The Bobby Darin Story
Stylish Vocalist Who Made Many Collectable Records in the Fifties and Sixties


This article, written by Peter Jones, appeared in
the August, 1981 issue of Record Collector Magazine.

In the early spring of 1959, a single called "Dream Lover" smoothed its way to the top of the charts in Britain and to No. 2 in the States. For many critics and pop fans, this was just about the best example so far of popular music perfection -- a runaway candidate in most minds for the tag "record of the year."

Then, a few months later, a single called "Mack the Knife" emerged, sold a million and topped the charts in many different countries. This revitalised version of a 1929 song from Berthold Brecht's Three Penny Opera was hailed as a hard-driving, beautifully performed and superbly inventive pop single.

Though it sounded miles away from "Dream Lover" in style, performance and concept, it was another strong contender for that "record of the year" title.

Yet both were by the same person, a brash young guy called Walden Robert Cassotto, known in the pop world simply as Bobby Darin. To have made just one of those two pop classics would be enough for most performers. To have been responsible for both was just . . . too much!

To have had them come out in succession in the same year when the world was looking for a new Elvis Presley would, you'd think have been the clincher for a superstar status.

Anyone who listens to those singles, and any of the others made by Bobby Darin can pinpoint the reasons why he is one of the most collectable of the old-time chart regulars. That he failed to be universally regarded as a true legend in his own lifetime can be put down to two vital factors.

One is that he had the kind of abrasive, self-boosting, over-confident (otherwise cocky) temperament which turned a lot of show-biz moguls against him. The other, alas, was that his life was cut tragically short as the result of long-standing heart trouble.

But nothing at all can detract from the marvellous singles that he produced at the peak of his career. His hits stretched right through the 1960's and, even if his impact was lessened when the groups took over, he still kept producing the goods over the years.

TEENYBOP

When he started out as a singer, he was quite frankly just like all the others on the teenybop scene. But once he decided to follow his own musical instincts, things started happening fast. He picked the kind of songs that allowed for vocal experimentation and the results quickly turned him into a natural star instead of just another high school hop performer.

Maybe Bobby's over-heavy personality was partly due to his upbringing in the Bronx area of New York, where he was born on May 14th 1936. His father died a few months before he was born and his mother, who'd been a professional entertainer, brought him up, with the help from his older sister.

Young Robert was a very good scholar, mainly because he wasn't much distracted by sports or girls in those days, and by the time he finished his science studies he was also proficient on drums, vibraphone, bass, guitar and piano.

He drifted into working the small clubs round New York and got into songwriting, his first number being "My First Love," by Don Kirschner, who is now one of America's leading publishers and a millionaire to boot.

STUDENT

Bobby worked as a singer on demo discs and as a student songwriter, though he'd also put in time on a theatre tour with a group of young drama students. But meeting up with George Scheck, who also managed Connie Francis, changed his life.

Scheck got him an appearance on the Tommy Dorsey television show in March 1956, and this led to a contract with Decca in the States. One of his first actions was to produce an American cover of Lonnie Donegan's massive British hit, "Rock Island Line," which -- as every collector knows -- triggered the great skiffle craze. In Britain, the single was released on the Brunswick label in May 1958 -- but it wasn't a hit, and Bobby didn't have his second British single released until over two years later.

Anyway, Darin's breakthrough came with "Splish Splash," and the way this number was recorded started one of the more confusing chapters of pop history. Darin, for his own recording, used a swooping kind of vocal style, an echo chamber effect and some heftily pounding piano, and it all added up to a pretty fair impersonation of what Jerry Lee Lewis had been doing for years.

Bobby wrote the song with Jean Murray. Lots of rock experts thought he was taking the mickey out of rock and roll, but more than a million buyers took it seriously as a danceable slab of pop. "Splish Splash," a No. 3 hit in the States, also made No. 28 in the British charts.

The only reason he stopped there was the fierce competition from comedian Charlie Drake, who rocked his quaint way through the song and got it to No. 7 during a three-month chart residency.

