by Jay Tell
Can it be 30 years since Bobby Darin's untimely passing? Walden Robert Cassotto was born May 14, 1936 in the Bronx, New York. As a boy he yearned for fame and a show business career, searched the phone book for a name, and became Bobby Darin.
Bobby tragically left us on December 20, 1973 - too young, only 37 - before he could embrace his future, before we fully appreciated the Darin treasure and mystique.
I knew Bobby 10 years, 1963 to 1973. During his last four reflective, exciting years I was his close friend and business partner, editor and publisher of The Las Vegas Free Press, and owned Nevada's first health food restaurant, Food For Thought. I believed in Bobby's innate talent, but in the mid- to late 1960s his career had been quiet.
I knew Strip Hotel owners and entertainment directors, and, in 1970 and '71, I got him miracle bookings as the main-room headliner at the Landmark and Desert Inn hotels. In top form, he gave fabulous performances to packed houses, earning rave reviews and rousing standing ovations.
Bobby asked me to be his agent, but while I considered his offer, his health declined. Those milestone Las Vegas engagements were his most successful bookings in years, earning national publicity and re-starting his career - before his final curtain call. In 1967-68 Bobby suffered three personal blows. He and actress Sandra Dee divorced after seven years and a son, Dodd, the light of his life.
Bobby knew and adored Robert F. Kennedy, for whom he campaigned. After RFK's assassination, Bobby suffered prolonged depression. In 1936, the stigma of unmarried pregnancy had overwhelmed his family, and for 31 years they kept a dark mega-secret from Bobby.
In 1967, they revealed a life-altering bombshell that devastated him. He learned that his "sister" Nina was really his Mother, and his "mother" Polly was really his Grandmother! After these traumatic, knockout revelations he said, "My whole life has been a lie."
This was hell, an emotional earthquake, an explosion of his core beliefs. He spent a year at Big Sur, on the California coast, trailer living in the forest, wondering and writing. He never really recovered from the lifelong deception he could never understand. His self-confidence and fabled ego turned to doubt and introspection.
When sharing his pain with me, he had a glassy-eyed look of disbelief, not sure he could ever trust again. While searching in vain for answers, his self-esteem, personality, values, and musical direction underwent major changes. The divorce and shocking family crisis shredded his past, but, even worse, he perceived the RFK assassination as ripping up his future, and America's hopes.
Childhood rheumatic fever damaged Bobby Darin's heart. Born during the Depression, his family was on welfare, one of millions who knew hardship. But unlike other kids, at the age of 13 he overheard a doctor telling his family Bobby would not live past 16.
He knew someday he'd need high-risk, open-heart surgery, but delayed it for years hoping for medical advancements. This cruel sword over his head sparked Bobby's work ethic and tireless ambition, and his quest to be "the best ever". He attacked life knowing he had so little time.
"We were so poor my cradle was a cardboard box," he once told me. Bobby grew up in a run-down Bronx tenement. He was a sickly boy, but was determined to escape poverty. In 1959 he told Life magazine, "I want to be a legend by 25," since he truly didn't think he'd last beyond 30.
Since 1958 I've been a rare stamp and coin dealer (Americana Stamp & Coin Galleries, Inc.), so I asked Bobby if he'd like a hobby, as an outlet for his obvious stress. He replied, "I don't have the time," but I thought he meant time from his career. Later I realized he had been trying to prepare me, he knew he was really running out of time.
Bobby's pain and shortness of breath worsened in 1971, so he agreed to dreaded open-heart surgery. I got chills when he said, "Jay, I'm toast, my chance for survival is 10%." He'd even been selling and giving away his possessions. I refused gifts, assuring him (and myself) all would be fine.
During stage shows he created clever false-endings, to dash to the side for quick oxygen without the audience knowing. He wanted adulation, respect, and love, not sympathy.
Dick Clark rejected Mack the Knife (from Threepenny Opera), and strongly urged Bobby not to record that song. In 1959, his advisors said Bobby's Splish Splash and Dream Lover fans would resent it, but Bobby had guts and followed his own instincts. He liked Mack's offbeat jazzy tempo, and sharp, dark lyrics. At age 23 he refused to play it safe, and that decision changed his life.
