Sunday 19 December 2021

The Shoebox Files #9: Bobby Darin


If you are feeling low, can I point you in the direction of The Shoebox Selections Vol. 7 and ‘My Baby Needs Me’, Bobby Darin’s burst of 1960s soul which just might get you dancing around like you haven’t a care in the world. Yeah, yeah, we all think we know Bobby Darin, but trust me, this is wonderful. ‘My Baby Needs Me’ is actually a bit of a mystery, and I like that. I can tell you hardly anything about its origins, except that it was recorded for Atlantic in 1967. It seems to be an anomaly, the only out-and-out soul number Bobby made in the 1960s, as far as I can tell. I do know it’s a Van McCoy composition, quite possibly the original recording, and I like it even more than the Yvonne Baker version, though I realise I risk having my aged Kent enamel badge confiscated.

Appropriately I first heard Yvonne’s recording of ‘My Baby Needs Me’ on Kent’s For Dancers Forever CD from 1992 (Mary Love! Jackie Day!! Brilliant Korners!!!) which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the label. Who’d have guessed 30 years on Ady Croasdell & co. would still be finding hidden treasures and presenting them beautifully? On the other side of Yvonne’s 1968 single is another Van McCoy song, ‘A Woman Needs a Man’, which appears on another of the great Kent CDs, Slow ’n’ Moody Black & Bluesy from 1994. I guess Yvonne is best known for her ‘You Didn’t Say a Word’ which is one of the real wonders of this rotten old world.

So, how did Bobby Darin get there first? Well, he would know Van McCoy from his publishing and production company, T.M. Music (which it’s tempting to assume was named after Bobby’s partner Terry Melcher, but I think it goes back to an earlier set-up called Trinity Music), where Van was for a time a staff writer alongside others like Bobby Scott, Rudy Clark, Artie Resnick, and Kenny Young, which is not a bad little team is it?  Think of all the places you’ve subconsciously seen T.M. Music among the credits, like Maxine Brown’s ‘One in a Million’, another true wonder of this troubled old world, to choose just one Rudy Clark song.

Anyway, Bobby Darin was hardly a stranger to soul. One of his T.M. proteges was the former footballer Roosevelt ‘Rosey’ Grier whose 1964 recording of the Bobby Scott & Artie Resnick song ‘In My Tenement’ was to become a highlight of the immortal Big City Soul Sound Kent compilation. On the b-side of that gem was the bluesy ‘Down So Long’, one of Bobby Darin’s own songs. Another composition of Darin’s, ‘Soul City’, gave its name to the Rosey LP which the producer Bobby got Jack Nitzsche in to do the arrangements for. Good name for a shop or record label that, Soul City.

I guess ‘In My Tenement’ struck quite a chord with Bobby, given the extreme poverty of his background, growing up in the Bronx with less than nothing. Coincidentally, Steve Karmen of ‘Breakaway’ Northern Soul fame grew up with Bobby, and has written a book about that time. Furthermore, it is quite well-documented Bobby was a big supporter of the civil rights movement, and was in Washington to hear Dr King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and was among the stars performing in a special concert at the end of Martin Luther King’s freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. I mention that because of what Bobby wrote in the sleevenotes for Soul City:

“Naturally the songs in this album have a deep, soul-searching impact on Rosey, but I am equally moved by them. Their message isn't only applicable to the plight of the minorities. This is an album for everyone who ever felt oppressed! It's about a hunger of soul - a plea for understanding and self respect. It's about the inequities of being poor and the sweet, compensatory power of love to enrich even the most miserable existence. Most of all, it's a universal identifiable expression of hope and compassion for anyone who was ever down and needed desperately to get up.”

Roosevelt Grier would later have another loose link to Bobby. In June 1968 Rosey was acting as a minder for Robert Kennedy’s family while out on the campaign trail. He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles protecting the senator when the fatal shots were fired. So, in that strange way these things work, I was reminded of his role when recently re-reading Edward Wilson’s The Midnight Swimmer, part of the superb series starring the maverick inside-outsider British spy Catesby: “A heaving rush of people, including a scrum of photographers, were surging into the kitchen and causing a crush that carried Catesby forward. Two huge black athletes, who were Kennedy’s volunteer bodyguards, had pinned down a small wiry young man with frizzy hair. At first, Catesby didn’t understand why they were thumping the thin young man. Then he saw the pistol.”

