Roger Kellaway Interview

Roger Kellaway, who Bobby Darin called "a master musician," was Bobby's musical director from late 1966 to 1968. Roger was the arranger/conductor on Bobby Darin Sings Doctor Dolittle.

He was gracious enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to participate in this online interview. We would like to extend our very special thanks to Roger Kellaway.

Be sure to check out Roger's new CD: I Was There - Roger Kellaway Plays from the Bobby Darin Songbook

Beth Radtke: Everyone talks about how innate Bobby's talent was musically -- that it just seemed to be natural for him. As his musical director, what did you personally think was his strongest or most natural talent, musically?

Roger Kellaway: His timing ... i.e. his ability to swing and his stage timing. Of course his singing was fabulous! Also, he moved on stage like a dancer.

Irma Arteaga Sommerlad: How much input did Bobby Darin have for the arrangements of his songs? On Larry King Live, Larry said that when he interviewed Bobby Darin, Bobby said he was attuned to the drums in a song. Could you explain the role of the percussion section in Bobby's songs?

RK: Bobby always had ideas about arranging. He told me once, "I want to hear elephants" in the opening of "Born Free." So I gave him trombones! The only project that he didn't make suggestions musically was BD Sings Dr. Dolittle. First of all there was no time [I had 3 weeks to write the entire album]. However, I'd been writing for him, at this point, for 2 years, so I'm sure you'll agree that Dr. Dolittle is a "Bobby Darin" album.

The function of percussion as well as the whole rhythm section is to lay down a "magical musical carpet" to transport BD on every song. That means if it's "Mack the Knife," we swing, if it's "If I Were a Carpenter" we play folk-style. By the way, BD often played drums and piano as part of the show.

Sandra Lang: I would love to know what Bobby's favorite song was, and also if there was any favorite female singer Bobby admired. I would love to hear any personal memories, especially what it was like to work with Bobby -- was it all work or were there fun times as well? Can you share any amusing stories with us?

RK: BD and I spent some time socially, but most of our time was spent on stage. I don't recall any mention of favorite female singers. But my guess? Probably Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Ella to name a few. A favorite song? Think of how many styles he embraced? He never mentioned just one song.

My first arranging assignment came in his office on Vine Street, in Hollywood [actually the old Steve Allen office]. It was a Thursday -- we were opening at the Flamingo in Las Vegas the following Tuesday. He was looking very imposing [as he could], sitting behind his desk on what I called his "Throne" chair [the back was about 6' high]. He looked at me, snapping his fingers in a swing tempo and said, "Roger, check the files for an arrangement that goes like ..." and he started to sing, "The Shadow Of Your Smile" with a particular beat. I checked the files and returned to him and said, "I'm sorry Mr. Darin, there's no arrangement in the files of "The Shadow Of Your Smile" that goes like ... and I snapped my fingers and sang back to him the song in the same way, with the same beat that he previously sang to me. But before I could finish, he cut me off saying, "Well there will be by next Tuesday, won't there!?" He was intense about what he wanted -- and when he wanted it -- you had to be alert, and deliver!

One time, BD was upset about something. All through the show I was in sympathy with him. After the show he said to me,"Don't do that again! When I'm down I need you to be up! Always!" I never forgot that.

Darin said to me at the first rehearsal at the Flamingo in Vegas," Whenever I am on the stage, if I turn towards you, I want to see you looking at me." I said, "How do I do that and conduct the band at the same time?" He said, "That's your problem!" [So ... he's letting me know that the sense of a "team" between us must always exist!) I figured it out!

In the middle of the show BD played the guitar. He wanted me to be responsible for the guitar being in tune when he picks it up. I quickly made it the guitarist's responsibility -- I had enough to think about.

Every night, after the show we [the touring rhythm section] met with BD in his dressing room. Darin would discuss what was wrong with the show -- what could be improved. After many months of never a compliment I said, "Gee, Bobby, was there anything you liked about the show?!" His reply was a look that said, "What a stupid question. If I didn't like you, you wouldn't be here!" I never asked that question again!

