Walden Robert Cassotto (May 14, 1936 – December 20, 1973), known professionally as Bobby Darin, was an American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and actor of film and television. He performed in a range of musical genres, including jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, swing, and country. By the time he was a teenager, Darin could play several instruments, including piano, drums, and guitar. He later added harmonica and xylophone.
Born Walden Robert Cassotto in the East Harlem neighbourhood of New York City, Bobby Darin was reared by his maternal grandmother, who he thought was his mother. Darin’s birth mother, Vanina Juliette “Nina” Cassotto (born November 30, 1917), became pregnant with him in the summer of 1935 when she was 18. Presumably because of the scandalous nature of out-of-wedlock pregnancies in that era, Nina and her mother hatched a plan to pass her baby off as Nina’s younger brother. Years later, when Nina finally told Darin the truth about his upbringing, she refused to reveal the identity of his biological father, and she continued to keep that secret even up until her own death in 1981. Darin’s maternal grandfather, Saverio Antonio “Big Sam Curly” Cassotto (born January 26, 1882), was of Italian descent and a would-be mobster who died in prison from pneumonia a year before Darin’s birth. His maternal grandmother, Vivian Fern Walden (also born in 1882), who called herself Polly, was of English ancestry and a vaudeville singer.
Darin moved to the Bronx early in his life and graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. In later years he attributed his arrogance to his experiences at the high school, where he was surrounded by brighter students who would tease him. He then enrolled at Hunter College and soon gravitated to the drama department. After only two semesters, he dropped out to pursue an acting career.
Throughout the 1960s, he became more politically active and worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s Democratic presidential campaign. He was present on the night of June 4/5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at the time of Kennedy’s assassination.
Darin’s career took off with a songwriting partnership, formed in 1955 with Don Kirshner, whom he met at a candy store in Washington Heights. They wrote jingles and songs, beginning with “Bubblegum Pop”. In 1956 his agent negotiated a contract with Decca Records. The songs recorded at Decca had very little success.
A member of the Brill Building gang of struggling songwriters, Darin was introduced to singer Connie Francis. They developed a romantic interest of which her father, who was not fond of Darin, did not approve, and the couple split up. At one point, Darin wanted to elope immediately; Francis has said that not marrying Darin was the biggest mistake of her life.
Guided by Atlantic’s star-maker Ahmet Ertegun, Darin’s career finally took off in 1958 when he recorded “Splish Splash”. He co-wrote the song with radio D.J. Murray Kaufman after a phone call from Kaufman’s mother, Jean, a frustrated songwriter. Her latest song idea was: “Splish, Splash, Take a Bath”. Both Kaufman and Darin felt the title was lackluster, but Darin, with few options, said “I could write a song with that title.” Within one hour, Darin had written “Splish Splash”. The single sold more than a million copies. His partnership with Kirshner, who was not involved in the writing of that song, ended at that time. He made another recording in 1958 for Brunswick Records with a band called “The Ding Dongs”. With the success of “Splish Splash” the single was re-released by Atco Records as “Early in the Morning” with the band renamed as “The Rinky Dinks”. It charted, and made it to number 24 in the United States.
He recorded his own first million-seller “Splish Splash” in 1958. This was followed by “Dream Lover,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Beyond the Sea,” which brought him world fame. In 1962, he won a Golden Globe Award for his first film, ‘Come September’, co-starring his first wife, Sandra Dee.
Darin left Decca to sign with Atlantic Records’ Atco subsidiary, where he wrote and arranged music for himself and others. Songs Darin recorded, such as Harry Warren’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby”, were sung in an Elvis style, which he felt did not suit his personality.
In 1959, Darin recorded the self-penned “Dream Lover”, a ballad that became a multi-million seller. With it came financial success and the ability to demand more creative control of his career. So he meant for his That’s All album to show that he could sing more than rock and roll. His next single, “Mack the Knife”, the standard from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, was given a vamping jazz-pop interpretation. Although Darin was initially opposed to releasing it as a single, the song went to No. 1 on the charts for nine weeks, sold two million copies, and won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1960. Darin was also voted the Grammy Award for Best New Artist that year, and “Mack The Knife” has since been honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Darin followed “Mack” with “Beyond the Sea”, a jazzy English-language version of Charles Trenet’s French hit song “La Mer”. Both tracks were produced by Atlantic founders Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün with staff producer Jerry Wexler and they featured arrangements by Richard Wess.
This late-1950s success included Darin setting the all-time attendance record at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan and headlining at the major casinos in Las Vegas.
In the 1960s, Darin owned and operated—with Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son—a music publishing and production company (TM Music/Trio). He signed Wayne Newton and gave him the song “Danke Schoen”, which became Newton’s breakout hit. Darin also was a mentor to Roger McGuinn, who worked for him at TM Music and played the 12-string guitar in Darin’s nightclub band before forming the Byrds. Additionally, Darin produced Rosey Grier’s 1964 LP Soul City, and Made in the Shade for Jimmy Boyd.
In 1962, Darin began to write and sing country music, with hit songs including”Things” (US No. 3/UK #2) (1962), “You’re the Reason I’m Living” (US No. 3), and “18 Yellow Roses” (US No. 10). The latter two were recorded by Capitol Records, which he joined in 1962, before returning to Atlantic four years later. Darin left Capitol in 1964. In 1966, he had his final UK hit single, with a version of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter”, which peaked at No. 9 (No. 8 in the US). He performed the opening and closing songs on the soundtrack of the 1965 Walt Disney film That Darn Cat!. “Things” was sung by Dean Martin in the 1967 TV special Movin’ With Nancy, starring Nancy Sinatra.
