Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: My Friend Bobby Darin
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
It Takes a While
It was 1961, and a bunch of us from Warner Bros. Records were sitting in the foyer of some mansion up on Stone Canyon Road, above Burbank. Mostly single guys, including A&R-man Jimmy Bowen and others from his tribe. And a good-looking fellow named Bobby Darin. No girls in sight.
We were playing dice, or craps, it was called. Darin, too. I mean, I just stared at Darin, because three or four years earlier, I’d heard his hits on my car radio and, and now, there he is, rolling the dice.
That’s all I remember from meeting him, but I still can start sentences (and blog posts) about “My friend Bobby Darin…” See?
Darin’s career in making records had been slow to get going. He’d been a stage performer of style and hubba-hubba singing. Ballads with a beat. He’d been signed to Decca Records, but no hits there. Move on to a new label at Atlantic Records.
Darin brought a demo record to Ahmet Ertegun, who was looking for new artists to broaden Atlantic’s appeal. For that, Atlantic had a sub-label named Atco, run by Atlantic co-founder Herb Abramson.
Herb wanted his sub-label to have a rock-and-roll star, like Elvis over at RCA. Atlantic could afford one shot at getting one, and Abramson picked Darin, a fresh, Frank Sinatra-type stage performer, but with teen appeal.
He was the first white singer to be signed by Atlantic Records in its history. He just didn’t sound too much that way. Played romping piano, wrote hot songs. Darin had jazzed up veins, and behaved hip. Into Atlantic he fit.
Finding Anything That Works
Darin appealed as well to Manhattan DJ Murray the K (for Kaufman), who began featuring Darin in his rock shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Sandwiched in between the rest of the show – all black performers – Darin was a smash. He did Fats Domino numbers. He impersonated Ray Charles. They loved him.
So did New York’s hip super clubs, down in mid-Manhattan, where Darin wore his tux and sang with fervor.
His life wasn’t all New York and supper clubs, though, and Darin needed to work. He played places like Ken Wa Lou’s in Toledo, Ohio, for $300 a week.
For Atco, six Darin singles followed, none a winner. Darin’s Atco contract (eight songs) was coming up for renewal.
Herb told his partner Ahmet that he was giving up on Darin.
All this time, Darin had stuck with his early mentor, Murray the K. They knew that Atco was nearly over. At Murray’s apartment, Darin sat long at the piano. There, too, was Murray Kaufmann’s mom, Jean Kaufmann, herself a frustrated songwriter who called in new song titles to her son to see he found them appealing.
Phone call from mom rang. Mama Jean’s latest song idea: “Splish, Splash, Take a Bath.” Both Kaufman and Darin felt ugh at that title, but Darin, grasping at straws, said “I could write a song with that title.” Within one hour, Darin had.
Darin (hard for me to call him Bobby, despite our “friendship” back in that foyer), arranged to meet with Atlantic’s other co-founder, Ahmet Ertegun about “one more session.” Hearing his new song, “Splish, Splash,” Abramson had already passed, flat. Jerry Wexler had defined it as “garbage.” Ahmet felt differently. He didn’t want Darin to leave Atlantic without one more try. Ahmet said he’d produce this one himself.
If this one failed, Darin would be out. Agreed. Darin told his best boyhood pal, “You’ll vomit when you hear it. I’ve gone all the way with the bastardized sound, but I’m blowing a bundle on this one.”
That “all or goodbye” session was set up for April 10, 1958. Darin singing and handling piano. After 45 minutes, “Splish Splash” was made. In the next 45 minutes, another hit got cut: “Queen of the Hop.”
Then out the door. This was a split, 3-hour date, and 90 minutes had gone down, and Morgana King was out there, waiting. No confetti in the studio, and Darin walked down to his Manhattan hangout, Hanson’s Drug Store, to meet with his volunteer publicist, Harriet Wasser.
Harriet felt the moment, and got going, got Dick Clark on the phone, got Darin on Clark’s breakthrough TV show, American Bandstand.
Meeting Clark, Darin put a copy of “Splish, Splash” on the office turntable, turned up the volume, and pantomimed to the song.
Splish, splash, I was takin' a bath
Long about a Saturday night, yeah
A rub dub, just relaxin' in the tub
Thinkin' everythin' was alright
Well, I stepped out the tub
I put my feet on the floor
I wrapped the towel around me and I
Opened the door
And then a-splish, splash
I jumped back in the bath
Well, how was I to know
There was a party goin' on?
