Fri Dec 07, 2012 12:56 am
Bobby Darin was a musical chameleon, and had a career that covered rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, gospel, country, show tunes, folk, blues, protest material, and everything in between. His first recording sessions were for Decca records in 1956 and the eight songs recorded saw Darin jumping from one genre to the next. This was something he would continue to do with ease for the rest of his career, but the Decca recordings are a somewhat different situation, with the singer seemingly unaware of whether he was a country singer, a ballad singer, a folk singer or something in the middle. The eight songs for Decca (and the early recordings for Atco) find a singer in search of a voice.
His first recordings for the label took place at the beginning of March, 1956. Darin was nineteen years old and had been writing songs for some time with his pal Don Kirshner. Darin recorded two songs at the first session, the first of which was a take on Rock Island Line, which seems somewhat inspired by the types of recordings that Johnny Cash was making at the time at Sun Records (Cash would record his own version of the song in 1957). The structure and instrumentation of Darin’s version is close to that used in Lonnie Donegan’s version which hit the US charts just a couple of weeks after Darin recorded his, but had been a hit in the UK earlier that year. Despite the recording hardly being essential Bobby Darin, it is a remarkably confident debut, with no signs of nerves from the young teenager who is backed by just an acoustic guitar and drums. The B-side of this first single finds Darin turning from a cross between folk and country to a full-on Frankie Laine impression. Timber is a faux-work song co-written by Darin in the Laine mould and finds Darin accompanied by backing vocals and percussion-heavy instrumentation. It is a much better performance than Rock Island Line, and the arrangement cleverly uses a fake-ending around thirty seconds before the actual end of the song. It sees Darin for the first time approaching the type of material which would be the basis of his masterful Earthy LP six years later.
The dates for the remaining Decca recordings are unclear, but the next single release saw Darin turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom. Silly Willy was no Splish Splash, however. The problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempos and rhythms that the song employs. It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should. The B-side of this release is Blue Eyed Mermaid. If Timber saw the singer performing in the Frankie Laine style, then this number sees a move towards Guy Mitchell in a song that has a kind of fake sea shanty feel, although a line or two of the verses steals the melody of Ghost Riders in the Sky.
Darin takes this Guy Mitchell style even further in Hear Them Bells, which sees him accompanied by an orchestra and chorus with a sound that is very close to that used in Mitchell’s hits My Truly Truly Fair and Cloud Lucky Seven, despite the semi-gospel nature of the lyrics. The Greatest Builder (the B-Side of Hear Them Bells) is the worst of all the Decca recordings. Again, the song has religious lyrics but this time lacks the vibrant nature of Hear Them Bells, and finds Darin sounding so earnest that one ends up not believing that he is sincere at all.
The final Decca single again finds Darin changing styles. Dealer In Dreams is a Darin-Kirshner song which would have worked quite well for Elvis Presley, being quite similar in style and structure to Don’t Leave Me Now, which Presley would record twice during 1957. Darin’s recording misses the mark because it is over-arranged; Darin is singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad with a Guy Mitchell arrangement. The B-side, Help Me, is pleasant enough, but again sounds as if it was written for someone else.
Darin had recorded eight sides, none of which had attracted much attention, and was seemingly no closer to finding his own voice than when he stepped into the Decca recording studios a few months earlier.
Fri Dec 14, 2012 1:12 am
To be fair, it took him a little while at Atlantic to find his voice. I waited decades to hear these songs and I finally picked them up in the PD about a year ago. I guess there weren't enough to have Decca release it's own CD. MCA the company that owned the masters is usually a good steward of their classic catalog. It's just with these they seemed to have no interest.
I do like "Rock Island Line" and "Hear Them Bells." You could say he doesn't have his own style yet but he certainly has enthusiasm and that carries the tracks.
In terms of his style, I think as a rock n' roller he found it on "Dream Lover" and as a pop singer he found it on "Mack the Knife" both in 1959. "Splish Splash" is a kind of a concocted rock n' roller. And the other stuff like "Early in the Morning" is sub-Elvis. They're not bad but they're not really why we love Bobby. Of the two pre-styles i like the sub-Elvis better than the safer like "Splish Splash." It's hard to believe that the singer on "Dream Lover" is the same as the one "Splish Splash." There's real R&B in Bobby's voice and phrasing on the former song, filled with a unique confidence and soul. Even in the days when I bought the company line on Bobby- such a shame he didn't record more rock n' roll and wasted his talents on pop- I couldn't do without "Dream Lover."
Fri Dec 14, 2012 3:37 am
I've been doing some writing on Darin (just for myself) and wading through the Darin catalogue from start to finish and you are right in saying he took some time to find his voice there as well. It's only with the third session (Brand New House, All The Way Home, Actions Speak Louder than Words) that he sounds really confident in himself. He also utilises a Ray Charles-style band at that session too, with the tight-knit horns etc. None of that session are masterworks, but they are far better than what went before. I confess I'm not a huge fan of Darin's 50s rock n roll in the main, and Splish Splash is not a favorite of mine, fun though it is. It's interesting though to see how his voice and style progressed when listening to the songs in order of recording rather than on an LP.