I began watching the flower start to blossom from Splish-Splash to Dream Lover to Mack the Knife. But in the late sixties, I saw him at a club outside Philly called the Latin Casino where he did his Vegas/Miami act. And when I saw his act, I couldn't believe it.
I knew he was a great recording artist, but I had no idea the scope and
breadth of his talent. He had an absolutely magnetizing effect that drew me
to him. He could do everything. He could sing. He could dance. He was funny.
He played instruments. He commanded the stage in that old-fashioned kind of
way. And, he could sing any kind of song -- swing, ballad, a folk song, or
rock. Whatever he wanted to do, he could do. So that sealed the deal for me.
JazzReview: Beyond his talent, you saw the tremendous spark inside Darin that drove his fire.
Joel Dorn: You know, he has an odd story. He was a person who was very ill as a child, who wasn't supposed to make it past his mid-teens. So he was driven in a way that even though dynamic performers are driven, they aren't driven in the same way. So there he was, blessed with all of this great talent, plus the obsession and desire to make it. And at the same time, he knew that at any moment, he could die! It's unique, and it's what drove him.
Plus, he had an odd story. The woman he thought was his sister was really
his mother. The woman he thought was his mother was actually his
grandmother. Until later, he never knew who his father was. At the absolute
height of his career, he found out his sister is his mother. As if he
didn't have enough making him crazy, this was like the cherry on the
JazzReview: I understand he took a three year hiatus to regain himself.
Joel Dorn: Right. You know, he was also one of those great neurotic geniuses. Success sometimes wreaks more havoc on you than failure. He wanted to be what he wanted to be and the world wanted him to be what they wanted him to be. So he figured he had to go away for a while and figure it out.
JazzReview: I think that happens to a lot of people who are successful -- yourself included. You go along with the program for so long, then discover you've disconnected from yourself.
Joel Dorn: Sometimes we find where we thought we were headed isn't where we were headed. Or we find out who we started out as isn't who we are now. Everybody handles it differently. Darin just closed down. He did what he wanted to do. Then when he was re-comfortable with himself, he came back pretty much at ease with who he was. But he still had the other demons -- what kind of family am I from and how long am I going to live? So it was not a comfortable life.
JazzReview: He was considered in a hurry for stardom. Do you find this as one of his strengths, or do you see this as working against him?
Joel Dorn: It goes both ways. When you have a manic drive to make it, coupled with what you become when you have that manic drive, it helps you and it hurts you.
He was a sublime talent. He was also a brash, cocky, foul, difficult person.
They go hand-in-hand. If you have someone with talent such as that, living
in a world with people who are not blessed with talent such as that, it's
difficult because they just can't understand who and what they are. So
they're constantly in conflict.
JazzReview: When did you decide to do Aces Back To Back? This is a tremendous piece of work. And you've caught some really great footage.
Joel Dorn: I've been intrigued with Darin for years. The way this happened is: My son, Adam, and I had done a Judy Garland set -- four CDs and a VHS and a booklet, which took well over a year. That set included some duets with Barbara Streisand, Peggy Lee, and Ray Bolger, and one of them was with Bobby Darin.
Even though I had signed clearances, I always contact the estates or whoever's handling the business of the artist -- there can be problems. I met Steve Blauner who was Bobby's manager, who some 30 years after Darin's death still handles the affairs of his estate. We struck up a conversation, got the business out of the way and became pals.
After speaking on the phone every couple of weeks, I started talking to him about doing a Bobby Darin package. I wanted to do it with the blessing of the estate because there are a lot of Bobby Darin compilations out there. I wanted to do a package containing 90% of what hasn't been produced on CD before. And I wanted it to define him. I wanted to cover the scope of what Darin had done -- to define him in a more exact way [with] all different types of material, all on the same CD.
The kicker was, I wanted access to the entire archive of the estate so I
could have the visual component, the DVD. As great a singer and as broadly
based a vocalist as he was, when you see him, it finishes the story. I
wanted to put something together so you could hear Bobby Darin and see Bobby
Darin. Then after you see him, you go back and listen and it's entirely
JazzReview: You absolutely caught it. On the DVD, after he does Beyond the Sea, he takes us to something rooty-tooty and does a side slide with his feet ... it's magnificent!
Joel Dorn: He was an entertainer. I only saw him one time, but he killed me. When you saw him on stage, he mesmerized you.
JazzReview: You have a penchant for bringing people from behind -- for digging in, finding what's good and knowing it.
