Dec. 20, 2003 by Jay Tell (jaytell @ hotmail.com)
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. He searched the phone book, and became Bobby Darin. He tragically left us too soon, on December 20, 1973, at 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 exciting years we were close friends, confidants and business partners. I was 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 was quiet. I knew Strip Hotel owners and entertainment directors. In 1970 and 1971, I got him miracle bookings as the main-room headliner at the Landmark Resort and twice at the Desert Inn. In top form, he gave fabulous performances to packed houses, with rousing standing ovations and rave reviews. Bobby asked me to be his manager, but while I considered the offer his health declined. Those milestone Las Vegas engagements were easily his most successful bookings in a decade, earning national publicity and re-starting his career. His fame then reached new heights, before his final curtain call.
In 1967-68 Bobby suffered three crushing personal blows. He and actress Sandra Dee divorced after seven years. They had a lovely son Dodd, the light of his life. Bobby adored and campaigned for Senator Robert F Kennedy. After RFK's assassination, millions resumed their lives, but Bobby suffered prolonged clinical depression. Back in 1936, the stigma of unmarried pregnancy had overwhelmed his family. For 31 years they kept a dark mega-secret from Bobby. In 1967 they revealed a life-altering bombshell that devastated him. He learned his "sister" Nina was really his mother, and his "mother" Polly was really his grandmother! After these traumatic 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 trailer-living in the Big-Sur forest, wondering, writing, never recovering from a lifelong deception he could never understand. His fabled self-confidence, his ego, turned to doubt, introspection. When sharing 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 RFK's 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 one of millions on welfare, in dire hardship. But unlike other kids, at age 13 Bobby overheard the doctor telling his family he 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 frantic work ethic and tireless ambition, his quest to be "the best ever." Bobby attacked life and career, knowing he had so little time.
"We were so poor my cradle was a cardboard box," he told me. Bobby grew up in a run-down Bronx tenement near Harlem. An undernourished and sickly boy, he was determined to escape poverty. In 1959 he told Life Magazine, "I want to be a legend by 25." He truly didn't think he'd last beyond 30. I asked Bobby if he'd like a hobby, as an outlet for his obvious stress. Since 1958, I've been a rare stamp and coin dealer (Americana Stamp & Coin Galleries, Inc.), so it was a natural question. He replied, "I don't have the time," but I thought he meant time from his career. Later I realized he had been subtly trying to prepare me, he knew he was really running out of time.
Bobby's pain, shortness of breath worsened in 1971. He agreed to long-dreaded open-heart surgery. I got chills when he said "Jay, I'm toast, my chance for survival is 10%." He sold or gave away possessions. I refused his gifts, assuring him, and myself, all would be fine. During stage shows he created clever false-endings, dashing to the side for a quick oxygen fix, without the audience knowing. He wanted adulation, respect, love, but not sympathy.
Dick Clark rejected Mack the Knife, from "Threepenny Opera," urging Bobby not to record that dark tune. Bobby's other advisors unanimously agreed, arguing that his loyal Splish Splash and Dream Lover fans would resent the sordid Broadway song. But in '59 Bobby had rare courage and followed his own instincts. He liked Mack's offbeat jazzy tempo and sharp, violent lyrics. At 23 he refused to 'play it safe.' That single decision changed his life. Mack the Knife rose to Number One nationally for an amazing nine consecutive weeks, and was in the Top Ten for 22 weeks!
He won Record of the Year, and two Grammy Awards. Soon he had mainstream radio play, guest-starred on network TV shows, packed swank nightclubs, posh resorts. Bobby was the youngest-ever headliner at the prized Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, where I was a busboy/waiter in 1962-63. The Sands, the pinnacle of show business, was home of the notorious "Rat Pack," Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford. Mack the Knife transformed Bobby from teen rock star to an adult international musical icon. National Public Radio added Bobby's Mack the Knife to "The 100 Most Important Musical Works of All Time." It sold tens of millions, is Bobby Darin's signature classic, his crowning lifetime achievement, his timeless contribution to our culture.
"Bobby Darin topped Sinatra," some critics would say, which always sparked lively debate. In the '50s 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. NY press agents, like my dad Jack Tell and his partner Eddie Jaffe, kept celebrity names in newspaper columns, like Walter Winchell. No flash-in-the-pan, or one-hit-wonder, Bobby had the tenacity, lasting appeal and popularity to record more than 150 songs and 30 LPs. He had an amazing range of rock, smooth jazz, rhythm 'n blues, folk and country songs, which captivated very different audiences. Each generation discovers anew Bobby's enchantingly beautiful ballads, 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 original sound, songwriting genius." Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole "for their relaxed approach." Judy Garland, (they sang a TV duet in '63) "whose pain came through in her songs." He took a little from each hero, creating a package of multiple stage personas, the delicious recipe, the unrivaled niche he molded into the remarkable, unique Bobby Darin.
Bobby gave "Danke Schoen" to Wayne Newton, a gift from his heart. In 1963 it 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 unmatched style, stimulating rhythm 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.