Bobby Darin was there, too, that night at The Ambassador. He had been out campaigning with Robert Kennedy, who he was a big supporter of, and really believed in. There’s a story about them being on a plane together, and Kennedy asked Darin to sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ which was his favourite song. It is also one Bobby recorded back in 1962 for his Golden Folk Hits LP. It may be an urban myth, but apparently Phil Ochs hung out in the studio at the recording sessions for this album. That makes me think of the story about Phil singing ‘Crucifixion’ for Robert Kennedy in a private audience, and it dawning on RFK that this was about his brother. Just imagine what was in those silent looks between the two men. And what would Phil have thought when he heard about what had happened in The Ambassador Hotel?

The assassination had a dramatic effect on Bobby Darin. You get a real sense of just how painful this must have been for him when listening to the remarkably beautiful ‘In Memoriam’ which closes his 1968 LP Born Walden Robert Cassotto. It’s a song about Robert Kennedy’s death and what Bobby experienced at the funeral. It’s a haunting ending to an incredible LP. If you have the Ace CD State of the Union: The American Dream in Crisis etc. (which is right up there among the top two-or-three of the 374-to-date ‘Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ brand associated compilations) you’ll know ‘Questions’ which opens that Bobby Darin LP.

It is an odd record, sure. They are all Bobby’s own compositions, and there’s a bit of politics, a bit of social commentary, some satire, some poking fun at consumerism and capitalism. The humour is, I think, a little Phil Ochs-like. There’s something in that. Both guys had reached rock bottom by the time 1968 was done with them, what with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, not to mention their own personal demons. They responded to all this by making two very moving LPs, Rehearsals for Retirement and Born Walden Robert Cassotto.

The ‘Bobby Darin as protest singer’ angle can be a little distracting, making it all seem a bit pious, a little prissy, as Born Walden Robert Cassotto contains some beautiful and incredibly subtle sounds. ‘Questions’ could easily be one of those left-field Northern Soul choices like The Crow’s ‘Your Autumn of Tomorrow’ or The World Column’s ‘So Is The Sun’. And ‘Long Line Rider’ with its controversial theme about Arkansas prison farm brutality is seriously funky: check out a clip from a Dean Martin TV show where Bobby (complete with his David Crosby ‘tache: life’s not perfect!) and his group whip up a storm. There are some gorgeous songs too, very gentle and moving ones, and the second side of the original LP, ‘Change’, ‘I Can See The Wind’, ‘Sunday’, and ‘In Memoriam’, forms a beautiful suite of songs.

I love the line in ‘Sunday’: “You say keep the faith, but there’s no faith to keep”. Obviously, that has different connotations now, with the language of the Northern Soul scene, which brings us back to ‘My Baby Needs Me’. The recording languished in the Atlantic vaults for 30 odd years. I can find out nothing much about it. Who arranged it? How did it come about? Were there other songs recorded at the same sessions? Who knows? Someone must. I first heard it on a very strange Bobby Darin CD compilation called Songs from Big Sur on Varèse Sarabande, which had tracks from Bobby’s late 1960s works, the Born Walden Robert Cassotto and Commitment LPs, plus a really rather random mix of rarities. Mind you, it certainly did not have the best tracks from Commitment, an album which at times ventures into tightly-wound folk-funk and loose Creedence down-on-the-corner fun.

The compilation’s title is an allusion to the time Bobby spent getting away from it all in Big Sur, which makes me think inevitably of Jack Kerouac spending time in a cabin in the woods there. Bobby got himself a trailer, but there are similarities. I wonder if Alf the Sacred Burro was still around? It didn’t help Ti Jean much if I remember rightly, but for Bobby it was a necessary respite from Hollywood and showbiz hollowness. Judging by the quality of the songs he came up with, the retreat did him good.

Before that, on his If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out LPs from 1966 and 1967, Bobby demonstrated an obsession with the songs and sounds of Tim Hardin and the Lovin’ Spoonful. That seems reasonable. I can understand all that. Add in 1960s soul sounds courtesy of Kent, and you have my mid-1980s right there. Oh well, you should add in The Byrds, but there’s a Bobby Darin connection-or-two there, also, with The Byrds being managed by Terry Melcher, who left his role at T.M. Music to concentrate on the group, and then there’s the Jim McGuinn thing.

McGuinn has written and spoken movingly about how, pre-flyte, when he was starting out Bobby Darin was a hero and mentor to him. The story goes that Bobby poached the fledgling McGuinn from his post backing the Chad Mitchell Trio to become part of a new folk spot during Darin’s nightclub shows. This was around 1962 into 1963. McGuinn speaks very highly about how Bobby taught him the basics of showbusiness and the importance of professionalism. When Darin had to take a break from touring due to ill-health, he steered McGuinn towards the New York office of his publishing organisation where he became a staff writer, and followed his boss’ advice to pay attention to what was happening in the world of rock ’n’ roll.