There was a-splishin' and a-splashin'
Reelin' with the feelin'
Movin' and a-groovin'
Rockin' and a-rollin', yeah, yeah
Bing, bang, I saw the whole gang
Dancin' on my living room rug, yeah
Flip, flop, they was doin' the bop
All the teens had the dancin' but
There was lollipop with a Peggy Sue
Good golly, Miss Molly was-a even there, too
A- well-a, splish, splash, I forgot about the bath
I went and put my dancin' shoes on, yeah
After 2 minute and 12 seconds, when finished, Darin nervously asked, “Well, Sir Richard, what do you think?”
Clark answered, “Robert, I think you’ve finally done it!”
Relieved, Darin agreed: “I think so, too!”
Within two weeks, Atco had the single out in the market, Darin had his first of many shots on American Bandstand, and Harriet Wasser started getting paid as Darin’s personal assistant. (In 1957, after expenses, Darin had earned $1600. In 1958, with “Splish Splash,” his income after expenses was $40,000.)
His private life got hot, dating the likes of Connie Francis.
More Than a Rocker
My friend Bobby Darin was determined to be more than a teen-size rock kid. He’d started in night clubs, and had a voice that reached the back of any hall. His agent, Steve Blauner, got him a major deal for better bookings via General Artists Corp.
Darin’s next single, “Beyond the Sea,” from French artist Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” came out and hit well.
Ahmet felt fulfilled. He kept up leading his good life.
At a quiet lunch with Threepenny Opera composer Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, they chatted in several languages. She was famous. They discussed the German debut of Threepenny, which had introduced the song “Mack the Knife.” Lotte Lenya asked Ahmet why he’d never made records of her late husband’s songs. Ahmet confessed that his company wasn’t right for that, but Lotte asked him to try.He promised he would.
A few days later, Bobby Darin met with Ahmet. He had with him a new thought, and a copy of “Mack the Knife” recorded by Louis Armstrong. Darin had an idea for how he’d record the song. He’d even been doing it “big band style” on his last tour. Full orchestra behind him in this session. Darin told Ahmet that Atlantic could hold on to his royalties for “Splish Splash” if they were needed to pay for any losses recording of “Mack.”
Ahmet believed in artists who believed like that. He even called Lotte Lenya with the news.
With a full orchestra, with Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi and Jerry Wexler in the booth, Darin recorded “Mack the Knife” in December, 1958. He even improv’d Lotte Lenya’s name into two different verses.
It took until August of 1959 for “Mack” to come out (“Dream Lover” had been in the release line first), but when “Mack” came out, Bobby Darin was at a high in his career. “Mack” went Top Ten for one whole year. It sold two million. At the 1959 Grammys, “Mack” won Best Record and he won Best New Artist.
Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it … ah … out of sight.
Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s nevah, nevah a trace of red.
Now on the sidewalk … uuh, huh … whoo … sunny mornin’ … uuh, huh
Lies a body just oozin' life … eeek!
And someone’s sneakin' ‘round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?
A-there's a tugboat … huh, huh, huh … down by the river don’tcha know
Where a cement bag’s just a'droopin' on down
Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear
Five'll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town.
He recorded on, until his final single for Atco, “Things,” in 1962.
But Darin was frustrated. He wanted to record as an “album artist,” not just have albums come out that compiled his singles.
Darin Moves Out to Hollywood
After five years, Bobby Darin had become a major, but he felt that Atco was still “an indy,” in a minor leagues when it came to labels like RCA and Columbia and Capitol. Darin asked Ahmet, “Why can’t we be like the majors?”
Ahmet knew where this was headed, and warmly told Darin, “You’ll always be a part of our family here. You can always come home.”
And Darin with his management team moved to Hollywood, to make 15 movies, to play major engagements from Vegas to London, to TV upon TV, and to teen cutie Sandra Dee. They married when she turned 18 (1960). He was 24.
In 1962, Darin signed for three years with Capitol, a label whose roster included my friend Frank, Dean, Peggy, Nat, Dinah, Judy, and three Kingstons. Of all those, Darin’s contract was the biggest of them all.
Three years later, having had it with Capitol, with little hits at best, Bobby Darin returned to be back on the same label as Ahmet, this time on Atlantic itself.
It was the last time I saw my friend.
- Stay Tuned