Some singers find their voice the very first time they set foot inside a recording studio, and record some of their greatest work during their early years. Elvis Presley is probably the best example of this, recording the classic That’s All Right at his very first professional recording session. This was not the case for Bobby Darin, however. In fact, it was over two years after he entered a studio before he recorded his breakthrough single, Splish Splash. Prior to that, Bobby seemed to be constantly in search of his own sound, with many of his early records adopting the styles and mannerisms of other singers of the period. He needed something to make him stand out from the rest of the would-be pop stars trying to carve themselves a career in the mid-1950s, and that something was his own identity. Nowhere is this more noticeable than during the eight sides he recorded during his short tenure with Decca.
Probably March 6, 1956: Studio Session
Bobby Darin’s first session under his own name was in early March 1956, in New York. He was nineteen years old at the time. Bobby and his songwriting partner Don Kirshner, a fellow ex-student from Bobby’s high school, had already had some limited success by this point, having their songs recorded by the likes of LaVern Baker, Bobby Short, and, most notably, Connie Francis. The recording of that song by Francis, My First Real Love, in February 1956 had seen Bobby take part in the actual session, although there seems to be some confusion as to whether it was as drummer or as one of the backing vocalists. Two singles from the March 6 date were released: Rock Island Line/Timber and Silly Willy/Blue Eyed Mermaid. A month later, Cash Box featured a picture of Bobby from the recording date, together with A&R director Milt Gabler and musical director Jack Pleis. Theoretically, Pleis should have been a good match for Bobby, but sadly he didn’t get the chance to draw on his jazz background due to the nature of the songs chosen.
Bobby’s arrangement of Rock Island Line 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 Bobby recorded his, but had been a hit in the UK earlier in the year. The recording is hardly essential Darin, and today is really just of historical importance. He sounds inexperienced and unconvincing and, perhaps more importantly, the performance sounds somehow inauthentic. It is as if he is trying to be something he isn’t, which is, in many ways, exactly what was happening. This wasn’t Darin’s natural milieu, and this is a fatal error within folk music, a genre that is built around authenticity. Despite this, there are no signs of nerves from the young teenager whose vocal is somewhat exposed, being 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 written by Bobby with Don Kirshner and “George M. Shaw.” Shaw was actually the pseudonym of George Scheck, the manager of Connie Francis who had helped Bobby and Don get some of their songs recorded, and had got Bobby his recording contract at Decca and was now managing him. Timber was firmly in the Laine mould and finds him accompanied by backing vocals and percussion-heavy instrumentation. It is a better performance than Rock Island Line, and the arrangement cleverly uses a series of fake-endings before the actual conclusion of the song. It sees Bobby for the first time approaching the type of material that would be the basis of his masterful Earthy! LP six years later, and the song wouldn’t have been out of place on that record had he chosen to re-record it.
Just over a week after the session, this first single was released and Billboard magazine included a short review of the two sides. Bobby would no doubt have been extremely happy when he read that the “new artist shows solid promise,” and that his performance of Timber had “spirit and song savvy in evidence.” Interestingly, Billboard compared the song to Ghost Riders in the Sky, and the review in Variety also picked up on the fact that Darin had yet to find his own sound, writing that his version of Rock Island Line “is compelling, even if Darin sounds as if he’s been listening to Harry Belafonte a shade too much for his own good.” Cash Box was probably the most enthusiastic, saying that Rock Island Line was “an exciting folk type song that looks like an all out hit, [and] is treated to a colourful reading by Bobby Darin.” Timber was described as “another beaty song (sic) with an exciting folk flavor [that] is dramatically executed here by the talented youngster. Lad has a fascinating sound and comes over zestfully.” Darin was also getting noticed outside of the usual trade magazines, with one writer in a local newspaper stating that “Decca is proud as punch of two new additions: vocalist Roberta Sherwood and teenager Bobby Darin. Both look like hot stuff.”
Also recorded at the same session was a song that saw Bobby turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom. Silly Willy was no Splish Splash, however. Much of 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.
