Bobby Darin: The Milk Shows

milk shows

The last in the series of blog posts reviewing Bobby Darin recordings.

March 1963 saw the announcement that Bobby would “be featured in a Monday through Friday program series on Radio Station WIBA.  The program titled Bobby Darin will be heard at 3.33 p.m. and will feature a talk (sic) and music by this young star, designed to appeal to both adults and teenagers – not rock and roll music.  The Bobby Darin show will be sponsored by the American Dairy Association.”[1]

These five-minute radio programmes became known as The Milk Shows.  Darin would record the shows at Capitol studios, and they would then be overdubbed with fake (very fake) applause, thus giving the impression that the songs were being performed live – although how many listeners were fooled is debatable.   The tapes of these shows were found back in 2002, with a trio of songs being released on the Aces Back to Back release in 2004.  After this, there was an inexplicable delay of another ten years before the release of a double CD set containing more than ninety tracks.

If you’re wondering how ninety tracks fit on a mere double CD set, then it’s worth stating that no songs featured in the series was recorded in full (with one exception).  Each song was a bite-size version lasting, in most cases, sixty to ninety seconds.  This in itself makes the release a unique listening experience, but it is also worth remembering that Darin was accompanied by just a jazz quartet featuring Richard Behrke, Ronnie Zito, Milt Norman and Billy Krist – no matter what the song.

The material that Darin chose to record for The Milk Shows cover the whole gamut of his repertoire, from renditions of rock ‘n’ roll hits Splish Splash and Multiplication to a wide variety of standards and show tunes.  Some of the songs had been recorded by Bobby previously for record release, and those numbers often get given a different feel here thanks to the stripped back instrumentation.  Other tracks are ones that Bobby never did record in a studio, and so these versions are the only ones we have.

The recording dates for these shows are unclear.  The news article quoted earlier is from the beginning of March 1963, suggesting that the recordings probably began around the same time.  Whether all tracks were recorded at once or over a longer period is not known, although it’s worth noting that, when Darin draws upon songs he had already recorded, all of them date from studio sessions before March 1963, thus suggesting that The Milk Shows were recorded over a short space of time during that spring and/or summer.  For example, while You’re the Reason I’m Living (and songs from that album) are included here, Eighteen Yellow Roses and songs from that album are not.  There are a couple of exceptions.  Days of Wine and Roses would be recorded in 1964 for the Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie album (in a very different arrangement), and The Sheik of Araby was recorded in late 1965, but remains unissued.  However, Darin dates The Milk Show version of Days of Wine and Roses by referring to it as “this year’s” Academy Award-winning song, thus dating the performance to 1963, but sometime after the ceremony that took place on April 8.

While these recordings are to be welcomed, it should be mentioned that Darin is not always in the best of voice, and certainly doesn’t always give a song the care and attention he would for a commercial recording.  The very first song on the double CD is a case in point.  Too Close for Comfort, from the musical Mr Wonderful, hardly gets the album off to an auspicious start, with Bobby’s voice sounding croaky and he hits a number of bum notes along the way.  Things improve somewhat for Pennies from Heaven, which gets a nice run-through, but the big finish doesn’t quite come off in the way it normally would on a Darin recording.  Part of this is due to the low-key performances, but there is also a sense here that some of the songs simply weren’t rehearsed enough.  Around the World is an example of this.  It gets an upbeat, jazzy rendition but there are points when Bobby lags behind the beat and others where he seemingly makes the melody up as he goes along.

Elsewhere, it seems to be simply a worn-out voice that is the problem.  Climb Every Mountain starts off well, and has a better arrangement than the outing it would receive ten years later on The Bobby Darin Show TV series, but the climax of the song shows that Darin’s voice is shot to pieces.  Perhaps this was one number that should have remained in the vault.  Climb Every Mountain isn’t the only song here that wouldn’t be given a studio recording but would appear years later.  Sixteen Tons was given a brilliant (and lengthy) reworking during an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968 and would emerge again on The Bobby Darin Show (although not included on the DVD of that series).

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting songs here are the ones that Bobby didn’t record or perform elsewhere.  The choice of material is also intriguing.  A number of tracks are songs associated with Bing Crosby, for example, including I’m an Old Cowhand (during which Bobby can’t resist throwing in some impressions), Sweet and Lovely and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra Loo-Ral which gets crooned nicely in Darin’s softest voice.  Less surprising perhaps are the series of tracks associated with Al Jolson, including April Showers, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby, and Let Me Sing and I’m HappyApril Showers is particularly good, and reminds us just how good a ballad singer he was during this period, particularly when not bogged down by the choir that appears to pop up at every opportunity when the tempo falls below a certain number of beats per minute on the Oh! Look at Me Now and You’re the Reason I’m Living albums.

Some of Bobby’s biggest hits get quite a makeover in this new setting.  Lazy River, for example, is taken at an ultra-slow pace and is given a bluesy vocal that has little of the show-stopping nature of the studio recording. Splish Splash, on the other hand, seems a little bizarre when backed by a jazz quartet, although Dream Lover doesn’t suffer in the same way – in fact it works better here than with the big band on the Darin at the Copa album.  You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby is also heard in a very different arrangement to the hit twist version.  This swing version is just as credible, and makes one wish that Darin had recorded it again in this style at a later date.   Interestingly, Mack the Knife isn’t sung here, but is just used as an instrumental theme tune for the radio show.