Bobby was in 13 films, composed two full movie scores, five title songs. Also, music publisher and record producer, he knew the ropes inside-out. He appeared on popular TV shows, Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, with luminaries Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Peggy Lee, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Phil Silvers, Lisa Minnelli, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Nancy Wilson, Andy Williams, Patti Page, Alan King and others. His mentor George Burns said Bobby's talent topped legendary Broadway impresario George M. Cohan, so Bobby starred in Kraft Music Hall's 'Give My Regards to Broadway,' becoming America's Yankee Doodle Dandy, Little Johnny Jones.
In 1963 Bobby sang at my brother's nightclub, the Twin Lakes Twist, holding thousands of adoring Las Vegas fans in the palm of his hand. Seems like yesterday, his vibrant velvet voice, impromptu style, and sly sex appeal captivated all ages. He sang his million-sellers, Splish Splash, which he wrote in a half-hour, Dream Lover, Mack the Knife, Queen of the Hop; and 18 Yellow Roses, Things, Clementine. And, his smash hit Beyond the Sea, also title of Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin film biopic. In his later blue jeans, protest period (If I Were a Carpenter, Simple Song of Freedom, which he wrote), loyal fans often demanded earlier favorites, and he always came through.
His Oscar nomination was for a hypnotic 1963 performance in Captain Newman, MD. He played a decorated WW II aviator and psychiatric patient who thinks he's a coward for not saving his friend from the burning plane. Bobby won the coveted Golden Globe / Foreign Press Association, and French Film Critics acting awards. This brash teen started with a Catskill Mountain jazz combo, and later drew bigger audiences than Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Perry Como and Sammy Davis Jr. at New York's famous Copacabana. He performed at many other night clubs, including LA's Troubador and Ciro's. 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.
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. During 1970-73, from infancy on, he often held her. He called her "My Dyn-A-Mite!" and brought, what else, 18 yellow roses. All her life, I've told Robyn stories of Bobby's warm visits.
He became part of my family. When "desert throat" struck, we flew in my relative Marty Lawrence, a world-renowned NY Metropolitan Opera singing coach. When Bobby stayed at my home we confided, shared stories. I was his safe haven from managers, lawyers, producers, media. I never met Sandra Dee, but did meet girlfriend Andrea Yeager. Later, for a brief time, they were married. She was a beautiful legal secretary, regal like Jackie Kennedy.
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 stories from his editorial days on The New York Times, and as publisher of Mark Twain's Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City. Together we all saw The Godfather masterpiece. 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 my paper, the Free Press. We both knew the rock of America's strength was the First Amendment.
Bobby loved the Las Vegas Free Press. We supported our brave troops but strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. We backed the N.Y. Times and Washington Post publishing the infamous Pentagon Papers which led to the historic Watergate scandal. We were first to expose Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun and Howard Hughes' CEO Robert Maheu, who fleeced the billionaire of $20 million cash, which became a major story for many years.
The notorious Howard Hughes proxy battle would determine control of an empire. Bobby and I were in court when Federal Judge Roger Foley entered my paper into evidence, saying, from the bench, "The Las Vegas Free Press is the only newspaper in the nation to get the story straight." Bobby respected bold investigative reporting, admiring courage to challenge the powerful. He joined me on interviews, respected story accuracy, had great ideas, spotted some errors, and was intrigued by the art of clever headlines. In 1971 he asked to be my partner; I agreed.
We fought for minorities, a woman's right to choose, the environment, Israel's right to security as the Mid East's only real democracy. We were passionately patriotic, appalled at Nixon's 1968 and 1972 broken campaign pledges to "end the war in 90 days," and stunned by Nixon's blatantly unconstitutional "no knock" laws. Our paper, 'Voice for the Voiceless,' was on the front lines of progressive social issues, like fighting bigotry and adult censorship. We ran many stories on the dangers of drug abuse, which we viewed as a medical crisis needing more education, not prison. Back then, decriminalization with strict controls was a new idea, and gains acceptance today. Bobby's career prevented him from publicly taking controversial stances, so he vicariously spoke through our Las Vegas Free Press.
Rolling rhythm of a pulsing press serenaded the First Amendment, as Bobby and I watched the paper printed. He said, 'Jay, like your dad, you have printer's ink in your veins.' He loved our puncturing stuffed shirts, cutting frauds down to size, backing underdogs in election upsets. Feared Las Vegas Sun columnist Paul Price ran for City Commissioner. He was a 20-1 'cinch' against an unknown opponent, until we ran 15,000 extra papers for ten weeks. We revealed his shady past, underhanded methods, and stopped him cold. We ran stories on medical care, legal aid, and the Bill of Rights. We were first to support Nevada's Equal Housing Laws. When four Hispanic families came to our office to report housing discrimination, Bobby surprised us by singing La Bamba. Everyone stopped work to listen and applaud. "Why?" I asked. "Hey, I can't resist an audience," he winked with his warm, loving grin.
