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Gonzo’s Gems: From Mack The Knife to Beyond The Sea, “The Legendary Bobby Darin”

By Sam “Gonzo” Gonzales

I distinctly remember playing my aunt’s “Oldies But Goodies” collection, volumes 1 through 8. I was about 11 years old and I knew being entrusted with those vinyl platters and stereo console was a very big deal. I played through all 8 volumes on a pretty regular basis, always stopping at key tracks, lingering on them a little longer than others, really giving them a good listening to. “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin was one of those tracks. It became an “Oldie But Goodie” favorite of mine then and continues to be so to this day.

Bobby Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto on May 14, 1936, in Bronx, New York. As a young child he suffered from Rheumatic Fever which left him with a seriously weakened heart. Overhearing a doctor tell his mother he would be very lucky if he reached his 16th birthday, Bobby knew his time was short. He decided to make the most of his life and he began using his talents sooner than later. He was a man with a mission and he didn‘t have time to waste. He began exploring many different styles of music and by his teenage years he had learned to play a multitude of instruments: Piano, drums, guitar and later harmonica and xylophone.

During the summers of ‘51 and ‘52, Bobby formed a group and played standards in the Catskills. From there he teamed up with songwriter Don Kirshner and helped write advertising jingles. Little by little, Bobby found his way into the music business and was signed on by ATCO. Sometime around 1956 he took the big step and officially changed his name to Bobby Darin. Legend has it that that Bobby was inspired by a Chinese restaurant’s neon sign with the first three letters burned out. The malfunctioning electric sign read “darin” instead of “Mandarin”. But things were slow going at ATCO and eventually there was hushed talk in the ranks about releasing Bobby. That is until Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun overheard Bobby playing Ray Charles-like piano and realized his untapped potential.

A session was booked and Bobby recorded his first album, “Bobby Darin”. “Splish Splash”, “Queen Of The Hop” and “Dream Lover” were three songs recorded. “Splish Splash” became an instant hit and “Queen Of The Hop” and “Dream Lover” followed suit. With those rock ’n’ roll hits under his belt, Bobby became a teen idol practically overnight. It was 1958 and he had conquered Rock ’n’ Roll with “Splish Splash”, “Queen Of The Hop” and “Dream Lover”.

Now to be daring and to be Darin, Bobby turned the tables stylistically and dove into Pop standards with his second album, 1959’s “That’s All”. “Could it be our boy has done something rash?” Bobby was now singing standards in a broad pop vein and nobody saw it coming. His first single, and one of his biggest hits, “Mack The Knife”, was a violent story about a ruthless killer and sung exuberantly by Bobby. “Mack The Knife” went to number 1 on the charts for 9 weeks straight, sold 2 million copies and won the Grammy Award for Record Of The Year in 1960. His second single, another big hit for Bobby, ”Beyond The Sea”, was a gorgeous song based on the French song, “La Mer”. The song sweeps you in with a feeling of majestic grace, with drums and horns dipping in and out between beautiful orchestration. Though “Mack The Knife” and “Beyond The Sea” were the biggies on the album, “It Ain’t Necessarily So“ was the Gem. Appealing to my blues-side, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a slow and bluesy tune about turmoil and triumph. With Richard Wess’ brass and string arrangements, “That‘s All“ launched Bobby into traditional showbiz stardom. Impressive to say the least. Read what Sammy Davis, Jr. had to say in a Western Union Telegram, dated January 27, 1959: “Dear Bobby, have just heard the dubs for your new album. What can I say? They’re so good I hate you. But seriously Bobby, I think the album’s another step in a career that I feel will last a long time. I anxiously await the public’s reaction to the album for in this day and age of gimic sounds and gimic records the choice of material and the arrangements of Dick Wess are a perfect combination of showmanship, performance and taste. In other words, I dig it. See you soon, Sammy Davis Jr.” In the space of one single year, Bobby Darin had gone from “Splish Splash” to “Mack The Knife”!

