Session Notes

The Plain Jane Session

  • Date: Friday, December 5, 1958
  • Location: Atlantic Studio, New York City
  • Songs recorded: Plain Jane (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman),
    I Ain't Sharin' Sharon (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman), While I'm Gone (Bobby Darin), Hush Somebody's Calling My Name (Clyde Otis, Belford Hendricks, Cynthia Young) Didn't It Feel Good (?).
  • Producers: Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler
  • Engineer: Tom Dowd
  • Personnel: Bobby Darin (vocals, piano), King Curtis (tenor sax), Jesse Powell (baritone sax), Billy Mure (guitar), Everett Barksdale (bass guitar), Lloyd Trotman (bass), Belton Evans (drums).

What did the American musical landscape look like on December 5, 1958? At the top of the Billboard charts we find "To Know Him Is To Love Him" by the Teddy Bears (with Phil Spector), followed by "Tom Dooley" (Kingston Trio) and "It's Only Make Believe" (Conway Twitty). Elvis Presley was serving his country in Germany, but nevertheless both sides of his new single ("One Night"/"I Got Stung") were in the Top 10. Bobby's "Queen of the Hop" was in its 9th week on the Hot 100 and had just dropped out of the Top Ten (to # 11), but would be back at number 10 the week after that. "Mighty Mighty Man", which had been released almost simultaneously with "Queen of the Hop", had failed to register on the Richter Scale of music. Bobby's first LP, simply titled "Bobby Darin", had been released in September, but did not make the bestselling LP lists, in spite of the inclusion of "Splish Splash". At this time, though, only 25 pop LP's were included in the Billboard album charts.

Of the five songs recorded at this session, two came from the pens of the songwriting duo Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Jerome "Doc" Pomus (1925-1991) was already an experienced songwriter when he took the much younger Mort Shuman (1938-1991) under his wing in 1955. At first they wrote almost exclusively for Atlantic artists : Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker and others. They scored a few R&B chart entries, but no pop hits. Everything changed when their publishing company, Hill and Range (unlike most other Brill Bruilding writers, Pomus and Shuman were not contracted to Aldon, the publishing company of Al Nevins and Don Kirshner), began to require songs for other record labels. Their first Top 40 hits came at the beginning of 1959, first with "I'm a Man" by Fabian and then with "Plain Jane", soon to be followed by more Fabian hits and "A Teenager In Love" by Dion and the Belmonts. They went on to write many hits, especially for the Drifters (Save the Last Dance For Me, This Magic Moment, Sweets for My Sweet, etc.) and Elvis Presley (A Mess of Blues, Surrender, Little Sister, His Latest Flame, Kiss Me Quick, Suspicion a.o.). For Bobby they had already written "(Since You're Gone) I Can't Go On", a track from his first LP, and in 1961 they provided him with "Sorrow Tomorrow". Bobby also recorded their "Can't Get Used To Losing You" (1963), which was originally recorded by Andy Williams. "Plain Jane" is loosely based on an old minstrel song from 1844, called "Buffalo Gals", which was revived exactly 100 years later as "Dance With A Dolly (With A Hole In Her Stocking)". Three different versions of that song made the Top 10 in 1944. The three outtakes of "Plain Jane" on the "Rare, Rockin' & Unreleased" CD show that it took some time before Bobby had found the right key for the song. At the beginning of take 4 we find him humming the riff to Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'", which was probably meant as an inspiration for the rhythm section. Though Bobby's vocal goes off the rails in less than 40 seconds, you can hear Ahmet Ertegun commenting "That sounded very good, though", which is typical for the kind of encouragement he always tried to give. "Plain Jane" was chosen for the next single and released on January 12, 1959. It entered the Billboard Top 100 two weeks later and stayed there for 9 weeks (97 - 72 - 56 - 45 - 38 - 38 - 51 - 63 - 62). In Cash Box its peak position was # 30.