Bobby considered politics. He was smart, articulate, handsome, caring. I took him to Gov. Grant Sawyer and Supreme Court Justice John Mowbray, long-time Tell family friends, to explore his political viability. They thought he could possibly be elected mayor, senator or governor. Bobby was first a friend, who enriched my life, and later my partner. We received Federal approval for a public stock offering, a registered SEC prospectus for a daily newspaper. Bobby's birth name, Walden Robert Cassotto, was proudly included in the prospectus, AKA Bobby Darin.
He was an exciting entertainer with a sparkling personality. Few knew it, but Bobby was also an authentic genius, a Mensa member, with an IQ of 137, in the top 2%. 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, choreographed and danced with gusto, and played musical instruments well, including piano, guitar, vibes, harmonica and drums.
Bobby sang to each of us, a very personal connection. His allure was honesty, direct from his soul. He was animated, flippant yet friendly, sassy yet soft, rebellious yet relaxed. He had 10-piece bands, plus back-up singers. He often performed in a tux, was a perfectionist who told musicians 'If you screw up they blame me, not you.'
Excellence was his goal. Sharp, self-confident outside, down deep he was unpretentious, sincere, seriously misunderstood. Lifelong pain affected his music, but never lessened his commitment to do his best, every time.
Triumphant '70-71 Vegas shows re-started his career, Mack was back! I negotiated his highest ever salary, $40,000-a-week. Thrilled to help my friend, he offered 10%, but I refused. Those three Landmark, Desert Inn sellout engagements ended his quiet period, and he again achieved national fame. Rushed by ambulance to his first open-heart operation and plastic heart valves, he recovered, to continue his soaring comeback; only to succumb in Dec, 1973, after a second surgery. He worked so hard, as if each show was his last. One time, tragically, it was.
In 1972-73 he starred in two NBC-TV primetime variety shows, his most important TV ever. After his Las Vegas comeback and first surgery, he required antibiotics before routine dental work. One time, he forgot. A major infection put strain on a lifetime of illness, requiring a second operation to replace 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, even Harpo shouted praise," I said, after Bobby brought down the house. Groucho's brother Harpo was famous for never speaking. Bobby's April, 1973 NBC national TV show was done "concert style." His solo guest star for the entire hour was the beloved Peggy Lee, and this show turned out to be Bobby's TV finale. Then, a Las Vegas Hilton run became Bobby's last live performances. No one, least of all me, believed his time was really running out. Isn't denial grand? But a few months later, on Dec 20, 1973, he was gone, just when offers were multiplying, just when Bobby's lifelong dream was coming true.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Bobby in 1990. Son Dodd Mitchell, then 29, accepted. In 1999, his accomplishments as a composer were embraced by The Songwriters Hall of Fame. He may not have been "the best ever" by age 25, as he once hoped, but lately there's an amazing surge of interest in the multi-talented Bobby Darin. His many dimensions, wide variety of skills, earn him a special class apart, almost like Jolson, Garland, Sinatra, Streisand. The tragedy-plagued Bronx boy finally may have achieved the legendary status he craved.
His final utterance was his childhood phone number. On his deathbed, was he reaching back to the Bronx High School of Science or Hunter College? Or trying to connect with 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 charities. He enjoyed doing benefits, and I can't recall him turning one down.
He made people happy, even in death; his body going to UCLA Medical Research Center, so there is no gravesite. His melodious, matchless music mosaic is his only true monument, his lasting memorial. His fiery, flamboyant flair, his ageless, ongoing tempestuous talent, has clearly stood the test of time. His crafty charisma and suave singing style will continue to give pleasure to millions yet unborn. [Note: This tribute has been published on many websites, and is traveling the globe via address books. I've received numerous appreciative, glowing emails from Bobby's loyal fans, of all ages, around the world. I never expected such an outpouring of affection, and love for Bobby. To publish this tribute, to honor Bobby's unparalleled life, please email email@example.com .]
Its been suggested I write Bobby's definitive biography. This tribute was written solely as a 'labor of love,' from the heart. Others now see it as an outline for a book or screenplay, with never-before-published details of his remarkable life. At the time, writing his full biography never entered my mind, but I'm considering it. If done, one chapter would be new worlds Bobby might have conquered, in theater, advancing the arts, as TV host, film director, producer, philanthropist, media owner. He genuinely cared about humanity, wanting to make the world a little better.
Bobby's 'Horatio Alger' rags-to-riches story is one of exceptional drive, burning ambition, rare courage, moving human drama, intense personal tragedy. It spans an epic period from the late '30s to the early '70s. Bobby's entire life was filled with the cruel knowledge he was 'running out of time.' He was so alive, so full of energy. Had he lived, the gifted, dynamic entertainer would surely be a superstar. His music improves with age like fine wine. DJs get sentimental about him, like reminiscing about a friend, which he still is, to hundreds of millions of fans worldwide.
Bobby would now be much older, but remains forever young in our memory, a boyishly handsome freeze-frame from a more innocent era. Teary-eyed, I recall magical mellow moments with a true-blue pal, a dedicated, original craftsman. Rest well, Bobby Darin, you earned it!