Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.

Sammy Davis Jr

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Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true.  He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils).  And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was.  History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture.  Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.

Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom.  For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray.  Davis had yet to find his voice.  And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra.   What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.

By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice.  A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself.  The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done.  Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice.   This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz.  What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance.   For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again.  When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.

By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe.   He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act).   But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.

When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things.  Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety.  At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart.   And then, Davis also stopped the joking.  He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that.  Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile.  Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.

The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald.  But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.

Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions.  There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish.  Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number.   Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums.   He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.

Then it all fell apart.  Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes.  The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.”  Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments.  And, then it was basically over.  His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979.  And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s.  Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.

But there would be one last hurrah.  The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form.  His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself.  Sadly there was no final album.  Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.

Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel.  Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme.  PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD.  Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.