Bobby Darin: The Last Crooner

If I Were a CarpenterI confess, I’ve never quite understood Americans’ love affair with the crooner.  You know, the Las Vegas lounge singer type.  This is going to sound like a stereotype, and it really is, but the male singer exuding sex appeal, suave, debonair in a tux and perfect hair, usually singing other peoples’ popular songs-interpreting them well or not. Bing Crosby was a crooner.  Frank Sinatra personified the crooner for decades and was incredibly good at it. Tony Bennett is someone whose records I still pick up, but mostly due to his embrace of contemporary performers like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. And of course there are the lesser lights-Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Martino, Steve Lawrence, and a host of others. There is no shortage of crooners today.  Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble and Josh Groban and others all adopting the tux and the Great American Songbook.  Hell, even Rod Stewart wants to be one.

But for many years the crooner became reviled in American popular music. Sinatra, the Rat Pack, were uncool, too close to the establishment, representatives of the Nixon era and all that was wrong that went with it.

Bobby Darin was a tish too old to be singing “My Generation” with the Who, and a bit too young to be singing “It Was A Very Good Year” with Sinatra.  Beginning in 1955 he worked in New York’s Brill Building writing songs for Connie Francis.  1958, however, he broke through with some pop songs of his own. “Splish, Splash” was followed by “Queen of the Hop,” and later came “Dream Lover.” They made Darin a star and soon he was able to write his own ticket.

Darin chose an odd path, taking the road of a teen idol.  But the material he chose aligned him with older, more establishment audiences.  “Mack the Knife,” from Three Penny Opera was followed by “Beyond the Sea.”  Darin’s musical success was followed by sold out shows at New York’s Copacabana night club, and roles on television and movies. He married Sandra Dee, Gidget in the movies.

But as the ’50’s turned into the ’60’s, Darin didn’t stand still. Though he could have been the younger wing of the Rat Pack, Darin began including folk songs in his show. albeit with a more big band arrangement. Future Byrd, Roger McGuinn, became a guitarist with his band.

By 1965, Darin was 29 years old, and aware of the profound changes taking place in the United States.  He participated in civil rights demonstrations and marched in Alabama. In 1968 he supported Sen. Robert Kennedy’s campaign and was in Los Angeles with the candidate when he was murdered. Darin’s music began to reflect similar changes. In 1966 he released If I Were a Carpenter.

I’ve always loved the title song, and when I was out doing estate sale shopping with Lorri on Saturday when I ran across a copy of the album along with a pile of adult contemporary music at one of the houses we traipsed through.  I immediately grabbed it.  “If I was a Carpenter” leads off side A.  It is a Tim Hardin song and five songs on the record represent a partnership between the two. Included is the oft’ covered “Reason to Believe,” and “Don’t Make Promises.”  Loving Spoonful alum, John Sebastian offerings include “Daydream” and “Sittin’ Here Lovin’ You.”  The surprise track is “Baby’s Song” by H.J. Deutschendorff,, Jr., John Denver’s real name before he moved to Aspen and adopted a new persona.

By far the best song is a title track.  But even this folk rocker is plagued by the kind of overproduced gentle strings and backing orchestration that undercuts Darin’s efforts to find his folk roots.  He seems at a loss to determine who he will be and what direction his career should take. It feels a little too showbiz.

 Darin would write “Simple Song of Freedom” a gentle protest song that would be covered by his friend Hardin, by the time the new decade dawned he seemed to return to his comfort zone in adult contemporary music.  Darin became a top performer in Las Vegas and in 1972 hosted a short term variety show on television, NBC’s Bobby Darin Show.

However, Darin, suffering from a chronically weakened heart due to childhood illness, died at age 37 during a medical procedure December 20, 1973.

It’s interesting to speculate what Darin’s career would have looked like if he’d been healthy and remained alive today at age 79.  Would he be a senior crooner-in-state like Tony Bennett?  Or would he be more like Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, as folkie memorialist?

I choose to remember Darin as someone caught in-between.  He was a great songwriter and a talented performer, sufficient to have a foot in several camps-adult contemporary, rock and roll, folk, even country-western. He didn’t have to choose a definite path, so when he adopted folk in the middle 60’s it seemed opportunistic and a quick grab at the youth market and cash. He was also someone who understood his own mortality, was deeply affected by a changing America, and  was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination, After spending 1969 in seclusion, Darin returned to a life in which he’d found success and a degree of comfort.  Bobby Darin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

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