Bobby Darin (May 14, 1936 – December 20, 1973), born Walden Robert Perciville Cassotto, was a two-time Grammy award-winning American singer, Oscar-nominated actor and accomplished musician.
Darin performed widely in a range of music genres, including pop, rock, jazz, folk and country. Although the fact was unknown to his public, his health was dangerously fragile and strongly motivated him to succeed within the limited lifetime he feared he would, and ultimately did, have.
Darin married Sandra Dee; they met while making the film Come September (1961). They made a few more movies together at Universal Studios that were moderately successful. They had one son, Dodd Mitchell Darin (also known as Morgan Mitchell Darin). Darin and Dee divorced in 1967.
He was also an actor, singer/songwriter and music business entrepreneur. His wish for a legacy was "to be remembered as a human being and as a great performer." Among his many other contributions, he became a goodwill ambassador for the American Heart Association.
Bobby Darin was born in The Bronx to a poor, working-class family of mostly Italian descent. The person thought to be his father (who was actually his grandfather) died in jail a few months before he was born. It was the height of the Great Depression, and he once remarked that his crib was a cardboard box, then later a dresser drawer. He was initially raised by his Anglo-American mother Polly and his sister Nina, subsisting on Home Relief until Nina later married and started a family with her new husband Charlie Maffia. It was not until Darin was an adult that he learned that Nina -- 17 years his senior -- was in fact his birth mother, and that Polly, the woman he thought was his mother, was really his grandmother. He was never told the identity of his real father, other than being told that his birth father had no idea Nina was pregnant, and thus never knew that Bobby was even born. Polly mothered him well, despite her own medical history resulting in her addiction to morphine. It was Polly who took the young Bobby to what was left of the old vaudeville circuit in New York -- places like the Bronx Opera House, and the RKO Jefferson in Manhattan, where he received his first showbiz inspiration, and where he saw performers like Sophie Tucker, whom he loved.
Darin was frail and sickly as an infant and, beginning at the age of 8, was stricken with multiple recurring bouts of rheumatic fever. The illness left him with a seriously weakened heart. Overhearing a doctor tell his mother he would be lucky to reach the age of 16, Darin lived with the constant knowledge that his life would be short, which further motivated him to use his talents. He was driven by his poverty and illness to make something of his life and, with his innate talent for music, by the time he was a teenager he could play several instruments, including piano, drums and guitar. He later added harmonica and xylophone.
An outstanding student, Darin graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and went on to attend Hunter College on a scholarship. Wanting a career in the New York theater, he dropped out of college to play small nightclubs around the city with a musical combo. In the resort area of the Catskill Mountains, he was both a busboy and an entertainer. For the most part, teenage Bobby was a comedy drummer and an ambitious but unpolished vocalist.
As was common with first-generation Americans at the time, he changed his Italian surname to one that sounded less ethnic. He chose the name "Bobby" because he had been called that as a child. He allegedly chose Darin because he had seen a malfunctioning electrical sign at a Chinese restaurant reading "DARIN DUCK" rather than "MANDARIN DUCK", and he thought "Darin" looked good. Later, he said that the name was randomly picked out of the telephone book, either by himself or by his publicist. It has also been suggested that he amended the word "daring" to suit his ambitions. None of these stories has been verified.
What really moved things along for Darin was his songwriting partnership, formed in 1955, with fellow Bronx Science student Don Kirshner. In 1956 his agent negotiated a contract for him with Decca Records, where Bill Haley & His Comets had risen to fame. However, this was a time when rock and roll was still in its infancy and the number of capable record producers and arrangers in the field was extremely limited.
A member of the now famous Brill Building gang of once-struggling songwriters who later found success, Darin was introduced to then up-and-coming singer Connie Francis. Bobby's manager arranged for Darin to help write several songs for Connie in order to help jump-start her singing career. Initially the two artists couldn't see eye to eye on potential material, but after several weeks Bobby and Connie developed a romantic interest in one another. Purportedly, Connie had a very strict Italian father who would separate the couple whenever possible. When Connie's father learned that Bobby had suggested the two lovers elope after one of Connie's shows, he ran Darin out of the building while waving a gun and telling Bobby never to see his daughter again.