Bobby Darin is not related to James Darren. This confusion sometimes arises because their names are pronounced similarly, they are the same age, they both started their careers as teen idols with similarly styled songs, both later sang some of the same standard pop-jazz ballads, and they are both associated with Gidget. James Darren starred in “Gidget” films as Gidget’s (Sandra Dee) love interest. In real life, Darin was the love interest: he married Sandra Dee.
In the fall of 1959, Darin played “Honeyboy Jones” in an early episode of Jackie Cooper’s CBS military sitcom/drama, Hennesey set in San Diego, California. In 1960, he appeared twice as himself in NBC’s short-lived crime drama Dan Raven, starring Skip Homeier and set on the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood. In the same year, he was the only actor ever to have been signed to five major Hollywood film studios. He wrote music for several films in which he appeared.
His first major film, Come September (1961), was a teenager-oriented romantic comedy with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida and featuring 18-year-old actress Sandra Dee. They first met during the production of the film, fell in love, and got married soon afterwards. Dee gave birth to a son, Dodd Mitchell Darin (also known as Morgan Mitchell) on December 16, 1961. Dee and Darin made a few films together with moderate success. They divorced in 1967.
In 1961 he starred in Too Late Blues, John Cassavetes’ first film for a major Hollywood studio, as a struggling jazz musician. Writing in 2012, Los Angeles Times critic Dennis Lim observed that Darin was “a surprise in his first nonsinging role, willing to appear both arrogant and weak.” In 1962, Darin won the Golden Globe Award for “New Star of the Year – Actor” for his role in Come September. The following year he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Best actor) in Pressure Point.
In 1963, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a shell-shocked soldier in Captain Newman, M.D.. At the Cannes Film Festival he won the French Film Critics Award for best actor.
In October 1964, he appeared as a wounded ex-convict who is befriended by an orphan girl in “The John Gillman Story” episode of NBC’s Wagon Train western television series.
Quote: “Now my attitude is very simple: I must do what artistically pleases me.”
Bobby Darin, 1967 Pop Chronicles interview.
Darin’s musical output became more “folksy” as the 1960s progressed, and he became more politically active. In 1966, he had a hit with folksinger Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” securing a return to the Top 10 after a two-year absence. One song of his, “Artificial Flowers,” about child labour, however had a jazzy, Big Band arrangement, which was a sharp contrast to the tragic theme of the song.
Darin traveled with Robert F. Kennedy and worked on the politician’s 1968 presidential campaign. He was with Kennedy the day he traveled to Los Angeles on June 4, 1968, for the California primary, and was at the Ambassador Hotel later that night when Kennedy was assassinated. This event, combined with learning about his true parentage, had a deep effect on Darin, who spent most of the next year living in seclusion in a trailer near Big Sur.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1969, Darin started Direction Records, putting out folk and protest music. He wrote “Simple Song of Freedom” in 1969, which was recorded by Tim Hardin, who sang only three of the song’s four verses.
Of his first Direction album, Darin said, “The purpose of Direction Records is to seek out statement-makers. The album is solely [composed] of compositions designed to reflect my thoughts on the turbulent aspects of modern society.” He later signed with Motown.
Beginning on July 27, 1972, he starred in his own television variety show on NBC, Dean Martin Presents: The Bobby Darin Amusement Company, which ran for seven episodes ending on September 7, 1972. Beginning on January 19, 1973, he starred in a similar show on NBC called The Bobby Darin Show. This show ran for 13 episodes ending on April 27, 1973. Darin married Andrea Yeager in June 1973, made television guest appearances, and remained a top draw in.
Darin was an enthusiastic chess player. His television show included an occasional segment in which he would explain a chess move. He arranged with the United States Chess Federation to sponsor a grandmaster tournament, with the largest prize fund in history, but the event was canceled after his death.
Bobby Darin married Sandra Dee in 1960. They met while filming Come September (which was released in 1961). On December 16, 1961, they had a son, Dodd Mitchell Darin (also known as Morgan Mitchell Darin). Dee and Darin officially divorced on March 7, 1967.
Darin suffered from poor health his entire life. He was frail as an infant and, beginning at age eight, was stricken with recurring bouts of rheumatic fever that left him with a seriously weakened heart. During his first heart surgery, in January 1971, he had two artificial valves implanted in his heart. He spent most of that year recovering from the surgery.
During the last few years of his life, he was often administered oxygen during and after his performances on stage and screen.
In 1973, after failing to take antibiotics to protect his heart before a dental visit, Darin developed an overwhelming systemic infection (sepsis). This further weakened his body and affected one of his heart valves. On December 11, he checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for another round of open-heart surgery to repair the two artificial heart valves he had received in January 1971. On the evening of December 19, a five-man surgical team worked for over six hours to repair his damaged heart. Shortly after the surgery ended in the early morning hours of December 20, 1973, Darin died in the recovery room without regaining consciousness. He was 37 years old.
There were no funeral arrangements; Darin’s last wish in his will was that his body be donated to science for medical research. His remains were transferred to UCLA Medical Center shortly after his death.
In 1990, Darin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with singer and close friend Paul Anka announcing the honour. In 1999, Darin was also voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Songwriter Alan O’Day alludes to Darin and his recording of “Mack the Knife” in the song, “Rock and Roll Heaven” (made a hit by the Righteous Brothers), a tribute to dead musicians, which O’Day wrote shortly after Darin’s death.
In 1998, PBS aired a documentary, Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song, produced by Henry Astor and Jason Cilo.
On May 14, 2007, Darin was awarded a star on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars to honour his contribution to making Las Vegas the “Entertainment Capital of the World” and name him one of the twentieth century’s greatest entertainers. Fans paid for the star. Darin also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Darin drove a custom-made “Dream Car” designed by Andrew Di Dia, that is on display at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.
On December 13, 2009, at its 2010 Grammy Awards ceremony, the Recording Academy awarded Darin a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.