Bobby Darin

And the Turn from Junk Music

This article, written by Gene Lees, appeared in
the May 12th, 1960 issue of Downbeat Magazine

On records," said a review in the New York Times, "the most striking instance of the renaissance of showmanship can be found in the work of Bobby Darin, not only because he is a young singer with all the assurance, projection, and casual craftiness of an old pro but-what is most remarkable-because he gained his first popularity in the rock 'n' roll scramble."

Darin has caused an impressive stir in the music business in the past year, as much as anything-as the Times review indicates- because everyone seems astonished that rock and roll could have produced a singer who could actually sing. Actually, had anger over rock and roll not blinded so many of the professionals to possible virtues in its performers, it would have been evident that Darin is not the first capable pop singer spawned by the r&r craze. Tommy Sands, for example, sings well, if affectedly.

Nonetheless, Darin is the first to have real impact on the non-r&r musical world, and in their delight in discovering that one of the denizens (or escapees) of that world can perform well, many musicians and critics have turned a deaf ear on his faults. Probably this is because of a feeling, conscious or unconscious, that Darin is the man who can lead the kids out of r&r and back to music and he therefore should be encouraged.

And so indeed he should. For Darin is one hell of a performer. But he is not a flawless one, and in reviews of his recent This Is Darin LP, nowhere did I see noted that his intonation in the album is very faulty. To be sure, there is a school of thought that holds that intonation is an expendable thing that "soul" counts for all, and if a performer goes out of tune in trying for it, well that's of negligible importance.

Not all of the furor over Darin has been caused by his singing and his unquestioned showmanship. His attitude has caused a good deal of the talk.

A New York columnist recently wrote that other young singers were getting tired of hearing Darin say how big he was going to be. Darin takes issue with her, and since her column is not famous for accuracy, particularly where matters of music are concerned, it is judicious to consider his version.

"I have friends in this business from Frankie Avalon and Fabian to Sammy Davis, Jr.," he said. "I can get something from any of them. You can learn from anybody, if it's only what not to do. Fabian and all of them knew from the start that I wanted to progress beyond the (rock and roll) phase. I've been preparing for this all my life. "I contend that it takes the kids to put you on top, and the same kids as grown ups to keep you there."

"I love the business. It's not the singing. It's being a performer and being accepted. I think, 'Thank you for recognizing this part of me, but forgive me, I've got to get back to work on the next part.' It's a sort of constant segue.

"Actually, I never wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actor. And I still do. I was a song writer, trying to get into the business. I made a demo of one of my own tunes, and George Scheck, a personal manager, heard it and said, 'Do you want to sing?' I said, 'Sure. Anything to get into the business.' I made four records for Decca, then went to Atco. Nothing much happened at first. Then I did "Splish-Splash." "That's when I learned that you have to find out what John Q. Public wants."

Darin found out. "Splish-Splash," a somewhat inane rock and roll tune that he wrote, was followed by more hits, including Queen of the Hop and Beyond the Sea, an up tempo version of a semi-standard English adaptation of a Charles Trenet tune.

Today, the Darin snowball has grown to the point where he will make an estimated half million dollars this year though he says he'll have only about $10,000 when the government has carved away its portion of the pie. He still retains his hold on adolescent audiences, though magazines that cater to teenagers are already voicing editorially the heart-rending question, Is Bobby Darin Deserting Us? Meantime, he is packing such adult rooms as the Cloister in Hollywood, the Chez Paree in Chicago, and the big, smart Chase hotel in St. Louis where, incidentally, he broke the house record set several years ago by Martin and Lewis. "You can put that down, too," he said as I was taking notes at the Chase. "That's another thing I'm interested in: breaking records."

From the Chase, Darin took off on a three week tour of England and followed that with a one week date at the Deauville in Miami. Then it was back to L.A. and the Cloister for three weeks. In June, he will do three weeks at the Mecca of American nightclub acts, New York's Copacabana. This summer, he is scheduled to make a movie for Paramount, which company has him under contract to do seven films.

Along with success, Darin has all the problems that are its inevitable concomitants. His telephone rings constantly. If, talking to the switchboard operator, he finds out the caller is someone he knows or the call otherwise seems legitimate, he takes it. He takes all his calls himself, still having managed to do without the flock of flunkies that provides reassurance to so many big names. (Only his pianist and drummer travel with him; he shares a home in California with his manager.) If he doesn't know the caller and there seems to be no specific purpose to the call, the operator says he isn't in. "You never know whether the conversation is being taped," he said.

