More than one woman has explained to me why men never grow up. They say it is something to do with privilege and power. Men are indulged and respond like children. Those men who are perpetually indulged remain children. Some merely have moments and head without caution towards infancy for brief escapades. If the movie ‘Beyond The Sea’, directed by Kevin Spacey, has not been quoted as evidence for this argument it should be. Spacey was given the option to take control of the movie when the planned director Barry Levinson abandoned the project. Spacey, a Darin fan, not only directed the movie, he sang the songs on the soundtrack as well. He may have more brains than the average Elvis impersonator but the familiar adolescent fantasy was revealed to be as deep rooted. Spacey was not an awful singer and most of the time he did a decent impersonation of the vocal performances by Darin. There was an irony in the movie that somebody as bright as Spacey must have realised. Spacey was impersonating the man who was perhaps the greatest mimic of them all. Okay, the mimicry of Big Al Downing was important because of the way he straddled various genres and acted as a missing link but nobody is as versatile as Bobby Darin. Well, there is one obvious example but regular readers of this challenge do not need me to mention his name just yet. The versatility of Darin became obvious in the film. Spacey is required to perform a version of the big Darin country tinged hit ‘Things’. The song is used as backing material for a poignant scene. The intention is that we do not listen to the performance too closely. Spacey may be comfortable with the swing and folk music that Bobby Darin performed but country music and the subtle performance of Darin was beyond him.
When Robert Matthew Walker broke ground from most critics and in the 70s analysed seriously the musical catalogue of Elvis he insisted that only one singer could match Elvis for versatility. The singer he named was Bobby Darin. These comments were made in the early 80s. Both Darin and Presley were dead and nobody was especially interested. The memory of Darin was on its way to being neglected and there were too many awful 70s Elvis albums still on the shelves of record stores. Nobody was interested in Elvis as a barometer of anything. Both men were underestimated and both remain that way although fans are persistent and people like Kevin Spacey for Darin and Peter Guralnick for Elvis have emerged to defend their heroes to those prepared to listen.
I was disappointed when Matthew Walker compared Elvis to Bobby Darin. I suppose I wanted somebody cooler, someone who would be more impressive to people of my generation or, if I am being honest, my antagonistic friends. Not long after the book by Matthew Walker was published, the songwriters Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber appeared in a radio show hosted by a DJ called Brian Matthew. The format of the show was a steal from Desert Island Discs. The guests had to pick their favourite twelve records. The difference was that there was no desert island and the guests were music stars and not Radio 4 worthies. Rice and Webber picked an Elvis song called ‘The Girl Next Door Went A Walking’ because one of the songwriters was called Rice. As Tim Rice explained, how can you pick one Elvis song above all the others? He also selected a Bobby Darin song. This was ‘18 Yellow Roses’. Rice laughed about how often Darin impersonated others and asked the listeners to note how the performance was a copy of the cowboy style of Marty Robbins.
This is what is odd about versatility. There comes a point when people stop taking you seriously. There is a famous tale about the British entertainer Roy Castle who was obliged to appear at the Glasgow Empire, a theatre famous for its hostile and unforgiving audience. Castle revealed his usual repertoire. He sang songs, told jokes, performed magic tricks, danced, played a bewildering number of instruments and did impressions. The audience was always restless and one member of the audience who was perhaps less patient than the rest admitted before the end of the act that he had endured enough. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he shouted, ‘is there no end to the talent of the wee —-‘.
You can work the obscenity out for yourself. Note that, like the Glasgow accent that uttered the heartfelt plea, it was harsh. Roy Castle did not return to the Glasgow Empire. Later, he was quite successful hosting a show about record breakers, the man who could eat the most boiled eggs and so on. It suited him perfectly. He could talk about people like himself, people whose talents were extreme but inconsequential.
Bobby Darin had hits in Britain but for most British rockers he was a rock and roll version of Roy Castle. He lacked consequence and failed to offer the excitement of the real rebels. Today, this view appears to be harsh. We now realise that some of his records are exceptional. ‘Mack The Knife’ is a great record but it is easily surpassed by ‘Beyond The Sea’ which is probably perfect. It not only swings irresistibly but has relentless vocal invention. Similarly, the career of Darin is underappreciated. Not only did his music cover various genres he had a movie career that made real demands of a substantial acting talent. Darin won the acting awards that Elvis could only dream about. He wrote songs and played several instruments. Amet Ertegun, the founder and President of Atlantic Records, worked with the great Ray Charles and other fabulous black talents but he was always prepared to single out Bobby Darin for praise. Darin even managed a classic double A sided single, ‘Irresistible You’ and ‘Multiplication’. The sides were actually reversed in Britain. Like all great musicians he had exquisite timing and by sharing it with his audience he was able to add dynamism to his stage show. On stage, he was not like Roy Castle. Bobby Darin was not a dull performer. He was great.
