Bobby Darin was often called a “musical chameleon”, and had a career that covered rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, gospel, country, show tunes, folk, blues, protest material, and everything in between. His first recording sessions were for Decca records in 1956 and the eight songs recorded saw Darin jumping from one genre to the next. This was something he would continue to do with ease for the rest of his career, but the Decca recordings are a somewhat different situation, with the singer seemingly unaware of whether he was a country singer, a ballad singer, a folk singer or something in the middle. The eight songs for Decca (and the early recordings for Atco) find a singer in search of a voice.
His first recordings for the label took place in February 1956. Darin was nineteen years old and had been writing songs for some time with his pal Don Kirshner. He recorded four songs at the first session,including a take on Rock Island Line, which seems somewhat inspired by the types of recordings that Johnny Cash was making at the time at Sun Records (Cash would record his own version of the song in 1957). The structure and instrumentation of Darin’s version is close to that used in Lonnie Donegan’s version which hit the US charts just a couple of weeks after Darin recorded his, but had been a hit in the UK earlier that year. Despite the recording hardly being essential Bobby Darin, it is a remarkably confident debut, with no signs of nerves from the young teenager who is backed by just an acoustic guitar and drums.
The B-side of this first single finds Darin turning from a cross between folk and country to a full-on Frankie Laine impression. Timber is a faux-work song co-written by Darin in the Laine mould and finds him accompanied by backing vocals and percussion-heavy instrumentation. It is a much better performance than Rock Island Line, and the arrangement cleverly uses a fake-ending around thirty seconds before the actual end of the song. It sees Darin for the first time approaching the type of material which would be the basis of his masterful Earthy LP six years later.
Also recorded was a song that saw Darin turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom. Silly Willy was no Splish Splash, however. The problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempos and rhythms that the song employs. It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should. The B-side of this release is Blue Eyed Mermaid. If Timber saw the singer performing in the Frankie Laine style, then this number sees a move towards Guy Mitchell in a song that has a kind of fake sea shanty feel, although a line or two of the verses steals the melody of Ghost Riders in the Sky. Darin takes this Guy Mitchell style even further in Hear Them Bells, recorded a few months later, which sees him accompanied by an orchestra and chorus with a sound that is very close to that used in Mitchell’s hits My Truly Truly Fair and Cloud Lucky Seven, despite the semi-gospel nature of the lyrics. The Greatest Builder (the B-Side of Hear Them Bells) is the worst of all the Decca recordings. Again, the song has religious lyrics but this time lacks the vibrant nature of Hear Them Bells, and finds Darin sounding so earnest that one ends up not believing that he is sincere at all.
The final Decca single again finds Darin changing styles. Dealer In Dreams is a Darin-Kirshner song which would have worked quite well for Elvis Presley, being quite similar in style and structure to Don’t Leave Me Now, which Presley would record twice during 1957. Bobby’s recording misses the mark because it is over-arranged; Darin is singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad with a Guy Mitchell arrangement. The B-side, Help Me, is pleasant enough, but again sounds as if it was written for someone else.
In the end, Darin’s short tenure at Decca must have been as frustrating for Darin as it was for listeners. He had recorded eight sides, none of which had attracted much attention, and was seemingly no closer to finding his own voice than when he stepped into the Decca recording studios a few months earlier.
Bobby Darin had failed to set the world on fire with his eight sides for Decca, but that didn’t mean he was about to give up on his dreams of singing stardom. In May 1957 he recorded four sides and these helped to land him a contract with the recently-formed Atco label. Atco purchased the four sides from Darin and released two of them as a single: I Found A Million Dollar Baby backed with Talk To Me Something. The first of these is most notable because it was Darin’s first attempt at an American standard in the recording studio. He still hadn’t found his own voice, but he had at least found a genre to focus on: rock ‘n’ roll. I Found a Million Dollar Baby is pleasant enough, and rises above mediocrity due to Hank Garland’s guitar as much through the vocals. Talk To Me Something was a Darin-Kirshner original and considerably better material than the originals he had recorded during him time at Decca. The performance is hardly a masterpiece (and Darin can’t quite work out whether he was Elvis or Jim Reeves), but there are some nice moments, particularly during the swell in emotion and volume during the third line of each verse when Darin and the backing vocalists sing together. Despite being a reasonable stab at hitting the charts with a contemporary sound, the single performed disappointedly.