Legitimate taped-by-telephone interviews with disc jockeys he does willingly, the beeper signal letting him and the listeners know how the interview is being done. Requests for interviews are met cordially, since Darin has a businesslike awareness of the value of publicity. Sometimes, however, he doesn't like the way in which he is approached.

Recently the manager of a radio-TV outlet in a small Illinois town wrote to ask him to tape a personal message that the station could run as an introduction to the Academy awards telecast. As Darin read the letter, he said he would do it. But the letter had a post script: "The disc jockeys on station BLANK give your records excellent exposure."

"Why that fink!" Darin said, and threw the letter into the waste basket. Perhaps the disc jockeys on that station are no longer playing Darin records.

Much of Darin's mail and telephone calls involves attempts to sell him something, as often as not an insurance policy. And he gets hit by every conceivable charity. "Usually," he said, "they come on with the assumption that you're a member of a certain religion, or the Masons. But I immediately refer all these requests to Steve Blauner, my manager, who turns down 96 per cent of them. It's a perfect cop-out for me.

"I don't mind, though. I admire con - because that's my business too."

What Darin does mind, in common with all name entertainers, are the calls from doting mothers whose daughters are "just loaded with talent" and who need only a break, a break the entertainer is in some mysterious way supposed to be able to provide. Darin ducks as many of these calls as he can, but a few get through. He tries to be polite, but soon finds that there is nothing as angry as an ambitious mother scorned. "They begin screaming at you, and tell you you're no good and you're never going to make it big."

He is also besieged by autograph hunters, whose existence is a far more serious hazard to the big name entertainer than the lay public usually realizes. Once, when he had an hour off between shows, he decided to spend all of it signing autographs. A huge line gathered outside his dressing room. Setting up a table and chair, he went to work. When the hour passed, the line still was not gone. And Darin had to go onstage. When he stood up and said he was sorry, but he had not more time to sign autographs, those in front said, "Just one more, please!" And those in back started calling him impolite names, because, after waiting an hour, they were to be cheated. What was he to do? Skip his scheduled show?

Since then, he has acquired various techniques for ducking the autograph-hunters, none of which, in fairness to him, will be disclosed here.

Needless to say, Darin almost literally has to sweep the girls off the doorstep. They write mash notes to him, some of which are pretty torrid. They haunt the corridors of hotels where he is staying. They knock timidly at his door, sounding a little like mice in the woodwork. If he answers, they have fits of titters, and then, after recovering from the traumatic joy of his speaking to them, thrust autograph books at him.

Just what it is that draws women, like moths to a candle, to the man in the spotlight, is a major mystery. Obviously, this phenomenon didn't start with Darin. Nor did it start with Elvis Presley or even Frank Sinatra or even Rudolph Valentino. In the early 19th Century, the violinist Nicolo Paganini enjoyed this strange mass behavior of women. So did composer-pianist Franz Liszt, who was (until he retired to the quiet of a monastery) what we would now call a lover. In fact, even the fainting of girls, which was alleged to be the result of some unique power in Sinatra, goes back to the time of Liszt. When the master played piano, women supposedly fainted or swooned, in the gentler terms of that vanished age.

And toward the latter part of the last century, when composer Jacques Offenbach came to America from France, flocks of women, many of them society women, unhitched his horses and drew his carriage through the streets themselves.

It is curious that history records few examples (I know of none, though they may exist) of men indulging in this group self-abasement, an oddment of information that should lend ammunition to the arguments of misogynists (it could be construed as indicating that women are unstable). All we know for sure is that when someone becomes a famous artist or entertainer, the women move toward him like a wave of lemmings, and once they reach his immediate vicinity, mill around doing they-don't-know what. Possibly waiting to drown.

Without pretending to have the answer to this enigma, I did make a few observations that may be pertinent.

Few of the members of the dogged band in Darin's tracks could be described as pretty. On the contrary, there was a liberal representation of the dumpy and dowdy, the awkward and uncertain, and of girls with too much makeup and not enough poise. Could it be that Darin and others like him represent some sort of substitute for boyfriends who thus far haven't turned up in their lives? It was also noteworthy that many of them were coarse and rude in manner, snapping at strangers leaving his room, "Are you Bobby Darin's manager? Then who are you?"

