Saturday, December 21, 2013
10 Things You Didn't Know About Bobby Darin
"It isn't true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times, if you know how." - Bobby Darin
Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Bobby Darin's death--and considering that he's my favorite entertainer of all time, I couldn't let another day slip by without spreading some love for my Bobby D. Notice that I chose the word entertainer to describe him in lieu of singer or musician. That's because Bobby Darin, as his diehard fans already know, possessed talent that was way more multi-faceted than just being a crooner. So many of today's fame whores from Miley Cyrus to Kanye West are nothing but posers with overinflated opinions of themselves; Darin was the real deal. He wrote catchy songs that spanned several genres and composed instrumental music, had mastered several instruments by the time he was a teen, was intelligent, involved in social and political causes and even scored an Oscar nomination. If you think that the only thing Bobby Darin contributed to the world was "Mack the Knife", think again. The man was so amazing that when his son, Dodd Darin, interviewed friends of his father for his biography about his parents, "Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Dreams of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee," he said they often burst into tears while waxing nostalgia about his dad; so beloved that he was. Here are ten things most non-Darin fans probably don't know about him...
1. He Wasn't Expected to Live Past His 16th Birthday
Born in 1936, Walden Robert Cassotto (Darin's real name) was said by his family to be undersized and frail as an infant, and prone to sickness and accidents. Growing up in the Bronx during the WWII era--before many vaccinations and antibiotics were discovered--Bobby Darin contracted rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can develop a few weeks after a person is infected with strep throat or scarlet fever. In Darin's case, he battled the disease four times between the age of 8 and 13. The disease affected his joints so badly he was in constant pain during that time, and attacked his heart valves, plaguing him with health problems for the rest of his life; later in his career, he would have to fortify himself with oxygen backstage in between songs during performances.
Rheumatic fever led to the first defining moment in Darin's young life when he overheard the doctor treating him tell his family that, even with the best of care, "the boy will not live to see his 16th birthday." Bobby decided that he was going to prove the doctor wrong, that he would become a showbiz legend by the time he was 25, and that he was going to shoehorn as much into life as he could. That included trying to learn pretty much anything and everything he was interested in--from harness racing to tennis (which was the only sport, try as he might, he just couldn't get the hang of.) Unlike so many of us, Darin didn't procrastinate; he couldn't afford to. And when he set his mind to accomplish something, he didn't let anything stand in his way. Unfortunately, this imminent death bomb hanging over his head also made him brash, controlling and arrogant at times--but Bobby expected nothing less than perfection when it came to delivering performances for his fans.
2. The Woman He Thought Was His Sister Was Really His Mother
Nina Cassotto, Darin's mother, was 16 years old when she found out she was pregnant. She never revealed who the father was, not even to her own family, and--perhaps due to the social stigma at the time--it was decided that Darin's grandmother, Polly, would raise him as her own son and Nina would masquerade as his sister.
Darin didn't learn the truth about his mother until he was 32 years old and already a star. He may never had found out if it weren't for the fact that he was getting involved with Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and hinting that politics was something he was thinking of getting involved with himself. The revelation, combined with the death later that year of Kennedy, was a real kick to the groin. Darin gave away most of his possessions (including a suitcase phone, the world's first mobile phone) to his friends and hightailed it to the Big Sur area of California with an Airstream trailer in tow. For several months, he lived in his trailer and began writing folk songs in what became his most creative and prolific period.
Grandma Polly had experience with music and vaudeville herself, but one has to wonder what kind of background Darin's father came from...and if he ever saw his son perform and know that it was his child? One of those mysteries from music history that unfortunately, will never be solved.
3. He Recorded Pretty Much Every Genre of Music
Bobby Darin wasn't afraid to take chances with music. While he started his career successfully as a rock and roll teen idol, he knew that bubblegum pop would only take him so far down the road. One night he went to see the play The Threepenny Opera, and decided that he was going to record a swing arrangement of the production's signature song, "Mack the Knife", a German ditty about the murderous thug in the cast of characters, Macheath. Dick Clark thought he was crazy--advising Bobby not to record since he risked alienating his teenage audience. Luckily for us, Darin didn't listen to him. The song was recorded in December 1958 and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records recalled telling Darin that he nailed it after the first take. It was released as a single in August 1959. By October 5th, 1959, the song rose to No.1 on the national Billboard chart and remained in that position for 9 weeks, earning him a Record-of-the-Year Grammy award for 1959.
