The Agony of Bobby Darin and the Assassination of Bobby Kennedy 2012

Bobby, Polly, Sophie and Al

His greatest influence emotionally and musically was his grandmother—who he thought was his mother—Polly Walden, a vaudevillian whose own father was a mill owner in Rhode Island. His grandfather—who he thought was his father—was a sometime associate of mob boss Frank Costello who died in prison from morphine withdrawal. So Darin grew up, not only with an appreciation of the big band swing singers from a step father—who he thought was his brother-in-law—but the earlier tradition of Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.

Here’s Gene Lees in Downbeat, around 1959

“Darin is probably the most fascinating singer to watch on this side of the Atlantic. When he breaks in a new tune, he talks about working out the ‘choreography’ for it. And he does indeed move like a dancer. He has a loose-limbed agility that permits him to intermix shuffles, kicks, and countless eccentric steps the semantics of which probably died with vaudeville.

He was most comfortable around performers who stretched back to that era, enjoyed working with Jimmy Durante (including political rallies) and called George Burns—who gave him his first big break at the Sahara—his father figure.

Burns placed him just below Jolson and Sammy Davis Jr. as live entertainers, ranked by an x-factor of crazed intensity; and more than one biography mentions that Darin performed live wearing a condom, because he needed one while he was onstage.

He had less success explaining or maybe understanding himself in the contemporary world of thematic long playing albums.

Bobby, Harry, and Lonnie

Sickly and smart as a child, in 1948 Robert Walden Cassoto made the unusual leap for a poor Italian kid from Clark Junior High to the Bronx High School of Science, more noted for its Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer prize winning alum than pop singers. Ten years after graduating he recalled how he had fashioned the very sophisticated chip he carried on his shoulder:

“All the arrogance you read about stems from those days in high school; a desire never to be anyone’s fool again. All the kids were smarter than me—scientifically, academically, and semantically. They were better versed in Schopenhauer and Chopin, Bach and Berlioz. They’d throw lines at me and poke fun, and I’d take it because I felt unequipped to answer back. And then one day, I realized that creatively—in sensitivity, in my soul I buried them all.”

His first band was formed with friends from Bronx Science, and their first gigs were in the summer at the low end of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. His first non-hit recording that was good enough to get him booked when he dropped out of Hunter College, “Rock Island Line” was a cover of Lonnie Donnegan’s British skiffle cover of Leadbelly.

It would not be his music, but early on Darin gained an appreciation, tinged with awe and resentment, for folk music in the lefty Belafonte-Seeger mode, that sensitized him to early Bob Dylan and the music coming out of the Civil Rights Movement. He was, said his last publicist Mimi Greenberg, “the most Jewish Italian I ever met.”

One wonders if he might have developed an appreciation or at least awareness of the lefty cultural cousin of Calypso and Folk: Brecht-Weil musical theater, such as the Three Penny Opera, and it’s opening song, Mack The Knife.

Bobby as Fats and Pat

In 1958, Bobby Darin wrote and recorded his first hit— channeling Fats Domino—Splish Splash, and his second hit—channeling Chuck Berry—Queen of the Hop

Here’s Pat Boone’s recollection of Darin’s third hit, Dream Lover, in 1959:

” I heard what I thought was me singing a song that I didn’t recognize at all,  . . . It doesn’t sound like a black guy but I thought it was me—I thought, when did I do that? And then when it ended, the deejay said “That’s Bobby Darin’s new record.”

Later that same year came the unanticipated big band leap into the album That’s All, with the two big singles Mack The Knife and Beyond The Sea. Followed in 1960 by This Is Darin and Darin At The Copa. Of a piece aesthetically and commercially, all three would remain his only top ten LPs.

Bobby as Frankie not Frank

Songwriter Al Kasha remembers a conversation:

” When he made ‘Mack,’ he told me, “Everybody thinks I’m doing Sinatra. And I’m not. I really love Frankie Laine. I’m singing more like him than Sinatra.” And Bobby was right. If you listen to Laine sing ‘Mule Train’ he’s very clipped. And Bobby: ‘I-can-only-give-you-love-that-lasts-forever’ on ‘That’s All’‑that’s the Frankie Laine clipped phrasing, not the longer phrasing of Sinatra”

Unafraid of oddball production embellishments and over-the-top mood and tempo changes, Laine, out of Chicago’s Little Italy—whose acknowledged early inspirations were Bessie Smith, Al Jolson, and Armstrong—was one of the post-swing pop belters who straddled the segue from the swing era to rock. Today he is most likely remembered for Rawhide, Mule Train, I Believe, and the theme song from Blazing Saddles. Like Darin, he enjoyed genre jumping. Unlike Darin he always sounded like himself. Working his way back and up to and away from the Mount Rushmore of Sinatra, Darin used Frankie Laine as his roadmap.

