Bobby Darin

The Splish Splash Boy

This article, written by Gregory Merwin, appeared in the
January, 1959 issue of TV Radio Mirror Magazine.

His talent for far-out humor in song has already hit it big with teenagers. Ambition and drive will keep him zooming to stardom.

Bobby Darin is like a bullet violently discharged and in mid-flight. His target is stardom and he will not settle for less than a bull's-eye. You know Bobby's hit disc, "Splish Splash," a humorous song he wrote and recorded himself. You've seen him on last summer's Bob Crosby Show and several times with Dick Clark. Bobby's personable and bright. Socially, he's the life of the party. His teachers were crazy about him because he was not only well-behaved but a lot of laughs, too.

Yet there's another side to Bobby. "I'm not a happy individual," he says. "Never have been. As contrived as it may sound, I don't ever remember having fun as such. My childhood wasn't a childhood. I always had to be ahead of the game. It seems that I've never had anything else to do in this life but learn. I would make any personal sacrifice to make good. I don't say I think I will or I've got to. I will. I want the Academy Award and the Tony and the Emmy. I will be a singer, actor, musical-comedy writer and a serious composer.

"It's my ambition to succeed at whatever I choose. If it means working until five in the morning and then getting up at six to get to the next town to appear on a deejay show, I do it. But, outside of a call from my family or my close friends, I wouldn't get up at five except for my career. I won't touch liquor, because I want my head clear at all times so I can think and do my best. By the time I'm thirty, I want to be rich enough to retire -- not that I would retire."

Bobby was twenty-one last May fourteenth. Average-looking, he stands five-nine-and-a-half. His eyes and hair are brown. He's a bug for sweaters and jewelry. "I've got about twenty sweaters and I'm nuts for diamonds. Now I own a diamond ring. It's just a chip diamond, but it's a luxury I'm very unaccustomed to."

He was born in New York and spent the first seventeen years of his life in a Bronx slum, where the kids wore cast-off clothes and got their kicks bowling over ashcans and spreading garbage over the streets. "There was a rough element. Some of the boys are doing time in local and federal penal institutions, but a small percentage. Most were basically good, but victims of poverty. I was the lucky one. As poor as we were, that's how rich we were in love. And ours was an educated family. Those two things gave me an advantage over the other kids. But this advantage also made me an outsider."

Bobby is the younger of two children. His sister Nina is married and has three children. Bobby's mother, of early American stock, had been a singer in vaudeville and then a school teacher until she married. His father, of Italian extraction, died five months before Bobby was born. "Mom has been both father and mother to me. She is gifted with one of the greatest virtues in the world, understanding.

"I never remember being hit at home, because I never was. I remember being scolded twice. I was about six years old when I smashed six dozen eggs. I just let them roll off the kitchen table one at a time and burst on the floor. It's a funny picture to remember, but we were so poor and eggs were our chief nourishment. And the other scolding came on the day Mom saw me hanging by the knees, like a monkey, from a fire-escape eight floors above the ground."

As far back as he can remember, he was always at odds with children his own age. They didn't like his grades, for he was the most brilliant student in school. He did his last six years of elementary school in four and won a medal. "They called me a genius in the neighborhood, which didn't make me liked. Most of the time. I hung around with kids a couple of years older. They at least tolerated me. They used to think I was pretty funny and they liked to have me around to make them laugh.

"On the other hand, I didn't mind being alone with books. I like books. Mom understood my problem, but she didn't baby me." He pauses, then says suddenly, "I'm not a mother's boy. She's not that kind of mother. Mom would let me go ahead with anything I wanted to try, and she's been there when I was knocked down. But that's all. I always picked myself up."

Bobby was knocked over for the first time when he entered the Bronx High School of Science. AAts students are the cream of the entire New York area. And many go on to be doctors, nuclear physicists, engineers. "That's where I learned that I was nowhere near being a genius," says Bobby. "I met guys whose I.Qs began at 180. They pulled grades in the high nineties and mine were in the eighties.

"So there I was again. I never felt that I belonged in my neighborhood, and I found that I didn't belong with intellectuals. But it turned out to be the most advantageous thing that ever happened to me, being caught in the middle. I could see both sides of the story, as Mom had always taught me to do, and judge both ends. And I learned the distasteful side of being too book-wise. Socially, you don't know people or life through books, you learn by living and doing. To me, the greatest art-form is observation."

It was in high school that Bobby took an unobtrusive step toward show business. He worked after school for three months to buy himself a secondhand set of drums. He organized a dance band and got weekend jobs. He spent three summers in the borscht circuit, doubling as busboy and drummer. Out of high school, he went to Hunter College for one year. "I still kind of figured that maybe there was something I could get from professors or college students. I was wrong. And I was tired of wearing dungarees and the same shirt.

"In the back of my mind, it seemed to me that I was always trying to decide whether I was meant for show business. My earliest memories were of Mom telling me about her days in vaudeville. Anyway, after my first year at Hunter. I went to Mom and told her I wasn't going back to school and that I wanted to leave home. She didn't like it. I said, 'Mom, it's time I got out to see what makes it tick.' She was hurt, but she didn't stop me."

Bobby was lucky, at first. He was hired as an "Indian chief" for forty-five days in a troupe that performed for children in Eastern cities. "They gave me forty a week, and out of that I had to pay all of my expenses except transportation. But I felt good. I came out of that experience feeling: This is where I belong. I had the world by the chops -- and then I got back to the city and discovered there were only forty thousand other actors in this vast metropolis. I don't know whether you know how it is, when you're seventeen and you find you don't belong anywhere. But I was in a depression. I turned to songwriting, where I could lay all my gripes on the line."

