Bobby Darin - Early Bobby Darin (El Toro; ETCD1018)
reviewed by Michael Macomber
Bobby Darin fans have been waiting a long time for these recordings to debut on CD. Previously only available on a rare, out-of-print MCA cassette, Darin’s 1956 and 1957 Decca sides offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of the legendary performer’s unique style. El Toro’s decision to couple Darin’s 8 Decca sides with 9 early Atco tracks is a brilliant one. Taken together, the Decca and Atco work represent a revealing portrait of the artist as a young man.
A mere lad of 19 when he first stepped into a recording studio in March of 1956, Darin spent the next 2 years trying on different musical attitudes, before hitting on the magic formula that would catapult him to stardom. His first Decca single, “Rock Island Line” b/w “Timber,” finds him mixing folk with rhythm and blues in a way that would become quite familiar in his later career. Darin’s “Rock Island Line,” while not veering far from the Lonnie Donegan rendition, already shows the impeccable sense of time that would become a Darin signature. The listener cannot see Darin’s fingers snapping, cannot hear them snapping, but no doubt they are snapping. “Timber,” a Darin original co-authored with early songwriting partner Don Kirshner, is driven by the same Frankie Laine “Mule Train” influence that would help propel “Mack The Knife” to number one in 1959.
Darin’s next Decca single, “Silly Willie” b/w “Blue-Eyed Mermaid,” was a much more light-hearted affair. As the title suggests, “Silly Willie” is a frothy rock and roll confection, all about a fellah who dreams his days away. Another Darin and Kirshner original, “Willie” sees Darin employing tools he would eventually use on his 1958 Atco smash, “Splish Splash.” “Blue-Eyed Mermaid” is a clever cross between a sea shanty and a hip pop number, displaying Darin’s talent for blending what might seem like mutually exclusive styles — a talent he would utilize to great effect on LPs such as the 1963 Capitol country/swing hybrid, You’re The Reason I’m Living and the 1966 Atlantic folk/rock/pop hybrid, If I Were A Carpenter.
Darin made another shift in material with his third Decca release, “Hear Them Bells” b/w “The Greatest Builder.” He delivers these highly spiritual tunes with the same power and reverence he would apply to amazing gospel recordings such as 1963’s “I’m On My Way, Great God,” 1964’s “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and of course, his knockout 1960 Christmas LP, The 25th Day Of December With Bobby Darin.
The final Decca single, “Dealer in Dreams” b/w “Help Me,” could very well spell the earliest recorded indication that Darin would ultimately conquer the adult standards market. “Help Me” in particular is a revelation, with its soaring pop arrangement and emotionally charged vocal. Darin’s unequalled command of the romantic ballad form is already in place here, if not completely refined. The Darin/Kirshner original “Dealer In Dreams,” with its combined doo wop and swing sound, hints at the teen/pop crossover appeal of 1959’s “Dream Lover.”
The 1957 Atco recordings included on this disc were all clearly aimed at the teen market. “Don’t Call My Name” has a bit of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame,” and “Wear My Ring” is a testament to Darin’s admiration for Elvis Presley. Darin’s updating of the Billy Rose/Mort Dixon/Harry Warren chestnut “I Found A Million Dollar Baby” rocks like nobody’s business, thanks to both Darin’s engaging vocal and a killer guitar line from Nashville icon Hank Garland. The gradual refining of Darin’s rhythm and blues persona can be heard on each and every one of these tracks, as he makes his way slowly but surely toward the historic 1958 session that would produce “Splish Splash.”