Bobby Darin at Decca

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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.[1]  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.

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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.”[2]   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.”[3]   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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.”[6]

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.

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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.”[7]  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.”[8]

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.[9]  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.[10]  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.”

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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.”[11]  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.”[12]  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.”[13]  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.[14]

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.”[15]  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.

[1] “Decca Debut,” Cashbox, April 7, 1956, 26

[2] “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, March 31, 1956, 56.

[3] Herm Schoenfeld, “Jocks, Jukes and Disks,” Variety, March 14, 1956, 50.

[4] “Record Reviews,” Cash Box, March 31, 1956, 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George Laine, “Wax Museum,” Pasadena Independent, April 20, 1960, 12.

[7] “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, May 26, 1956, 50.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Elvis would appear twice more on the show on the two programmes immediately following Bobby’s appearance.

[10] Stage Show was part of The Jackie Gleason Show.

[11] “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, September 29, 1956, 64.

[12] Herm Schoenfeld, “Jocks, Jukes and Disks,” Variety, October 8, 1956, 62.

[13] “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, December 28, 1959, 27.

[14] “Record Reviews,” Cash Box, September, 29, 1956, 10.

[15] “Reviews of New Pop Records,” Billboard, February 23, 1957, 63.

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Bobby Darin: 1971 – The Lost Year

Even for many Bobby Darin fans, 1971 is a year which is a bit of a mystery.  Darin began the year with a residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  An album was planned, entitled “Finally,” but it didn’t emerge until 1987.  Straight after the engagement, Bobby had heart surgery and laid low for next eight months or so, only appearing on TV again in September in a short, almost unrecognisable, cameo in a Jackson 5 special, and then in two acting roles in Ironside and Cade’s Country.  He finished the year with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

This post pulls together some press cuttings from this “lost year.”  I have purposefully NOT included the many articles that dwelled on the surgery, and instead concentrated on other things.  Check out, though, the second and third articles, both from Variety.  In the first, they accuse some singers in Bobby’s act of walking out without warning on his show.  In the second, just days before the heart surgery and when he no doubt had plenty of other things on his mind, Bobby wrote to Variety to set the record straight.

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Fort Myers News-Press, Jan 6, 1971. 

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pg (42)

Variety, Jan 27, 1971. 

pg (43)

Variety, Jan 29. 1971

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Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_3

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_ part 1

All of the above:  Detroit Free Press, Nov 10, 1971

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Burlington Daily-Times News, March 16, 1971

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Des Moines Free Press, June 4, 1971

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Reno Gazette-Journal, September 10, 1971

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San Bernardino County Sun, September 19, 1971

Bobby Darin on Stage – Part I

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While there are a couple of sessiongraphies and discographies of Bobby Darin online, and an extensive (although still incomplete) list of his TV appearances within my own book (Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide), there is, alas, no list of Bobby’s on-stage appearances.   Working with newspaper archives, I have done my best to start that process, beginning with what I can find of his 1956-1959 concert appearances.  However, I am well aware that this list is FAR from complete.  Some entries have question marks beside them as I am not sure of when an residency began or ended (or both), and many performances are not listed at all.  And so if you are aware of missing performances, please message me and let me know.  If I ever do a second edition of my Darin book and include this material as an appendix, then any information given to me by yourselves would of course be noted in the acknowledgement section.  But, at this stage, that is a long way off (if it ever happens).   At the moment, I am simply trying to put a list together to share with other fans and nothing else.  I look forward to hearing from you.

1956

April 15th         University of Detroit Memorial Hall .  Rock ‘n’ Roll Show with The Four Aces, The Four Coins, Cathy Carr etc

May 2nd-5th       Purple Onion, Guilford . 3 shows nightly.  Headliner

1957

April 13           Paramount Theater, Montgomery .  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

April 15 – ?      Mike’s South Pacific Club.  3 shows nightly

April or May    Murray Franklin’s Night Spot

May 19            Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

September 7    Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

Oct 7-12?         Gay Haven Supper Club, Detroit

October  ?         Apollo, NY.   Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue

December 6     Elms Ballroom, Youngstown.   All-Star Record Hop, with Frankie Avalon, Mello Kings etc

December 31   War Memorial, Rochester.  New Year’s Eve show with Bill Haley, The Spaniels etc

bobby in pyjamas.

