I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago. Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career: rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads. However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.
Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.” For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one. I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out. When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.
I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin. I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter. But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.
We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra. And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre. I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine. Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely. In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse. And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days. Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule. Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound. I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.
If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s. Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean. He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too: the current Broadway scene. Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too. Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World. Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.
Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound. However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album. Darin was taking risks here. What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)? Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes. Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent. Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted. Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.
Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy. And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world. What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums. In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off. While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style. And the musicianship here is incredible. Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones. Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker. Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out. It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way. And yet the album did very little business commercially. Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.
Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs. And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time. They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe. The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here. There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion. Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito. Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.
His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded. Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them! While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece. And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.
There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio. And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could. What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game? Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).
No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy. As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin. He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience. And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums. But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in. If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries. So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.