Silly Willy is interesting, however, in that it provides us with our first audible clue that Bobby wanted to be more than just a pop singer. While the number is credited to the same writing team as Timber, it has its roots in a 1920s risqué jazz number about a drug-addicted chimney sweeper called Willie the Weeper which, in turn, provided the inspiration for Minnie the Moocher, which Darin would record a few years later. The lyrics of the first verse of Silly Willy and Willie the Weeper are so similar that it’s clear that Bobby knew the more obscure song and was drawing from that rather than the better known Minnie the Moocher. The first verse of Willie the Weeper reads:
Have you heard the story, folks, of Willie the Weeper? / Willie’s occupation was a chimney sweeper / He had a dreamin’ habit, he had it kind of bad /Listen, let me tell you ’bout the dream he had.
Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:
Listen to the story about Willy the Weeper / Willy the Weeper was a long time sleeper / He went to sleep one night and dreamed so bad / Now let me tell you about the dream that little Willy had.
What is remarkable here is not the fact that Bobby Darin “borrowed” lyrics from an older song (this was not a rare occurrence in pop music at the time), but that he knew the lyrics to Willie the Weeper at all. Most of the well-known recordings, such as those by Louis Armstrong and George Lewis, were instrumentals – possibly with good reason due to the song’s repeated references to “dope” and taking “pills” – and so one has to wonder where Bobby heard the lyrics in the first place. If nothing else, it shows just how wide his knowledge of popular music was even at the tender age of nineteen.
The B-side of Silly Willy was 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. A line or two of the verses steal the melody of Ghost Riders in the Sky, although this time this was no fault of Bobby himself as he was not the writer of the song. As with its predecessor, the single failed to make the charts. Billboard wrote of Silly Willy that the “young singer comes up with a fast and furious bit of nonsense about Silly Willy and his dream…Excitement could kick off juke spins.” It was not unnoticed that Blue Eyed Mermaid stole part of its melody from Ghost Riders in the Sky, but it was still said that “the side is right in the groove with current favour and will bear watching.”
Another song, Rock Pile, written by Darin in collaboration with Kirshner and Shaw/Scheck, is also listed as having been recorded at these sessions. It has never been released, and it is unclear whether the song was merely attempted and then aborted or if a master take was completed.
On March 10, 1956, Bobby made his national TV debut on Stage Show, a programme hosted by bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey which had helped to catapult Elvis Presley to fame during his four appearances on the show. Darin sang Rock Island Line, and it didn’t go well. Bobby told the story in 1972 on an episode of The David Frost Show:
“What happened was that I had forgotten all the lyrics. I covered Lonnie Donegan’s record of Rock Island Line. I was with Decca at the time. They said, “We have a record here and it’s going to be a smash, we’ll get a cover record.” In those days, you did that. […] I learned it on a Monday, recorded it on a Tuesday evening, and then did The Jackie Gleason Show on a Saturday evening. I really wasn’t sure of the lyrics, and they weren’t about to serve my myopic condition and so therefore they couldn’t give me cue cards. So I devised my own which was on the palm of my hand. […] At the end of the show everyone knew what I was doing, of course, except my sweet Mama who said, “You were wonderful, I never saw anyone use his hands like that.”
After the Stage Show appearance, Bobby didn’t appear on television again for over a year. He did, however start making live appearances to promote his recordings. While there is relatively little known about his concert work in 1956, he was involved in rock ‘n’ roll revues such as the one as the University of Detroit on April 15, where he appeared alongside The Four Aces and The Four Coins, among others. In May 1956, he appeared at The Purple Onion, Guilford, Indiana, as the headliner, giving three shows nightly for a week. On May 8, three days after finishing at the Purple Onion, he was performing at the annual concert of the Music Operators of America (MOA) convention – a four hour which also featured Nat ‘King’ Cole, Teresa Brewer, Mahalia Jackson and Pat Boone.
July 11, 1956: Studio Session
When Bobby Darin went back into the studio in July 1956, he didn’t try to improve on the styles of singing, or build upon what he had attempted, at his previous session but, instead, tried something completely different.
The first release from this session coupled The Greatest Builder with Hear Them Bells. Both songs are semi-religious efforts, and neither are particularly good or particularly original compositions. The Greatest Builder is a ballad sung with such fake sincerity that it is almost nauseating. The arrangement is sedate and uses full orchestra and chorus, and has little in common with what most teenagers would have been buying or listening to at the time. Oddly, the arrangement and the material are more in line with what some of the British stars were scoring hits with in the UK charts at the time. For example, Malcolm Vaughan had a number 3 hit in the UK with St Theresa of the Roses a couple of months after the release of The Greatest Builder, and there is not a vast chasm between the styles of the two songs. The difference, though, is that Vaughan seemed comfortable singing these types of rather square ballads and managed to do so with integrity and sincerity, but Bobby manages neither.