The title of "I Ain't Sharin' Sharon" may have been inspired by the birth of Doc Pomus's daughter Sharon in 1958. It is a medium-paced rocker, with (again) a very infectious backing. Some may call this bubblegum rock (10 years before the genre was at its peak), but personally I can't resist this kind of beat. The twin saxes of King Curtis and Jesse Powell are very effective. It is Curtis who takes the sax solo, as he does on "Plain Jane". Like several other 1958 recordings by Bobby, "Sharon" was shelved for almost two years, until its release on the "For Teenagers Only" LP. Versions by Buddy Knox on Roulette and James Darren on Colpix, both not nearly as good as Bobby's, hit the market in 1959. Knox's version of "Sharon" spent exactly one week at # 100 in the Cash Box charts and then dropped off. Bobby's own composition "While I'm Gone" is the only slow song from this session. An undistinguished pop tune, it's not far removed from the kind of material Pat Boone was having hits with at the time. To my ears it sounds a bit old-fashioned, even for 1958 standards. A typical B-side, and that's what it became : the flip of "Plain Jane".

"Hush Somebody's Calling My Name" is an adaptation of a Negro spiritual of the same name. The writing credit goes to three people: Clyde Otis, Belford Hendricks and Cynthia Young. Clyde Otis was an enormously prolific songwriter (with 785 entries in the BMI database!), who is best known for his long and very successful collaboration with Brook Benton. Belford Hendricks co-wrote two Top 10 hits (with Clyde Otis and Brook Benton) : "Looking Back" for Nat "King" Cole (1958) and "It's Just a Matter of Time" for Brook Benton (1959). Cynthia Young wrote a few gospel songs and is probably responsible for the melody. There is absolutely nothing wrong with "Hush" : good song with interesting chord changes, fine controlled vocal by Bobby, first-rate accompaniment and a very clean recording by Tom Dowd on his eight-track console. Nevertheless, this track shared the fate of "I Ain't Sharin' Sharon" and other "leftovers" like "I Want You With Me" : it didn't get a release until September 1960, on the "For Teenagers Only" album, by which time musical tastes has changed considerably. In the fifties, the decision to release (or not to release) a certain track was more a matter of marketing strategy than of the quality of the music and this is probably still true in 2003. At this stage in 1958, Bobby was still marketed as a rock 'n' roll singer.

"Plain Jane", "Hush" and "While I'm Gone" all clock in between 1:50 and 1:55. Perhaps as a consequence of the shortness of these tracks, there was some studio time left for a fifth song, "Didn't It Feel Good". All we have on record are four incomplete takes of this light rocker (on "Rare, Rockin' and Unreleased"), which together last no longer than two minutes. There is no writer's credit on the RRU cover, nor are there entries for "Didn't It Feel Good" in the BMI and ASCAP databases, so it is unclear who wrote this song. But here comes the mystery: the track has a master number (4287), a fact not mentioned once, but twice in Michel Ruppli's Atlantic discography. This means that there must be a complete take of this song, for it makes no sense to master an incomplete take. This complete version has yet to surface and is probably lost. When the song falls apart for the fourth time, a frustrated Bobby unleashes a rancorous "Balls!" into the mike. It's almost as if he's closing the door of rock 'n' roll behind him, as, in just two weeks time, he would be entering a new phase in his career when he recorded "Mack the Knife".

All five songs from this session are on the "Rare, Rockin' and Unreleased" CD (in superior sound quality), but the released version of "Plain Jane" is not there, only outtakes. The master of "Plain Jane" appears on several compilations, like "The Bobby Darin Story", "The Ultimate Bobby Darin" and "Hit Singles Collection". "I Ain't Sharin' Sharon" can also be found on the recent CD reissue of "Twist With Bobby Darin".

Sources: Michel Ruppli, Atlantic Records : A Discography. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979. Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles, 1955-1999. Menomonee Falls, WI : Record Research, 2000. Joel Whitburn presents the Billboard pop charts 1955-1959. Menomonee Falls, WI : Record Research, 1992. Spencer Leigh, My room has got two windows : the songwriting genius of Doc Pomus. In four parts. Now Dig This 243-246 (July-September 2003). Stuart Colman, When Bobby Darin Rocked. Now Dig This 176 (November 1997), page 16-17.

-- Dik de Heer

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