1958

June 27            Barnum Festival.  Ballyhoo show, with Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme

July 1               Broadway Theater, Philadelphia .  “Rock ‘n’ Shock Spooktacular”

July 2               Orpheum, Germantown.  “Rock ‘n’ Shock Spooktacular”

* The Spooktacular played dates for the entirety of July 1-5, but specific dates & locations unknown

July 5               Saylor’s Lake, Allentown .   Big Beat Dance, with Danny and the Juniors, The Aquatones

August 18        Johnson City Recreation Center.  Record Hop

August 24        Hollywood Bowl, LA.  A Salute to Dick Clark

August 30        Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

September 13  Elms Ballroom, Youngstown .  with Tony Pastor, Dion & the Belmonts etc

October 3        Worcester Auditorium.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 4        State Theater, Hartford.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 5        Montreal Forum, Canada .  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 6        Peterborough Memorial Center, Canada.  Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 7        Kitchener Memorial Center, Canada.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 8        Toledo Sports Arena .  Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 9        Indiana Theater .  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 10      State Fair Coliseum, Louisville.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 11      Veteran’s Memorial, Columbus.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 12      Stambaugh Auditorium, Youngstown.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 13      Syria Mosque, Pittsburgh.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 14      Akron Armoury.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 15      Community War Memorial.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 16      Catholic Youth Center, Scranton.   “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 17      Municipal Auditorium, Norfolk, VA.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 18      Park Center, Charlotte.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 19      The Mosque, Richmond.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58” included Buddy Holly

November 20  Loew’s Poli Theater, Bridgeport.  “Shower of Top Recording Stars”

December 6     Chicago Opera House.  “Howard Miller’s Pop Music Concert” with Everly Bros etc

December ?      Ben Maksik’s Town & Country, Brooklyn.  Support act

Chicago_Tribune_Mon__Jul_27__1959_

1959

January 1         Civic Auditorium.  “Show of Stars” with The Platters etc

January 31 – February 2       Melbourne Stadium, Australia.  “Shower of Stars” with Chuck Berry etc

February 4-7    Sydney Stadium, Australia .  “Shower of Stars” with Chuck Berry

February 22     Evergreen Ballroom, Old Olympia.  with Little Willie John

February 26     Cottonwoods, Albany.  Show and Dance

March 1           Playquato Ballroom, Centralia.  Dance

March 9           Surf, Clear Lake, Iowa.  Special for ages 14-21

March 11         Prom Center, Minneapolis.  Teen hop with the Bellnotes

March 12         Fournier’s, Wisconsin.  In Person

March 19         Val Air Ballroom, Des Moines.  with the Bellnotes

March 22         Cinderella Ballroom, Appleton.  with the Bellnotes. Afternoon perf

April 20-at least 29th     Blinstrub’s, Boston

May 4-17         Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe.  George Burns show

June 1-?             Copacabana, New York

June ?                Sahara, Las Vegas.  George Burns show

July 10             Community Hall, North Bend

July 12             Eureka Municipal Auditorium

July 13             Klamath Falls Auditorium.  Bobby Darin and his Orchestra

July 17             Vets Memorial Hall, Petaluma

July 24             El Paso County Coliseum

July 25             Tingley Coliseum, Albuquerque

July 26             Seth Hall, Santa Fe

July 31             Cloister, Hollywood

August 8          Playboy Jazz Festival, Chicago Stadium.  with Duke Ellington & Oscar Peterson on the same bill

August 23-30   Steel Pier Music Hall, Atlantic City.  August 29 & 30 perfs were televised on WRCV-TV

September 5    Hollywood Bowl, L.A.   A Tribute to Jimmy McHugh

Sept 7-13         Three Rivers Inn, Syracuse

Sept 16 &17      West Texas Fair, Abilene

Sept 14-20?      Santa Clara County Fair.  Bobby’s particular performance date unknown

October 3        Los Angeles Jazz Festival, Hollywood Bowl

October 6-27  Sands Hotel, Las Vegas

October 28      Royal Casino, Washington

October 30-31 The Terrace, Salt Lake City

November 2    New Arena, Pittsburgh

Nov 3-5           Arizona State Fair.  3 shows per day.  9 in all.