Hear Them Bells is better, and finds Bobby singing in a style and arrangement which, as with Blue Eyed Mermaid, is most associated with Guy Mitchell. This song is again accompanied by an orchestra and chorus, and has a sound that is 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 lyrics are trite, but Bobby manages to give a better performance here, giving a bouncy, lively vocal over a fun, if dated, arrangement.
The main problem with these songs is that the listener doesn’t believe that Darin believes what he’s singing about, or that this is the style of music that he wants to be singing. Perhaps this is partly to do with the issue of hindsight – after all, in 1968 Bobby released a song, Sunday, which attacks organised religion and what he views as its hypocrisy, and here we have songs telling us about the wonders of The Greatest Builder and going to church on a Sunday. Billboard were hardly ecstatic about the single either (and they were usually very easily pleased), stating that The Greatest Builder was “not great material of its type” and that Hear Them Bells wasn’t “hefty on message, but can help carry the better side.” Variety were more impressed, saying that Bobby gave an “all-out reading” of the ballad and that Hear Them Bells is “an uptempo religioso in a get-happy tempo and Darin also belts this one neatly.” Oddly, at the height of Bobby Darin’s fame at the end of 1959, Decca decided to re-release this single. As Billboard pointed out at the time, the single “bears little resemblance to the present Darin vocal sound. It’s a happy sound but fans will find little that’s familiar.” Cash Box referred to Bobby as a “talented songster,” and said of The Greatest Builder that “Bobby Darin hands in a potent deck as he introduces a dramatic inspirational ballad…Could catch on.” It didn’t.
Dealer In Dreams, the A-side of the fourth and final Decca single, 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 and include in Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957). Bobby’s recording misses the mark, however, because it is over-arranged; Darin is singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad with a full orchestral arrangement. With a less square arrangement and a more nuanced vocal, this could have worked well. Still, the song itself is solid and could have been a hit in the right hands.
Help Me was written by Cy Coben, co-writer of The Greatest Builder, and again finds Bobby in a strange, alien environment more in line with the British charts than the American ones. This type of big ballad never became Bobby’s forte, as he didn’t have the right voice for it, and here he is once again bogged down with a by-the-book orchestral arrangement.
In their review of the single, Billboard picked up again on the idea that Bobby Darin hadn’t yet worked out who he was within the recording studio. Whereas Variety had compared him to Harry Belafonte on his first single, Billboard suggested that Dealer in Dreams was “reminiscent of Johnnie Ray” before stating that it “deserves exposure.” Of Help Me, they wrote that the recording was “a big, fancy piping of a pleading ballad of genuine appeal.” The record-buying public didn’t agree, and neither did most of the critics, with this pairing get the least attention of the four Decca singles.
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 from record buyers, and was seemingly no closer to finding his own voice than when he first stepped into the Decca recording studios a few months earlier. It would be nearly a year before he returned to the recording studio, although he continued performing live in supper clubs and as part of revues aimed at teenagers, such as Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time. When he did return to the studio, it would be with a much more confident sound and with Bobby positioning himself firmly as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. For now.
 “Decca Debut,” Cashbox, April 7, 1956, 26
 “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, March 31, 1956, 56.
 Herm Schoenfeld, “Jocks, Jukes and Disks,” Variety, March 14, 1956, 50.
 “Record Reviews,” Cash Box, March 31, 1956, 8.
 George Laine, “Wax Museum,” Pasadena Independent, April 20, 1960, 12.
 “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, May 26, 1956, 50.
 Elvis would appear twice more on the show on the two programmes immediately following Bobby’s appearance.
 Stage Show was part of The Jackie Gleason Show.
 “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, September 29, 1956, 64.
 Herm Schoenfeld, “Jocks, Jukes and Disks,” Variety, October 8, 1956, 62.
 “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, December 28, 1959, 27.
 “Record Reviews,” Cash Box, September, 29, 1956, 10.
 “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, February 23, 1957, 63.