Bobby saw Connie only twice more -- once when the two were scheduled to sing together for a television show and again later when Connie was spotlighted on the TV series This Is Your Life. Connie has said that not marrying Bobby was the biggest mistake of her life. She used the title words of the song "My First Real Love," (a Darin-Kirshner song she'd recorded and on which Darin had played drums), when she said, "Well, he was my first real love and I never stopped loving him all my life." Connie Francis said too that she and Darin would sometimes go to the Apollo Theater to see artists like James Brown and Ray Charles, 'we were the only white people in the audience' -- and when Darin did record first for Decca early in 1956 it was a piece of black music, pioneered by the Louisiana songster Leadbelly, "Rock Island Line"—though the immediate inspiration was Lonnie Donegan's skiffle version. He sang it that year on the CBS program Stage Show -- his TV debut -- with the lyrics written on the palms of his hands in case he forgot them... which he did. But the songs recorded at Decca did very little business.
Darin left Decca to sign with Atlantic Records (ATCO), where he wrote and arranged music for himself and others. Songs he recorded , like Harry Warren's I Found a Million Dollar Baby were sung with an Elvis-like attack, but Darin was not fully equipped to be a teen idol. Around this time he worried about his appearance. He was losing his hair and told Steve Blauner that when he looked in the mirror he saw "an ugly small Italian man." Yet many attested that on stage he had 'absolute charisma'. Fitted with a hairpiece, Darin faced the world anew; but now it was his ATCO career that was failing to thrive. There was talk of releasing Darin from his contract until Atlantic's Turkish-American co-founder Ahmet Ertegun stepped in. Darin's career took off in 1958 when he wrote and recorded "Splish Splash", with Ertegun producing. The song was an instant hit, selling more than a million copies. "Splish Splash" was written with radio DJ Murray "Murray the K" Kaufman, who bet Darin that he could not write a song that started out with the words "Splish Splash, I was takin' a bath", as suggested by Murray's mother. On a snow-bound night in early 1958, Darin went into the studio alone and recorded a demo of "Splish Splash." They eventually shared writing credits with her. This was followed by more hits recorded in the same style.
In 1959, Bobby Darin recorded "Dream Lover", a ballad that became a multi-million seller. Along came financial success and with it came the ability to demand more so-called creative control. Some at the label wanted a Fats Domino-ish album, but Darin's devoted publicist and advisor Harriet 'Hesh' Wasser wanted a 'great, swinging, standard album,' and -- as she later told it -- they were walking down 57th street when Darin told her "Hesh, don't worry, you'll get your album." His next record, "Mack the Knife", was the classic standard from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera: Darin gave the tune a vamping jazz-pop interpretation. Although Darin initially opposed releasing it as a single, the song went to No. 1 on the charts for nine weeks, sold two million copies, and won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1960. Darin was also voted the Grammy Award for Best New Artist that year. "Mack The Knife" has since been honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He followed "Mack" with "Beyond the Sea", a jazzy English-language version of Charles Trenet's French hit song "La Mer".
The tracks were produced by Atlantic founders Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün with staff producer Jerry Wexler and featured brilliant arrangements by Richard Wess. Propelled by the success of "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea", Darin became a hot commodity. He set all-time attendance records at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York City, where it was not unusual for fans to line up all the way around the block to get tickets when Darin performed there. The Copacabana sold so many seats for Darin's shows that they had to fill the dance floor -- normally part of the performance area -- with extra seating. Darin also headlined at the major casinos in Las Vegas.
Sammy Davis Jr., an exceptionally multi-talented and dynamic performer himself, was quoted as saying that Bobby Darin was "the only person I never wanted to follow" after seeing him perform in Las Vegas. However, Davis was among those who appeared on the 1959 telecast of This Is Your Life, along with George Burns and relatives and friends, that surprised and honored Darin at NBC's Burbank, California studios.
Darin had a significant role in fostering new talent. Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson and Wayne Newton opened his nightclub performances when they were virtually unknown. Early on, at the Copacabana, he insisted that black comic George Kirby be his opening act. His request was grudgingly granted by Jules Podell, the manager of the Copacabana.