Mack the Knife was Number One for nine weeks, and in The Top Ten for 22 weeks! He won Record of the Year, two Grammy Awards, and got primetime network television shows, mainstream radio, swank clubs and posh resorts. Bobby was the youngest-ever headliner at the prized Sands Hotel in Las Vegas (where I was a busboy and waiter, 1962-63).
The Sands was the center of show business, home of the notorious "Rat Pack" of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Mack the Knife transformed Bobby from a rock star to an international musical icon.
National Public Radio added Mack the Knife to "The 100 Most Important Musical Works of All Time." It has sold in the tens of millions, is Bobby Darin's signature classic, his crowning lifetime achievement, his contribution to our culture.
"Bobby Darin topped Sinatra," some critics would say, and that always sparked lively debate. In the 1950s and '60s Bobby prowled Broadway's famous Brill Building, music's nerve center, honing his songwriting and performing skills.
He worked with, and dated, stars like Connie Francis. Press agents (like my dad Jack Tell and his partner Eddie Jaffe) kept celebrity names in newspaper columns, like Walter Winchell.
Not a flash-in-the-pan or one-hit-wonder, Bobby had the lasting appeal and tenacity to record more than 100 songs and 30 LPs. His amazing range of rock, smooth jazz, rhythm 'n blues, folk and country songs captivated many audiences. Each generation discovers anew his enchantingly beautiful ballads, his timeless timbre and sweet vocal bouquet. His greatest inspirations?
He told me: Al Jolson, "for his golden throat and perfect pitch." Sinatra, whom he tried so hard to emulate and surpass, "for his stage presence, humor and finger-snapping independence." Elvis, "for his courage to defy rules and project taboo sex appeal." The Beatles, "for their original sound and songwriting genius." Big Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole, "for their relaxed approach." Judy Garland (they sang a TV duet in 1963), "whose pain came through in her songs."
He became a little of each, creating a remarkable package of multiple stage personas, the unrivaled niche he molded into the unique Bobby Darin. Bobby gave Danke Schoen to Wayne Newton, a gift from his heart, which in 1963 became Newton's first hit, and launched his worldwide fame.
Bobby graciously loved helping people, and treated others with respect. When a band member's father needed surgery, Bobby gave his support. His stimulating spin, unmatched style and tempo, inspired Tony Orlando's Tie a Yellow Ribbon and Roger Miller's King of the Road.
Few knew it, and it surprised me at the time, but when alone Bobby often listened to classical music, his private respite and sanctuary.
He was in 13 films, composed two full movie scores, five title songs, and was a music publisher, and a record producer. He appeared on Steve Allen, Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan's popular TV shows, and with luminaries Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Peggy Lee, Paul Anka, Phil Silvers, Andy Williams, Nancy Wilson, Tom Jones, Patti Page, Lisa Minnelli, Alan King, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, and so many others.
His mentor George Burns said Bobby topped George M. Cohan, so Bobby starred in Kraft Music Hall's Give My Regards to Broadway, and became America's Yankee Doodle Dandy and Little Johnny Jones.
In 1963 Bobby sang at my brother's nightclub, The Twin Lakes Twist, and held thousands of adoring Vegas fans in the palm of his hand. Seems like yesterday, his vibrant velvet voice, sly sex appeal and impromptu style captivated all ages. He sang his million-sellers, Splish Splash (which he wrote in half-an-hour), Dream Lover, Mack the Knife, and Queen of the Hop. And, 18 Yellow Roses, Things, Clementine, and the smash Beyond the Sea, the title of Kevin Spacey's forthcoming Bobby Darin film.
In his later blue jeans, protest period (If I Were a Carpenter, Simple Song of Freedom, which he wrote), his loyal fans often demanded the earlier favorites.
His Oscar nomination was for a hypnotic 1963 performance in Captain Newman, MD, as a decorated WW II aviator and psychiatric patient, who is sure he's a coward for not saving a comrade from a burning plane. Bobby won the coveted Golden Globe, French Film Critics and Foreign Press Association acting awards.
