Among the top teenage rock stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s, was a diminutive, cocky singer from the Bronx named Bobby Darin, who bragged that he would be a legend before his 25th birthday. Perhaps he didn't quite realize that ambition, but he was certainly one of the most talented performers and songwriters ever in American music.
Darin's story began in the summer of 1935, when 17-year old Nina Cassotto began dating an Italian boy a few years older than herself. Within a shorttime she found herself pregnant, but chose to break off the relationship, rather than inform the boy of her situation. She gave birth to Walden Robert Cassotto at 5:28 on the morning of May 14, 1936--- and left the father's name blank on the birth certificate.
A year later at a dance club in May 1937, Nina met Charles Maffia, who was employed as a clerk and truck driver at the R&B Hardware Company, earning $18 a week. After dating for several months, Maffia moved in with the family. Meanwhile, Nina's mother, Polly, took on the role of mother with young Robert.
Nina and Charlie were finally married on July 23, 1942, and the following May 2, she gave birth to her second child, Vivienne Carla Maffia, whom the family nicknamed Vee Vee. Bobby, now 6, was informed that he was the child's uncle. Later Charlie and Nina had a second daughter Vana.
Both Nina and Charlie played music incessantly on the radio and Bobby became interested in all phases of show business -- singing, comedy, and acting.
In the fall of 1943, Bobby (who could already read and knew his numbers) was enrolled at P.S. 43 on Brown Place in the Bronx. By the end of the first grade, he was advanced to the third.
While preparing for a school Christmas pageant in which he was chosen to be Santa Claus, Bobby awoke one morning with pains in his joints and a high temperature. A doctor diagnosed the illness as a serious case of rheumatic fever. He also informed the family that there was only a faint chance he could ever live a normal life -- and absolutely no hope that he would ever live past 35. Between the ages of 8 and 12, Bobby suffered four serious attacks of rheumatic fever and was required to take sulfa drugs daily.
Bobby was a top student at Clark Junior High School and had no trouble meeting the academic requirements for admittance to Bronx High School of Science. Once there, however, he began to develop the "chip on the shoulder" attitude that was to follow him the rest of his life, in addition to an unshakable belief in his talent.
At Bronx High, Bobby became close friends with another student, Richard Behrke, who shared his love for music, and also played the trumpet. Together they and three other students -- Eddie Osasic (piano) Walter Raim (guitar) and Steve Karmen (vocals) -- formed a band. Bobby played the drums. Shortly thereafter, they had their first gig at a high school dance at Bronx Science.
In the summer of 1951, between Bobby's junior and senior year, the group auditioned for the owners of the Sunnylands, a small hotel in the Catskill resort town of Parksville, New York, and were hired for $35.00 a week. They were also required to bus tables and manage the concessions during the day.
Since he was attending summer school in Liberty, New York, Bobby had to rise at 5:00 a.m. and hitch a ride to and from Parksville each day.
That summer the 15-year old Cassotto also started going steady with Laurel Newmark, a Jewish girl with whom he also formed a comedy skit which they performed at the Sunnylands and some of the other hotels in the area. Bobby soon discovered, however that he preferred singing to comedy. He also began testing various stage names including Walden Roberts and Robert Walden.
Bobby graduated from high school in June 1952 at the age of 16. That summer he and the band went back to the Sunnylands for a return engagement. He also resumed his relationship with Laurel.
That autumn Bobby enrolled as a theater major at Hunter College in the Bronx, and shared an apartment at 217 West 71st Street with Behrke. He also auditioned (and was rejected) for several plays, but finally succeeded in landing the second lead in a production of Ibzen's "Hedda Gabler," which was presented on October 23, 24 and 25, 1953 -- and led to his first notice from the campus paper: "Walden Roberts played George Tesman." Later that year, Bobby also appeared in other presentations given by the Campus Theatre at Hunter including the warden in "The Valiant" and as Judge Samuel Savage in "The Curious Savage."
Totally confident that he was destined for stardom, Bobby invested $50 in his first publicity portraits and began spending every free moment haunting the endless agents' offices up and down Broadway.
It eventually paid off. The Salome Gaynor Theater for Children needed someone to play an Indian in their production of "Kit Carson." That December, Bobby dropped out of Hunter and joined the 7-week tour, which paid $45 a week. On the tour Bobby met a 31-year old Spanish dancer, with whom he had a tempestuous 6-month love affair. He later admitted that he saved her from suicide on at least two occasions and also helped her perform an abortion on herself with a wire clothes hanger. [Five years later, in January, 1959, she took a fatal overdose of sleeping pills, in a Toronto hotel room, dressed as a nun with her hands clasped over a crucifix, and surrounded by burning candles.]