Earlier this year, you produced Frank and Joe 33 1/3, with Jane Monheit
doing the Great American Songbook. It was fantastic.
Joel Dorn: I had just finished producing her first three albums, so I felt she'd fit with Frank and Joe. Once again, they're brilliant musicians and they're kind of one-of-a-kind guys. I've always been drawn to that talent. I like one-of-a-kind, world-class originals. They don't always look like they're going to make it because they're generally artists who go against the grain during their time.
JazzReview: They're all tremendous talents. Do you think this is going to be a trend?
Joel Dorn: I have never been able to predict a trend, in my life -- even when I worked with trendsetters like Bette Midler or Roberta Flack. I always saw them as stand-alone units. I never knew whether or not they'd become linchpins in the state that was coming.
JazzReview: They both became stars and you had something to do with it. So, you have something innate that ...
Joel Dorn: I just know what appeals to me. I wish I could make something more of it than it is. A one-of-a-kind artist with world-class chops -- that's what appeals to me. I don't know who it's going to be. I kind of respond a certain way when I hear people.
I do like people at the beginning of their careers. At least with the great
ones, what I've found is: there's a combination of brilliance and
innocence, so you catch them reaching. Once they know what they're doing,
you still have excellence, but it doesn't have that -- I call it the
'reach' factor. That 'look at me, I'm over here, love me,' sort of
thing. When that disappears, they still have brilliance but, not the
stretch -- not what I'm looking for.
JazzReview: Working with a big band leader down here, I see him reach into the audience and make them part of the performance. A lot of performers do wonderful jobs of performing, but there seems to be an invisible wall between performer and audience sometimes.
Joel Dorn: Ahh, yes. There's something about the old tradition. One of the things Bobby did was reach into the audience. He was born on an interesting cusp. He was able to be part of rock and roll and still stay true to the old variety performer -- part vaudeville and part rock and roller.
If he'd been born five years earlier, he wouldn't have been who he was;
five years later, he wouldn't have been who he was. [He was] part Jolson,
Bing Crosby and Sinatra, as much as he was Dion and The Belmonts, and rock
JazzReview: You produced a lot of footage. How did you decide what to narrow it down to?
Joel Dorn: This isn't going to sound very brilliant, but I just looked at a lot of stuff. You know, a lot of this is just hard work and following your instincts. In order to do the CD, I listened to 50 CDs and narrowed it down to 59 minutes. In order to do the DVD, I looked at 25 VHS's of his TV show, documentary footage that people have not seen, old newsreel footage. It was endless. That's why it took a year and a half.
JazzReview: That answered my next question. A year and a half is a lot of work.
Joel Dorn: That wasn't 12-hours a day, day and night. I did four or five other albums while I was doing it. But for a year and a half, I searched through material with permission and cooperation of the estate. That would be Steve Blauner, his manager. And, Jimmy Scalia was the co-producer on this. He's the official Bobby Darin archivist, so it was a cooperative effort.
You know, it was the kind of project that was so much work, we were kind of sad when it was over. It was just fun, and hearing things I never heard before ... I pretty much know his body of work, not down to the last period on the last sentence, but I know what he did going into Capitol. When I got access to all the performances that had never been on record, then I was able to match them up with the visual aspect.
It was very exciting because I think, [and] this is not a knock on any of
the other Bobby Darin packages, but I think Aces Back To Back
is the only
one within the space of 140 minutes between the CD and DVD, that really
defines who and what Darin was -- the breadth and scope of his artistry. At
least that's what I hope I accomplished. It feels good. There's other
material that's good, but this is my one shot at Bobby Darin.
JazzReview: Yes. I think you managed to do that very well. Did this coincide with the movie to be released next month with Kevin Spacey? Was it deliberate timing or did it just happen that way?
Joel Dorn: They just sort of happened at the same time. Kevin Spacey had -- start to finish, from the time he wanted to do the project until he was able to pull it off, was 12 years. I started toying with the idea maybe two or three years ago. Once I got Steve's permission, it took a year and a half. You know, a year and a half is a big chunk of time.
Here's the thing: relative to his prodigious talents, Bobby Darin never got the recognition he deserved. So there's a window opening up right now with Aces Back To Back and the movie and other companies re-issuing their works - a general awareness of Darin.
It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of all our efforts and works. Hopefully, there'll be a new generation of people who maybe never heard of Bobby Darin, or who have heard of Mack the Knife on an oldies station, or something ... They'll become aware of who Bobby Darin actually was.