Sinatra was a singer, Darin was an entertainer. Like Sammy Davis Jr he could dance, sing, play multiple instruments and do impersonations, a skill perhaps shared by outsiders obligated to fashion more than one self, sourced out of Vaudville. Sinatra inhabited a lyric, Darin could pummel it. Sinatra floated over the beat, Darin, like Laine, was just as likely to pounce.

The Dick Wess arrangements on That’s All and This Is Darin remained inside the instrumental parameters of the big band/orchestral Sinatra arrangements of Billy May and Nelson Riddle—unlike Laine’s studio work with Mitch Miller—but incorporated the blunt energy of Laine and early rock pop. So it sounded like Sinatra, but jumped more like Splish Splash, making Mack the Knife a surprise that was strangely familiar on AM top 40 radio of the era.

And potent, perhaps, because Darin, who hated the mob because he believed it had abandoned his family, yet felt compelled to succeed in the mob controlled world of nightclubs, found a song, via Louis Armstrong, from the canon of left-wing German Jews, about a gangster, that, through Frankie Laine, he made a triumph of his own. In it’s original setting, “Mack” is an ominous uncovering of the capitalist underbelly. For Darin, building on Armstrong’s version, “Mack” is that and at the same time, a celebration of the gangster as celebrity, from James Cagney, to, beyond-Darin, Pacino’s Scarface, The Sopranos and Gangta Hip Hop.

Now Darin became the “brash” young headliner at all the “posh” clubs, an achievement of aggression and talent, directed in a sense at Sinatra, or the idea of Sinatra, as a marker, as a sign of success. Back when making it still meant (at least to Darin, and Sam Cooke) singing the standards downtown. In a tux. It was an old, and soon to be discarded goal, echoing back through Sinatra and his generation of crooners, defining a time—with the New Deal in place and World War II over—when a rising tide of upward mobility was assumed to be lifting most boats, and the economy was centralizing into the big cities.

A posh club was not an elite club. It was a place the mass audience aspired to or at least imagined attending as a shared affirmation of attainable affluence, if only once. The posh club audience believed it could be or might someday be vacationing on the Isle of Capri or dining at 21. Or attending the Copa, or the Sands, or Chez Paree. Or maybe just buying the LP.

Bobby as Marty and Tim

His early successes, high profile in nightclubs, visibility on TV, brief burst in the movies, and the indestructible shelf-life of Mack The Knife created a public presence that Darin embraced and exploited but could not refashion. He was permanently in place as the Last of the Next Young Sinatras obscuring the fact that he was also, among others, the Next of the Laines, Last of the Jolsons, one of the ’50s rockers, and the first Neil Young.

For the 1961 Grammys, Darin’s weak cover of What’d I Say, from his Ray Charles tribute album, was actually nominated for Best R&B Recording and actually lost to Ray Charles’s cover of Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You, from his Modern Sounds In Country and Western. Darin took notice; but there was more going on than hero worship.

That same year came the first of three wildly different self-penned country pop hits—channeling Rodger—Things. Followed in 1963 with—channeling C&W Ray Charles—You’re The Reason I’m Living, and—channeling Marty Robbins—18 Yellow Roses.

Darin used country pop in those pre-Beatles sixties to move at least a portion of himself out from under the “brash” and the “posh.” Yet since almost all of it was released during his otherwise lackluster middle period on Capitol (along with his two failed folk albums), before he returned to Atlantic; and because Darin could not communicate these persona adjustments, the country pop tends to get squeezed from the anthologies and storylines.

Frankie Laine wore a cowboy hat on the covers of his western LPs as a genre change signal, in an era when so many wanted to imagine they were cowboys, including at least two future Presidents. Darin’s fall back cover image was always the undifferentiated head shot, as if to say “I might change voices here, but I’m still Bobby Darin, the same entertainer.” As he was experimenting and adding the sensitive loser and average Joe, less confident male identities; an unnoticed escape hatch from brash, but not an escape from the city. Not yet.

In 1966, his successful nearly note for note cover of If I Was A Carpenter came as a surprise. Tim Hardin’s back-to-bongos jazzy ambitions suited Darin’s musical sensibilities better than straight ahead folk, but the dazzlingly low self-esteem of the protagonist was a long fall from the cocky swinger of Mack. This was not in-the-wee-small-hours existential loneliness ala Sinatra, a man who still knew who he was. This was an ego toying with disintegration (even while using it as a pick-up line), and Darin had been practicing these kind of voices for the preceding four years.

It would be his only well remembered musical attempt to move beyond Mack and his last top ten single.

Bobby as Martin and Bobby

Darin was an early and frequent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, sometimes as a public entertainer and sometimes as a private citizen, honored by the rare phone call from MLK, who caught his late show at the Copa at least once, receiving a thrilled introduction from Darin and an icy reception from the audience. As the sixties progressed Darin found the War in Viet Nam infuriating and moved, Lennon-like, to the left, rather than drift to the right with so many other saloon singers.