In sharp contrast to these hard-core fans was an accidental cross-section of American girlhood that Darin and I encountered one day as we crossed a St. Louis street, on our way to shoot some pictures. School was just getting out. The girls recognized him. Some came to ask for autographs, some didn't bother. And those who did were polite. There was a minimum of giggling, and when I asked them to sit with him on a park bench for a picture, none fell into paroxysms of pleasure. They complied, smiled, chatted with him, then thanked him for the autographs and went on about their business.

The conclusion seems obvious, though it would be unwise to be dogmatic about it on so small a sampling.

Whatever the causes, Darin obviously has a great appeal for a lot of American females, not all of them in their teens. While he was in St. Louis, one woman phoned and, having slipped by the hotel switchboard operator, told him, "Come over to the house for dinner. My husband's away for a week."

Darin is frank on this subject, which is refreshing after the publicity pumped out to assure us that Elvis's act really isn't dirty because he's such a nice church-going boy, and that Pat Boone is the epitome of purity. As far as Darin is concerned, the girls can go right on panting. "When that stops, I'm in trouble," he said.

"The sex element is the most important in this business. I'm no Don Juan. In fact, I'm very self-conscious about my . . . my physiognomy. But the fact remains, you must sell sex. It must not be conscious, however. You're either sexy or you're not. I don't know whether I am. I will know, 15 years from now.

"There are two types of sex. There's the kind the female sees when she wants to park her shoes under the entertainer's bed. Sinatra has it. Then there is the kind that makes a guy sitting at a table in a club say, 'Man, this guy is a man's man. I know my woman digs him, but he's a man I don't have to worry about because he wouldn't try to beat my time.' The men in the audience can identify with that type of entertainer."

As if to illustrate Darin's point, there were three steady customers during his Chase engagement in St. Louis: a pretty, 16-year-old girl who is international president of the Bobby Darin fan club, her mother, and her father. The mother and father evidently enjoyed Darin's smart, smooth show as much as their daughter did. Indeed, the daughter watched him with an almost religious sobriety, "analyzing his style."

Actually, Darin's style is not hard to analyze. Built on a basic framework of Frank Sinatra, it involves elements of Tony Bennett (an odd kind of harshness in certain high notes), Bing Crosby (a loose-mouthed popping of the consonants 'B' and 'P'), sloppy enunciation, and occasional touches of rock-and-roll raunch.

But there's one big extra: fire. Despite the faults of his singing, Darin today is unquestionably the only young male pop singer who handles standards with something approaching the polished intensity of Sinatra. To those who would offer the rejoinder that Darin does not have Sinatra's vocal finesse and musicianship, it should be adequate to point out that Sinatra is 42, while Darin is 23, and that Sinatra has been a professional singer for 21 years, while Darin has been singing for four.

And Darin has an obvious capacity to learn and grow. He seizes on any thought that he thinks might improve his act. I mentioned that I thought his act was short on control-that an artist should be able to keep some of himself in reserve and build up during the course of his performance, instead of throwing everything he had at the audience right at the start. Sure enough, next night Darin started in on a subdued note, and then built . . . and built. . . and built all the way through. "You see?" he said later. "I tried it. You know, I've learned something."

On top of that, Darin is probably the most fascinating singer to watch on this side of the Atlantic. Yves Montand or Henri Salvador in France both cut him, working on a stage, but they are the cream.

Darin once said that he wanted to be known as the singer who moved like a dancer, and when he breaks in a new tune, he talks about working out the "choreography" for it. He has already reached this goal, for he does indeed move like a dancer. He has a loose-limbed agility that permits him to intermix shuffles, Woody Herman style kicks, and countless eccentric steps the semantics of which probably died with vaudeville. When he makes his deep bow, he bends over so far it is as if he were trying to do a Moslem bow from a standing position, and his hair and arms hang straight down. He has also developed an odd trick with a mike that adds punch to the end of a tune: he lifts it high in one hand-and then drops it! Suavely he catches it with the other hand, but not before giving a heart tremor to those sensitive to the value and fragility of a good mike.