Obviously Charlie could see the mickey-take element of the original song and built on it. Granted, he was around the same height as Bobby Darin, but there all resemblance to a rock image ended. In fact, Charlie later made the charts with a curious cover of "Volare," a massive big-voiced ballad originally charting for big-voiced Italian tenor Domenico Modungo.

BATH-TAKER

However, as "Splish Splash," the saga of an embarrassed bath-taker, rode high in the States, Bobby Darin became embroiled in his first area of deep controversy.

The ATCO chiefs found out that Darin, their new star artist, was the unbilled lead singer on a Brunswick recording of "Early in the Morning," by a group called the Ding Dongs.

Realizing that a legal scrap would be too costly, Brunswick turned the record over to ATCO, who promptly put it out under the new group name of the Rinky Dinks. With Darin doing his vocal stuff out front, this single reached No. 24 in the U.S. singles chart in August 1958, even as "Splish Splash" continued climbing -- though for obvious reasons that was the Rinky Dinks' only chart success. In Britain, neither "Early in the Morning," nor the only other Rinky Dinks' recording, "Mighty Mighty Man," made the charts -- despite the fact that Darin was heavily credited on both releases. The first was listed as "featuring Bobby Darin," while the second was credited to "Bobby Darin with the Rinky Dinks."

It was some years later that Bobby Darin visited London for gigs and promotional work on a new album and the subject known as the "Ding Dong scandal" was raised. He told me, with a shrug that said a lot: "We were accused of all kinds of underhanded and dirty-dog tricks over that record, but I promise you we weren't trying to hurt anybody. The fact is that we made a mistake in doing the group records, but we had a good reason. 'Splish Splash' seemed to be a kinda last-ditch release, and I had a feeling that ATCO wasn't going to pick up my contract. I figured that if I made a record under another name, I'd at least have something I could sell to another company without wasting too much time. Well, Brunswick snapped it up. That was flattering, but we didn't figure on 'Splish Splash' doing the kind of sales the earlier ATCO singles had failed to make."

BUDDY HOLLY

An interesting collector's item here: yes, it was the same "Early in the Morning" that Buddy Holly was to cover for the aggrieved Brunswick label. It actually came out as Coral 62006 but, in that late summer of 1958, didn't get as high in the charts as the Rinky Dinks did. It did better in the U.K., reaching No. 17, but then Holly generally speaking did have a better chart reputation on the British side of the Atlantic.

Darin continued his hit run with "Queen of the Hop," which was mainly written by Woody Harris but with help from Darin himself. This was a million seller, a No. 9 hit in the U.S. and No. 24 in the U.K.

Although his next single, "Plain Jane," didn't sell very well, it was followed by "Dream Lover," a superb production and performance which never seemed to be off all the radio stations at the time.

The equally superb "Mack the Knife," which took Darin's total world sales to more than seven million single units, topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. With just these two recordings, Bobby Darin established contact with a very wide cross-section of the record-buying fraternity and despite some of his much-publicized outbursts of ego, he had finally earned the respect of his contemporaries.

But he was also outspoken and often controversial. One of his favourite comments was that he would soon be bigger then the fabled Frank Sinatra. Now this was a bit much to take, because Sinatra had even then been acting, singing and doing comedy for many successful years. True, Sinatra didn't play as many instruments as Darin and didn't do much songwriting, but in most other areas he seemed virtually without peer.

Unfortunately, Darin answered back when his remarks got an adverse reaction from most critics, instead of shutting his mouth. He even begged Sinatra to engage in some kind of public debate with him, which would surely have been a suicidal reading of the "where angels fear to tread" situation.

At any rate, when not talking about Sinatra's shortcomings, and his own long comings, Darin was good interview copy -- and I have the shorthand notes to prove it. What fascinated me was the way he always put Ray Charles up there on a pedestal: "His blues are right out of church, and believe me, blues, no matter what the source, are the essential basis of great artistry."

He was also deeply impressed by Fats Domino and Little Richard, two other black artists who, for Darin, embodied the sheer exultation of church music, Negro style. That Darin had a genuine white-type feel for the blues is shown by the acceptance of both "Early in the Morning" and the controversial "Splish Splash" in the U.S. R&B charts.