Nov 13-15       Mosque Theater, New Jersey.  3 shows per day.  9 in all.

Nov 16 -22       Sciolla’s Philadelphia

November 26  Concord Hotel, Catskills

November 27  New Haven Arena

Dec 4-28?        Chi’s Chez Paree, Chicago.  Did Bobby really have a near-four week engagement?

Dec 26-31        Jimmy & Jack’s New Arena, Pittsburgh

 

Ella Fitzgerald’s Country Album: Misty Blue

117365037It’s hardly surprising that viewpoints on this album vary wildly. For fans of Ella’s jazz material, it’s a waste of talent. For fans of country music, it’s a weird mish-mash of styles. But, let’s be honest, Ella had never been JUST a jazz singer. In fact, she had wrapped her tonsils around country music before, such as A Satisfied Mind back in 1955, and much of her material from the early to mid-1950s wasn’t jazz either, with her tackling the likes of Crying in the Chapel and Soldier Boy during those sessions. And, throughout the 1960s, she incorporated some of the “now sounds” (as she called them) into her albums and concerts, including Beatles tracks and the likes of Walk Right In. So, really, this country album didn’t come completely out of left-field.

It certainly was a strange choice of album as her first project for Capitol, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. In fact, it’s hugely enjoyable for the most part. Ella’s country is not dissimilar in sound to that on Bobby Darin’s You’re the Reason I’m Living album – and by that I mean that it takes country material and melds it with big band instrumentation. The songs are well-chosen too, with Ella given the chance to sing some rather feisty lyrics such as “This Gun Doesn’t Care Who It Shoots,” and there is also a wink and a nudge on a few tracks too, such as Evil on Your Mind and Don’t Let That Doorknob Hit You.

Ella was probably never in better voice than in the mid-1960s. On ballads, she had a fuller sound that was silky smooth, but she was also adding a kind of soul-like rasp to her voice on bluesier and upbeat material. The best songs here are those written by Hank Cochran – It’s Only Love and Don’t Touch Me, with Ella’s performance of the latter being truly beautiful. Also listen out for the phrasing on Born to Lose – absolutely stunning.

These songs might not have been her natural “bag” but they are beautifully recorded and Ella throws herself into this (on the face of it) unlikely project with great enthusiasm. She would continue to explore new avenues during the late 1960s with an album of hymns and spirituals, and even dalliances with rock on her two albums for Reprise – and that’s not to mention her reinvention of Hey Jude on the under-rated Sunshine of Your Love LP. In concert she would wail her way through Spinning Wheel, and even enter protest territory with What’s Going On (recorded live twice) and her own Capitol single It’s Up to You and Me – her self-penned response to the killing of Martin Luther King that has sadly never made it to CD.

Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

bobby judy

May 14, 2016 would have been the 80th birthday of Bobby Darin.   In celebration, here is a look at ten key (although not always obvious) recordings from the five hundred or so that Bobby made between 1956 and 1973.

Silly Willy (1956)

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.

Recorded at his first 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 is no Splish Splash, however.  Much of the problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempi 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.  The number 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.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

Bobby struggled to find a breakthrough hit following his move to ATCO in 1957, but eventually made the big time with Splish Splash.  However, never one to rest on his laurels, he wanted to try new things and avoid being pigeon-holed as just another rock ‘n’ roll singer.  In late 1958 he recorded his That’s All album, which would feature the track which would become his signature song, Mack the Knife. 

On the same album was Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, taken from a 1920s operetta called The New Moon.  The treatment it receives here is raucous and brash, both in the arrangement and the singing, and it’s clear that the whole point is that it is going against how the song was originally conceived and normally performed (particularly within a vocal arrangement).