The other two songs from the same sessions, are quite similar in style. Wear My Ring is another rock ‘n’ roll ballad, but the problem here is that there is nothing remotely original about either song or performance. Just In Case You Change Your Mind is basically more of the same. The song was eventually released the following year as a single A-side, but it found its real home as filler on Bobby Darin’s first album later in 1958.
A few months later, Darin was back in the studio with another quartet of songs. Don’t Call My Name finds him giving him a much more confident performance, and the resulting recording was a good solid rock ‘n’ roll number, but this too failed to set the charts alight. The B-side, Pretty Betty, is one of Darin’s worst attempts at a rock ‘n’ roll. The song, arrangement and recording sounds awkward and forced. An alternate take which appeared on a grey-market release features a slightly different rhythm underpinning the song. It’s still hardly a classic, but the song holds together better in the alternate. Rounding out the session were (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean. These find an improvement over the previous rock ‘n’ roll ballads. The recordings seem to be less forced, and the vocals are less affected, with the singer opting for a more gentle, intimate approach.
The next session took place five months later and finds Darin’s style improving dramatically. Brand New House finds him at last with his own style and his own unique sound. He somehow manages to merge elements of Ray Charles and Neil Sedaka here (although Sedaka had yet to have a hit). The orchestration is really quite similar to that which he would later use on the Sings Ray Charles album a few years later. Darin has added a far more aggressive vocal quality to his sound here as well, as he growls his way through the song. The recording also betrays signs of the ill health that plagued Darin’s life. On a number of occasions he runs out of breath at the end of a line, or attempts to snatch a breath without anyone noticing, but doesn’t quite succeed. In many ways it didn’t matter, for this was a significant improvement over his previous work.
You Never Called is a slight step backwards, and recalls the ballads (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean. Darin probably thought the same, for the song didn’t appear on an album until For Teenagers Only a couple of years later – although this might have been due to the technical fault at the beginning of the track. All The Way Home continues the rock ‘n’ roll style of Brand New House. Bobby’s voice had never sounded stronger, and the song was deemed worthy enough to be included in the wonderful Rhino 4CD set of Darin’s best recordings As Long As I’m Singin’. Actions Speak Louder Than Words finds him surrounded by echo in an atmospheric recording of a fine ballad that again is a foreshadowing of Darin’s full-length tribute to Ray Charles.
The April 10, 1958 sessions basically saved Darin’s career. Despite the improvements he had made, there had still not been a hit record. Splish Splash would turn out to be that hit. As a piece of material, the song is certainly no better than some of the songs that he recorded a few months earlier at the previous session. Darin employs the same vocal tones in the song as in Actions Speaker Louder Than Words and Brand New House, but perhaps the song benefits most from the searing saxophone solo during the instrumental break and the novelty of the water effect at the opening and closing of the track. This may sound cynical, for it is a fine performance, and a song that has stood the test of time, but the only thing it has over the efforts of the previous sessions is novelty hook. With the sax solo, novelty subject matter and sound effects it stood out from the crowd and made audiences take notice. It was exactly what Darin was yearning for: to be noticed by the record-buying public.
He was on a roll. At the same session he recorded another hit side: Queen of the Hop. Again the instrumentation was borrowed from Ray Charles, while the subject matter was the same as many other hit singles of the time. The track is brilliantly recorded, making it sound considerably harder than it actually is. With Darin set back in the mix, we get the effect that his singing is much rawer. The driving beat is high in the mix and, together with another great sax solo, the effect was complete. It’s hard to comprehend that something as bland as Judy Don’t Be Moody was even recorded at the same session and with the same band.
With Splish Splash, stardom and Bobby Darin would finally meet after two years of trying to find each other. Darin’s career would have peaks and troughs as he wavered from a predictable career path to take in more genres than probably any other artist, and yet the consistency of performances from Splish Splash until the very end of his career was remarkably high. Due to a variety of factors, Darin’s popularity has had a resurgence over the last decade but, despite this, the recordings made for Decca and Atco prior to his first hit remain largely neglected.