Sammy Davis Jr. called him the one performer he refused to follow onstage. He was just too damn good.
Bobby Darin utilized more talents in his brief career than Elvis had scarves. He was a performer, a songwriter ("Dream Lover"), music publisher, Academy Award-nominated actor. He played drums, piano, harmonica, guitar. He told jokes, did good impressions, danced, and of course sang. He sang rock, country, blues, r&b, folk, and pop standards. He's a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his story is all the more amazing when you learn about his unusual life.
He was born Walden Robert Cossoto in 1936 in the Bronx, never quite sure who his father was.
His destiny was marked as early as age 8, when he contracted rheumatic fever, an infection that attacks the heart muscle. He heard the doctors tell his parents that he probably wouldn't live to be 16. He went to the Bronx High School of Science, and decided his ticket out of the Bronx was to be an actor. As rock 'n roll was coming in, he decided music was his best shot at stardom. Legend has it that he took has stage name from the a partly-burned out sign of a Mandarin restaurant.
He eventually got signed by Decca, but nothing he released went anywhere. He recorded "Rock Island Line," not the right material for him, and got to perform it on TV on the Dorsey Brothers show. He wrote key lyrics on his palm, but sweated them off as he sang.
Bobby became friends with Manhattan DJ Murray Kaufman ("Murray the K"), who challenged Bobby to write a song to a title that his mom suggested. That night he finished writing "Splish Splash," and it was a smash hit. He performed it on "American Bandstand," and became a close friends of Dick Clark. A string of hits for the Atco label followed, including "Queen of the Hop" and the more adult "'Dream Lover."
Darin had become a "teen idol," but he wasn't satisfied. He considered rock 'n roll and fad, and really wanted the respect of being an all-around performer, like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., that could play nightclubs and get a more adult audience.
In 1958 he had seen a Greenwich Village production of "The Threepenny Opera," and one song stood out in his mind: "Mack the Knife." Louis Armstrong had recorded it, so he added it to his nightclub act as kind of a throwaway, but it didn't go anywhere. Atco still owed him some royalties, so he booked a session to record an album only of pop standards, including "Mack the Knife," with swinging arrangements and his brash, over-the-top style. Many of the friends, like Dick Clark, told him he was nuts to screw up a hot rock 'n roll career. It became his only #1 record and still today is a lounge classic. Atco president Ahmet Ertegun said, "As we were cutting 'Mack the Knife' on the first date, there was no doubt in anybody's mind. Everyone knew that this was going to be a number one record. Then I realized that having done the rock thing, Bobby was now going to have a major pop hit." He also recorded "Beyond the Sea" in the same session.
Around the same time, George Burns was going into the Sahara Hotel to play his first engagement without Gracie, who had retired. Bobby's agent got him to hear "Splish Splash" and he took him to Vegas. They broke in the act a few weeks in Lake Tahoe, then opened up at the Sahara. After Bobby did some numbers, Burns came out and they did a soft shoe number, and their chemistry together was a big hit. He headlined the Sands on his own, at 23 the youngest performer ever to headline a Vegas showroom. He didn't do that well, though, and several weeks later rejoined George Burns at the Sahara. He became a mainstay at the Copacabana nightclub in New York, and recorded a live album there. That year, he won the Grammy for Best New Artist and Best Record for "Mack the Knife."
Darin really cut his eye teeth as a performer at the Copacabana, where he was a headline perfomer. His sister Vee remembers,
"When he played the Copacabana, the gangsters would come there on a Saturday night with their girlfriends. Sunday night was the night they took their wives. And Sunday night performances were off-the-wall, they were so good, because Bobby had to make those people stand up and cheer. He had a cold audience. They'd already seen the show the night before. It became his obsession to make sure they got more than they paid for, that they stood up and screamed. And they did. He did that. That's who he was from the time we were little. (from Dream Lovers by Dodd Darin)
Darin was a bona fide star, now, and began guesting on TV shows - Perry Como, Judy Garland, Dick Clark, and Jimmy Durante, among others. He also developed a reputation for cockiness, and was quoted by UPI saying that "he hoped to surpass Frank Sinatra in everything he does." Frank wasn't pleased. "Bobby Darin does my prom dates," he said.