There is a possibility that Bobby got this idea from the 1954 Hollywood biopic of the song’s composer, Sigmund Romberg.  In Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen), Romberg, played by José Ferrer, attends a show in which the song is being performed and is mortified at the up-tempo, crass arrangement of his beloved composition.  There is more than just this casual link between the two performances.  For example, towards the end of the song, Bobby changes the lyrics in exactly the same way as they are in the film sequence by repeating words:  “Softly, softly, as in an evening sunset, sunset.”  But he goes yet further, breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to arranger/conductor Richard Wess, telling him “the title of this tune is Softly, so can we do it that way please?”  He then proceeds to sing it louder than ever.  It’s a brash and cocky move, totally breaking with convention, and the kind of thing which separates him from Sinatra, who treated his material somewhat more reverently.

Sinatra did come close, however, on the rarely heard attempt-at-a-hit Ya Better Stop, recorded in 1954, in which he shouts as the song starts to fade: “Oh here now, this ain’t gonna be another of those fade-away records.  Get your grimy hand off that dial, man!”  The chief difference here is that Sinatra waits until the song is over before his interjection, whereas Darin is making out that he has almost no regard for the song itself in the way it was originally intended.  That, no doubt, was not the case, but Romberg was probably turning in his grave despite the fact that Bobby had just exposed his relatively obscure song to a new generation. Ya Better Stop remained unreleased until 1978, nearly twenty years after Bobby’s recording of Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

Milord (1960)

Bobby wasn’t just recording in different genres, he was now recording in different languages!  Only one song appears to have been recorded at the session on June 20, 1960, in New York, but it’s a Darin classic, albeit one that is not particularly well-known.  A year earlier, Bobby had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill as Edith Piaf, and here he takes one of her signature songs and turns it into a tour-de-force.

Milord is one of Bobby’s most infectious recordings, and there are few recordings within the Darin legacy where his enjoyment of singing a particular song jumps out of every groove as much as it does here.   He sings the entire number in the original French, although he changes a few words to account for the song being sung by a man instead of a woman.  There is a Gallic element to the orchestration thanks to the use of the accordion, but the arrangement gains momentum with each verse, until Darin lets loose completely during the instrumental, singing along and clearly having a ball.  The only fault, perhaps, is that it’s all over in two minutes – but what a great two minutes!

Despite the wonderful singing and arrangement, ATCO clearly didn’t quite know what to do with a song sung completely in French, and it languished in their vaults for four years before they released it as a single, reaching #45 in the U.S. charts during a period where Darin was having something of a lull when it came to chart success.  The Daily Mirror in the U.K. called the release “interesting, but I can’t see it tearing the charts apart.” Likewise, the Australian press weren’t too excited either, saying “as great an entertainer as Darin is, he doesn’t inject into the number the mood and feeling that Piaf did.”

It’s hard to tell what the critics were listening to, but it certainly didn’t seem to be Bobby’s version of Milord.

I Got a Woman (1961)

Darin had already recorded I Got a Woman at the jazz combo sessions nearly two years earlier that had produced the Winners album (that version remains unreleased), and also for the Darin at the Copa album.  However, he tackled it again for his Bobby Darin sings Ray Charles LP – for a whole six and a half minutes.  The song starts off in normal fashion, but then Bobby keeps the “alright” ending of the song going for over three minutes despite it being basically the same line repeated over and over again.  This is Darin at his most self-indulgent, and yet there is still a point to it, for he finds almost every possible variation of singing that line during this extended coda which listeners are going to love or tire of quickly and simply hit the “next” button on the remote control.  There is also a rawness here, particularly with this song.  During the main section, he reaches for notes and misses them, but it doesn’t matter – Darin is showing us that this music is all about “feel” and not about technical perfection, and he hits that message home time and again during the course of the album.

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

In July 1962, Bobby started work on his first album of folk songs.  Earthy wouldn’t simply tap into the then-current vogue for folk music, though, but would instead pull together both traditional songs from around the globe as well as newer compositions written by the likes of Tom Paxton.