I didn’t know all that when I was discovering The Byrds. I probably wouldn’t have cared back then, anyhow. I only really got interested in Bobby Darin, beyond ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Beyond the Sea’, when I got a great Ace CD, The Jack Nitzsche Story: Hearing is Believing 1962 – 1979, which came out in 2005 and included ‘Not for Me’, one of Bobby’s own, from 1963. Sure, it morphs into the Gershwins’ ‘But Not for Me’ which in turn makes me think of Chet Baker on an NME cassette, Low Lights and Trick Mirrors, the true sound of 1986 on tape, compiled by Fred Dellar and Roy Carr. Yet Chet sounds lost and forlorn while Bobby has a nasty, punky sneer. He sounds so mean and defiant that it’s glorious.

Again, it shows how shrewd Darin could be, getting hold of the much in-demand Nitzsche. Bobby worked with quite an impressive selection of top arrangers, including Jimmy Haskell, Billy May, Torrie Zito, Bobby Scott, Ernie Freeman, Shorty Rogers, and Gerald Wilson. Roger Kellaway, a jazz pianist, was not exactly an established arranger but Bobby recognised something special and got him in to do the arrangements for an LP based on the Leslie Bricuse songs from the musical comedy Doctor Dolittle, and this was 1967, slap bang in the middle of Darin’s folk rock phase.

With this LP Bobby even manages to trump Anthony Newley, partly because he had the nous to sequence a side of ballads to open the LP, and his singing and the arrangements here are as good as anything. This is even more remarkable given the context of the songs’ origins. In the film they may seem unlikely raw material, but something connected with Bobby. The delicacy of Roger Kellaway’s arrangements on this suite of ballads is incredible. I love the way the LP starts with ‘At The Crossroads’: “Here I stand at the crossroads of life / Childhood behind me / The future to come / And alone …” which in my mind mutates into Frank Sinatra’s later ‘A Man Alone’ and those memories of midnight that fell apart at dawn, or sometimes the ‘Watertown’ and “If I knew then, what I know now”. Ha! My signature tune right there!

Is it too far-fetched to suggest Bobby Darin was like The Clash in the sense of being an appealing and occasionally bewildering mass of contradictions and inconsistencies? He certainly had the spirit of Sandinista!, being enthusiastic about all sorts of music (like us, yeah?) and keen to have a go at whatever took his fancy. Why not? Why stick to one thing? I recall reading a quote from an old friend of his who said that to Bobby it was all just music. And yet that approach was daring for a mainstream artist. I wouldn’t begin to claim to know everything Bobby recorded in the 1960s. I am a fan, sure, but I certainly don’t love all he did. I, however, love the fact that his sudden swerves must surely have disorientated and unsettled some of his fans, some of whom I imagine being in a Richard Yates book: don’t ask me why.  I approve of Bobby being gloriously illogical, like in 1963 making a country & western LP with swingin’ bluesy big band arrangements and Merry Clayton making her debut as a kid duetting with Bobby: just think of all the singers who would have paid to get to appear on one of his records.

Then there’s his Sings Ray Charles album from the previous year where Bobby is revealed as a roots enthusiast, and kicks off the LP with four minutes of ‘What’d I Say’, then six-and-a-half of ‘I Got A Woman’, plus the bonus of a duet with Darlene Love on ‘The Right Time’. So, yeah, the connections were certainly there to soul and the dancefloor: just listen to him getting deep into a Mose thing on his piano-led instrumental ‘Beachcomber’, mod jazz in excelsis, as is his Bobby Scott-arranged take on ‘Minnie the Moocher’ from the same year. And speaking of which, I have to mention the 1960 Christmas LP the two Bobbies came up with, The 25th Day of December, partly to confront my own personal demons and memories.

It’s one hell of a record: a wild and weird mix of sacred choral settings and untamed gospel rave-ups. That works for me, as ancient celestial harmonies and 1960s soul form such a large part of my life. And, as for Bobby Darin, to paraphrase Ol’ Blue Eyes, he sang it with so much feeling, and he sure could sing. In my mind’s eye I see him now at the session for ‘My Baby Needs Me’, clicking his fingers, doing that sideways shuffle thing, his head and neck darting back and forth, really feeling it, biting his lip, eyes closed tight, ready to step up to the microphone, and …






No comments:

Post a Comment