But Darin didn't stop there. He dabbled in country-western, folk, blues, and even gospel. Darin's personality and passion is evident in just about anything he sang. I've heard one male fan say that Darin is the only singer who could make him like the song "Mame." His vocals were equally adept on showstopper Broadway numbers as they were on covers of gentle John Sebastian compositions. On the catchy "Me and Mr. Hohner", a song he wrote about police brutality against hippies, he even does an early style of rap:
During the time this song was released, Darin was going by Bob Darin in concerts and on television appearances, because he said it made his name sound more like Bob Dylan. Darin's manager, Steve Blauner, described the music Darin was churning out during this period of his career as "absolutely brilliant." Audiences, however, didn't take kindly to Darin's new found persona during this time; it didn't help that he was sporting a mustache, dressing in denim and refusing to perform "Mack the Knife." After too many boos and walks outs, Darin met them in the middle and went back to wearing a tux and incorporating his classic hits into his set lists.
And speaking of Bob Dylan, Darin was not only a fan of his, but of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and pretty much anyone else on the rock and roll scene during the 1960s. He saw The Beatles and The Stones in concert (and had to put up with Mick Jagger making fun of his sharkskin suit after a performance.)
I have no doubt that had he lived, Bobby Darin would have embraced and covered the music of the 1980s.
Two of my favorite songs written by Darin during the mid and late 1960s are "Change" and "Distractions", the latter being performed on The Tom Jones Show.
4. He Really Wanted to Be An Actor
Darin once confessed that given the option of singing or acting, he would have loved to have been an actor. As it is, he was given decent roles in many films over the length of his career, starting with Come September, where he met his first wife, Sandra Dee, and ending with a 1973 Ron Howard film, Happy Mother's Day, Love George. Unlike Elvis, he managed to get offered parts that didn't pigeon hole him into playing himself. He played a Nazi sympathizer opposite Sidney Poiter in 1962's Pressure Point. But it was his portrayal of a soldier dealing with flashbacks after the war in 1963's Captain Newman, M.D. that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Darin also made several appearances in television series and specials throughout his career.
And did you know that he was a master imitator of other celebrities? Here's one of the comedic routines that Darin would perform in concert where he impersonates Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, W.C. Fields and others:
5. He Loved the Ladies--and They Loved Him
Most female fans (including myself) would agree that Darin oozed enormous sex appeal, despite the fact that offstage he was a bit insecure about his height and hair loss (he began wearing a small hairpiece early is his career and you can't even tell.) Marcie Blane's 1962 novelty hit "Bobby's Girl" could have been written about Darin. In "Dream Lovers" his son wrote that his dad would often disappear and go off on benders for days at a time--not to drink and take drugs, but to enjoy sexual escapades with women. Darin's Uncle Charlie, who raised him as his dad, pretty much played pimp one day while Darin was in his teens to introduce him to the female body and like most heterosexual men, from that day forth Darin couldn't get enough.
He pursued actress and America's sweetheart Sandra Dee relentlessly on the set of Come September until he won her over, and even flirted with Dee's overbearing stage mother Mary to get closer to Sandy. Mama was none too pleased when she discovered Darin's true affections. Darin and Dee were married for 7 years, from 1960 to 1967--but according to Dodd Darin's book, the couple continued to rendezvous and share a roof from time to time. Dee never dated another man after Darin passed away in 1973. In 1973, Darin married for the second time to Andrea Yeager, a secretary from his record company.
At one time or another, Darin was linked with JoAnn Campbell, Bonnie Carroll, Keely Smith, Geraldine Chaplin, Judi Meredith, Judy Harriet, June Blair, Jayne Mansfield, Linda Cristal and Diane Hartford. But there was one lady who really regretted not marrying him, and that was Connie Francis. The reason why is number 6 on this list...