Patricia Zimmer: Do you feel Bobby and you shared the same feelings about the creative process and taking risks? When you performed with Bobby onstage, how important was trust to him? Is it about the quality of the performance and ease of the artist? Did you ever see Bobby experimenting on the piano with melodies?

RK: I've only worked for two singers that, in my opinion, showed total expertise about their talents. One was BD. The other is Barbara Streisand [Both under the sign of Taurus, by the way.]

Yes, I felt a strong unity with BD regarding the creative process. Both confident in our abilities, and able to excite each other regarding arranging ideas. He always took risks. Every performance of the same song is slightly different, so you count on your abilities and your experience to master the moment. This is not only a matter of trusting yourself, but he and I had to trust each other. The big picture is "teamwork." He trusted me to support him. I trusted him to perform in his masterful way! So, for me, it is about the quality of the performance -- always! And, the better I do my job leading the band, the easier it is for the artist.

The only piano BD did in my presence was on stage. I think his experiments with melodies came more from the guitar.

Jane: Mr. Kellaway, you mentioned in your Jazz interview that you went to a party at Bobby Darin's house in 1968. Would you be so kind as to share some details -- just anything you might recall about this event?

RK: Well, there was a colorful happening in the buffet food line. The house was on Mullholland Drive in Los Angeles. It was all white and BD referred to it as the "White Womb." My wife, Jorjana and I were outside on the front lawn under a tree. In front of me was Groucho Marx! I looked at him, and, in my best W.C.Fields accent said, "What is your pleasure, sir?" Without batting an eyelash, he jumped up grabbing a branch of the tree scratched himself like a monkey and said to me, "My pleasure is f----- but right now I think I'll get something to eat!" BD and I laughed hysterically when I recounted the story to him later in the evening.

Kathleen Flood: I was wondering if you had any intimate moments with Bobby. Did he ever confide in you about his life, things he wished for, etc. Also what is your favorite Bobby moment, i.e. on film, in concert ...?

RK: Bobby always felt that after 30 years old he was living on "borrowed" time. He came to dinner once at our house in Hollywood, but I was never one to pry into the details of someone's private life. BD and I had a lovely friendship based on mutually professional respect.

My favorite Bobby moment comes whenever I hear our performance of "After Today" [BD Sings Dr. Dolittle] I'm transported immediately back on stage doing our "magic" together. Also, when BD recorded this tune he had a cold --- you can hear a darker quality to his voice. This adds to my emotional connection to the tune. Remember, 1968 recording was in 4 tracks and live. That means that the orchestra was setup to be recorded in 3 tracks, leaving only 1 track for the vocal. That meant that if BD wanted to change anything about the vocal, we would be replacing the existing vocal. Imagine this strain with a cold!

Jean: What was the most distinctive thing about Bobby that you remember? 1. as a person, and 2. as a musician; how he worked out the arrangements, his relationship with the band, etc. Did Bobby discuss his political view much or other topics of the day?

RK: BD-Vitality. He loved to perform and the audience loved him for it! He was enthusiastic and demanding due to his clear vision of what he wanted and needed whether it was from one of my arrangements, or from a position of the lights during the show, or from the audio engineer. Every detail of a show was overlooked by BD.

Politically I remember discussing Bobby Kennedy. I seem to remember that we did a fund raiser for Kennedy.

Barb Kieffer: I have your CD, and it's wonderful. I'm intrigued by the cover art. Can you tell us why you chose the painting "Man of Constant Sorrows?"

RK: I didn't choose it! When the CD arrived in the mail with this painting as the cover I was shocked. I called IPO [the CD company] and said, "Why this painting? What does it have to do with Bobby Darin or me? Have you seen the painting's title? It has nothing to do with my relationship to Darin!" They thought that the painting represented Darin or me, they hadn't considered the "title." They fell in love with this artist and wanted to use his abstractions to make provocative covers! I said I understand but, in this case, the visual and the music don't match! So, I got more involved -- you'll be pleased with the new CD cover for "The Roger Kellaway Trio Remembers Bobby Darin," which includes "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife." I'm glad you like the CD!

