Faster than you can say, “tune in, turn on, drop out” the Mack the Knife crooner did just that.
Bobby, looking just like Kevin Spacey with a mustache
My favorite singer is Bobby Darin. Elvis and Sinatra fans can wax poetic to their hearts’ delight about their idols, but in my opinion they can’t touch my guy for singing chops, musicality, and plain old talent. Darin could sing anything – he released songs in just about every genre including rock, pop, jazz, country, folk, gospel, and even rap (which I’ll get to in a minute.) He wrote a lot of songs, too, and some of his best and most prolific came when he turned into a hippie.
Wait a minute, Bobby Darin – best known for the bathroom aura “Splish Splash,” the swinging Threepenny Opera’s “Mack the Knife”, and the romantic French ballad “Beyond the Sea” – became a hippie? Well, in a matter of speaking, yes. But let’s backtrack just a bit.
Darin loved and embraced the popular musicians of his time, unlike some of his contemporaries (Dean Martin, for example, openly loathed rock and roll music.) He was a huge fan of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and attended their concerts. On the live album “Bobby Darin Live at the Desert Inn” he refers to the Fab Four as “the four wizards of Liverpool” and tells the audience how sad he was to see them break up (the album’s concert was taped in 1971.) He also covered the Rolling Stones’ “Back Street Girl.” Additionally, he admired Bob Dylan (covering “Blowing in the Wind” and performing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” in concert in his last years), Neil Diamond, Randy Newman, and just about anyone with obvious songwriting talent.
That certainly isn’t what caused the metamorphosis, but I do believe this appreciation for rock and folk allowed Bobby’s songs to really shine once he underwent what could be called a mid-life crisis, which in Darin’s case was true as he wasn’t expected to live long. A childhood battle with rheumatic fever – which is now easily treated with antibiotics that weren’t available in the 1940s – left him with a badly damaged heart and a death bomb hanging over his head for his entire life. But in 1968 Bobby learned the truth about his family roots that pushed him over the edge.
Darin had been raised by a mother who was older – old enough to be his grandmother. He also had an older sister, Nina. One day Nina pulled aside Bobby, who was thinking seriously about dabbling in politics. She said she had to tell him the truth about his family, before the media could find it out. She told Bobby that she was really his mother, not his sister, and that the woman who raised him really was his grandmother. She had no clue who the dad was, having fooled around with several boyfriends at the time. The family devised the plan to protect Nina, who was unmarried at the time she gave birth.
Coupled with a divorce from his starlet wife Sandra Dee, Darin reacted by giving away most of his possessions (which included a suitcase telephone – the world’s first mobile device), tossing out his toupees, and hightailing it to the Big Sur area of California in an Airstream trailer. In fact, he lived in the trailer for several months, isolated from much of his relatives and friends, and got in touch with nature and himself. When he emerged and returned to the stage, he now donned a mustache and denim. Oh, and he insisted that his name be billed as Bob Darin – an homage to Dylan, the other famous Bob. Bobby Darin – as far as he was concerned – was in the past.
The Vegas crowds hated it. Audiences, expecting the old tuxedo-wearing crooner, jeered at the new look and sound. Darin’s long-time manager, Steve Blauner, thought Bobby’s songs at this time were nothing short of brilliant. So do I. So without blabbering on any longer, here’s a list of Darin’s best songs from this very interesting period in his career.:
Although this song was composed in 1965 – before Darin’s transformation – it does seem eerily predictive of it and reminds us that change is the only constant in life. “Whatever you’ve done is all over. Wherever you’ve been is so strange. Yesterday’s long gone forever. Damned if what you’re feeling isn’t change.”
We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here
“We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here” was also released before the late 60s – but as an anti-Vietnam song, it shows that Darin was quite conscious of the issues America faced during the decade. Because anti-war songs during the 60s were considered so controversial, their themes had to be disguised. In the case of “We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here” it was thinly veiled, at least the way I interpret is, as a couple having a secret romance.
Long Line Rider
“Lone Line Rider” narrates the grim tale of an Arkansas prison that was essentially working some of its inmates to death, and covering up the evidence. It’s apparently based on a true story – perhaps a story in the papers at the time – that inspired Darin, who was very supportive of civil and human rights (he regularly marched with African Americans and supported African American comedians.) The song has a really groovy beat, despite the disturbing subject matter.
Here’s footage of Bobby performing it, ironically, on the Dean Martin Show:
Me & Mr. Hohner
In this catchy song, Bobby Darin raps! Yes, it most certainly is rapping, even if it hadn’t caught on yet commercially in 1968, which illustrates just how ahead of his time Darin was. The song addresses discrimination by law enforcement towards anyone with long hair or a mustache at the time, and the lyrics contain the words “pot” and “hash”, which prevented it from being played on mainstream radio. Darin defended his usage of slang words for marijuana, saying that they were an accepted part of common language. And who is Mr. Hohner? His harmonica, of course. (Hohner is a company that makes musical instruments, specializing in harmonicas.)
Song For A Dollar
In “Song For A Dollar”, Bobby (or Bob) Darin is addressing and criticizing his older self. The lyrics “How many steaks can you chew, boy? And how many rides can you drive?” allude that while the old Bobby Darin was concerned with fortune and fame, the new one is more socially aware of the problems going on in the world.
Simple Song of Freedom
This is a brilliant anti-war anthem that I feel could easily stand up to John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Pete Seeger’s compositions. A singer named Tim Harden had a semi-hit with it (conversely, Bobby had a hit in 1966 with the Harden-composed “If I Were a Carpenter.”) The song starts out gently, slowly, and increasingly gets louder towards its rousing finish. My favorite line in it has to be, “Now some folks enjoy doing battle…like presidents, prime ministers, and kings. So let’s all build them shelves where they can fight it out among themselves. Leave the people be who love to sing.” It became a Darin staple that he performed many times in concert and on television appearances in the early 70s.
Here’s a clip of Darin performing the song:
Eventually, Darin met his audiences in the middle and started wearing the rugs and tuxedos in concert again, but he incorporated some modern songs in his set lists. His musical legacy remains one of the most interesting and versatile of any performer from the 20th century.
You can find most of these songs - and more great ones - on the CD "Songs From Big Sur."