I’m on My Way Great God is the first of the spiritual/gospel songs on the album, and it is quite an epic.  It starts off with minimal instrumentation, with the arrangement growing subtly with each subsequent verse.  The song also utilises a choir, but here they are not at all intrusive in the way that they are on the big band album recorded during the same series of sessions.  It’s interesting to note just how controlled Darin’s vocal is, starting off at barely a whisper, and then slowly but surely getting more and more powerful over the four-and-a-half minute running time.  Bobby, no doubt, was aware he had a showstopper on his hands, and included the number in the folk section of his live concerts through 1963 as well as when he appeared on The Judy Garland Show filmed just days after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

In 1964, Bobby couldn’t get a hit record for love nor money.  In September 1964, he made his first attempt at recording his own composition Gyp the Cat, a clever pastiche of Mack the Knife, this time about a thief, and using a similar melody to the Kurt Weill song.  As with Mack the Knife, the song tells a story, and the arrangement works in the same way, with it gaining in intensity with each successive verse.  It’s a lighter affair lyrically, with a nice twist in the final verse, and would have been a better choice of single than Hello Dolly which was released instead.  Despite the British Invasion, there was clearly still a place in the singles charts for this type of material, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the Darin-produced Wayne Newton hit Danke Schoen had shown.  The 1964 version of Gyp the Cat remained unissued until thirty-odd years later, with a 1965 recording of the same song issued as a B-side.  It was something of a waste of a fun Darin original, in his signature style, and showing that he could poke fun at himself through a pastiche of his earlier hit.

We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here (1965)

We Didn’t Ask to be Brought Here (recorded just after he returned to Atlantic in 1965) was a fine, adult, contemporary pop song with a clear message and, as such, was Darin’s first overtly political single.  While there were no specifics mentioned within the song, it would have been clear to listeners at the time that the song was referring to events such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War when he sings “the world’s gone mad.”  Billboard called the single “his greatest chance for the charts since Mack the Knife.  In the current commercial protest vein, he excels with his own composition backed by a hard driving dance beat.”  Sadly, very few got to hear it, and the single sank almost with trace.  One has to wonder if both Darin and the advertisements for the song had something to do with it.  An original advert is shown in Jeff Bleiel’s book, That’s All, and tells the reader that the song has a “great message” but then has a picture of Darin in a suit and tie – hardly the image associated with someone singing a protest song in 1965. The image and the content were simply an anachronism.

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

Bobby Darin told many times in concert a humorous story of how a couple of agents came to see him in 1965 or 1966 and offered him songs by the likes of John Sebastian and Tim Hardin that he rejected and that went on to become hits.  Quite how much of the story is true is debatable, although it was no doubt at least partly based in fact, even if it had been somewhat embellished.  “When they came to me the next time, I was lying in wait for them,” he told an audience in 1973, and the song he ended up recording was If I Were a Carpenter, a number which would introduce yet another phase in the career of Bobby Darin.

Despite the fact that Darin spent time trying to ease the rumours that Tim Hardin was annoyed at him “stealing his song,” the original stories still make for good copy.  Fred Dellar, in the liner notes for the CD release of the If I Were a Carpenter album, repeats the story that Hardin was “incensed” that Darin had “copied Hardin’s own vocal approach.”  He even quotes Hardin as saying “he played my version through his headphones, so that he could copy my phrasing.”  While Darin was clearly inspired and influenced by the original Tim Hardin demo, he certainly wasn’t listening to it through headphones when he recorded the song as he makes a number of small, but not unimportant, changes to both the melody and the timing.  The bridge section, for example, is sung faster in Hardin’s version, but in tempo in Bobby’s.  Meanwhile, certain notes are exchanged for others in Darin’s rendition, particularly in the second verse where this happens on multiple lines.  Finally, Bobby’s vocal is far more intimate, more delicate, than Hardin’s.  Somehow, from somewhere, he had found yet another new voice that had only ever been hinted at over the previous decade.

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

In 1968, Bobby moved away from traditional record labels and set up his own:  Direction, where he would spend the next two years recording songs of protest and social commentary.  Darin’s second album for the label opens with Me and Mr. Hohner, and finds Darin talking, almost rapping, the lyrics, producing a sound that was considerably ahead of its time.  At face value, this is a song about police harassment in general, but the references to “South Philly” at the end of each verse makes it clear that this is Darin’s view of Frank Rizzo, who was Police Commissioner in Philadelphia at the time.  His obituary in the New York Times states that Rizzo was often viewed as a “barely educated former police officer who used a hard line and tactics bordering on dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods.”  The 1991 article goes on to say that “Mr. Rizzo personally led Saturday-night round-ups of homosexuals and staged a series of raids on coffee houses and cafes – saying they were drug dens.”  This, together with the multiple charges against Rizzo (all of which were dropped) regarding the beating of suspects, fits in with the picture the song paints of a young man and his harmonica “not doing nothing to no-one/When a squad car stops and out jumps cops/‘You’re one of them if I ever saw one’” and the fear at the end of each verse of getting a beating.

