Singer, songwriter, actor
Singer Bobby Darin began his career during the heyday of rock and roll in the late 1950s, with his smash hit “Splish, Splash.” But he quickly branched out into other genres, including folk and country, and is now best known for his classic 1959 recording of “Mack the Knife,” which earned him two Grammy Awards. A popular nightclub entertainer, Darin was compared to singing great Frank Sinatra, and like Sinatra, also appeared in several films. Shortly before he died during heart surgery in 1973, Darin hosted his own television variety series on the NBC.
Darin, who was born Walden Robert Cassotto on May 14, 1936, in New York City, had a harsh childhood. His father, a cabinetmaker, died a few months before he was born. Darin and his mother lived with his sister and her husband, and the family’s impoverished state was deepened by Darin’s severe childhood bouts with rheumatic fever, which produced high medical bills. He was such a sickly child that he did not attend school regularly until his early teens. He did, however, manage to read a lot and also learned to play the drums, piano, and guitar.
But Darin’s strongest ambition was not to succeed in music but rather to become an actor. In pursuit of this goal, he attended drama classes at Hunter College, but he became impatient when instructors gave other students chances to practice in leading roles even though they admitted his talent exceeded theirs. So Darin struck out on his own, getting jobs in Catskill resorts that ranged from bussing tables to filling in for absent singers. As he told Seventeen, he did not stay long in any of these positions: “I would work for a month or two, then quit and make the rounds, trying to get something in the theater. But nothing happened.”
Gradually Darin began to concentrate more on his singing than his acting. He was working writing and singing radio commercials when he was signed to a contract with Decca Records in 1956. Accounts vary as to how he selected his stage name; one says he picked it from a phone book, another that he got it from a malfunctioning restaurant sign advertising Mandarin Chinese food. The young crooner cut a few singles and secured an appearance on bandleader Tommy Dor-sey’s television show, but his vocal stylings did not capture the public imagination, and Decca dropped him after a year. Darin was then signed by Atlantic Records, and recorded on their subsidiary label, Atco. Again, his first few records caused no sensations, but in 1958 Darin released one of his own compositions, “Splish, Splash.” A whimsical number about characters from other rock and roll songs showing up and starting a party at the singer’s house while he was in the
Born Waiden Robert Cassotto (one source says Robert Walden), on May 14, 1936, in New York City; died December 20, 1973, during heart surgery; son of Saverio Cassotto (a cabinetmaker) and Vivian Ferne Cassotto (maiden name Walden); married Sandra Dee (an actress), Dec. 1, 1960 (divorced c. 1967); children: Dodd Mitchell. Education: Attended Hunter College, c. 1953. Religion: Episcopalian.
Worked odd jobs, including busboy, cleaning guns, working in a metal factory, playing drums and singing in resorts in the Catskills; recording artist, 1956-73; nightclub performer, c. 1959-73. Appeared in films, including Come September, Universal, 1961, Too Late Blues, Paramount, 1961, Pressure Point, United Artists, 1962, State Fair, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1962, Hell Is for Heroes, Paramount, 1962, If a Man Answers, Universal, 1962, Captain Newman, M.D., 1963. Appeared on television programs, including “Night Gallery” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” and had his own variety show on NBC, 1972-73.
Awards: Two Grammy Awards, 1959. Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for Captain Newman, M.D., 1963. Elected posthumously to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1990.
bathtub, it proved a hit, selling 100,000 copies in only three weeks.
Though Darin quickly followed “Splish, Splash” with another rock and roll ditty, “Queen of the Hop,” he did not wish to rely on the burgeoning genre for his livelihood. He was unsure that rock and roll would last, and felt that teenagers—its primary consumers—were fickle in their affections for performers. So, hoping to attract more mature fans, Darin took the money he made from his first hit and financed an album of standards, titled That’s All. Included on That’s All was a revision of composer Kurt Weill’s song from playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera —“Mack the Knife.” Released in 1959, “Mack the Knife” did for Darin all that he could have wished, selling over two million copies, and catapulting him to the pinnacle of the nightclub circuit. He became a featured attraction at the most prestigious Las Vegas showcases, such as the Sahara and the Sands, and by 1960 had played the famed Copacabana in New York City.
