Bobby Darin was one of the most dynamic, versatile performers of his time. He was a legendary singer, prolific songwriter, musical entrepreneur, an accomplished musician who played several instruments as well as an acclaimed actor, even being nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the 1963 classic “Captain Newman, MD”. If not for his early and untimely demise at the tender age of just 37, he would have probably aspired to even more greatness.
Bobby Darin was a native New Yorker, being born in the borough of The Bronx as Walden Robert “Bobby” Cassotto, to a poor, working-class Italian family on May 14,1936, during the heights of the Great Depression. He was part of what would today be called a dysfunctional family.
His assumed father (who was actually his grandfather), was a career criminal who died in jail a few months before he was born; he found out years later that the woman assumed to be his older sister was really his mother, who was some 17 years his senior, and the woman he assumed to be his mother was in fact his grandmother. He never got to know the identity of his birth father.
The family was so poor that Bobby once remarked years later that his crib was a cardboard box and later a dresser drawer. As a result, his mother had to accept Welfare (then called Home Relief) to take care of her ailing son. Young Bobby Cassotto was a sickly, frail child , being inflicted with rheumatoid fever from the age of 8, which left him with a severely diseased heart, which would worsen as he got older. In fact he overheard his doctor telling his mother that he would be fortunate if he lived to be 16. Bobby lived with the constant fear that his life would a short one, a fear that would plague him for the rest of his life.
It was this fear that motivated Bobby to quickly make something of his life. Driven by illness and poverty, Bobby developed a flair for music, and by the time he was a teenager he could expertly play several instruments, including the piano, drums, guitar and later the harmonica and xylophone.
Bobby was an outstanding student at The Bronx High School of Science, in which he had the IQ of a genius. He later graduated and then attended Hunter College on a scholarship. But Bobby had other aspirations, he wanted to be an actor. So he dropped out and began performing in small nightclubs in the Catskills in Upstate New York where he was both a busboy and an entertainer.
Because of the negative racial stereotypes against performers with foreign-sounding names, as was the common practice of the time, Robert Cassotto (an Italian last name), decided to change his name to sound more “American-sounding”. He kept the name “Bobby” because that’s what he was often called as a child. Besides, as a common expression that was used in those days, his name wouldn’t fit on the marquee. He allegedly chose the stage name “Darin” because as one story has it, he saw a malfunctioning Chinese restaurant sign that read “Darin” that should have read “Mandarin”. Later in his life he claimed he had gotten the name out of a phonebook. Whatever the case, the new name “Bobby Darin” would be a name that would not be easily forgotten.
In 1956, when Bobby was 20, his agent negotiated a contract with Decca Records, same label who have had smash hits with the hot early rock ‘n’ roll band Bill Haley and the Comets. But because rock ‘n’ roll was a new musical art form in 1956, the number of producers and arrangers for this new music was limited. As a result, Darin was introduced to a young 17-year-old fledgling singer, a young woman named Concetta Franconero, who would become better known a few years later as the legendary singer Connie Francis, to help jumpstart her career.
Initially they could not seem to agree on musical arrangements, but a few weeks later, the relationship developed into a romantic one, in which Francis’ father, who was very strict and overly protective, reportedly threatened Darin with his waving gun never to see his daughter again.
In 1958, Darin left Decca Records for Atlantic Records. He made three mediocre records that went nowhere. But it was his fourth song that would catapult him into instant stardom: “Splish Splash”, which sold millions of copies. It was a song that was written by Darin and the mother of 1960’s Disk Jockey legend Murray Kaufman, better known as “Murray the “K”, namely Jean Kaufman.
‘Splash’ skyrocketed Bobby Darin to instant stardom, making him a household name. This quickly led to his next major hit, “Dream Lover”(1959) and his signature song which topped the charts in the summer of 1959, “Mack the Knife”, which was an old classic German song in which the most recent version up to that time was recorded three years previously by the legendary Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. In fact the song was so popular that in 1960, it won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
Other hits by Darin included:
-Beyond the Sea (1960)
-Artificial Flowers (1960)
-Lazy River (1961)
-Baby Face (1962)
-18 Yellow Roses (1963)
-I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1964)
-Hello Dolly (1965)
-If I Were a Carpenter (1966)
Bobby Darin was also an energetic, dynamic nightclub performer. Sammy Davis Jr-himself an dynamic performer- reportedly exclaimed that Darin was “the only person I never wanted to follow.” Darin was also instrumental for bringing up new talent. He introduced such future stars as Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Wayne Newton when they were virtual unknowns. He also helped to break down racial barriers as well. On one occasion using his superstar status, he insisted that his act be opened by George Kirby, an African American comedian who was also a virtual unknown, much to the chagrin of Copacabana Night Club owner Jules Podell.
Bobby Darin appeared in several films as well, appearing in such classics as the 1962 film “Pressure Point”, starring Sidney Poitier who played an African American psychiatrist and Darin, who played a hardened criminal and racial bigot. His biggest film was the previous-mentioned “Captain Newman, MD”, in which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Bobby Darin married the 18-year-old actress Sandra Dee in December 1960. They would have one son, Dodd Mitchell Darin. They were divorced in 1967.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Darin became politically active, even actively supporting Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the US Presidency, which sadly was not to be. Devastated by the sudden assassination of Kennedy in June 1968, Darin went into a state of seclusion. He was barely heard from in nearly two years when he started to make a comeback in the early 70’s when he was making albums for Motown Records. He briefly tried to change his image by calling himself “Bob Darin” and growing a mustache and stopped wearing a hairpiece. But it did not work. People wanted to see the Bobby Darin they remembered.
In 1972, he appeared in his own variety show on NBC TV “The Bobby Darin Amusement Company”, which lasted for one season ending with his untimely death. In 1973 he married again, marrying Andrea Yeager.
His heart-which he had had problems with since childhood-was progressively getting worse. In fact two years previously, in 1971, he had surgery performed to correct the damage of his heart. He spent most of the year recovering from the surgery. By 1973 his heart condition had taken a turn for the worse. He was performing shows at Las Vegas in which afterward he would have to receive oxygen backstage after every performance. After failing to take medicine prescribed by his dentist, Darin developed blood poisoning, which weakened his body and clotted one of his heart valves.
On December 11,1973, Darin admitted himself in Cedars Lebanon Hospital In Los Angeles,California, to repair two heart valves from a previous operation. Nearly ten days later, on December 20,1973, Bobby Darin was dead at the age of 37. There was no funeral. Darin’s body was donated to UCLA for medical research.
He may have had a short life, but Bobby Darin’s legacy as an entertainer has seemingly lasted a lifetime for all he accomplished in his colorful but sadly brief career. But he continues to live on in the memories of those who still listen to his legendary songs and who actually saw this dynamic young man perform.