As a performer, Bobby Darin rivaled Frank Sinatra. Energizing the early rock-and-roll scene with his rollicking classic “Splish Splash,” Darin then became a top-draw nightclub act. Chronic illness dogged him from childhood, setting the tone of urgency that inspired a career full of dizzying twists and turns: from teen idol to Vegas song-and-dance man, and from hipster to folkie and back.
In Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin, author David Evanier tracks Darin’s meteoric rise from dire poverty as the grandson of a low-level mobster to his well-earned place in the showbiz pantheon.#
In a June, 2005 interview, Evanier talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about Darin’s short and complex life, and makes a case that this gifted artist’s spirit is as alive today as ever.
photo Harriet Wasser Collection
Bobby Darin, Decca Records session, 1956
“His was a raw, restless, cerebral talent, derived from a life steeped in music and performance history. Coming from the streets, he came to the blues naturally, not as exotica. It had the immediacy and urgency of real life. He had so little time, it spoke to him. He didn’t have time for teenage bullshit or polite subterfuge; he would make it big, or he would die trying.”
– David Evanier
JJMYou write that Bobby Darin told a friend of his, “The key to me is that I don’t belong anyplace. I don’t belong in the streets of the Bronx, in high society, or suburbia. I don’t belong among beatniks, and I sure don’t belong in hotel suites.” Where did he see himself belonging as a teenager?
DE As a teenager, Bobby went to Bronx Science, which was the most prestigious high school for students referred to in those days as “the brains.” He was very poor, and grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx and on the lower East Side of Manhattan. He had rheumatic fever as a child and was bedridden for a long time, which gave him a lot of time on his own to think and read. It started him on the path of being the perennial outsider. He became a rocker at the start of his career only as a means to an end, because his real love was with the Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin songs the standards.
Bobby grew up in a very loving, proletarian Italian family, but he was much more precocious and intellectual than they were. Bronx Science was a school made up primarily of Jewish kids with very high IQ’s, and he began to see life from a new perspective, and particularly regarding issues like racism. As a kid he would hang out on the corner and make racist comments along with the others in the neighborhood, but it was pointed out to him by the students of Bronx Science that this was wrong. He spent a summer pondering this issue and came out of it a changed person. So, Bobby was an outsider in every respect.
JJM And of course there was the issue of him not knowing his “sister” was actually his mother …
DE Yes, he found out later in life that the woman who raised him as his “mother” was actually his grandmother, and the person he knew as his “sister” was actually his mother. But it seems to me that this knowledge didn’t really come at age thirty-five, when most people think it did. Harriet Wasser, who was Bobby’s publicist and who knew him better than anyone from the beginning, believes that Bobby really did know that the arrangement told by his family was not the reality.
JJM It is hard to imagine how he couldn’t have known. I don’t know how you keep a secret like that for thirty-five years.
DE Exactly. To continue on this outsider status theme, his grandmother, Polly Walden, was quite different from the rest of the family; she loved poetry and taught it to Bobby, and she took him to plays and to the music halls. Also, she was not Italian she was Irish-German which was an unusual influence within this family. Polly was quite ill herself, so she took very good care of him when he was bedridden, but this closeness created an alienation of sorts from the rest of that family.
When Bobby was sick with rheumatic fever, he overheard doctors speak of the likelihood of an early death, so he felt doomed, and was physically unable to do things that others easily could. He couldn’t ride the subways because he couldn’t climb stairs, and Charlie Maffia who was his “sister’s” husband which actually made him his stepfather would have to drive him around the city. In so many ways, Bobby’s was a very divided personality.
JJM Given Bobby’s high level of intelligence and success in school, did any of the family members have aspirations for him other than being an entertainer?
DE No, he was the apple of their eye, and they loved him ferociously. His becoming an entertainer was something they could understand, as opposed to if he had aspired to becoming a writer or an intellectual of some sort. They adored him and wanted him to become a performer, so his career choice was a perfect fit.
JJM What were his first experiences as an entertainer?
DE He formed his own group and began working summers in the Catskills when he was fifteen. That was his first experience as an entertainer. He was an all around man there. During the days he would take care of the candy stand, and at night he would put on a show with the other kids.
JJM It was at this time that he had a falling out with Steve Karmen, his performing partner who Darin felt was stealing his thunder.
DE Yes. Karmen later became a writer of jingles. He actually wrote a memoir that dealt with their jealous relationship. After the Catskills, Bobby’s first booking was in Detroit, and he took Steve along basically as a security blanket. Bobby was very insecure about his appearance and thought he was ugly, and Steve was this very tall, blonde, handsome man who flirted with the girls in the audience. Bobby thought he was detracting attention from his act, and dismissed him rather brusquely at a very early stage in his career.
JJM What did early admirers of Darin like Harriet Wasser find appealing in him?