Meanwhile, Bobby moved back to the apartment off 71st Street and he and Behrke began hanging out at the Club 78 (located at 78th and Broadway), a popular hangout for unemployed musicans who gathered to play -- and complain. It was there that Bobby developed a solid respect for jazz.
At the same time, he began to write songs with another Bronx Science graduate Don Kirshner, who was then writing radio spots for several local businesses.
Shortly thereafter, Bobby and Don (who also acted as Bobby's manager), wrangled an appointment with George Scheck, a former vaudevillian and choreographer, who managed a number of rising entertainers including young Constance Franconero (who later became world famous as Connie Francis). Scheck, who was also the host of a weekly television variety program called "Star Time," was impressed with Bobby and Don's songs and asked the pair to compose the theme song for his show. He also managed to get a few of their songs recorded including "Love Me Right" (LaVern Baker) "Delia" (Bobby Short), "By My Side" (Davy Hill), "School's Out" and "Real Love" (both by the Jaye Sisters).
On January 5, 1956, Nina Maffia gave bixth to her second son, Gary Walden Maffia. A few weeks later, Bobby and Don took a new song called "My First Real Love" to Scheck, who told them to take it to an upstairs recording studio and make a demo. When they returned an hour later, George listened to the playback, immediately fell in love with Bobby's voice, and told him to start thinking about a professional name as he would be recording the following week.
Bobby took his new identity from the Mandarin Chinese restaurant whose neon sign was flashing only "Darin" -- as the letters M-A-N were burned out of the name.
Within a week Scheck had become Darin's personal manager and taken his demo to Milt Gabler at Decca (now MCA), who immediately signed the 20-year old to a contract and rushed him into the studio to cover Lonnie Donegan's million-selling "Rock Island Line."
In March 1956, Elvis Presley had made his fifth (of six) appearance on "Stage Show," produced by Jackie Gleason and hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, and was scheduled to return two weeks later. In between those appearances -- four days after Bobby signed with the label and two days after he first recorded -- Scheck booked Darin for his television debut which was a disaster.
Immediately after the show, the singer headed for Detroit for his first nightclub perfomance. He also played engagements in other small clubs in the Midwest and Northeast.
Darin then returned to New York to record four more sides, from which came his second and third single -- "Silly Willy" (a Darin-Kirshner composition) b/w "Blue-Eyed Mermaid" and "Hear Them Bells" b/w "The Greatest Builder," a semi-religious tune. That was followed by "Dealer In Dreams" b/w "Help Me."
Meanwhile, the singer continued to work on tours that spring and summer in the East and Midwest. Billed as "Bobby Darin, Star of the Dorsey Brothers TV Show," he appeared in numerous small clubs such as the Cabin Club (Cleveland), The Purple Onion (Indianapolis), Mike's South Pacific (Birmingham), the Safari (New Orleans). He even opened for Della Reese at the Safari Club in Long Island.
Scheck, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly more interested in Connie Francis, whose popularity then far exceeded Darin's. Born December 12, 1938, in Newark, New Jersey, Connie had started performing professionally at 11, and had first appeared on George's radio show at the age of 12. Later, she had entered and won Arthur Godfreys' "Talent Scout" show. Soon after Scheck signed her in 1955, he landed her an MGM recording contract which led to her initial million seller, a duet with country Marvin Rainwater on "Majesty of Love" in 1957. The following year Connie collected a second gold disc for "Who's Sorry Now?" One of the first songs she recorded was Darin-Kirshner's "My First Real Love."
Bobby and Connie not only saw each other often, at Scheck's office, but also appeared on the same bill at various rock and roll shows in the New York area. When they became romantically involved, Connie's very angry father informed Scheck that he would have to choose between managing Darin and his daughter. George informed Bobby that his first loyalty was to Connie and that he would have to find another agent. Connie and Bobby remained close friends professionally, however, and two years later they appeared together (after both became big stars) on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1959 and sang two duets.
Meanwhile, Bobby was not only without a manager, but also his recording deal with Decca -- who had lost interest in him since he wasn't selling any records. Fortunately, while appearing at Mike's South Pacific club in Birmingham, Alabama, Darin had developed some close ties with the local DJs and musicians, who loaned him enough money to record a few songs on his own. One was the Billy Rose evergreen "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)," which had been a #17 hit for Ben Selvin in 1927 and four years later a smash hit for Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians (#1), Bing Crosby (#2) and the Boswell Sisters (#3).
