Bobby Darin: Bill Bailey and the February 1960 Jazz Recordings

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Just a few days after finishing the It’s You or No One LP, Bobby was back in the studio to record a very different album.  In just two days, Bobby recorded fifteen songs, this time backed by a small jazz combo headed by Bobby Scott.  Once again, this may well have been an instance of Darin trying to distance himself from Sinatra.  In 1959 and 1962, Sinatra performed concerts using just a jazz sextet as backing, but he never recorded an album with that kind of setting (which is a great loss, it should be added).  Here, Bobby records what is, pure and simply, a jazz vocal album.  The results are much looser than on any of his other albums of standards and, while Bobby Scott is credited as arranger, it sounds much more as if he put together some basic ideas and the musicians simply took it from there.  This group of songs (released on an album and three singles) shows Darin in fine form and demonstrating his versatility in a way that It’s You or No One ultimately failed to do.

Before discussing the recordings themselves, it is worth talking about how they were released.  Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey was released as a single backed with I’ll Be There in June 1960, reaching #19 in the U.S. charts.  In November 1962, I Found a New Baby was released as a single side.  Then, in June 1964, nine more songs (plus I Found a New Baby) appeared on an album called Winners, which was released with relatively little notice.  The remainder of the album was filled by both sides of the Milord/Golden Earrings single which had been unearthed from the vaults two months earlier and reached #45 in the charts.  The problem here is that the sound and orchestration of the single sides (recorded in June 1960 and March 1961) had nothing to do with the distinctive jazz sound of the rest of the album. Two months after the release of Winners, ATCO released yet another track from these February 1960 sessions, this time pairing Swing Low Sweet Chariot with Similau, an odd little number recorded in December 1960.  Finally, one more track from the sessions, Minnie the Moocher, was paired up with Hard Hearted Hannah (already released on the Winners  album) as a single in February 1965, more than five years after they were recorded.  And that’s not all! A Game of Poker and I Got a Woman have never been released at all.  The reason for the latter may have been because the song had been released in different arrangements on two other albums by 1964, but why A Game of Poker never appeared is unknown.

Such a release strategy is mystifying.  When Bill Bailey became a hit in 1960, one would think that the obvious thing to have done would have been to place it as the lead track on an album containing the other songs from the same session.  For some reason, that didn’t happen and, to date, these wonderful tracks have never appeared all together in one place – and yet they are a collection of songs just waiting to be rediscovered.

With its stripped down arrangement, Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey was an unlikely single release.  While Darin had taken old songs and had hits with them in the past, they had always been in big, swinging arrangements, but this was something different.  Still, the song manages to draw in the listener from the very beginning, with Bobby’s spoken lines before the song starts proper, and that seemed to be enough for it to catch on.  As with some of the other songs from the sessions, Darin interacts with the group, spurring them on as he yells “yeah, I like it like that” during the instrumental.  Not only is Bobby showing off his vocal abilities here, but also is showmanship.  It’s a stunning record, and while it wasn’t the biggest hit that Darin ever had, the fact that a pure jazz number broke into the top twenty shows just how good it is.  Billboard magazine referred to the song as “another winning side for Bobby Darin, featuring a great vocal by the lad over smart backing by the Bobby Scott Trio.”[1]

The first day of recording had begun with the aforementioned, unreleased A Game of Poker, and then continued with a straightforward rendition of the Gershwin’s They All Laughed.  Despite the relatively mundane arrangement, there is some great interplay between Bobby and the musicians, with each giving the other room to breathe.  There’s no instrumental section, but enough space at the end of each vocal line for an instrumental lick, normally on xylophone.  The “laughs” on the record are provided by Darin’s friend George Burns.[2]

Hard Hearted Hannah, a song dating back to 1924, is even better and, as with some of the other songs here, Bobby sings the verse as well as the more familiar chorus.  Once again, we can hear just how much Darin is enjoying himself here.  Listen closely and you’ll hear him singing off-mic during the instrumental.  He revived the song a few years later with a full big-band arrangement, performing it on TV on one of his appearances on The Andy Williams Show.  Hard Hearted Hannah was a song also included in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb), bringing the number of songs from the film that Darin covered up to three, with She Needs Me appearing on That’s All, and the title song recorded for This is Darin.