But as marvellous as some of his records were – the hilarious ‘Bullmoose’ is another fine example – he was not the equal of Elvis. Inevitably, the versatile are obliged to produce moments that are not always compelling. No doubt some people will look at the music of Elvis and say he suffered from the same limitations but they misunderstand his history. Elvis was mismanaged and became self-destructive. Listen to him at his best, on the four CDs that document his career in the fifties on the still available box set ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’. Nobody has combined that degree of versatility with consequence and consistency. This is why he appeals to the adolescent in us. He made us feel privileged and indulged and without thinking our generation followed him into infancy and innocence. We chose simple rock and roll and excitement. Darin was talented enough to do everything but was always happier with sly sophistication. Although he should not be dismissed, his reach was more limited. The versatility had less consequence than that of Elvis. It explains why his career took him to Vegas, well before Elvis was finally dumped there.
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Bobby Darin sings Beyond The Sea:
Howard has done it again with another very informative piece.
Howard – I have only just chanced upon this. I am both flattered and naturally pleased that you take my early Elvis Presley Book ‘A Study in Music’ seriously. It was planned as a serious book, but it was not one I intended to write at all. It came about through having had an earlier book on Muhammad Ali published by a small publishing house in England (I wanted to write that book, and did so by analysing each one of Ali’s professional bouts from 1960 round by round). The Ali book was commercially quite successful for the publisher, and he asked me for a new title. My main interest was, and always has been, in classical music, although I played in a couple of rock bands in the late 50s and early 60s (nothing serious, and not wishing for a career in pop), but the publisher said he wanted a book on popular music and especially American. Of course, there was only one figure that stood out – Elvis, yet it was never my intention to write a book on him. But the publisher persisted, and I thought ‘Well, I worked for RCA for some time and knew a lot of people there, and as Elvis only ever recorded for RCA it would not be difficult to borrow some albums’ and see if it was something I wanted to do.
Of course, I knew a fair number of Elvis tracks from my youth (I was born in 1939) but on hearing a much wider range of material through those albums it soon dawned on me that he was a far more significant musical figure than either I or many people in England realised. I soon came to realise that Elvis’s genius had to be demonstrated in purely musical terms – nothing to do with fashion or social mores – and that no-one had actually done that. So the book came about, but it was very heavily edited before publication, so much so that I thought the ‘guts’ had been taken out of it. But I wasn’t so iffy about it to forbid publication – after all, what was published was what I and no-one else had written, although it was six months after the book appeared that I eventually sat down and read it myself!
I thought it wasn’t too bad – and in the main, it did the job – but I hankered after seeing my original manuscript published. Eventually, after about 10-15 years (I forget when), the chance came for my original text to be published, and it was, under the title ‘Heartbreak Hotel – the Life and Music of Elvis Presley’. This afforded me the opportunity to include additional chapters in the light of later developments and I think the book stands up even more so than the first one, which I am perfectly happy to acknowledge. Perhaps the original publisher was right to have it edited to a more manageable size at the time, for it did well I understand.
As for Darin, I’ve always been a big, big fan. Saw him booed off the stage of the Lewisham Odeon for singing ‘night club’ stuff when the audience wanted ‘Splish Splash’ and ‘Queen of the Hop’ – but you can’t have everything! I think the performance he gave of ‘If I were a carpenter’, just six months before he died is truly great – very moving, and of such quality that I am on the verge of tears every time I hear it (which isn’t often, as I don’t like crying!).
Every good wish for the coming Festive Season and 2015.
I have only just discovered this. Thank you for the comments. I have both books on Elvis that were published in your name. My favourite Darin track is BEYOND THE SEA. He was a real talent. Your original book on Elvis did well enough to be acknowledged by Rolling Stone magazine. It also meant a lot to Elvis fans who thought no one understood them or their passion. Apologies for not acknowledging your comments sooner.