OBSESS

What seemed to obsess Darin as he wrote those early titles, and got those early hits, was that he had to become a legend well within his own lifetime -- certainly by the age of 30. In fact, he was pretty well there by the time he was 26.

The reputation was enhanced further by his treatment of "Beyond the Sea," another million seller which got to be No. 6 in the States and to No. 8 in Britain. This number was originally sung and written by the French entertainer Charles Trenet, way back in 1945, and English lyrics were added by Jack Lawrence a couple of years later to suit the U.S. market.

Darin gave a fine ballad song a contemporary beat and the result was yet another super class single. It also gave Darin the idea that he could carve out a highly individual niche in the crowded pop scene by concentrating on oldies, rejigged for modern tastes. He brought out "Clementine," for example, early in 1960, and it made the Top Ten in Britain and the Top Thirty in the U.S.A.

He really swung along like crazy on "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?" (No. 19 in the States, (No. 34 in Britain). His "Lazy River" (No. 14 in the U.S., No. 2 in the U.K.) was another 1940s-type swing reading of an oldie which somehow really caught the imagination of record-buyers two decades on.

He even got a piano solo called "Beachcomber" into the U.S. Hot Hundred, although admittedly only just! And he also scored there with "Christmas Auld Lang Syne." He produced a new treatment of "Nature Boy" which got to No. 40 in the States and No. 24 in Britain, and did a memorable job with the schmaltzy "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," No. 5 in the U.S. and No. 10 in Britain, late in 1961.

Darin carried on confidently and brashly with "Come September," which was a one-week Top Fifty chart visitation under the guise of the Bobby Darin Orchestra, but his return to top form came with the sturdy and clever "Multiplication," which he wrote himself, by way of a change, which went to No. 5 in Britain and No. 30 in the States, although the flip, the oldie "Irresistble You," made No. 15 in America.

OLDIE

He had a success in the U.S. with the old "What'd I Say" but the next worldwide biggie was "Things," which he wrote himself and which became his sixth million seller. It made No. 2 in Britain and No. 3 in the U.S.A.

Darin turned to another oldie, "Baby Face," and then another, "I Found a New Baby," which only made No. 90 in the U.S.A. There was then a gap of 18 months in his chart progress before he dressed up the outstanding "Milord," an old Edith Piaf number, to make the U.S. Top Fifty again.

But that was in fact an oldie from Atlantic, because Darin had moved on to Capitol. His first release, in the autumn of 1962, was "If a Man Answers," a No. 32 hit in the U.S. and No. 24 here.

His "If I Were a Carpenter" was a No. 8 hit in the States in the autumn of 1966, and a No. 9 in Britain, so it seemed that Darin certainly on this Tim Hardin song, had got over the shock tidal wave created by the Beatles.

That alone speaks volumes for his versatility, talent and staying powers, in popularity terms if not in personal health. Through titles, always well-chosen, like "The Lady Came from Baltimore" and "Darling Be Home Soon," he kept going in the U.S. charts, with his final appearance being "Long Line Rider" on the Direction label early in 1969 -- though his last chart showing in Britain had been three years earlier with "Carpenter."

Bobby Darin's rarest records are those he made for the London label in the late fifties, together with the handful of U.S. Decca recordings issued here on Brunswick. As with many other fifties singers, it's his rock material rather than his ballads which tends to be most sought-after these days -- so that "Splish Splash," "Early in the Morning" (one of the tracks he made as the Rindy-Dinks) and "Queen of the Hop" are all worth a lot more on the collector's market than his later material like "Nature Boy," "Clementine" and "La Mer." In the same way, the EPs and LPs which contain his up tempo and bluesier material sell for more than the other releases. For example, his For Teenagers Only album fetches far more than the album he made with Johnny Mercer, Two of a Kind.

CAPITOL

Of the later releases, the Capitol singles can be picked up pretty cheaply, as can the records he made for Atlantic -- some of which are going at bargain rates at the moment, like the several cover versions he did of Tim Hardin songs. The rarest LP from the mid-sixties is the Bobby Darin Story album issued on Atlantic, which looked back at the early years of success, is is valued at about 10 pounds.