Meanwhile, Darin was also getting his film career underway. Though he signed a film contract in 1959, he waited through many offers until he found the kind of parts he wanted to play. He made his screen debut playing an American in Italy in the 1961 film Come September. Darin also composed the title song, and met his wife, actress Sandra Dee, on the set. Faring better than most singers who venture into acting, Darin won praise for many of his film performances, including his portrayal of a young American flirting with Nazism during the 1940s in 1962’s Pressure Point, and he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his work in 1963’s Captain Newman, M.D.
Darin had other hit records throughout the early 1960s, including “Beyond the Sea,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” and the country-flavored “Things.” And, unlike many other artists who began their careers with the advent of rock and roll, he managed to maintain his success into the late 1960s, scoring in 1967 with the folk song, “If I Were a Carpenter.” Darin also had political concerns at this time, and according to Steve Hochman in the Los Angeles Times, “worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968.” Hochman further noted that the singer was “devastated by Kennedy’s assassination” later that year, and after this event sold many of his possessions, moved to California, and recorded two albums of protest songs on his own label, Direction. Though Darin’s long-time manager Steve Blowner told Hochman: “I was stunned at how good he was, singing [folk songwriters Laura] Nyro and Tim Hardin and [Bob] Dylan,” Darin’s career began to languish somewhat. In the early 1970s, he recorded for the Motown label.
Darin had again tasted success, doing a summer replacement variety show for NBC in 1972 which was picked up again in 1973, when the heart problems that resulted from his childhood rheumatic fever caught up with him. Entering the hospital to have previously implanted artificial heart valves repaired, he died on the operating table on December 20, 1973. On the occasion of his posthumous induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1990, Blowner was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying: “He could sing it all.”
“Splish, Splash,” Atco, 1958.
“Queen of the Hop,” Atco, c. 1958.
“Dream Lover,” Atco, 1959.
“Mack the Knife,” Atco, 1959.
“Things,” Atco, 1962.
“You’re the Reason I’m Living,” Capitol, 1963.
“If I Were a Carpenter,” Capitol, 1967.
Also released singles during the 1960s: “Beyond the Sea,” “Clementine,” “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,” “Artificial Flowers,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” and “Irresistible You.”
Bobby Darin, Atco, 1958.
That’s All, Atco, 1959.
At the Copa, Atco, 1960.
For Teenagers Only, Atco, 1960.
This Is Darin, Atco, 1960.
(With Johnny Mercer)Two of a Kind, Atco, 1961.
The Bobby Darin Story, Atco, 1961.
Love Swings, Atco, 1961.
Bobby Darin Sings Ray Charles, Atco, 1962.
Oh! Look at Me Now! Capitol, 1962.
Things and Other Things, Atco, 1962.
Twist with Bobby Darin, Atco, 1962.
Earthy, Capitol, 1963.
Eighteen Yellow Roses, Capitol, 1963.
You’re the Reason I’m Living, Capitol, 1963.
From Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, Capitol, 1964.
Golden Folk Hits, Capitol, 1964.
Venice Blue, Capitol, 1965.
The Best of Bobby Darin, Capitol, 1966.
The Shadow of Your Smile, Atlantic, 1966.
Doctor Dolittle, Atlantic, 1967.
If I Were a Carpenter, Atlantic, 1967.
Inside Out, Atlantic, 1967.
Bobby Darin, Direction, 1968.
Commitment, Direction, 1969.
Bobby Darin, Motown, 1972.
1936—1973, Motown, 1974.
DiOrio, Al, Borrowed Time: The Thirty-Seven Years of Bobby Darin, Running Press, 1981.
Life, January 11, 1960.
Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1990.
Newsweek, April 9, 1962.
Seventeen, July 1961.
Time, March 10, 1961.
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