With this combination of excellent movement and intense, driving singing, Darin's is one of the most stimulating and vital acts in show business today. He stresses up-tempo material, restricting himself usually to two ballads per set. He is a little affected on the ballads, as if he were working too hard at them. Like Sinatra, he makes substitutions and interpolations in the lyrics. Few of them seem to make any real contribution to the meaning, and some are distracting. Still, he does ballads well, and it can be assumed that he will do them better in future.

Inevitably, he includes a couple of his hits in his club act, particularly "Mack the Knife" and "Splish-Splash." It is curious to note that while he declines to go on record as putting down rock-and-roll, he does "Splish Splash" with tongue flagrantly in cheek.

Darin has an enormous, almost unbelievable, desire to succeed. Nesuhi Ertegun, a&r director of Atlantic Records and Atco Records, for which Darin records, says that the same brash, cock-sure drive was there two years ago, when Atco signed him, a virtual unknown. "He hasn't changed a bit," Ertegun says.

What makes Bobby run is a question that preoccupies a lot of people in show business these days. If Darin's own explanation is taken at face value, a classic pattern is present: a New York Italian boy, born to poverty, is fiercely determined not to rear whatever children he might some day have in the same environment.

Darin's father died (of pneumonia) shortly before he was born, in 1936. His mother had a difficult time raising her family.

"We were poor, on-relief-type Bronx people," Darin said. "Besides my mom , who's dead now, there was my sister. She married a wonderful guy who was good to me. Now that I can help out, I do."

"I didn't belong, at school or anywhere else. I enjoyed doing homework. That made me a freak to the kids on the block. And going to college was even more unheard of."

As a reading between those lines will indicate, Darin's childhood and youth could not have been all hardship. He got a chance at a good education, which few kids from the world of harsh poverty do. He went to the Bronx High School of Science, a top-notch school where he apparently did well (he was an honors student in junior high school), and then attended Hunter college for a year. "Then I split to get into the business," he said.

When Darin was 15, he was playing drums "in a rinkydink group" in the resorts of the Catskill mountains. One of his companions in this venture was a slim, good-looking pianist named Dick Behrke, a schoolmate who is now his accompanist and conductor and also, as Darin announces nightly from the stage, his best friend in this world. (He adds that his second best friends is Mack the Knife.)

"I never had the kind of adolescence most kids have," Darin said. "When I went to a dance, it was to play it."

Yet innumerable musicians have had exactly the same experience. Check on jazz musicians you know; note how many of them have never learned to dance. Most of them have not developed Darin's all-consuming passion to be on top.

And make no mistake about it, that's exactly where he wants to be. "I want to be in the Number One slot," he says. "I guess the polls are of primary importance to me. To me, showing up in the Down Beat poll last December was the greatest thing that's happened so far.

"I want the respect of the trade. You must have that. If you can create excitement in both the trade and the public, you've got something."

Awards of all kinds count with Darin, and he rattles off readily the list of them that he has so far acquired: The Billboard, Cash Box and Variety awards, and two Grammys from the record industry (for Mack the Knife, as best single of 1959, and to Darin as best new singer of 1959). "These things are the emotional compensation for the work I'm doing," Darin said. "Don't let guys who pooh-pooh polls kid you. Anybody that's alive cares whether he's accepted.

"Movies is where I want to go, no question of that. But I want the right roles. We've looked at 20 or 25 scripts, and I've turned them all down. I don't want to do an exploitation picture. I want to do drama, light comedy, the whole range. And some day I want an Academy award. The motion picture business is still the most glamorous, glorious, stimulating, exciting end of the business. Sammy Davis told me that before he did Anna Lucasta, he could walk down the street and maybe two people would want his autograph. Now he is constantly sought after. "That's why I want the picture business. "Ambition? That's my middle name."

Evidently it is. And Darin's ambitions are not confined to the fields of singing and acting. He also has aspirations as a songwriter, and shows a certain flair as a lyricist.

But so all-encompassing is his ambition that at times it is amusing. He wants to write music "of a serious nature," he said with a haughtily pseudo-English accent to indicate that he was kidding. But he was kidding on the square, and later it developed that he does indeed want to write a composition for piano in "classical" vein.

