby indicates that he's the one who's playing the piano. The shuffle rhythm is now developed into perfection. Bobby takes an awesome leap at a high F# in the final chorus. "Queen of the Hop" was one of those songs that incorporated a lot of current hit titles in the lyrics, a practice not uncommon in the years 1957-59. I can just imagine Bobby going over the current issue of Billboard, making notes of Top 50 titles that were usable (Sugartime, Sweet Little Sixteen, Short Shorts, Yellow Dog Blues, The Stroll, etc.). "Peggy Sue," "Lollipop," and (Good Golly) Miss Molly" must have struck his particular fancy, as these characters appear in both "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop".

"Judy Don't Be Moody" is saved from mediocrity by its unusual rhythm (a tango!) and Al Caiola's pizzicato embellishments on the guitar. It was picked as the B-side of "Splish Splash" and released on May 19, 1958, on Atco 6117. Billboard included the single in its "This Week's Best Buys" feature and wrote: "These are the artist's two strongest sides so far. 'Splish Splash' is a blues with a novelty lyric that is belted in a bright rock and roll tempo. Flip, 'Judy', is also a rhythm side that is sung with a listenable chorus and ork assistance. Also strong R&B prospects." A prophetic addition, that last sentence : "Splish Splash" would top the R&B charts for two weeks in August 1958.

And Cash Box wrote (May 29th, 1958): "Bobby Darin comes in stong with an R&B - pop R&R item, 'Splish Splash,' that looks real good from this end. Darin has a souped up quick beat with a humorous lyric and top-notch reading."

Jerry Wexler writes in his autobiography: "Two records got us back in the game. These tunes were so winning, so widely popular, so immediately irresistible, no one could keep them off the air. Ironically, they were consecutively numbered, one right right after the other, in our master log. The first was "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters; the second, Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash". Each sold well over a million. At wholesale, that meant $400,000 or $500,000 in revenue" ("Rhythm and the Blues," page 131).

But little did Bobby know on the evening of April 10 that he had just recorded two million sellers. Bobby told his friend Richard Behrke after the session: "You'll vomit when you hear it. I've gone all the way with the bastardized sound." (Quoted in Al DiOrio's book.) For some time I interpreted this as Bobby not liking rock 'n' roll, but that certainly wasn't the case. He particularly liked Fats Domino, and that influence shows on "Splish Splash" ("put my feet on the flo", "opened the doh") and "Queen of the Hop" and later in the year also on "Plain Jane." No, what he meant was : YOU, Dick Behrke, a man of immaculate taste, you will vomit when you hear it. Maybe the kids would dig it, but if they didn't, it was the end of the road at Atco. Bobby was still worried. His next step, two weeks later, would be a very unusual one.

(To be continued on April 24.)

-- Dik de Heer

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