Bobby Darin: Crossover Crooner

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Today is the birthday of show biz wunderkind Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cassotto, 1936-1973). The subject of Darin (and some others like him) is a fascinating one for someone of my age to probe. Those born after the 1950s sort of learn the pop music history script a certain way, i.e., rock and roll was a “revolution”, and there was “before” and “after” rock and roll, and after its advent there were the square people and the rock and roll people, with no grey area between. But the more and more you get down into the capillaries (as I try to do, every day, in trying to get at the continuum in this grand narrative) you discover that though there are ways in which this party line is true, and there are artists for whom it is true, there are many ways in which it is not true, and many people for whom it is not true.

Darin is on no side of any line. Because of “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” it’s easy to think of him as a rock and roller, and I tend to. For better or worse, I absorbed that idea from nostalgic movies and tv shows like Happy Days and Barry Levenson’s Diner which featured his music. (Levenson, btw, planned to make a biopic about Darin in 1986. Kevin Spacey eventually acquired the rights and it became 2004’s Beyond the Sea). Tunes like “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” put Darin fully in the Sinatraesque big-band-pop tradition. And there are a lot of guys in that category. I think it’ll rate a post or an article some day. The last of these singers stretches even into my own time, the pompadoured Bobby Sherman. These guys managed to reach some of the nuttiness of the bobby soxers, but kept an anchor firmly back in a tradition that goes back farther than Jolson. 

Darin’s grandmother, by the way, had been a vaudeville singer. In a story strongly reminiscent of Ken Murray’s, Darin was raised to believe that his grandmother was his mother, and that his actual mother was his sister (obviously as the result of an old-fashioned family embarrassment). He didn’t learn the truth until he was 32 years old. At any rate, there’s little doubt Darin’s grandmother/mother encouraged his musical talents. He was already playing several instruments by the time he was a teenager. With songwriting partner Don Kirshner (later of the titular television “Rock Concert”) he penned tunes at the Brill Building for the likes of Connie FrancisHe began to record his own tunes and broke through big with 1958’s “Splish Splash” (co-written with Murray the K).

His string of hits lasted until the early 1960s. He also acted in film and television and was married to actress Sandra Dee. As the sixties wore on he got more involved in politics; he was campaigning with Bobby Kennedy (and present) when the latter was assassinated in 1968. This, along with the revelation of his mother, led to a seclusion that lasted a few years. He was just beginning to re-emerge with his own television variety show The Bobby Darin Amusement Company, when he was killed by an infection in 1973. (He’d lived with the knowledge of a probable early death since childhood, after a bout with rheumatic fever). I remember my mother going “He was so young” and I was like, “That’s not young!” To me, he was a middle aged man. But now….37 is young. It’s pretty damn young.

Here is a remarkable clip from his last tv show. He”s pretty much going balls to the walls. Not too shabby for a sickly man:

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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