The track is brilliantly executed, with a fine production and Darin’s vocal sounding completely natural despite the nature of it.  Billboard called it “another strong message lyric set to an infectious beat [with a] top arrangement and vocal workout.”  Later in the year, Variety stated that Bobby was told he couldn’t sing the song during his appearance on This is Tom Jones (he sang Distractions instead).

Happy (1972)

Finally, we come to Bobby’s last single, which was released in December 1972.  The effect of television appearances could be seen when Happy was sang twice on Darin’s TV series in early 1973, and the song went on to reach #67 in the US charts.  That may not sound much, but it was his highest charting single since The Lady Came from Baltimore in 1966, and his first to chart at all since 1969.  Happy is subtitled Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues, but this is a little confusing.  The song itself never appeared in the film sung by anyone.  Indeed, it hadn’t even been written at the time of the film’s release.  Instead, the song simply borrows a melody from the incidental music in the film and adds lyrics to it – much like Somewhere My Love (Doctor Zhivago) or Stella By Starlight (The Uninvited).

Darin turns the song into an epic.  There is a huge orchestral arrangement but, even when the full force of the band is heard during the bridge section, Bobby shows that he can compete and he belts out this section before turning on a dime to a much softer voice for the end of the vocal.  The single clocks in at just under four minutes, but the version released on LP is two minutes longer, although Darin doesn’t sing a single note extra.  Instead, the extra two minutes are an extended orchestral outro, with backing vocals at the very end adding a gospel feel to the proceedings.  The number and production were atypical Darin, but show that Bobby could still deliver even this late in the game.  Billboard called the single “one of Darin’s finest performances on record.”

(Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide is available in Kindle and paperback format from Amazon)

 

2016: Bobby Darin at 80

Bobby new york

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post detailing how badly 2015, the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80, had been handled by both his record label and the Presley Estate.  The only major release was centred around a gimmick rather than the great music that Elvis made during his lifetime, and that great music was largely ignored for the entire year.  In 2016, Bobby Darin would have turned 80, but what should we be allowed to expect?

Less than a decade ago, all but three or four of Bobby Darin’s original albums were available on CD.  Now, as 2015 draws to a close, less than half a dozen are available as physical product in America.  Not even That’s All or This is Darin are available from Bobby’s own label, although public domain copies can be imported infrom Europe.  In Europe, the situation is somewhat better thanks to Warner’s release of ten of the ATCO albums spread over two 5CD boxed sets.  But, after the ATCO period, the situation is just as bad as it is in America.

“How did this happen?” is a question that many Darin fans are no doubt asking.  From the mid-1990s, Bobby’s star was once again in the ascendency, with well-advertised compilations of issues of unreleased material appearing with great regularity.  And then, without warning, it stopped.  I say “without warning” but that isn’t strictly true.  There were signs that those behind Bobby-related releases were cutting corners or, perhaps, just getting a bit bored.  Aces Back to Back was released with quite some fanfare (even a single to promote it), but was in reality a hodge-podge of performances that didn’t gel together and about which we were told absolutely nothing in the poorly-conceived booklet.  The 2006 DVD Seeing is Believing contained some great performances but seemed to be edited together by someone using Windows Moviemaker, and with no thought as to which performance should go where.  After that, it was not only a further seven years before a release containing “new” Bobby Darin material, but during that time there was not even the appearance of an official compilation to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday.

The consequences of all this is that Bobby, despite being highly thought of by critics and having an extremely loyal fan-base, is now struggling to be remembered by the general public beyond half a dozen key songs.  Alas, that is what being forgotten about by your label and, seemingly, Estate does for your popularity.  2016 is the year that can change all of that.  Not only would it have been Bobby’s 80th birthday, but it is also the 60th anniversary of his first recordings for Decca.  Whether we can actually expect anything from record companies and/or the Darin Estate to mark these occasions in style, and to get Bobby Darin talked about and noticed once again, is very much up for debate.