He once told his son Dodd that of all his awards and achievements, he was most proud of his mention in socialite/political-insider/journalist Barbara Hower’s 1973 memoir, recalling their 1967 friendship.

” I know it would make better reading to report that I began thinking of the world’s problems through an exposure to John Kenneth Galbraith or, at least, Paul Newman, but it was Mr. Darin who led me through the maze of bigotry in which I lived, backed me down on every narrow-minded point and made me care.”

In time, there was talk in the California Democratic Party of Bobby Darin running for statewide office. In February 1968, believing that he might become a candidate, his sister/mother decided to tell him the truth before it was dug up by an opponent during a campaign. His show biz vet mother, now dead, who he adored, was actually his grandmother; his more typical sister, who he had always resented, was really his mother, and she would never tell him who his real father was.

In April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and the next month Bobby Darin joined Bobby Kennedy’s campaign. The month after that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary.

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, cousin to Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, recalls Darin’s connection:

” I think he recognized a lot of himself in Bobby Kennedy. That Bobby Kennedy was quick to anger, knew everything about everything, was thirsty to know. Bobby had an immediate affinity to RFK because of that impatience, and Bobby Kennedy was somebody that gave you the impression he would settle for nothing less than perfection. You know, “There’s something wrong here and we’re going to fix it” And it wasn’t going to be a Band Aid solution. I think Bobby just loved him.”

As the story goes, RFK’s funeral route to Arlington was so lined with crowds that the casket was lowered into the grave too late in the day to be covered. So Darin stayed there all night alone, until the next morning, until the grave was filled in.

In 1968 Darin started his own record label, bombed at the Copa performing in a denim tuxedo with a four piece rock band singing self-penned protest songs, and played the Troubadour to mixed reviews. In 1969 he left Beverly Hills, gave away most of his possessions, and moved into a trailer in Big Sur.

Around 1970-71 maybe he came to his senses or maybe realized he was broke or maybe gave up and returned to TV and nightclubs, in a tuxedo but still on the left. He died in December, 1973, some say on purpose, by failing to continue the drugs he was taking, some for a lifetime, to keep his heart going.

Bobby As Bob

Maybe he was too impatient with the songwriting during his protest-stoner-rock Big Sur Bob Darin phase. Maybe he didn’t take or have the time to cultivate a new audience for his new Bob Darin. Maybe there were already too many new Dylans to emulate by ‘68. Maybe he was phasing out of show business and with a longer life span would have transitioned into politics and become the Democratic Party’s Sonny Bono or even Ronald Reagan. Maybe he was just phasing out.

And maybe there was really no way to express the psychic dislocation he experienced in 1968 utilizing the musical traditions he had mastered. Mid and Late Sixties Blues and Gospel based Rock had the capacity to simultaneously project psychological chaos and strength, as well as social splits and alliances, in ways fifties pop jazz and most fifties pop rock could not. Stuck somewhere between Judy Garland and Janis Joplin, Darin observed and absorbed but could not put a personal stamp on the changes. He knew the key lay somewhere inside the instant craziness of Splish Splash, which was now closing his shows, but he never uncovered it.

Even in Kevin Spacey’s cinematic veneration Beyond The Sea—where Darin’s songs are both performed and used in the background—when he finds out the truth about his family and starts smashing his old records, the soundtrack switches off Darin’s music to the Stones Let It Loose, from Exile on Main Street, from four years in the future.

By 1971 Darin’s well-received stage act, as documented on the Live At The Desert Inn CD, mixed Mack with Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Jackie Wilson, Dylan, the Beatles, Aretha, Chuck Berry and Splish Splash. But the only new Darin tune to make it out of Big Sur and back to Las Vegas was his folkish, at times touching and at times lyrically clumsy, Simple Song of Freedom.

A certain positive urban male confidence died with Bobbies Darin and Kennedy, or moved to the right, in opposition, with Sinatra and Reagan. Although the historical Darin continues to fascinate with his chameleon multiple selves, after Mack he never found an adequate musical identity to work through the complications he expressed as that chameleon and glued together as a live entertainer

With the passage of time, his finger-snapping swinger accrued cachet because it was a pose and an achievement and not a natural evolution, making it accessible and quotable as a moment or a maneuver, more than the ponderous identity of Sinatra. But when you step back and look at Darin’s career you can see that for him it was also a trap.

Folk and Rock ‘n’ Roll could absorb the country turn as one of life’s chapters—a kind of cosmopolitan or bohemian interlude or option—like Dylan’s Woodstock, or Seeger’s Appalachia, or maybe Springsteen’s Nebraska or even MTV unplugged. But the Big Sur retreat was not a stop on the route to or from The Brash and The Posh, where the only off ramp was Palm Springs or history. Leaving behind the urbanized patriarchal social and psychological cohesion and rising standard of living of the post-war 1940s and ‘50s and Kennedy Camelot ‘60s.

Tom Smucker, EMP Conference, NYC, March 2012, revised and expanded many times since then


© 2012 Tom Smucker