Teen idol. Adult crooner. Vegas lounge singer. Rock and roll star.
Bobby Darin flirted with many musical personae and rocked them all. Versatile and ambitious, he conquered the hearts of teens, parents, rock and rollers and Frank Sinatra devotees before he was 25.
Bobby Darin was one of the most ambitious and versatile performers of the last sixty years.
He straddled generations, appealing to bobbysoxers as a teen idol who wrote and recorded “Splish Splash” in 1958 and then winning over their parents as the swaggering, Sinatra-voiced adult who cut the ultimate version of “Mack the Knife” (a song from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical Threepenny Opera) only a year later. Both songs were enormous hits, with “Splish Splash” reaching Number Three and “Mack the Knife” topping the chart for an astounding nine weeks. Darin’s range was as boundless as his brash self-confidence. In 1959 he told a Life magazine reporter that he wanted to be a pop legend by the age of 25, while he allegedly informed another writer that he intended to surpass Frank Sinatra.
Bobby Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto on May 14, 1936 in the Bronx section of New York City. His family was poor, and his father died before he was born. He graduated from Bronx High School of Science. Although he played several instruments, including piano, drums and guitar, as a child, he never seriously considered a career in music until after he enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan. After a couple of semesters of college, he left school and got a job as a songwriter for Aldon Music, which was owned by Don Kirshner, who had also attended the Bronx High School of Science. While writing songs, Darin met singer Connie Francis, and he helped her write several songs. The two developed a romantic relationship, but her father did not approve, and they soon broke up.
But during their relationship, Francis had introduced Darin to her manager, George Scheck, and he helped Darin make the switch from writer to performer and got him a contract with Decca Records. Darin recorded four singles for the label, but none of them was successful. Then in 1957, Kirshner helped Darin get a deal with the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco Records. His recordings continued to be unsuccessful until label president Ahmet Ertegun produced “Splish Splash,” a song that Darin had written in twelve minutes. The song reached Number Three in 1958 and sold 100,000 copies in less than a month.
Darin followed that song with the similarly infectious “Queen of the Hop” (Number Nine) and “Dream Lover” (Number Two), which marked his peak as a teen idol. Then, in August 1959, he took the world by surprise with “Mack the Knife.” The song spent nine weeks at Number One and sold two million copies. It also won a Grammy for Record of the Year, while Darin won the Grammy for Best New Artist. “Mack the Knife” became his signature song and appeared on the album That’s All (1959), which reflected his courting of a more adult audience.
“Beyond the Sea,” a remake of a 1945 French hit called “La Mer,” had a swinging, big band–style arrangement, and Darin began moving into the nightclub circuit. He set an attendance record at the Copacabana nightclub in New York and began playing casinos in Las Vegas. His three 1960 singles—“Clementine,” “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” and “Artificial Flowers”—were all in a more adult vein.
While maintaining a prolific recording career, Darin subsequently launched a career in films. In 1960 he appeared in his first film, Come September. He then appeared in Too Late Blues (1961) and 1963’s Captain Newman, M.D. He received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role in the latter film. In 1960 he married actress Sandra Dee, whom he had met while filming Come September. They had one son before divorcing in 1967. He ultimately appeared in about ten films.
He also continued his recording career, releasing “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” which reached Number Five in 1961; “Irresistible You,” which hit Number Fifteen in 1961; “What’d I Say,” which went to Number Twenty-Four in 1962; “Things,” which hit Number Three in 1962; “You’re the Reason I’m Living,” which made it to Number Three in 1963, and “18 Yellow Roses,” which went to Number Ten in 1963.
Darin’s career took an interesting turn in the mid-Sixties when he began recording material by a new breed of songwriters. His insightful reading of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” became a Top Ten hit in 1966. A couple albums of original material written in a more folk-oriented vein followed. Subsequently, Hardin had a minor hit in 1969 with his recording of the Darin-penned “Simple Song of Freedom.”
Darin continued to appear in Las Vegas, and in 1968, he did a lot of work for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After Kennedy’s death, Darin went to Big Sur, California and remained out of the spotlight for a year. He then re-emerged and started his own record label, Direction Records. He recorded two albums for the label, including Born Walden Robert Cassotto (1968). In the early Seventies, he signed with Motown Records and returned to Vegas. In 1973 he had a minor hit with the song “Happy.”
Sadly, Darin had a history of heart problems. They had begun when he suffered from rheumatic fever as a child. On December 11, 1973, he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to get repairs to artificial heart valves that had previously been implanted. On December 20, he died during surgery. He was only 37 years old.
In recalling Bobby Darin, former teen idol and fellow traveler Dion DiMucci said, “He could play any instrument, and he was doing jazz and folk and rock and anything else he wanted. He could do it all—and do it all well.”
Darin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2010 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Inductee: Walden Robert Cassotto a.k.a. Bobby Darin (vocals, guitar, piano, songwriter; born May 14, 1936, died December 20, 1973)