Don't forget, Darin was a Grammy-winning recording artist and a member of
the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. He was nominated for an Academy award. He
was so much -- you'd figure a guy with this kind of talent in so many
areas, at the level at which he performed; you'd figure he'd become a
JazzReview: Do you think that's because he switched -- you know, right after that period of time, he went into Motown?
Joel Dorn: I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he died so young and he never really had a chance to grow into his brilliance, where other people had that opportunity. I think that had a lot to do with it. But also, he was a tough customer. I think he made some enemies along the way. He was branded as difficult to work with. But whatever it was, he never got what he deserved. He deserved a lot and hopefully now, he'll finally get the recognition he should have. Hopefully now he will, because I don't see another onslaught of records, CDs, DVDs and movies about him happening again. This was one of those confluences of nature where all of a sudden, for whatever the reason. Everybody's looking for somebody with that 15 minutes in the spotlight and you hope that it'll change the course of his personal history.
JazzReview: In recent years, we've seen Rod Stewart going back to the Great American Songbook, Tony Bennett, re-ignite his career also with the Great American Songbook, and we're seeing older artists teaming with newer talents trying to bring themselves back into the spotlight. Do you think our kids are hungry for smooth music and old-fashioned talent?
Joel Dorn: Maybe. I mean, anything can happen at any time. I know when I was working with Jane Monheit, she was like the next artist after Diana Krall. Then there's Peter Cincotti, Michael Buble, and the Rod Stewart phenomena. It just kind of happens. I don't think people plan for this. A song comes along, a movie, a commercial comes along, there's a million reasons why. All of a sudden there's a new trend, then it goes away. Do you remember disco? No one in the record business ever designed an Elvis Presley or a Frank Sinatra. I've been doing this for more than 40 years and I've never heard anybody say, "Get a sexy, good looking truck driver from Memphis who sings like a black man." This just comes along and all sorts of domino stuff starts happening.
JazzReview: You're a four-time Grammy winner, but you don't define yourself by your successes. You define yourself by what feels good.
Joel Dorn: I know within ten seconds whether there's someone I want to work with or a project I want to do. I always think it has a chance. At worst, I always know it's valid artistically. That's what moves me. All the times I thought I had a hit, most of the time I didn't. And something I just did because I loved it, exploded in spite of me. I just don't know. I stopped trying to out-guess myself.
JazzReview: That's funny. You just get out of your own way and it happens.
Joel Dorn: I just don't know. I keep getting asked questions over and over again. I'd like to answer with something people want to hear, but I just don't have a formula. I barely know the question.
JazzReview: I think it's the wisdom that comes with age.
Joel Dorn: I hope that's what it is. I know I have a basic reaction to a certain type of thing. Beyond that, I can't control much. I learned that lesson in the mid-nineties. I put together a compilation called Jazz For a Rainy Afternoon. It was just nice, pleasant jazz, you know. Like a mood piece, it was an hour long with beginning, middle and end, just a simple piece. I expected to sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies of it and I would have been happy. It sold in excess of half a million copies and spawned a series that sold in excess of a million! Nobody on the planet was more stunned than I was. I could tell you half a dozen stories like that. I did one like that with Roberta Flack one time, called, First Time, Ever I Saw Your Face. It went along and sold a little bit. Then Clint Eastwood put it in a movie and it sold 4,000,000 copies.
I mean, you can't plan that kind of success. I'd love to give you
answers that are complete and have some logic to them, but I just can't.
JazzReview: You've worked with so many. You worked with Les McCann and Roland Kirk.
Joel Dorn: Sure. They were from my disc jockey days. I just thought I could make better records for them. So when I went to Atlantic Records, I took them. I'm not going to say I got lucky because that would be like jive. I think I put my money on good horses. Those people had more exits on their personal turnpikes than other people did. That's one way of saying it. And it was fun.
JazzReview: Are you on break now that you've completed this Darin project?
Joel Dorn: Break? Never! I'm working on four albums now.
JazzReview: Can you talk about them?
Joel Dorn: I'll talk about a couple of them. I'm doing a Les McCann record, some stuff no one's ever heard, plus some new things he's done. I'm doing a new Dr. John record and working on a Thelonius Monk album. I just completed a new Frank & Joe record. And, I have -- I found a tape no one's ever heard, One Night Only, Joe Williams and Ben Webster. And, [I'm] working on a Billy Taylor project.
Having won so many awards allows Dorn to know the joy of winning and he
passes that joy to the artists he works with. Joel Dorn's projects are
winners because Dorn is a winner. Aces Back To Back is just another example.
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