Darin took his recording to Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, who was highly impressed with the singer's talent. Ertegun, his brother Neshui and Herb Abramson had formed Atlantic in 1948 with the idea of providing a label for talented rhythm and blues artists who were being rejected by the major companies. The trio also had a subsidiary label called Atco, which was then releasing material on Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, Morgana King and the great Ray Charles. Ertegen, who was also always willing to take a chance on new talent, signed Darin to a one-year contract with Atco.
In the late spring of 1957, Atco released Bobby's recording of "Million Dollar Baby," which failed to chart, but impressed Murray Kaufman, a.k.a. Murray the K, then one of the top Rock 'n Roll disc jockeys in New York. Kaufman began featuring Darin in his rock shows at Harlem's Apollo Theater, along with acts like Billy Ward and The Dominoes, The Five Satins, and the Chantels. At that time, Darin's act consisted of his single, plus a few Fats Domino numbers and an impersonation of Ray Charles, which failed to please a hard-to-please reviewer from Variety who wrote "Darin is a young rock n' roller who has to learn that it takes more than a blaring voice to be a winner. His style is overpowering and he needs experience in delivery."
Over the next few months, however, Bobby polished his act through another extensive tour of small clubs including Ken Wa Lou's (Toldeo), Mike's South Pacific (Birmingham) and Erie Social Club (Philadelphia).
Atco released two additional singles on Darin between the spring of 1957 and May of 1958. Neither did a thing. In the meantime, in order to have a single ready for release when his Atco contract expired, Bobby recorded two songs on the Brunswick label -- "Early in The Morning" and "Now We're One" which the label released under the group name, "The Ding Dongs."
Darin had kept up his friendship with Murray Kaufman after the Apollo gigs and through him got a featured spot on the Dean Martin "City of Hope Telethon" and also a Martha Raye special. Bobby and Murray also began to spend a lot of time at Kaufman's apartment at the piano writing songs.
Kaufman's mother, Jean Murray, was also a frustrated songwriter and often suggested song titles to her son. One day she called the apartment with a new title --"Splish Splash, Take a Bath." Kaufman told Bobby who said, "You know I could write a song with that title." Kaufmen laughed and then retired for a shower and a change of clothes. Less than an hour later when he returned to the living room, Darin had finished the tune.
Darin took the song to Herb Abramson, his producer at Atco, who passed on it. Jerry Wexler, another staff producer with the label, heard it and also thought it was garbage. Luckily for the singer, Ahmnet decided to produce Bobby's last shot with the label himself. The song was cut on April 10, 1958, a month before his 22nd birthday, at a split session with Morgana King, to insure that it would not be a total waste of money.
Shortly thereafter, Bobby was asked to appear at a record hop being hosted by Dick Clark (then in his mid-20s) at the Berwyn Skating Rink on Philadelphia's Main Line. Clark had started his broadcasting career at WRUN in Rome, New York in 1949, and by 1955 was the host of his own afternoon television show, "Bandstand," a local Philadelphia dance program. In August 1957 the show was picked up by the national ABC network and televised as "American Bandstand." Later Clark discovered and popularized Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Dion, Jimmy Darren and Bobby Rydell.
Dick loved "Splish Splash," which was an instant success. Darin then hired Harriet Wasser (who had been plugging him for a long time) as his personal assistant. By the end of June, "Splish" had entered Billboard and eventually went all the way to #3, becoming his first gold record. It was additionally a #14 country hit. Atco also released Bobby's first album entitled "Bobby Darin" in July 1958.
Atco additionally purchased the master of "Early in The Morning" from Brunswick and reissued the single on their label, changing the name of the group to The Rinky-Dinks. The song got as high as #24 in August.
Later that summer, Ahmet took Bobby to visit Csida-Grean Associates, one of the first three-way music conglomerates in the industry with a talent management organization, a record and television production company and two music publishing outlets, Towne Music (ASCAP) and Trinity Music (BMI). CCA (Owned by Joe Csida and Charles Grean) had recently produced New York DJ Jim Lowe on the million-selling "Green Door," which had been written by two of their writers Bob Davie and Marvin Moore, and was one of the biggest hits of the entire 1950s. Lowe had earlier written Rusty Draper's million-selling "Gambler's Guitar" (1953) and Moore also wrote Jim Reeves' million-selling "Four Walls" (1957).
The agency came up with a great idea: In October 1958, as Atco released "Queen of the Hop," (a song Darin had co-wriuen with Woody Harris) which peaked at #9, stayed in the charts for 14 weeks and became Bobby's second gold record, CCA booked Darin on a seventeen-day rock show with Avalon, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Darin was also set for a tour of the Midwest with Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Dion the following February 1959 -- and had accepted the invitation until he learned that it was overbooked. On February 2, the plane carrying the first three crashed in Iowa, leaving no survivors.
