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Bobby Darin Set Surveys Versatile Singer’s Career : BOBBY DARIN “As Long as I’m Singing: The Bobby Darin Collection”; <i> Rhino</i> ****

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Bobby Darin was a pop multiple choice test all by himself.

Among the questions raised during the extraordinary career of the singer, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990:

* Was he the most versatile pop star of his generation?

* Or simply the most ambitious?

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* Or, perhaps, just the most misunderstood?

All three questions come to mind--along with answers--when you listen to this excellent four-disc survey of Darin’s remarkably varied career.

We are accustomed in pop to seeing superior artists go through various golden eras in their careers, as with Elvis Presley’s ‘50s and late-'60s Memphis periods or Frank Sinatra’s various triumphs on the Columbia, Capitol and Reprise record labels.

However, Darin was perhaps unique in that his golden periods each involved different musical styles--from the early rock (“Early in the Morning”) to adult pop (“Mack the Knife”) to R&B; (“The Right Time”) to country (“You’re the Reason I’m Living”) to folk (“If I Were a Carpenter”) and beyond.

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This shifting musical focus caused many pop observers over the years to discount Darin’s achievements and musical vision, arguing that he was merely chasing after commercial advantage.

But that reasoning ignores the high quality of Darin’s work in each field and the fact that his shifts were often counter to conventional commercial wisdom. It also overlooks his own personal drive.

Born Walden Robert Cassotto in the Bronx in 1936, Darin was haunted much of his life by fear that a congenital heart defect would prevent him from reaching the age of 30. (He died during surgery in 1973 to repair a faulty heart valve.)

The fear made him obsessed with cramming decades into a few years. “I want to be the biggest thing in show business by the time I’m 25,” he once told a reporter--an attitude that caused many observers and co-workers to label him arrogant and brash. But few could deny Darin’s talent.

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Though he also had several acting credits (including an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1963 comedy-drama “Captain Newman, M.D.”), Darin’s legacy was his music.

The singer, who also wrote some of his material, was 22 when he scored his first hit, a novelty for Atlantic’s Atco label titled “Splish Splash” that had one-hit wonder written all over it.

But Darin not only came back with more rock hits, he also moved boldly into the area of adult pop, scoring a No. 1 single and a pair of Grammys (best new artist and record of the year) for his finger-snapping version of “Mack the Knife,” from “The Threepenny Opera.” He was just 23.

After such other pop-oriented successes as “Beyond the Sea” and “Artificial Flowers,” Capitol Records lured Darin away from Atlantic, hoping to fill the void left by Sinatra, who had left the label to start Reprise Records. It wasn’t a big stretch because Darin had already done an album, “Two of a Kind,” with two Sinatra favorites: singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer and arranger Billy May.

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Though the restless singer made some exciting pop records at Capitol, he moved in the ‘60s into folk and country, recording tunes by everyone from Hank Williams and Harlan Howard to Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin. He developed a social consciousness, exchanging his Vegas showroom tuxedo for blue jeans for a period. He also formed a close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy, spending time with him on the campaign trail.

Two previously unreleased tracks on the box set underscore the spectacular range of Darin’s art. “The Curtain Falls,” recorded live in a Las Vegas showroom in 1963, is a poignant, end-of-the-night message from a performer to his audience--a track that captures eloquently the formal pro in Darin. The wistful, folk-flavored “Long Time Movin’,” recorded in 1967, is an equally affecting sample of the intimate, informal Darin.

In retrospect, the answer to all three Darin questions is yes . In many ways, he may have been the most versatile, ambitious and misunderstood artist of his time. This set, with its many highs and fascinating musical experiments, should help erase much of the misunderstanding.

*

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (e x cellent).


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