It is often the ballads that get given most care and attention by Darin in this set of performances.  For example, Autumn Leaves is given a Latin rhythm and is beautifully sung, and a full studio recording of this lovely song would have been very nice indeed.  Also given a Latin feel and a similar vocal is the song which is, arguably, the greatest written by Irving Berlin, How Deep is the Ocean, as well as Fools Rush In.  The use of these Latin rhythms is interesting as Darin rarely employed them elsewhere, although, going by these brief outings, an album in the bossa nova style would not have been a bad move.  Elsewhere, I’ll Be Seeing You is given a gentle swing rhythm, but Darin sings it as a ballad, mostly singing it in his subdued voice which is most effective.    Also of note is a sincere rendition of La Vie en Rose.  Perhaps the most bizarre ballad performance finds Bobby reciting the lyrics of Days of Wine and Roses while the tune is played in the background.

A number of songs from the mammoth January 1963 sessions appear here.  Hello Young Lovers and This Nearly Was Mine are given renditions similar to their studio counterparts, whereas the arrangements of I Ain’t Got Nobody, Please Help Me I’m Falling and Be Honest With Me are simplified somewhat and benefit from the lack of backing vocals – although Be Honest With Me still sees Darin adding the same mannerisms to his voice as he does on the You’re the Reason I’m Living LP version.  What Kind of Fool am I is given a lightly swinging version here that arguably is more effective than the more traditional performance recorded a few months earlier.  What is particularly interesting is how Bobby approaches the end of the song in a completely different way.  There is no big finish here – instead, he sings the final lines is his softest voice, almost a falsetto, and it is just as effective as the traditional ending.  During the Broadway album sessions, Darin had recorded Tall Hope from the musical Wildcat.  Here he turns his attention to the most famous song from that show, Hey Look Me Over.  The normal march rhythm of the song is cast to one side in favour of a straight-ahead jazz approach, but it all seems a little half-hearted, and isn’t helped by a rather inept and unenthusiastic attempt at scat singing.

Alongside the well-established standards are some of the novelty songs that Darin appears to have had a genuine affection for given that the album of duets with Johnny Mercer is filled with such material.  Here we have Manana, co-written by, and a hit for, Peggy Lee, for whom Bobby often expressed his admiration.  Darin puts in a great performance here, with his voice sounding stronger that on many of the other tracks.  While Manana is fun, a number like Mairzy Dotes and Dozy Doats is an example of a novelty song that is simply tedious.  ‘A’ You’re Adorable gets a nice run-through, as does Row, Row, Row, which includes the verse which is not featured on the recording with Johnny Mercer on the Two of a Kind album.

Ironically, the best song from The Milk Show recordings is All the Way, released on Aces Back to Back but, oddly, not included on The Milk Shows set.  Quite why this lovely performance wasn’t included the second time around is a mystery, not least because it’s the only  full-length performance in the ninety or so songs.  Here, Darin takes a Sinatra signature song, gives it a gentle jazz combo backing and a subdued, beautiful performance that certainly deserved to be the climax of the double CD set.  Strangely, the other two songs from the shows released on the Aces Back to Back CD were reissued on The Milk Shows release.

The double CD release is, of course, wonderful to have, but it can also be rather frustrating.  Much of this is to do with technical issues such as the fake applause and, even worse, Bobby trying to interact with the fake applause.  It all becomes rather distracting, especially when each song only runs for a minute or so.  That said, presumably the applause was already on the tapes when they were found and so couldn’t be removed.  Less forgivable is where songs are joined together in such a way that Bobby is talking over his own singing,  perhaps saying “thank you” to the audience that isn’t there when he’s already started on the next number.  The same happens in reverse, where he’s introducing the next song while still finishing the previous one.  While one can understand why there was a desire to present each CD as one uninterrupted piece, there also seems little reason why songs couldn’t have been re-ordered so that these overlaps didn’t take place.  If that wasn’t possible, then a simple fade out and fade in would have worked better than the jarring mix of two songs together that occasionally happens.  Despite this, it should be reiterated that the sound quality of these tapes that were lost for more than thirty years is very good indeed.

Technical issues aside, the run of more than fifty songs in a space of just over an hour is almost exhausting, and with each song having the same instrumentation in its backing, they tend to run in together as if they were one long medley and thus suffer from becoming aural wallpaper.  Likewise, while Bobby is on very good form in places and gives some fine, nuanced performance, there are also moments where Darin the perfectionist is, seemingly, on holiday.  Back in 1960 in an article in Downbeat magazine, Gene Lees had commented on problems with Darin’s intonation in his early albums of standards.[2]  During The Milk Shows recordings this issue rises again, whether due to a tired voice or the sheer speed required to get everything down on tape.  However, we also need to remember that these were, in all likelihood, intended for a one-off broadcast not to be repeated – and certainly not to be listened to over and over again some forty years later.

What The Milk Shows undoubtedly show us is that Darin should have recorded with a jazz combo more than he did.  The one album that resulted from such a set-up, Winners, is Bobby at his very best, and one can imagine that, with a sensible amount of studio time, a number of the songs performed here could have been recorded in full performances for a follow-up album that would have been just as good.  That, sadly, didn’t happen, and so The Milk Shows CD release is the nearest we have, and for that we should be thankful.

[1] “Bobby Darin Show,” Capital Times, March 2, 1963, 3.

[2] Lees, “Bobby Darin and the Turn from Junk Music,” 16.

Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

show boat

The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company.  Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.

The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place.  But not in this production.  Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part.   Why?  No idea.  It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?

It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed!  Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).

One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it.  Would they do the same with La Traviata?  I don’t think so.   And the changes didn’t stop there.  Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.

The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.”  This is political correctness gone mad.  The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane.   It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that.   What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus?  The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.

But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company.  It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra.  It doesn’t work.  Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing.  But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday.  It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable.  Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty.   Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre.  Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.

Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far.  And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema.    There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.