Meanwhile Darin made his first major nightclub appearance in December 1958 at Ben Maksik's Town and Country in Brooklyn. His show included rock hits as well as rhythm numbers like "Blue Monday" and standards like "Where is the One?"
In January 1959 Atco released "Plain Jane" b/w "While I'm Gone." The top side died at #38 and only stayed in the Top 40 for 2 weeks. However, by then Bobby had met Steve Blauner, a bright young booking agent at General Artists Corporation (GAC), who persuaded him to sign with GAC, a decision which changed the direction of Bobby's entire career.
Shortly thereafter, CCA arranged a British tour for Bobby at a salary of $1,900 a week, which was cancelled when Blauner persuaded vaudeville legend George Burns to use Darin as the opening spot in his first Las Vegas nightclub act. The Burns/Darin combination was not only a smash, but the 40-year vaudeville legend and his wife Gracie Allem also accepted Bobby as a member of their family.
Less than a year after signing with CCA, Bobby and his lawyer, Frank Barone, were trying to get out of the contract. During that period, Darin had written many songs that were published by Trinity Music for which he had received royalties, and CCA announced that they would lose $100,000 from his departure. Meanwhile, Blauner resigned his position with General Artists Corporation to become Darin's assistant producer and his personal manager.
In April 1959, Atco released "Dream Lover," a romantic ballad which went to #2 for 13 weeks and gave Darin Gold Record Number 3. [The song was later a country hit for Billy "Crash" Craddock (#5/1971), Rick Nelson (#59/1979 and #88/1986), Tanya Tucker & Glen Campbell (#59/1980) and Susie Brading (#94/1984).]
Meanwhile, in February 1959, Darin finished a new album, "Bobby Darin -- That's All," in Hollywood with arranger Richard Wess which included old standards such as "I'll Remember April," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Mack The Knife," which he had been performing in his nightclub act for about a year. While working on the final song, he received word from Nina that his mother (Polly) had suffered a stroke. She died before Bobby could get back to New York.
Numerous DJs began playing "Mack The Knife" from the LP and the company released the song as Darin's next single in August. By September 7, it had entered the Billboard national charts and on October 5, it became #1 (for 9 weeks), spending a total of 22 weeks in the Top 40. It not only became Darin's trademark song, but was also his biggest seller with nearly 4 million copies sold. "Mack," which was from Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Three Penny Opera," was originally called "Moritat" (based on John Gay's 18th Century original "The Beggar's Opera,") and first heard in Berlin in 1928. In 1956 Marc Blitzstein translated the Berlin slang and Louis Armstrong popularized the tune under the new title. About 20 differant recordings were released in 1956, but Dick Hyman's Trio instrumental version was the most successful, achieving sales of over one million.
On August 12, Bobby made his debut at The Cloister in Hollywood and then headed to Atlantic City for an appearance at the Steel Pier. That was followed by a guest spot on "The Ed Sullivan Show," where he suffered a serious attack after his rehearsal -- which he promptly ignored. In September he appeared at the Moulin Rouge club in Hollywood and set an attendance record. The following November 30, at the Grammy Award show (televised for the first time) he received two -- Record of the Year and Best New Artist of the Year. Three days later, while rehearsing in the studio for CBS-TV's "The Big Party," he was guest of honor on Ralph Edwards "This is Your Life."
In January 1960 Darin was the subject of an article by Shana Alexander in Life. That same month "Beyond the Sea" was released and became Gold Record #5. Originally composed and sung by French entertainer Charles Trenet in 1945, the English words were written in 1947 by Jack Lawrence for the U.S. market. Darin's recording entered the Billboard charts on January 25, and peaked at #6, spending a total of 11 weeks in the Top 40.
The following March, a single of "Clementine" (originally written as "Oh, My Darling Clementine") was issued -- as was his third album "This Is Darin." That same month Bobby finally made his first foreign tour in a British rock and roll package show that included Duane Eddy and Clyde McPhatter. Darin received a lot of adverse press by criticizing British audiences publicly. Back in the States, however, he did another record-breaking engagement at the Cloister in Hollywood and in June, appeared at the Copacabana in New York City, where he outdrew both Sinatra and Johnnie Ray. He also did a cameo role in Pepe, where he sang "That's How It Went All Right"
Bobby then turned down a "12-weeks in 3-years $300,000" deal from the Sands Hotel to accept George Burns' $7,500 a week to return to Vegas. Darin, who was anxious to become an actor, also signed a 7-year non-exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, who cast him in a good supporting role in "Cry For Happy" with Glenn Ford. Burns, however, refused to let Darin out of his contract.