The brash teen who started a Catskill Mountain jazz combo, later outdrew Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Perry Como and Sammy Davis, Jr. at New York's Copacabana. He performed at a hundred nightclubs, including LA's Troubadour and Ciro's, and he opened San Francisco's huge Mr. D's with a 23-piece orchestra. He was the first young vocalist to appeal to adults, and his legions of admirers came out in force every time. He was part of our family.
When "desert throat" struck, we flew in my relative, Marty Lawrence, a world-renowned NY Metropolitan Opera coach. When Bobby visited we confided and shared stories. I was his safe haven from managers, lawyers, producers, the media. I never met his ex-wife, Sandra Dee. But I did meet his devoted girlfriend, Andrea Yeager.
Later, for a brief time, they were married. She was a legal secretary, quite beautiful and regal, like Jackie Kennedy. Bobby sang to my daughter Robyn: 18 Yellow Roses, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, You're The Reason I'm Living, For Once in My Life, Baby Face. Often he held her, from infancy to age two, 1970-72. He called her "My Dyn-a-mite!" - and sometimes brought, what else? - 18 Yellow Roses.
Since she was three or four, I've told Robyn stories of Bobby's visits. After so much pain in his life, it seemed we were the family he craved. He knew my devoted parents Jack and Bea Tell and their Las Vegas Israelite. Dad told us stories from his editorial days on The New York Times, and as publisher of Mark Twain's Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada.
Together we saw The Godfather masterpiece, and Bobby said, "Good thing the fearless Tells have two newspapers, they might kill one of you, but not both."
Bobby and I were bonded through the paper. We both knew America's real strength was the First Amendment. Bobby loved the Las Vegas Free Press. Our opposition to the Vietnam War, our support to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers (which led to the historic Watergate scandal), and the exposes of Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun and Howard Hugh's chief Robert Maheu, fleecing Hughes of $20 million.
At the Hughes proxy battle, Bobby and I were in court when Federal Judge Roger Foley entered my paper into evidence, saying, "The Las Vegas Free Press is the only newspaper in the nation to get the story straight." Bobby respected bold investigative reporting, and admired the courage to challenge the powerful.
He joined me on some interviews, respected story accuracy, and was intrigued by the art of clever headlines. We fought for minorities, a woman's right to choose, the environment, and Israel's right to security as the Middle East's only democracy. We were passionately patriotic, and appalled at President Nixon's broken pledges to end the war in 90 days. And Nixon's blatantly unconstitutional no knock laws.
Our paper ("Voice for the Voiceless") was on the front lines of progressive social issues, fighting bigotry and adult censorship. We ran many stories on the dangers of drugs, which we viewed as a medical problem needing education, not prison.
Back then, decriminalization with strict controls was a new idea, but has gained acceptance today. Bobby's career prevented him voicing many opinions, so he vicariously spoke through my paper. Rolling rhythm of a pulsing press, serenaded the First Amendment, as Bobby and I watched the paper printed.
He said, "Jay, you have printer's ink in your veins." He loved our puncturing of stuffed shirts, cutting frauds down to size, and backing underdogs for upset election wins. Feared Las Vegas Sun columnist Paul Price ran for City Commissioner. He was a huge favorite, a 20-1 "cinch" against an unknown opponent, until we ran 15,000 extra papers for eight weeks. We revealed his shady past and underhanded methods, and stopped him cold. We ran page-one stories on medical care, legal aid, and the Bill of Rights.
We were the first in Nevada to support Equal Housing Laws. Several Hispanic families came to our office, to report discrimination. Bobby surprised us, and sang La Bamba. Everyone stopped work to listen and applaud. "Why?" I asked. "Hey, I can't resist an audience," he winked with his warm grin.
Bobby considered politics. He was smart, articulate, handsome and caring. I took him to former Governor Grant Sawyer and Supreme Court Justice John Mowbray, and to other friends, to explore Bobby's political viability. They thought he could be mayor, senator or governor. Bobby was first a friend, who enriched my life, and later was my partner.
We got Federal approval for a public stock offering, a registered SEC full prospectus for a daily newspaper. He was an exciting entertainer, with a sparkling personality.
Few knew it, but Bobby was an authentic genius. His IQ was 137, in the top 2%, and in Mensa. He was a 22-year show-biz veteran with a polished stage presence, a gift for comedy sketches, and natural timing for actual or rehearsed ad-libs.