January 1960 saw the release of the album, “This Is Darin”. The Gem here is the late 1800 folk song, “Clementine“. Bobby brings the folk song to life with a swinging and rhythmic treatment. The horn drenched song is evocative of “Mack The Knife” in it’s feel, attitude and cool-cat delivery. January 1960 also saw Bobby boldly stating his goal in life to Life magazine. He wanted to be a Legend by the time he was 25 years old. Bobby Darin was thriving and well on his way, trading one-liners with Jimmy Durante on TV and trading shtick in Las Vegas with George Burns. Headlining major Las Vegas casinos, his live performances were electric. After seeing a Bobby Darin perform in Las Vegas, Sammy Davis, Jr. was quoted as saying, “Bobby Darin is the only person I never wanted to follow.” Bobby was becoming an all-around entertainer by adding acting to his repertoire, eventually being nominated for an Oscar.

Bobby’s musical output continued with eclecticism and diversity through the 1960s. Bobby even flirted with Country and Folk Music. The Gems during this period were “Lazy River”, “What’d I Say”, “You’re The Reason I’m Living“, “More“, “Hello, Dolly!”, “The Good Life” and “If I Were A Carpenter“. “Lazy River”, from the 1961 album, “The Bobby Darin Story“, starts off low and then builds up energy, the brass blaring dauntingly towards the end of the song. “What’d I Say”, from the 1962 album, “Bobby Darin Sings Ray Charles” is given a respectful going-over. Bobby gives the revered call-and-response R&B classic the respectful treatment it deserves. “You’re The Reason I’m Living”, from the 1963 album, “You’re The Reason I’m Living”, is a country-tinged song, with a pop approach and sad harmonica. “More” and “Hello, Dolly!”, from the 1964 album, “Hello Dolly To Goodbye Charlie”, continued in the pop standard vein. “The Good Life” from the 1965 album “Venice Blue” was a song written by Jack Reardon and Sasha Distel. A superb song, covered by countless artists including Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra on the 1964 album “It Might As Well Be Swing” and who actually was the first artist to cover it in a up-tempo manner. Bobby delivers a great vocal in his version as well. “If I Were A Carpenter” from the 1966 album, “If I Were A Carpenter”, was folk rock at it’s best. With the 60s firmly underway, Bobby Darin had become politically aware and his music showed this. This song put him on the Pop charts alongside Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle.

On December 21, 1973, I was visiting my aunt’s house and hanging out with my cousins when my aunt brought my attention to the newspaper article that said Bobby Darin had died. I was shocked to read that while undergoing Open Heart Surgery the day prior, Bobby Darin had died at the age of 37. I put the “Oldies” record on and listened to “Splish Splash” a few times as my mini-tribute to Bobby Darin. As I collected music in later years, I came across the “That’s All” LP at a yard sale. For a mere $3 dollars, I was the proud owner of a true Gem of a record. Since then I have learned that Bobby was versatile and diverse as an artist. With his ear always searching out new sounds he was able to come up with something different and unique.

Bobby Darin was a musician, songwriter, teen idol, smooth crooner, TV personality, lounge lizard, jazzman, bluesman, folky, country artist, Oscar-nominated movie star, political activist and a singer who withstood classification. He was able to sing Rock ’n’ Roll, Pop Standards, Country and Folk. Bobby was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990 and most recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Grammy Awards. He was once asked what he would like to be remembered for. “To be remembered as a human being and as a great performer.” he answered. I remember him as a human being and as a versatile, cool, diverse, daring, motivated, stylish, outspoken, eclectic, smooth and as a great performer. Ladies and gentlemen… the legendary Bobby Darin!

(DVD) “Beyond The Sea”
(CDs) “That‘s All“ and “The Legendary Bobby Darin”
(Songs) Splish Splash, Queen Of The Hop, Dream Lover, Mack The Knife, Beyond The Sea, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Clementine, Lazy River, What’d I Say, You’re The Reason I’m Living, More, Hello, Dolly!, The Good Life, and If I Were A Carpenter

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