6. He Was Almost Killed By Connie Francis' Father
Darin was hired as a songwriter for Francis early in their careers. After a few weeks, Darin and Francis fell in love. For reasons unknown, Francis' strict Italian father strongly disapproved of Darin--maybe it was because of the rumors that Darin's grandfather worked for the mafia and died in Sing-Sing prison. Darin orchestrated a plan to have Francis run off with him and elope, but when her father caught wind of the idea he ran Darin out of the building at gunpoint, telling him to never see his daughter again.
Francis saw Darin twice more–once when the two were scheduled to sing together for a television show, and again when Francis was a guest on This Is Your Life. By the time of the show's taping, Darin was married to Sandra Dee. In her autobiography Francis declared that she never did fall out of love with Bobby Darin, and that not marrying him was the biggest mistake of her life. (Who's sorry now?)
7. He Was Involved in Political and Social Causes
Darin's dream was to perform at the Copacabana nightclub; when he got the gig shortly after hitting it big with "Mack the Knife," the club's owner refused to hire the African American comedian that Darin wanted for the opening act. Darin retaliated by threatening a sit-in outside the club in protest; the club owner gave it. He was also present at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. Later, Darin would get involved in Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and was at Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was assassinated.
Darin also wrote and recorded an anti-Vietnam song, "We Didn't Ask To Be Brought Here" (carefully disguised as a love song, as was the norm back then.) But one of his masterpieces is "Simple Song of Freedom," a peace aria I'd put in the same category as John Lennon's "Imagine." Singer Tim Hardin had a minor hit with it, and it became a staple at many of Darin's concerts.
8. He Was a Member of Mensa
Jay Tell, a friend of Bobby Darin, reported on the 30th anniversary of his passing that Darin was a member of Mensa with an IQ of 137, which is only found in the top 2% of the population. He graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, a difficult school to get into even if you're considered gifted. He was a chess fan, toting a magnetic chess set with him on movie sets and often explaining chess moves in detail on his variety TV show in between song numbers and comedy sketches. It's been also said that Darin had a memory to rival an elephant's; he could meet a fan once and years later still remember their name and face.
9. He Had His Own Variety TV Show
Like so many other singers of 1970s, Darin hosted his own variety show, The Bobby Darin Amusement Company, which premiered on NBC in July of 1972. The show was a replacement for The Dean Martin Show, and its guest stars included George Burns, Donald O'Connor, Joan Rivers, Dusty Springfield, and Burt Reynolds. Some of the characters that Darin appeared as included Groucho Marx, Dusty John Dustin, a long-haired poet/hippie, and "the Godmother," a spoof on The Godfather which had been released that same year.
The show returned for a second season on January 19, 1973 (the same day I celebrated my firs birthday) and had been renamed The Bobby Darin Show, updated with an emphasis on Darin performing his classic hits and the latest chart toppers and less comedy routines. Alas, I've seen some clips of The Bobby Darin Amusement Company which really weren't all that amusing, so this was a wise choice. Darin commented that his friend Flip Wilson constantly reminded him that he was not a comedian, to which he would remind Flip that he was not a singer.
10. He Donated His Body to Medical Science
1973 was the year that Darin's health began to fail rapidly. It's been speculated that a lack of the proper amount of oxygen to his brain resulted in memory lapses. As a heart patient, Darin had to take antibiotics before visiting the dentist as a precaution, but (perhaps due to his failing memory) did not take them before a dental procedure in 1973. That led to a blood infection and more damage being done to one of his heart valves. He entered the hospital in December 1973 and a team of surgeons tried to repair the damage, but he died in the recovery room, alone, on the morning of December 20, 1973, without regaining consciousness. The ticking clock that Darin raced against his entire life had finally caught up with him.
Darin's will decreed that his body was to be donated to medical science; it went to the UCLA Medical Center shortly after his death. It's grim to think of young medical students dissecting Darin's body; there was no funeral, and no memorial or gravesite exists for him. Perhaps he didn't want his loved ones to think of him as truly dead.
Kevin Spacey, who portrayed Darin in his self-produced biopic Beyond the Sea, once said in an interview that Bobby Darin "had a bad heart, but he was all heart." I know that he's still in the hearts of his fans and if love was all that was needed to save somebody's life, he'd still be with us today.
Here's some clips of Bobby performing his best-known songs: