Aces Back To Back
A few years ago when a Bobby Darin box set came out I heard an interview with its producer, a longtime Darin friend, on NPR. They played a demo tape of one of Darin’s songs, recorded, if memory serves, with him just sitting on a beach, singing and playing guitar into a portable tape recorder. I can’t remember the name of the song, though it was almost certainly from his “folk rock” period. But I’ve always remembered the image, and the evident love with which the producer spoke of his friend.
Something has stayed with me since then about Darin as a kind of fluid performer, whose audience didn’t always have time for the A to Z of his interests. Those who associated him with Vegas show bands, and liked that, didn’t see why he felt the need to sing that dirty hippie music, and the dirty hippie crowd distrusted the intentions of Mr. Clean, White And Neat trying to take on their concerns.
Perhaps what best symbolizes Bobby Darin’s awkward place among the performers of his day is the live version of his composition “Simple Song of Freedom,” included here. This starts out kind of stilted (“Hey there, Mr. black man…”) and finishes with a hideously inappropriate Vegas flourish (“Freeeedom!” the backup singers screech), but in-between, Darin’s sincerity is obvious. It was 1971. And he was, by most reports, genuinely concerned with what was going on around him and not merely angling for publicity, though it’s hard to believe he was blind to that aspect. But in 2004, it’s harder not to lend a sympathetic ear to sentiments like “…leave the people be who love to sing” and “We the people here don’t want a war.”
Rewind. Here are some things I knew, or thought I knew, about Bobby Darin prior to hearing this album:
I remember my mom singing “Splish Splash” when I was a boy. I thought she liked him a lot (she denies this now), so I consigned him to the place where you consign such people. Although, a favorite story in George Burns’ All My Best Friends told me that Darin was in Burns’ words,
“…some kid. The day of Gracie’s funeral he was worried about me staying alone in the house. So he stayed with me that night. Nobody asked him to, he just did it. That was very important to me.”
That made me like him a little more. But I still didn’t think his music held much of a good time for me. Of course, if one keeps half an ear open at the movies and on airplanes, one knows “Dream Lover” and “Mack The Knife.” Plus I knew he used to be married to Sandra Dee, and I thought I knew what that meant.
Aces Back To Back is producer Joel Dorn’s ambitious attempt to put together a case for Darin as both underrated and influential. Joined by Darin’s manager Steve Blauner and archivist Jimmy Scalia, Dorn has put together a 20-song set containing some but not all of the hits along with lesser-known material, all in rare and/or live performances.
Roughly the first half of this CD is devoted to what the accompanying DVD of the same material calls “The Darin everybody knows.” This is the Darin who sings “Beyond The Sea” and “Mack The Knife.” The Darin who one of my favorite writers, Will Friedwald, said in his thorough and expert Jazz Singing was “easily, after Sinatra, the greatest of the Swingin’ Lovers.”
But this material was recorded and filmed for Darin’s TV variety show in 1972, and that was not a good period for pop music. Though it’s hard to fault Darin’s vocals on the CD version, the DVD reveals what looks like a man on autopilot (check the eyes) who was near the end of his life.
For the most part, the material doesn’t help. “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” doesn’t sound like it. But at least that can arguably be called a classic, one of only two of Steve Allen’s alleged 8,500 songs to penetrate the national consciousness. I don’t agree, but it can be. But “Alone Again (Naturally)?” “Song Sung Blue?” Darin works what little drama can be found in the lyrics and is never less than tuneful, but it’s like getting John Huston to read jump-rope rhymes. Yeah, it would probably sound pretty good, but it would never be anything more than a curiosity.
Not all these songs are a total wash, especially a kidding-around version of “Beyond The Sea,” where Darin does seem to be having fun, and the obligatory “Mack.” This was a song he made so much his own that even Old Blue Eyes didn’t touch it till nearly 10 years after Darin was dead.
On this set, what these songs do best is set up the contrast to Darin’s folk rock stage, represented by Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the pretty but lyrically baffling “If I Were A Carpenter” (you thought “I Am The Walrus” was surreal). When Darin gets the Vegas showroom out of his voice, he’s a much better singer.
Somewhere in between the rock and a hard place representing Darin’s folk and showman aspirations, respectively, are a couple of country ditties. “Jive” is nice-and-easy, and sounds like the best radio announcer theme song you ever heard (“Jive’s alive, from nine to five, my main man!”), but it’s very likable. “Long Time Movin'” is more substantial, with a clever lyric listing the things the singer won’t miss as he moves on.
Finally comes a too brief medley of standards performed with (unless my ears deceive me) a jazz quartet. These should make the final argument to anyone still inclined to dismiss Darin as a lightweight.
So what’s my picture of Darin now? Well, it’s of someone who really should have sung a lot more jazz. Certainly the jazz stuff — “Moon River” and “All The Way” especially — has held up a lot better than the “showbiz” material with which this set opens. He may or may not have been, as Dorn argues, “one of the greatest entertainers and singers of the 20th Century.” But on the evidence presented here, my conclusion would be: Underrated to be sure, and worthy of further investigation.
Bobby Darin: www.bobbydarin.com