Writing at night, he lived in Manhattan and held various jobs, such as building garage doors and cleaning machinery in a gun factory. This went on for a year and a half. Then, one afternoon, he was in a candy store, having a soda, when a friend nudged him and said, "That's Don Kirshner who came in. He's had some songs published. Why don't you show him some of yours?" Bobby recalls that he said, "What good will it do me?" But he was introduced, and they found a piano and Bobby played his songs. Kirshner liked them and, as a result, they teamed up.

"I didn't have any expectations," Bobby says. "Don said that we could write and sell radio commercials. I thought he was nuts. But, within four months, we made about twelve hundred dollars. We knocked out some songs. A couple got on records, but I don't think we made twelve dollars for the year out of those. Then Connie Francis took one of our songs, and it was her manager, George Scheck, who heard the demonstration record on which I sang. He said to me, 'Bobby, I think I can get you a recording contract with Decca.' I wanted to say, 'You're crazy,' but I'm a polite guy and contained my utter disbelief. The next thing I know is that I'm signing my first recording contract."

Bobby's entry as a performer came about so suddenly that it threw him off balance. On Monday, he signed the contract. Tuesday, he cut his first recordings, including a "cover" record of Lonny Donegan's "Rock Island Line" Saturday night of the same week, he sang on the Dorsey Brothers' network television show -- which had featured Elvis Presley the preceding week.

"That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was hit with a hard taste of success. Everyone was patting me on the back and giving me the business, 'How does it feel to be a star?' And I was buying it. Then I went on the road, to play clubs, and found nobody knew me. Sure, I had been on television. So what -- so had a lot of other guys. I had a record. Well, Donegan's recording was a lot bigger than mine. I began to understand, for the first time, what a star really is. A star is really Sinatra or Peggy Lee or Cary Grant. It's not someone who happens to have one or four hit records. A star is someone who comes to understand his audience through years of doing. I learned that you don't get it by watching or reading or being told. You learn only by doing."

With success has come money, and Bobby has bought his family a home in New Jersey. "I'm not married," he says. "When I say 'family,' I mean Mom and my sister and her family. Buying them the house represented something to me, and it meant getting the family out of the dirty city. The next thing I want to buy them is a good car, for that means getting rid of a '36 sedan. I admit this: Being so poor is my chief impetus for wanting to be rich."

Bobby's never had a vacation in his life and he isn't yet ready to take the time off. He keeps up a back-breaking schedule. On the road, he averages five or six hours sleep a night. Before and after his performance, he meets with deejays, his fans and reporters. On the way home, he looks forward to eight or nine hours sleep, but usually finds his New York schedule just as heavy with business conferences, meetings with songwriters, recording sessions and more interviews. It gives him little time for girls.

"You're going to do a double-take when I tell you this," he warns, "but I haven't had more than twelve real dates in my life -- I mean the conventional kind where you pick up a phone and ask a girl if she'd like to go to a party with you this coming Saturday. I go to parties, but I prefer to go stag and just meet a girl and get to talking. I love to talk to a girl, to get to know her, if it's a real informal thing where you just happen to get together over a cup of coffee or something."

He adds. "I like to level with a girl. I have no time to get serious now. I tell her. 'You have to understand that we are going out because you like me and I like you. But if I don't call you next week ... or ever ... you mustn't feel bad about me.'" He's given consideration to the kind of girl he'd like to marry. "I'm not goin' to be one of those guys who says, I don't care what she looks like, so long as she's intelligent.' To satisfy my own ego, she must be beautiful. But if she's smarter than I -- and I wouldn't mind that -- she mustn't buck me mentally. She mustn't ever try to out-think me. There's so much of me in my work that at times she may be giving more than she's receiving."

Bobby admits that the one thing about women which scares him is the possibility of being hurt. "Emotionally, I can be slugged. Once I was in love, and only once. I don't want to talk about it, but that really murdered me. I can give you another example, though. I had pets as a kid. I had a Pekinese dog that I loved and one day I saw him killed by a car. It hurt me so badly I decided I'd never have another pet."

While Bobby refuses to let dating interfere with his career, he has more than his share of good friends. "I have six real buddies for whom I'd walk to the ends of the world. These are people I can really talk to. They can criticize me or my ideas and get angry with me, and I know it is because they are concerned for me. They understand my moods and my needs for privacy. I can say to them, 'Don't bother me,' and they aren't hurt. They understand."

When Bobby gets back to New York now, he stays with his family in New Jersey. He has always got along well with his brother-in-law, Charles, and, on a free evening, they will go to a movie or sit around and listen to records. His nieces, Viva and Vana, and his nephew, two-year-old Gary, idolize him.

You'll find Gary's picture in Bobby's wallet. "Every time Gary sees a jukebox, he asks for my record and, if it's not there, he tries to beat up the box. I want him to be in show business. He's a beautiful kid, and already I can see he has a bundle of rhythm. I want him to have music lessons. I want him to have a piano. I want to cry when I think of my wasted years."

Bobby doesn't think recent success has changed him. "I still don't know where I belong. I only know that I'm going to succeed at whatever I enter. I'm very self-sufficient, in a personal sense, and it's a little unfortunate at times. You can get too independent for your own good. But I guess that's what the right woman will be to me. She'll be someone I can lean on."

Photo of Bobby & Gary courtesy of Harriet Wasser.

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