Celebrating the bookend debuts of Bobby Darin
On the cover of his first album, released in September 1958, Bobby Darin is wearing a white cardigan. His hair is sculpted into one of those elaborate late-’50s pompadours, and he gazes into the camera as though he’s already expecting to be a full-color pinup in the pages of 16 Magazine.
It looks, in short, exactly like 1958, a transitional pop year when the charts were dominated by different types of silliness, and the sole hit single on Bobby Darin fit right in. The bubbly “Splish Splash,” an improbable tale of being in one’s bathtub and discovering that, unexpectedly, a party has broken out in his house, attended by girls from other rock’n’roll songs (Peggy Sue, Miss Molly), shared the airwaves of summer ’58 with “The Purple People Eater,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Western Movies,” “Ginger Bread” and an Americanization of “Hava Nagila” called “Dance Everyone Dance,” most likely the only time the hora hit the pop top 20.
The album is, like a lot of teen-tilted LPs from that era, filled with throwaway songs, and it’s marked by Darin’s impressive gift for mimicry. Sometimes he resembles Pat Boone (on “Just In Case You Change Your Mind” in particular); “Pretty Betty,” cowritten with Don Kirshner, steals the basic premise of “Tutti Frutti”; “Talk to Me Something” (another Darin-Kirshner song) is a bit close to Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Lost My Baby”; and damned if “Don’t Call My Name” (ditto) doesn’t emulate “Ain’t That a Shame” enough to make you wonder why there wasn’t a lawsuit. Darin was, from the start, a man of considerable moxie, a brash young singer in search of a style, and not necessarily his own. Even then, he was a musical shape-shifter, and it was simply a matter of time before he hit upon the formula that clicked, becoming an upstart successor to the swingin’ side of Sinatra, with savvy rhythmic timing and limitless energy. Although he sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he surely didn’t get there because of “Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover,” and “Queen of the Hop.” Those were just cred-building-blocks.
Exactly ten years after Bobby Darin, he released what is, in a way, his second debut album, right down to the title: Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, so this month is a dual anniversary, the 60th and 50th of albums that “introduced” him. Like any number of artists who came to prominence in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Darin underwent a creative identity crisis in the second half of the ’60s, as they attempted to adjust their images to suit the changin’ times, become more socially aware, more authentic, more “now.” Del Shannon also made an album that unveiled his “real” self: The Further Adventures of Charles Westover; a little later, the 4 Seasons made the ambitious Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Born Walden Robert Cassotto was a politically tinged self-portrait, and although it seemed unexpected—it followed an album of Leslie Bricusse’s songs from the movie Doctor Doolittle—it was very much in keeping with Darin’s perpetual restlessness. Was there ever a period in his career that didn’t give his fans whiplash?
The songs he wrote and recorded (and produced and arranged, and released on his own Direction Records label) in ’68 were triggered by his political awakening and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The first words sung on the LP are “How do you kill a mountain/How do you make it fall” (compare to the opening of Bobby Darin: “Splish splash, I was takin’ a bath”), and songs like “Jingle Jangle Jungle,” “Long Line Rider” (the album’s only single) and “Sunday” (“You say keep the faith but there’s no faith to keep”) are downbeat, reflective, and so earnest. Inside the gatefold cover are headlines: “LSD—revelation or paranoia?” “Four year draft extension; youngest first.” The closing song, “In Memoriam,” is about RFK, and it’s like Darin’s version of Dion’s recording of “Abraham, Martin and John” from that same time; these two guys from the Bronx who’d toured together back in 1958 were tapping the well of mourning that America fell into a decade later.
Anyone closely following Darin in the years between his ‘58/’68 bookend “debuts” knew that he couldn’t be easily pinned down. There was the eager-to-please nightclub entertainer captured vividly on Darin at the Copa; the forerunner of blue-eyed soul on a tribute album to Ray Charles; a chummy session of duets with Johnny Mercer. When he left Atco Records to sign with Capitol, his new label thought, no doubt, that they were paying to get the next-generation Sinatra (and the Billy May–arranged album Oh! Look at Me Now was just that), but then Darin moved into countrypolitan pop (“You’re the Reason I’m Living” is a close replication of Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You”), and in 1963, he released two albums of contemporary folk: Earthy! and Golden Folk Hits. He took the folk bag seriously, recruiting Jim McGuinn to accompany him on guitar (and encouraging the future Byrd to give rock music a spin) and devoting a good chunk of his nightclub act to things like “Work Song” and “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore).” He cut, as many people did, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right).”
Who was Bobby Darin in the ’60s? Even his film career was a mixed bag: Universal Studios tried to make him and Sandra Dee into the junior-league Rock and Doris, but he also convincingly played a jazz musician in John Cassavetes’ gritty Too Late Blues, and scored an Oscar nomination for a dramatic role in Captain Newman, M.D. He went back to singing standard-type material for Capitol, then returned to Atlantic and dipped his toes into Sonny & Cher/Byrds-ish protest-pop with “We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here Anyway” (Sample lyrics: “Come let us love/What have we to be guilty of?” and “The world’s gone mad/They’re trying to take the things we have”). After cutting an LP of Broadway songs, he took another sharp turn with producers Charles Koppelman and Don Rubin, doing a lot of modern material by Tim Hardin (including the hit “If I Were a Carpenter,” done—did I mention his flair for mimicry?—pretty much nuance-for-nuance like Hardin’s own recording) and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (Hardin’s and Sebastian’s publishing were under the auspices of…Koppelman and Rubin.)
Then, after that Doolittle album, came Darin’s reawakening. It didn’t pop up from out of the blue. There is documentary footage floating around of Darin on tour in 1966, and in one scene he’s got an acoustic guitar and he’s playing around with a new song he’s working on. “Who are the people waitin’ on the welfare line?” he sings. He is, in ’66, about to make a return to the nightclub stage. He’s had his old tuxedo pressed, and he’s ready to wow the celebrities who want to hear “Mack the Knife” (and who can blame them? It’s socko). He could have, as he showed on the 1967 TV special Rodgers & Hart Today (with the Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas, and Petula Clark), kept breezing through the classic American songbook indefinitely. But, as always, there was something bugging him; there had to be something more. “I think I’m standin’ but there is no floor,” one song on Walden Robert Cassotto goes. Darin had to stay in motion; he never did learn how to stay still. Time was running out.