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 Linda's 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
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