DE Harriet Wasser fell in love with Bobby before she ever heard him sing. She found him in Hansen’s Drug Store, where he was the charismatic center of a group of fledgling singers, comedians and actors. She just sensed a unique quality in him, and became enthralled by him. Harriet had a lifelong knack for discovering talent, and her career included working very closely with Sammy Davis, Jr, who she introduced Bobby to, and who became a big supporter of Bobby’s. A similar situation happened with Steve Blauner, who became Bobby’s manager in a pretty interesting way. Steve was working as an agent for the General Artists Corporation, during which time he became quite friendly with Sammy Davis, Jr. so friendly that the agency believed he was going to steal Sammy away from them. When he heard about Bobby Darin through Harriet Wasser, as an act of revenge he became Bobby’s representative basically without even having seen him sing. In both of these cases, in the strange ways that life works, the two most important people in Bobby Darin’s life became involved with him before they ever heard him sing.
JJM It is amazing how quickly his star rose. Ahmet Ertegun said of Darin, “We at Atlantic had tried to get Presley but it didn’t work out. So to me this was the answer. I had somebody as good or better.” That is quite a statement to make
DE Ertegun and Jerry Wexler tell the same story of the time they heard someone doodling on the piano outside their offices, thinking that it was Ray Charles, but in fact it was Bobby. They were astounded. Bobby recorded an enormous hit with “Splish Splash,” which was a quite wonderful rock song that he wrote himself, but when he wanted to sing standards, Ertegun and Wexler of Atlantic Records were very much opposed to that because they felt making this switch right at the time he was creating a dramatic impact was an insane career move. In fact, Bobby had to finance that first recording, “That’s All,” with the royalties he made from “Splish Splash.”
JJM Later on Wexler said, “The Sinatra-styled ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Beyond the Sea’ proved that Bobby could swing in styles ranging from rock to big band-jazz.” Why did he want to sing “Mack the Knife?”
DE Part of it was because he was influenced by the Louis Armstrong recording. Also, Darin was always interested in turning things upside down musically. “Mack the Knife” was more or less a dirge; the song was Germanic, and it was about a murderer, and it is possible that he was drawn to the song because it was about death. He turned “Mack” into the wildest kind of celebration that, in a way, conquered the fear of death. His interpretation defied death; while its lyrics had death lurking around the corner, here was Bobby turning its very dirge-like melody into something joyous and wild. I believe that may be a reason why he was so attracted to this song.
JJM Who was responsible for arranging that song?
DE Richard Wess, who also came to Bobby through Harriet Wasser.
JJM The Sinatra comparisons were inevitable after the success of “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” How did Sinatra view Darin’s talent?
DE Well, there are many variations on this story. There are those who say that Sinatra was threatened by him, there are also those who say Sinatra really admired him. He would say things like, “Bobby Darin does my prom dates,” and Bobby would reply, “Yes, until I graduate.” Sinatra had a conversation with an actor named Dick Bakalyan in which Sinatra is claimed to have said that Bobby was a wonderful talent whose primary skills were displayed on stage. In other words, it was a stage talent that didn’t always translate on recordings in the way that Sinatra’s did.
JJM Yes, Bakalyan quoted Sinatra as saying, “If you could get what Bobby did onstage bottled, captured in its fullness and richness where you could share it with the whole world, it would be an amazing thing.”
DE Right, there is the notion that some performers’ magnetism does not extend beyond their time on stage. I don’t think it is true at all in Darin’s case because he recorded a substantial number of songs that are enduring, and that possess the power and ferocious drive of those made by Sinatra.
JJM From the accounts in your book regarding this topic, it seems as though Darin was always very respectful of Sinatra and was careful to never say anything that would lead one to believe he felt he was a greater talent than Sinatra. There was an incident you quote Steve Blauner as saying, “After the  Grammys, we were walking through the lobby of the Beverly Hilton. We were stopped by Vernon Scott, a reporter for the United Press. He says to Bobby, Do you want to be bigger than Frank Sinatra? Bobby says to him very respectfully, Why would you ask me that? Were a different generation. All I want to do is to be the biggest and best Bobby Darin I can be. Scott said, Well, you want to do everything that Sinatra has done. Again, Bobby replied, Its not fair. What does one thing have to do with the other? I want to do whatever I can do. The next day which I loved, of course in 2,000 papers across the country, the headline read: Darin Wants to Be Bigger Than Sinatra. Scott claimed Bobby had said, I hope to surpass Frank in everything hes done.” This may have stirred in Sinatra a feeling that Darin didn’t respect him properly.
DE The overriding evidence is that Sinatra respected Bobby. Bobby had a very short run, about fifteen years or so, and Sinatra didn’t have all that much time to comment on Darin one way or the other. Look at how generous Sinatra was toward Tony Bennett over the years, but Tony had many more years to develop, and in the end Sinatra’s gestures toward Bennett from one artist to the other were extraordinary. Sinatra was by no means ungenerous toward Bobby.
The crowd that Sinatra ran with the “Rat Pack” never really accepted Bobby. While they loved and respected him in a way, they considered him to be an upstart and a rocker, which Sinatra detested. Bobby was too much of a rock performer to fit in with them. On the other side, the rockers looked upon him as being too “Las Vegas” for their crowd. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones treated him with contempt and laughed at him when they met. Darin’s being caught between these two worlds is another example of his outsider status.