He did great impressions of James Cagney, Clark Gable, Jerry Lewis, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Rex Harrison, Walter Brennan, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Cary Grant. He had magnetism, danced with gusto, choreographed, and played instruments well, including piano, guitar, vibes, harmonica, drums.
Bobby sang to each of us, a very personal connection. His allure was honesty, direct from his soul. Bobby was animated, flippant yet friendly, rebellious yet relaxed, sassy yet suave. He usually performed in a tux, had back-up singers, and a 10- (or more) piece band.
He was a perfectionist, and told musicians, "If you screw up they blame me, not you." Excellence was his goal. Self-confident outside, down deep he was sincere, unpretentious, seriously misunderstood. Lifelong pain affected his music, but never lessened his commitment to do his best, every time. Triumphant 1970-71 Vegas shows revived his career; Mack was back!
I negotiated his record $40,000-a-week salary, and he offered 10%, but I wouldn't accept. Those Landmark and Desert Inn sellout runs ended his quiet period, and he again achieved national fame. Rushed by ambulance to his first open-heart operation, he received two plastic heart valves. He recovered, and continued his now soaring career, only to succumb after a second surgery in December 1973.
He worked so hard, as if each show was his last. One time, tragically, it was. In 1972-73, he starred in two new NBC primetime variety shows, his most important TV ever.
After his Las Vegas comeback and first surgery, he required antibiotics before any dental work. One time he forgot his pills. A major infection put more strain on a lifetime of illness, requiring a second operation to replace his now-faulty valves.
Doctors called it "heart failure", but we who knew him, respectfully disagree, "Bobby Darin's heart never failed anyone." "Bobby's Groucho Marx impression is so good, Harpo is speechless," I said, after he brought down the house. Bobby's April, 1973 NBC show was done "concert style". His only guest was the beloved Peggy Lee, and it turned out to be his TV finale.
A Las Vegas Hilton run followed, and became Bobby's last live performance. No one really believed his time was running out, but a few months later, on December 20, 1973, he was gone. Just as offers were multiplying, and just when Bobby's lifelong dream was coming true.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously inducted him in 1990, with his son Dodd Mitchell, then age 29, accepting. In 1999 he was welcomed into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He may not have been considered "the best ever" by age 25, as he once hoped, but lately there is an amazing surge of interest in the multi-talented Bobby Darin. His many dimensions, and his wide variety of skills, place him in a special class, like Jolson, Garland, Sinatra and Streisand.
The tragedy-plagued Bronx boy finally may have achieved the legendary status he craved. His final utterance was his childhood phone number. Was he reaching back, to his days in the Bronx High School of Science or Hunter College? Or, was he trying to connect with his Mom and Grandma, to ask why?
Bobby's tragic passing surely devastated Dodd, Sandra, Andrea, and their families. To them I send warmest wishes. Bobby supported The Heart Fund and other major charities. He enjoyed doing benefits, and I can't recall him ever turning one down.
He made people happy, even in death, with his body going to the UCLA Medical Center for research, so gravesite exists. His melodious, matchless mosaic of music is his only true monument, his lasting memorial. This tribute is a labor of love.
His fiery, flamboyant flair, his ageless, ongoing talent, has stood the test of time. His music improves with age like fine wine. Today the gifted, dynamic entertainer would surely be a superstar.
It has been suggested I write his definitive biography. If so, one chapter would be new worlds Bobby might have conquered: in politics, theater, advancing the arts, as a major film director, producer, TV host, philanthropist, media owner.
He genuinely cared about humanity and wanted to make the world better. He was so alive and full of energy. His charisma and songs will continue to give pleasure to millions yet unborn.
Radio DJs sometimes get sentimental about Bobby, like reminiscing about a friend, which he still is, to hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. Bobby would be in his seventies, but is forever young in our memory, a boyishly handsome "freeze-frame" from a more innocent time.
Teary-eyed, I remember those magical mellow moments with a true-blue pal, a dedicated, original craftsman. Rest well, Bobby Darin, you earned it.
This tribute is a labor of love, to honor Bobby's unparalleled life. If you have any comments, or would like to reprint it, contact the author, at jtell1 @ san.rr.com.
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