Bobby Darin may be the first member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who purposely distanced himself from rock ‘n’ roll.
As early as 1958, when his first hit, the rock novelty “Splish Splash,” was on the charts, the Bronx-born vocalist warned that he intended to expand his musical borders.
“It’s the only way to build a future in this business,” he told Billboard magazine.
Shortly thereafter, Darin put his money where his mouth was, releasing his soon-to-be trademark version of “Mack the Knife” from “The Threepenny Opera.” The song held the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s pop singles chart for nine weeks, launching a career-long journey through styles ranging from Sinatra-like crooning to folk protest. He was undeniably a success (22 Top 40 hits, 10 in the Top 10) and was considered a master showman. But after his initial hits, he was rarely considered a rock ‘n’ roll figure at all.
So Darin, who died after heart surgery on Dec. 20, 1973 at the age of 37, probably wouldn’t be surprised--or even disappointed--that some people question his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he will take posthumously tonight at an induction ceremony in New York.
Dodd Darin, the son of Darin and actress Sandra Dee (his wife from 1960-67) who will accept the award in his father’s honor, isn’t surprised.
“I can understand where some people would feel that way in terms of really closely defining the musical style,” 28-year-old Dodd Darin said from his Westlake Village home shortly before leaving by train for New York.
“Many people would remember him singing ‘Mack the Knife,’ playing the Copa and Vegas, doing adult pop. But let’s look at his earlier work, a number of hit rock records before ‘Mack’ and even after. And later he was doing a lot of songs by contemporary artists: Simon & Garfunkel, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan.
“I like the quote from (Times pop music critic) Robert Hilburn a year or two ago that the spirit of rock is adventure and taking chances,” the young Darin said. “And my dad took chances throughout his career.”
No less a respected rock chance-taker than Neil Young recently named Darin as one of his biggest influences, citing Darin’s boldness as an inspiration for his own willful inconsistency.
Young’s endorsement came as welcome news to Steve Blowner, Darin’s former manager, who has fought for the singer’s recognition and is angry that it took four years of eligibility for his election to the Hall of Fame.
“He could sing it all,” Blowner said. “He was not what Frankie Avalon or Fabian or Paul Anka were at the time. They were doing ‘Puppy Love’ and ‘Venus,’ and Bobby was doing rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Splish Splash’ and ‘Queen of the Hop.’
“I remember he was playing for the teeny-boppers, and he’d be telling me about Ray Charles, who wasn’t well-known yet. He would pick up on stuff like that. He should have gotten into the Hall of Fame a long time ago and the only reason he didn’t is because of the onus they put on him because of the bow tie and tux. And that was a matter of survival.”
Born Walden Robert Cassotto on May 14, 1936 (the stage name was taken from a malfunctioning “Mandarin” sign on a Chinese restaurant), Bobby Darin was always driven and confident, if not outright cocky. A clue to what motivated him came out in a prophetic interview with The Times in 1959:
“I . . . have this feeling I’m going to die young,” the singer said, thinking of the heart troubles that began with a bout of rheumatic fever when he was 8. “So I’ve got to do what I’m going to do now.”
As it was, Darin may have had more time than he had thought he would, and the list of his accomplishments is lengthy. After moving from “Splish Splash” to “Mack” while recording for Ahmet Ertegun at Atco Records, Darin went to Capitol in 1962 where he was seen as the replacement for Frank Sinatra, who had left to form his own Reprise label. There he recorded in a lush style comparable to Ol’ Blue Eyes--he’d already followed Sinatra’s steps to the silver screen, where he scored a best-supporting-actor Oscar nomination for his role in “Captain Newman, MD.”
As the tenor of the times changed, so did Darin, who returned to the Top 10 with his version of folk singer Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1966. He worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination.
“I remember he went to Big Sur and sold all his possessions and made two wonderful albums, protest albums,” Blowner said. “Later I went to see him and people were walking out, and I was stunned at how good he was, singing Nyro and Tim Hardin and Dylan.”
Though he was never to have a hit again, the name Bobby Darin remained big enough that he was given his own weekly variety show on NBC in the 1972-73 season. And even today, more than 16 years after his death, the image of Darin remains strong enough that a movie of his life is in pre-production at Warner Bros., with Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Diner”) set to direct.
And it served as the apparent model for McDonald’s “Mac Tonight” TV commercials, with a quarter-moon-headed crooner parodying the style that Darin perfected. In fact, so close is the character in the minds of the Darin family that they are suing McDonald’s for $10 million. The first court date is scheduled for Jan. 31.
“It was his trademark and will be forever associated with him,” said Dodd Darin. “We feel very strongly that the arrangement and inflection of the character are a direct take-off on my father. It is so direct that it implies a Darin endorsement.”
The only endorsement young Darin will have on his mind when he accepts the Hall of Fame honors tonight are for the people his father left behind. “I plan to genuinely thank the real friends who loved him and have loved me over the years and let them know I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “That’s really it. . . . I just want to celebrate his memory and be thankful.”