Reina Riley: How do you account for the continuing relevance of Bobby Darin's music and its ability to sustain the listener's interest thirty years beyond his passing? Did you think back then that his music-making would stay the course? I love the BD Sings Dr. Dolittle CD. Your orchestration is brilliant. You speak about Darin's active involvement in the creative process in the Gene Lee's book, Arranging the Score. Did Darin participate in the selection of the colorful percussion instrumentation that added so much to the Dolittle album sound? Is there any chance for the re-release of BD Sings Dr. Dolittle?

RK: Somehow or other, the years go by, and still there seems to be an audience for this music. We have to thank Sinatra, Streisand, Bennett, Natalie Cole, and a couple of newcomers who are successfully attempting a style that takes more than 15 minuets and 3 chords to master. Kevin Spacey has a large part in bringing attention to Bobby. Thank you for loving "Dolittle."

BD and I were at the Flamingo in Vegas. He called me up one morning. I went immediately to his suite where he not only presented me with the Dolittle songs, but told me that we were recording in LA in 3 weeks and then, he handed me the instrumentation list.

Yes, he was thorough and totally involved! And, as I mentioned earlier, I knew him so well at this point that he completely trusted me to arrange the music. We got the correct keys together. Next, we were at Western 1 in LA with a 35 piece orchestra. The "duck" calls on "Talk to the Animals" were my idea! Also the trombone "elephants" on the end.

By the way, a production point that you won't solve today -- Darin knew that Atlantic records wasn't knocked out with this project. So, to appease them, he asked me not to go "over-time," which would add more $$$'s to the budget. What this means is that we recorded all 10 tunes in two, 3 hour sessions! That's 10 tunes with a 35 piece orchestra, rehearsing and recording each tune -- in 6 hours! "Talk to the Animals" was recorded in 1 take, for instance! These days, very few recordings are done "live." They're mostly begun with the rhythm section and the vocalist, and, in 3 hours you're lucky if you have 3 tunes recorded. Then after the album is "tracked" you add the orchestration -- if there is any.

Carla MacDonald: We know that Bobby played quite a few instruments. Did he do any of his own accompaniment when you were working on BD Sings Dr. Dolittle -- either on the record or during rehearsal? During all your work with Bobby, is there any one moment that stands out in your memory -- one moment that you maybe think of when somebody mentions him to you? I realize that these are very different times, but I'm wondering how the recent tour with Kevin compared to tours with Bobby (crowd reaction, media attention, club size, show length, etc? And how did working with Kevin compare to working with Bobby? I'm thinking in terms of their levels of open-mindedness, perfectionism, generosity, confidence, even-handedness, moodiness -- the sorts of things that can make working with someone either difficult or a breeze. Once you finally got to see the finished film, what was your reaction to it?

RK: BD did vocals only on Dolittle [rehearsals and recording] I actually played piano on the first 16 bars of "After Today" and then ran to the podium to conduct the rest of the tune.

All of our moments on stage were special! I learned my stage-timing from him, i.e. knowing to start the next tune's intro before the applause dies so that the energy of the show keeps going smoothly. Working with BD on stage was "MAGIC!"

I spent the first 4 years of pre-production ["Beyond the Sea"] with Kevin. Then, of course, I was Musical Director for the December 2004 tour. We were sold out everywhere! The audiences loved the show! The venues were moderate in size. [They would have been bigger if the production team had known Kevin was going to sellout everywhere.] The media was frantic. But, I had my own media due to my IPO "Darin" CD. So, for instance, in Chicago, I asked Kevin to do a photo-op with me for Down Beat Magazine. He did it generously. The show was one long show as I did with BD.

I have to say that Kevin sang "Darin" beautifully and, his impressions were as good as Bobby's! He's a perfectionist; confident -- like BD. Generous -- every rehearsal he always said hello and shook the hand of every band member. BD said hello but it was more of a "let's get to it" [ie: rehearsal] attitude. Maybe because BD spent his life performing, and Kevin was like a kid in a candy store!

Seeing the film had a profound effect on me. It reminded me how lucky I was to know and work and learn from Bobby Darin. I love Bobby Darin!

Also thanks to Carla MacDonald. It was her initial idea which provided the foundation for this very special project.
She was a great help to us by being the principal contact for the gathering and primary compilation of most of the questions here.

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