Why is "this so amusing? Because Darin plays about enough piano to bang out a few chords and arpeggios to accompany himself in the blues, and does not read music. Though he listens to classical music, his knowledge of it is superficial, and his tastes are hung up in 19th Century Romanticism. It extends neither back into the true classicism of Mozart nor forward even as far as Stravinsky. Considering the magnitude of his ambition, I was even a little touched by his musical naiveté. Though most of the time he looks, thinks, and acts older than his 23 years, now he seemed like a little kid wanting to be a fireman, a policeman, a jet pilot, and a great scientist when he grows up-all rolled into one.

Thinking of the structural complexity even of Romantic music, I asked Darin if he knew what sonata form was. "I don't know what sonata or any other kind of form is," he said. Then, seeing my attempt to keep a straight face, he said with an almost sheepish grin, "Oh, I know it sounds ridiculous. But I want to do it, and I will do it, even if it takes until I'm 40."

It was impossible not to like the guy.

But Darin is nothing like naive when the discussion turns to contemporary show business. While discussions of rock-and-roll in other quarters have, in the main, been vehemently partisan, Darin has analyzed it rather coolly.

"There were really three phases to it," he said. "The first came when it made its early, headline-getting impact.

"Then it suffered a setback in 1955. Then came a guy named Presley, who set the market on its feet. It was fantastic. There were all those millions of feet walking into record stores, not only buying Presley records, but whatever else was in the store.

"The next ebb came when Presley went into the service. Then came Dick Clark, to set it up again.

"Presley's only competitor was Pat Boone. And Boone was using rock-and-roll as a device-which is all well and good; it's exactly what I did.

"Presley was an amazing phenomenon. He had the same hypnotic effect that Roosevelt had on the voting public. Now it's time to change. There's no doubt that Presley will have to change, if he wants to survive.

"Things are changing. I've noticed the music business runs in cycles of about five or seven years. A new one is due, with or without the payola scandal.

"What is the payola probe going to do? Win a few new Senatorial seats. They won't stop it.

"Of course, it depends what we mean by payola. The cash payola will stop. That's an evil, and has to be eliminated. But they'll never stop somebody from laying a couple of tickets for a Broadway show on somebody visiting New York. That's human nature.

"Rock and roll? I love some of it.

"I love Ray Charles. Ray Charles is the greatest thing since Beethoven.

"There are only three singers who move me emotionally: Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles. If I want to be lullabied, I listen to Peggy Lee, I don't care what the tempo is. That's the boss lady. If I want to think about lost love or any kind of love, for that matter I listen to Frank. If I want to be thrown into a primitive, wild kind of emotional involvement, I listen to Ray Charles. I can't think of anything else I want satisfied. These three people are the rock of Gibraltar.

"Make that four singers I like. I'm a Crosby man. I'm an Old Cowhand? I was listening to that at five. And Sammy Davis has taught me a lot, in terms of how to generate excitement.

"It is Sinatra as a person more than Sinatra as a singer that has influenced me. His outlook on the business and his attitude to performance are the important things.

"My approach to singing is not the same. Sinatra has a clipped speech. I'm a slurrer. But let's face it, he's the boss. Another thing I admire is the fact that he's done all the great tunes.

"I have a theory that his phrasing is accidental. About the time he made From Here to Eternity, he abandoned the schooled approach he'd been using, because I think he didn't have the breath. I think it didn't happen musically, but physically. Later it became a musical thing.

"He's more right than anybody has been. And I got news, there aren't very many places to go after him.

"And while we're on the subject of Sinatra, there's something I'd like to clear up.

"I've been accused of comparing myself to Sinatra, in terms of career climbing. Certain people have said I want to beat him out. First, I never said this, the press said it. Second, to me, Frank Sinatra is the greatest living lyric interpreter, and that ends the admiration. My idol is the step beyond the great image of today. In other words, it's an indefinite goal.

"He's supposedly mad at me. I've never met the man, but he's supposedly mad at me. He came up with what I think is one of the greatest single lines of all time.

"After all the recent things in the press, somebody asked him, 'What do you think of Bobby Darin?' And Sinatra said, 'I sing in saloons. Bobby Darin does my prom dates.'

"I was so gassed by the line when I saw it! All I can say is that I'm only too happy to play his prom dates."

And then Darin added, possibly significantly, "Until graduation."

Special thanks to Joy Cash for the complete article!

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