Hollywood came beckoning, and he signed to co-star in "Come September." His co-star would be teen sensation Sandra Dee, and they were shortly married. He was in a string of movies throughout the early 60s, and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for "Captain Newman, M.D." with Gregory Peck.
At same time Sinatra had left Capitol Records to start his own Reprise label, so Capitol signed Darin as the Sinatra heir apparent, and hired Billy May to do many of the arrangements for Darin's first sessions with the label.
In the 60s he would headline at the Sands, the Cocoanut Grove in LA, and at The Flamingo, where he set an attendance record. His goal was to be the quintessential American performer that could do it all.
By 1963 Darin had his own music publishing company and he was looking for talent. One night in New York he spotted a young performer, part of a trio, named Wayne Newton, and decided to take him under his wing. When a producer brought Bobby a sure-fire hit called "Danke Schoen," he decided he was too busy with his business and he gave it to Wayne. "Bobby was a big brother to me. I loved him and I always will," says Wayne. That’s Wayne and Bobby together in the photo.
Darin was politically active, which was unusual for performers at the time, and it was not unusual for Darin to introduce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the audience at one of his shows. But the upheaval in the 60s, along with some personal problems, would also turn Darin's life upside down.
Darin was by this time divorced, and was deeply affected when he learned that the woman he always thought of as his sister was really his biological mother. He was a close friend and supporter of Robert Kennedy, and was devastated when a gunman ended his life in 1968. Dick Clark said that he was never the same.
In the late 60s the times were also changing, and suddenly, tuxedo, "Mack the Knife" and slick nightclub moves seemed irrelevant. Drugs, hard rock, and political unrest were now the norm. A cynic may say that Bobby changed his music for career reasons, but truthfully he had changed and the music didn't reflect him anymore. He had a hit in 1966 with Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" and began recording protesting songs in the Bob Dylan style. He grew a moustache and sideburns, replaced his tuxedo with denim, and spent a year living out of a trailer in Big Sur.
In 1969 the Sahara offered him 2 weeks, and he took it. This time he was Bob Darin, without his toupee and wearing jeans, and did mostly protest songs with political commentary. Someone requested "Mack the Knife," but he turned it down. Part of the audience walked out in the middle of the show. The Landmark came through with an offer; this time his denim was tailored and put a bigger band behind him. When Wayne Newton found out he had no bookings, he called in a favor and got Bobby booked into the Desert Inn. This time he put the tuxedo back on, but put a well-rounded show together that reflected both sides of his identity. He did "Mack" and "Splish Splash," but also did material by Laura Nyro, James Taylor, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The reviews were good the crowds gave a standing ovation, and Motown released a live album of the show.
While Darin's career was healthy again, his heart was not. Through most of the 60s Bobby would have oxygen offstage, and now underwent open heart surgery to replace damaged heart valves. The operation was a success, and in 1972 NBC hired him as the summer replacement for the Dean Martin Show, called the "Bobby Darin Amusement Company," perhaps the only entertainment show ever to feature a chess problem every week! His show was the only summer series that picked up on the fall schedule, and while the ratings were good NBC cancelled the show later that year. That year he also picked up a blood infection that affected his heart. He lost his battle on December 20, 1973.
It's been 25 years since Darin last performed, but his popularity shows no signs on waning. Barry Levinson is interested in filming the movie of his life, and Kevin Spacey would dearly love to play him (Darin's music was prominently featured in "American Beauty."). A documentary on PBS last season "Bobby Darin - Beyond the Song" was a success, and the bins in record stores are always well stocked of Darin CDs.
Perhaps the best way to remember Bobby Darin is his own words that he told a newspaper reporter in 1971:
I've found out a great deal about myself in the last six months or so. I am a nightclub animal. I do not drink, and I am not a head. I am stoned twice a night when I'm working with audiences, by the contemplation and the anticipation in the audiences, by the contemplation and anticipation of what it is I can do to them, with them, through them, and therefore in turn what they can do for me. (from Dodd Darin's Dream Lover)
If Bobby Darin were playing Vegas today, you just know he'd be adding rap and hip-hop to his act, and probably doing it better than what passes for talent today. He influenced many performers, and had too much talent to be pigeon-holed into being a single type of performer. That's what makes him Classic Vegas!