"It's the singer, not the song" is a phrase the average critic applies too narrowly. The expression is generally hauled out of mothballs to compliment vocalists whose technically impeccable voices and unique, intuitive phrasing can render questions about a ditty's merit moot. But perhaps more intriguing are those entertainers who lack such attributes yet are able to make a tune their own through the sheer force of their personalities.
Bobby Darin fell into the latter category, as the four-CD boxed set As Long As I'm Singing: The Bobby Darin Collection (released on the Rhino imprint) demonstrates. The compilation is hardly a seamless array of overlooked masterpieces--quite a few of the tracks here are minor--but as a look into the world of an unjustly forgotten performer, it's indispensable. In some ways, Collection is less a tribute to Darin, who died of heart failure in 1973 at the age of 37, than it is a case study of a fascinatingly twisted figure.
Darin is often dismissed by pop historians as a musical opportunist more committed to stardom than to any particular artistic vision--which, given Darin's stylistic restlessness, is an understandable misinterpretation. His too-brief career contained three distinct periods: a rock-and-roll apprenticeship symbolized by the wonderfully unabashed "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover;" his rebirth as a Las Vegas-friendly showman best-known for his swinging, thoroughly unlikely rendition of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht composition "Mack the Knife;" and a late metamorphosis into a sensitive, Dylan-loving folk crooner. These shifts were as abrupt and striking as any attempted by David Bowie or Madonna, but they were less theatrical and less theoretical. Darin wasn't interested in anything as pretentious and potentially effete as change for change's sake. Instead, he was obsessed with maintaining his viability at all costs, and if that meant conceptualizing himself over and over again, so be it.
What made these conversions provocative rather than maddening, however, was Darin's touching inability to entirely bury his essence inside these various shticks. He seemed most comfortable during his second stage of development, because the finger-popping, glad-handing, glib-talking slickster role came closest to capturing his core. But no matter how deep in character he was, the real Bobby Darin (a clever, energetic, seemingly facile operator driven to succeed at any cost) was always present. His desire--no, his absolute need--for attention and praise can be heard in every note he sang, whether he was clad in a casual, teen-dream sweater vest, a sharkskin suit or a flannel shirt.
The outlines of Darin's story, told in Collection's generous liner notes, make clear the roots of this compulsion. Darin (born Walden Robert Cassotto in 1936) grew up in a lower-class section of the Bronx as part of a family with tangential connections to organized crime, yet the defining quality of his youth was his poor health. He'd always been a sickly child, and when he was eight years old an overheard comment from a doctor made Darin understand why: His heart was so fragile that he wasn't expected to live past his sixteenth birthday. But Bobby Darin refused to meekly accept such a death sentence. By his mid-teens, he was very much among the living, in part because he had discovered music.
In his first band, the Eddie O'Casio Orchestra (made up of students at the Bronx High School of Science, which he attended), Darin, who played drums, was far from the spotlight. But Darin's intensity ensured that this situation wouldn't last long. After a brief stint at New York's Hunter College and an even briefer tour as bongo player for an exotic dancer, he began writing songs. His demo version of one of his originals, "My First Real Love," led to a deal with Decca Records. When his Decca singles sank, he moved to Atco, an Atlantic Records subsidiary, and by 1958, "Splish Splash," a jivey novelty that still sounds dynamic today, put him on the map at age 22.
In retrospect, though, Darin's excursions into rock and roll, documented on disc one of Collection, seem mere precursors to the brassier cuts in his future. He approximates the Elvis warble on "Don't Call My Name" (co-written by Don Kirshner) and "All the Way Home," but he sounds more like Frankie Ford, of "Sea Cruise" fame, than the King. This problem was something Darin, an impressively objective judge of his own abilities, recognized early on; hence "Mack the Knife," which he recorded the same year as the "Splish Splash" session. After "Mack" hit, he didn't banish rock and R&B from his act, but he made certain that his excursions into these genres would work as well for an older audience as a younger one. Witness "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," a rocking version of a Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer tune that every mother can love.
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The portions of Collection that document what the compilers refer to as his "Pop Years" find Darin toiling harder than ever to endear himself to a mass audience. He was mainstreaming his image then: In 1960, he married actress Sandra "Gidget" Dee and won roles in cutesy movies such as State Fair and If a Man Answers. But Darin was too ambitious to stay still as either an actor or a musician. He played a shell-shocked soldier in 1964's Captain Newman, M.D. and received an Oscar nomination for his trouble. And although he proved to audiences in Vegas and beyond that he could sing the hell out of standards like "My Funny Valentine," "Mame" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" (all on disc three here), he feared that his tuxedo-clad look was wearing thin.
In the meantime, Darin's regard for folk music was growing. He'd always paid attention to folk sounds; he recorded "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963. But in 1966, he clasped folk to his bosom, recording songs by Tim Hardin ("Reason to Believe," "The Lady Came From Baltimore") and John Sebastian ("Lovin' You," "Darling Be Home Soon"), and at the same time dispensing with his sharpie's wardrobe. Three years later, he tossed aside his toupee, too, and issued an album under a new name: Bob Darin. As this decision implies, Darin Mark III took himself very, very seriously. But the vigorous sincerity of the selections on disc four ("The Folk & Country Years") had the side effect of blanching much of the juice out of his work. His folk efforts aren't bad, but they have nowhere near the verve of his earlier incarnations. Recognizing this, the general public turned up its nose at the new Darin. Bob, no masochist he, responded by donning the tuxedo again and giving the people what they wanted, until his delicate heart finally stopped beating.
At the end, Darin's reputation was at its lowest ebb; the latest generation of music fans saw him as a curio, while his onetime supporters reacted to him with suspicion and/or bafflement. But Darin wasn't killed by his musical schizophrenia. Rather, he was done in by a power shortage; he simply wasn't strong enough to undertake another reinvention. Collection follows him as far as he went, but it's more valuable as a poignant reminder of his foolhardy daring.