There are few disappointing numbers here, but Anything Goes certainly fits into that category, despite some tasty piano licks during the first half.  The song, written by Cole Porter for his 1934 musical of the same name, is just too slow, and never gets going.  It’s clearly an attempt at doing something different with the number, but it just doesn’t work.

What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry finds things moving along at a much better tempo, and Bobby gives a gently swinging performance that adds nothing new to the song, but is pleasant enough.  The same can be said about Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which is given a kind of Latin American rhythm before switching to a standard swing feel during the bridge section.

Perhaps the best upbeat track of the whole session is the masterful I Found a New Baby, which begins with Darin’s finger-snapping before the various instruments slowly join in.  There is wonderful late-night jazz feel to the whole number, and Bobby Short’s piano solo is stunning and Darin tells him to “growl on it.”  There’s more variations to Bobby’s vocal here too.  He never sings at full volume and yet still manages to switch between a silky smooth tone and one that has the rawer sound heard on the That’s All LP.

Bobby’s take on Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me is at a slower tempo than usual, and also contains a mistake in the vocal – something very rare for a Darin track.  On the line “If you should take the word of others you’ve heard,” you hear that he starts to sing “anyone’s dream” instead of “others you’ve heard,” but tries to correct himself, but it’s just a little too late.  It’s surprising he didn’t decide to do another take – unless the wrong take was actually issued by ATCO.  Like Anything Goes, the song doesn’t entirely work at this speed (Ella Fitzgerald also tried it at this speed with similar results), and it would have been better to hear Bobby belting this out in a full big band arrangement.

Minnie the Moocher gets given a wonderful treatment, with Bobby in full show-stopping form.  He makes the lyrics a little more palatable for early 1960s conservative audiences by removing the references to drugs, but it takes nothing away from the authenticity of the performance which comes complete with a rare example of Darin scat-singing, which he does much better here than on the later Two of a Kind album.  By recording it with just a jazz combo to back him, he removes the opportunity for anyone to compare it with the well-known Cab Calloway rendition, and Darin’s take is a classic in its own right.

Two of the ballads here are among the best vocals that Bobby ever recorded.  What a Difference a Day Made and Easy Living are wonderful examples of just how much his ballad singing had progressed in the year or so that he had been recording standards in the studio.  Written for a 1937 screwball comedy, Easy Living in particular is truly marvellous and the smoky jazz-club-style playing behind him is perfect framing for a perfect vocal.  What a Difference a Day Made finds Bobby taking on a song that, the year before, had won a Grammy award for Dinah Washington.  Ironically, Bobby’s version of the song is more jazz-oriented than Washington’s. When Day is Done is another ballad in the same style and with a similar vocal, but it’s simply not quite up the standard of the aforementioned titles, with the vocal just a little too subdued.  The song itself is more obscure, being of German origin with lyricist Buddy DeSylva writing English words for it during the 1920s.

The final song of the session is also the hardest to find.  Bobby had been singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot on stage for a while in medley with Lonesome Road in a big band arrangement.  However, here it gets a jazz workout by itself in an arrangement that is a cross between Bill Bailey and some of the songs he recorded for the folk album Earthy.  Here, he growls and rasps his way through the spiritual, and the performance is both a bizarre and masterful mixture of styles and genres.  The fact that this song has seemingly not re-appeared on CD or LP since its original single release back in 1964 is a great shame, for this is a fine, intriguing recording that deserves to be much better known than it is.

Unlike It’s You or No One, Winners did at least get some recognition when released, helped along by the inclusion of Milord, which had been recent single release.  Billboard, however, were rather non-committal in their review, referring to the album simply as “romantic and sentimental ballads and up-tempo swingers aimed at the sophisticated set.”[4]  They clearly missed the fact that this was one of the best jazz-oriented sets ever recorded by a pop singer.

[1] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, May 16, 1960, 41.

[2] Bleiel, That’s All, 55.

[4] “Album Reviews,” Billboard, July 25, 1964, 50.