Also that summer Darin's version of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" was released by Atco and went to #19 in July. [The song had originally been a #1 hit for Arthur Collins in 1902.]
In the late summer of 1960, Bobby was given the fourth lead in Universal-International's "Come September" with Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida and Sandra Dee, which was to be made in Portofino, Italy. During the filming, Bobby, who had earlier engaged in short romances with Cara Williams, Judi Meredith, Keeley Smith and Joanne Campbell, fell in love with Sandra. Born Alexandra Zuck on April 23, 1942, Sandra was of Russian descent, and had been a successful model before making her motion picture debut at 15 in MGM's Until They Sail with Paul Newman in 1957. During the next three years, she had become one of the Top 10 boxoffice stars in America.
Much to the disappointment of Mary Douvan (Sandra's mother), Bobby and Sandy were married in a private ceremony at 3:00 a.m. on December 1, 1960. After spending a five-day honeymoon in Los Angeles, the couple flew back to the East Coast where Bobby appeared at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
In the meantime, Bobby's nice recording of "Artificial Flowers" (from the musical "Tenderloin"), had been released in October and gotten as high as #20.
On January 30, 1961, Darin became the youngest performer to headline his own prime-time special -- "Bobby Darin and Friends" (NBC) -- which featured Bob Hope and Joanie Sommers. At the same time, Sandra worked at Universal on "Tammy, Tell Me True." In February, Bobby's recording of "Lazy River" was released and peaked at #14. ["Lazy" had first been a #19 hit for Hoagy Carmichael (who wrote the song) in 1932.]
Also in January, Bobby formed Sandar Productions and began to buy screen properties to develop into future movies he could star in including "The Sounds of Hell" by Richard Cart and "Tomorrow, a Rainbow," by Earl Felton. A third was based on Arthur Laurents' play "Invitation to a March," for which Bobby hoped to sign Ingrid Bergman.
The following March Darin began work as the idealistic jazz musician in John Cassavetes' "Too Late Blues" with Stella Stevens. That same month Sandra learned that she was pregnant. Shortly after the film wrapped, Bobby did a quick run at the Copa and then immediately began work on "Hell Is For Heroes", a war story with Steve McQueen and Fess Parker. Later that summer Darin also worked in 20th "State Fair" with Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, which had originally been filmed in 1945.
In the meantime, "Come September" was released in July and was a giant success. Additionally Bobby had a Top 40 hit with "Nature Boy," followed in September by "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," which went to #5. ["Baby" had originally been a #1 hit for Bing Crosby in 1938.]
Late that year, Stanley Kramer signed Darin to star with Sidney Poitier in "The Fifty Minute Hour", which later was changed to "Pressure Point." Poitier was a young psychiatrist and Darin a psychotic young American Nazi who had been imprisoned for sedition during World War II. The picture was released the following September.
On December 16, Sandra gave birth to Dodd Mitchell Darin at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. Less than three months later, the gossip magazines were already saying that the marriage was in trouble -- a bit premature as it turned out. The couple got along fine that summer while filming together.
Darin began 1962 with a double-sided hit of "Irresistible You" backed with"Multiplication," both from the "Come September " film. The A-side reached #15, the B-side #30. That was followed in April with Ray Charles' "What'd I Say (Part 1)," which got to #24 in May and his own country flavored "Things," which entered the Billboard charts on July 21 and reached #3 in August and became his sixth million seller. "Things" was Darin's last charted single for Atco as his five year contract was up and he chose not to re-sign with the label.
It has always been rumored that Bobby appeared in "The Last Westerner" with Jimmy Cagney for director Don Siegel that spring - but to date the picture has never been released. Early that summer Bobby and Sandra co-starred in "If A Man Answers" for Universal.
Darin also did a nationwide concert tour accompanied by Count Basie and his orchestra beginning June 21. Three weeks later on July 12, 1962, Bobby signed a three-year contract with Capitol Records. -- at the time the highest paying record contract ever signed -- replacing Sinatra, who had just left the label to form his own label, Reprise.
"If A Man Answers" was released in November and did very well at the box office. The previous month the title song from the film became Darin's initial Capitol release and went to #32. The couple also separated in October, but quickly reconciled.
In February 1963, Bobby was back in Billboard with a #3 hit of "You're The Reason I'm Living," followed by the very beautiful "18 Yellow Roses" in May, which got to #10, but was his last Top 40 hit on Capitol. ["Reason" was later a country hit for Lamar Morris (#59/1971) and Price Mitchell (#75/1976).]
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