One would like to think that, at the very least, there could be a compilation put together of Bobby’s hits and signature songs that could be advertised on TV, radio and the internet.  This might contain nothing new, but at least it would get Bobby’s name out there again.   But what else could we, or should we, expect?  Frankly, going by the last few years, perhaps we should set our expectations low and hope to be surprised.  The Bobby Darin Show series from 1973 was decimated when released on DVD.  Yes, an apology of sorts was issued by the Estate a month after the release, but one would assume they would have seen the planned DVDs and the packaging they criticise some time before release date and could have had things improved or changed if they really wanted to.  It is, after all, The Bobby Darin Testamentary Trust that is credited on the DVD cover.  Moreover, it took some twelve years from the discovery of the so-called Milk Shows to their arrival on CD.  Another sign we should perhaps not hold out breath for a special release next year.  We have been told for some time that a project is in the works containing the previously unreleased Manhattan in my Heart and Weeping Willow, but there appears to be no sign of such a project as yet.  Also, in the May 2014 apology about the television series DVD, we were told about a remastering and restoration of the final concert-style episode of Bobby’s TV series that would be released – and, more than eighteen months later, there’s been no sign of that either.

Could we possibly dare to hope  that a set of rarities might appear to celebrate Bobby’s 80th?  There are, for example, a number of items that have never appeared on CD – such as the studio recording of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the songs from the 1972 album that were not released as singles.  And how about the title song from That Darn Cat, a song Bobby recorded for the Disney film but which was never released on record.  A four-song live set from Australia in 1959 was released on a bootleg a couple of decades ago, but has yet to be released officially – and neither has the Something Special LP, which was the soundtrack to the BBC TV special recorded in 1966.   What’s more, I Don’t Know How to Love Her, recorded at Motown in the early 1970s, was heard on a BBC radio show a year or so ago but remains unreleased – as do a number of other tracks  recorded during the same period that are still in the vault (and some of which have been heard).  Can we not assume that there are more songs on tape from The Troubadour in 1969 than the four released so far?  And how about at least the audio of some of the songs excised from the TV show DVD and from the Bobby Darin Amusement Company series that came before it?

A release of Bobby Darin “discoveries” might not set the world afire but, with a decent compilation of Bobby’s greatest moments to accompany it, at least Bobby’s popularity/recognition might once again start to rise – and this without even entering the realms of producing an in-depth documentary, or a book of unreleased photographs and other documents, or perhaps a collection of Bobby’s guest appearances on TV variety shows.

Many will, no doubt, say that none of this will ever happen – and they are probably correct – but it is also time for Darin fans to start asking the question of why none of this will happen, even if the answers might well complicate the situation even more.  No matter how talented the star, if their work is largely unavailable and their legacy rarely brought back into the public eye, that star will, alas, shine less brightly than it needs to outside of the fandom.  Fans do what they can to stop that from happening, but it also perhaps time to start demanding more from the powers that be that can and should be making a difference.  Here’s hoping that 2016 will bring about changes in how Bobby is handled that means these questions don’t need to be asked and that these demands don’t need to be raised.  But, I confess, I’m not hopeful. 

Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide – Now available

BOBBY COVER RIGHT SIZE2

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide, which is available in Amazon stores in paperback and Kindle formats.

Bobby Darin made more than 500 recordings during his short lifetime and this book examines all that have been released, from those he made during his short tenure at Decca to performances from the 1972-3 TV series.  The book works through Bobby’s recording career, session by session, song by song, providing a new commentary on the songs and their performances.  Alongside this runs the story of how Bobby and his recordings and performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines and trade journals at the time, referencing over 200 articles.  The book runs to 346 pages, and includes appendices covering a lifetime discography, a list of Darin compositions performed by other artists, the most complete list published to date of Bobby’s television appearances, and more.

Please note that the “see inside” preview feature on the Kindle product page on Amazon currently contains an error involving font sizes (switching back and forth from one to the other).  The book has been downloaded to 2 different Kindle devices, the PC Kindle app, and the Kindle app for Android phone, and the issue is NOT repeated on any of them. Amazon are working on correcting the preview page.