Darin recordings are also to be found on many compilation albums on different labels. One of the most interesting is the Rockin' Together LP, issued on London HAE 2167, which usually sells for about 12 pounds in mint or excellent condition. That includes two of Bobby's early tracks, "Splish Splash" and "Early in the Morning." When he appeared in the film State Fair with Pat Boone, he also contributed to the soundtrack LP on London with three tracks, "This Isn't Heaven," "It's a Grand Night For Singing" and the "Finale." This LP fetches about seven pounds these days.

SOUNDTRACK

Another soundtrack album which features Bobby is Pepe to which he contributes "That's How It Went Alright." He appeared on several Atlantic compilation LPs, including the History of R&B series, an LP called The Grand Old Fifties and one track ("I Want You With Me") on Atlantic Discotheque.

One of the most collectable series of compilation albums is the London releases, Memories Are Made of Hits, which are worth about eight pounds each in mint condition. Bobby is featured throughout the series, with one track on each of the issues from volume one to volume eight. Besides Darin, these LPs also include people like Jerry Lee Lewis, and show off the sheer quality of the London catalogue.

On an analysis of chart placings up to the time he unfortunately died, he'd be in the Top Fifty of all artists in the U.K. In the States, he had ten Top Ten singles, which puts him in the all-time Top Twenty artists, which may surprise many people.

When the records stopped, Darin stayed around on the U.S. scene, wearing casual shirts and jeans instead of the old mandatory tuxedo in which he housed his finger-snapping show-biz image. But then he was no stranger to change, because he'd started out as a kind of "white Little Richard" in terms of promotion before he became a practiced standard "hotter-up" and finally cabaret entertainer.

BUSINESS

He was also heavily into the business side of pop music. From 1963, he was involved in music publishing, and set up T.M. Music Inc., which also made records for release through Capitol Records. It was a company built round Darin's own works, but also represented a young man named Wayne Newton, now one of the highest paid and most individual cabaret acts in America -- and a man who also loves dressing up oldies in a swing style.

But long after his records stopped hitting the charts, Darin appeared regularly on television, especially with comedian Flip Wilson, who has often said how much help he'd received from Darin in his own early days when he was struggling. Darin had his own summer variety show, but it didn't go down well with the viewers or critics and was dropped in 1973. Despite his many personal triumphs, he never did get near to living up to his "bigger than Sinatra" boast.

However, nobody ever doubted the little man's courage. His heart problem went back to an attack of rheumatic fever when he was a kid of eight. In 1971, he underwent open-heart surgery to have a couple of artificial valves inserted. The operation seemed to have worked, but in 1973 he had to go back into the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood for another operation. This time, his heart gave out on him and early on December 20th, he died.

He had had some good moments in his acting career, as well as his singing, and appeared in a number of films after 1960, including State Fair, where he co-starred with Pat Boone, Come September, Pepe, Too Late Blues, Pressure Point, That Funny Feeling, Gunfight at Abilene, Stranger in the House and The Happy Ending. But it has to be said that they were all lightweight roles -- and didn't match up to the best of Sinatra.

But it is unfair to harp too much on that "better-than-Sinatra" aspect of Darin's personality. From his breakthrough on the Tommy Dorsey Show billed as "the 19-year-old-singing sensation," he produced a tremendous run of hits which have become pop standards in their own right. His album That's All in 1959 stands now as a brilliant package by a young man who succeeded in reaching outside the rock world in order to build a massive audience.

"Dream Lover" was great; maybe "Mack the Knife" was greater. Certainly it was much recorded through the years, and the Louis Armstrong version was hugely successful. But Darin outsold everybody with his treatment.

Darin married Sandra Dee, who starred with him in Come September. But the marriage failed. Nobody would ever deny that Darin had his share of personal problems.

However, his tremendous contribution to pop music, especially in the department tagged "inventive and creative singles" was enormous. And that's the reason he is remembered so enthusiastically by record collectors everywhere today.


Thanks to Joy Cash.



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