In the 1960s, Darin also owned and operated a highly successful music publishing and production company (TM Music/Trio) and signed Wayne Newton to TM, giving him a song that was originally sent to Darin to record. That record went on to become Newton's breakout hit, "Danke Schoen". He also was a mentor to Roger McGuinn, who worked for Darin at TM Music and played the 12 string guitar in Darin's nightclub band before going off to form The Byrds. Darin also produced Rosey Grier's 1964 LP, Soul City, and Made in the Shade for Jimmy Boyd.
In 1962, Darin also began to write and sing country music, with hit songs including "Things" (U.S. #3) (1962), "You're the Reason I'm Living" (U.S. #3), and "18 Yellow Roses" (U.S. #10). The latter two were on Capitol Records, which he joined in 1962 before returning to Atlantic four years later. Off-screen, in 1965, Bobby Darin also sang the opening song and closing song of Walt Disney's 1965 comedy and drama movie That Darn Cat!. The song, "Things" was sung by Dean Martin in the 1967 TV special Movin' With Nancy, starring Nancy Sinatra, which was released to home video in 2000.
In addition to music, Darin became a motion picture actor. In 1960, he appeared twice as himself in NBC's short-lived crime drama Dan Raven, starring Skip Homeier and set on the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood. In 1960, he was the only actor ever to have been signed contractually to five major Hollywood film studios. He wrote music for several films and acted in them as well. In his first major film, Come September, a romantic comedy designed to capitalize on his popularity with the teenage and young adult audience, he met and co-starred with 16-year-old actress Sandra Dee. They fell in love and were married in 1960. The couple had one son, Dodd Mitchell Darin (born 1961), and later divorced in 1967.
Wanting his acting to be taken seriously, Darin took on more meaningful movie roles, and in 1962, he won the Golden Globe Award for "Most Promising Male Newcomer" for his role in Pressure Point.
In 1963, Darin was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a shell-shocked soldier in Captain Newman, M.D.. At the Cannes Film Festival, where his records -- in particular "Beyond the Sea" -- brought him a wide following, he won the French Film Critics Award for best actor.
Darin's musical output became more "folky" as the 1960s progressed and he became more politically aware and active. In 1966, he had another big hit record, but this time it was with folksinger Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter", adding another style to his vast repertoire. The song secured Darin's return to the Top 10 after a two-year absence. Jim (Roger) McGuinn, the future leader of the Byrds, was part of his performing band albeit in the early 1960s before the formation of the Byrds. Darin traveled with Robert Kennedy and worked on the politician's 1968 presidential campaign. He was with Kennedy the day he traveled to Los Angeles on June 4, 1968, for the California Primary, and was at the Ambassador Hotel later that night when Kennedy was assassinated. Darin was devastated by this news.
Afterwards, Darin sold his house and most of his possessions and lived in seclusion in a trailer near Big Sur for nearly a year. Coming back to Los Angeles in 1969, Darin started another record company, Direction Records, putting out folk and protest music. He wrote the very popular "Simple Song of Freedom" in 1969. He said of his first Direction Records album, "The purpose of Direction Records is to seek out statement-makers. The album is solely of compositions designed to reflect my thoughts on the turbulent aspects of modern society." During this time, he was billed under the name "Bob Darin," grew a mustache, and stopped wearing a hairpiece. Within two years, however, all of these changes were discontinued.
At the beginning of the 1970s, he continued to act and to record, including several albums with Motown Records and a couple of films. In January 1971, he underwent his first heart surgery in an attempt to correct some of the heart damage he had lived with since childhood. He spent most of the year recovering from the surgery.
In 1972, he starred in his own TV variety show on NBC, The Bobby Darin Amusement Company, which ran until his death in 1973. Darin married Andrea Yeager in June 1973. He made TV guest appearances and also remained a top draw at Las Vegas, where, owing to his poor health, he was often administered oxygen after his performances.
In 1973, Darin's ill health took a turn for the worse. After failing to take medication (prescribed to protect his heart) before a dental visit, he developed blood poisoning. This weakened his body and badly affected one of his heart valves. On December 11, Darin entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for surgery to repair the two artificial heart valves he had received in the previous 1971 operation. On December 19, the surgery began. A five-man surgical team worked for over six hours to repair his damaged heart. However, although the surgery was initially successful, Darin died minutes afterward in the recovery room without regaining consciousness on December 20, 1973, at age 37.