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Bobby Darin - 30th Anniversary Tribute by Jay Tell

December 20th, 2003


Can it be 30 years since Bobby Darin's untimely passing? Walden Robert Cassotto was born on May 14th 1936 in the Bronx, New York. As a boy he yearned for fame and a show business career, searched the phone book and became Bobby Darin. Bobby tragically left us on December 20th 1973, too young - only 37, before he could embrace his future, before we could fully appreciate the Darin treasure and mystique. I knew Bobby 10 years, 1963-73. 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, owned Nevada's first health food restaurant, Food For Thought, and have been a lifelong rare stamp and coin dealer.

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 Hotel and twice at the Desert Inn Resort. In top form, he gave fabulous performances to packed houses with rousing nightly 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.

During 1967 and 1968 Bobby suffered three crushing personal blows. He and actress Sandra Dee divorced after seven years. They had a lovely son, Dodd, who was the light of his life. Bobby campaigned for, and adored, 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 that 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, wandering, writing, and never fully recovered from this lifelong deception which he could never understand. His fabled self-confidence and ego turned to doubt, introspection. When sharing his 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 he overheard a doctor tell his family that Bobby would not live past 16. He knew that 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, tireless ambition, and his quest to be "the best ever." Bobby attacked his life and career with uncommon zeal, knowing, with every single breath, he had so little time.

"We were so poor my cradle was a cardboard box," he once 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, at 23, 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 realised he had been subtly trying to prepare me, he knew he was really running out of time.

Bobby's pain and shortness of breath worsened in 1971. He agreed to the 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 his possessions. I refused his gifts, assuring him, and myself, that all would be fine. During stage shows he created clever false-endings, dashing to the side for a quick oxygen 'fix' without the audience ever knowing. He wanted adulation, respect and love, but never 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 1959 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,' and 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 a phenomenal 22 weeks! He won Record of the Year and two Grammy Awards. Overnight, Bobby's songs were heard on mainstream radio shows, with tens of millions of adult listeners, not just on rock 'n roll stations. He guest-starred on network TV shows and drew record crowds at swanky nightclubs and posh resorts.

He was the youngest-ever headliner at the prized Sands Hotel in Las Vegas where, in 1962-63, I was a busboy and waiter. The Sands was the pinnacle of show business, home of the notorious "Rat Pack" of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. 'Mack the Knife' transformed Bobby from rock star to 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 and is Bobby's signature classic, his crowning lifetime achievement, his timeless contribution to our culture.

'Bobby Darin topped Sinatra' some critics said, which always sparked lively debate. In the 1950s and 1960s Bobby prowled Broadway's famous Brill Building, music's nerve centre, honing his performing and songwriting skills. He worked with, and dated, stars like Connie Francis. N.Y. press agents, like my dad Jack Tell and his partner Eddie Jaffe, kept celebrity names in 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 anew discovers 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, humour 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 moulded into the remarkable, unique Bobby Darin.

Bobby gave "Danke Schoen" to Wayne Newton, a gift from his heart. It became Newton's first hit, in 1963, launching his worldwide fame. Bobby graciously loved helping people and treated others with respect. When a band member's father needed surgery, Bobby gave support. His unmatched style, tempo and stimulating rhythm inspired Tony Orlando's 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon' and Roger Miller's 'King of the Road'. Few knew, but when alone, Bobby listened to classical music, his private sanctuary and escape.

Bobby was in 13 films, composed two full movie scores and five title songs. He was also a successful music publisher and record producer, who knew the ropes inside-out. He was 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 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 half-hour, Dream Lover, Mack the Knife and Queen of the Hop. Also, Artificial Flowers, 18 Yellow Roses, Things, Clementine and his smash hit Beyond the Sea, also the title of Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin film biopic. In his 1960s blue jean, protest period, he wrote Simple Song of Freedom and sang If I Were A Carpenter. Loyal fans often demanded his earlier hits and he always came through, often to ovations. His Oscar nomination was for a hypnotic 1963 performance in Captain Newman, MD. He played a decorated World War Two aviator, a 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 singer, who started with a Catskill Mountain jazz combo at 15, 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 other legendary nightclubs 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 held my daughter Robyn, 1970-73, singing 18 Yellow Roses, Baby Face, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, You're The Reason I'm Living and For Once in My Life. "My Dyn-A-Mite!" he called her, and brought, what else, 18 yellow roses. All Robyn's life, I've told her stories of Bobby's warm visits. He became part of my family. When desert throat struck we flew in my relative, Marty Lawrence, world-renowned NY Metropolitan Opera singing coach. When Bobby stayed at my home, we confided and shared stories. I was his 'safe haven' from the media, managers, lawyers, producers and the tumult of show business. I never met Sandra Dee, but did meet his girlfriend, Andrea Yeager. Later, for a brief time, they were married. She was a beautiful legal secretary, quite 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 in Virginia City, Nevada.

Together we all saw 'The Godfather' masterpiece, in 1972. 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 Las Vegas 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 Vietnam War. We backed the N.Y. Times and Washington Post when they risked criminal indictment for publishing the infamous Pentagon Papers which led to the historic Watergate scandal. We were the very first to expose Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun and Howard Hughes' CEO Robert Maheu, who fleeced the billionaire of more than $20 million, which became a running story for years.

The notorious Howard Hughes proxy battle determined control of an empire. Bobby and I were in court when Federal Judge Roger Foley entered my newspaper 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 and admired the courage to challenge the powerful. He added fresh questions on interviews, was intrigued by the art of clever headlines, spotted errors and respected story accuracy. In 1971, he asked, and became, my partner. I'll never forget those exciting, happy years.

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, but appalled at Nixon's broken campaign pledges to "end the war in 90 days" and stunned by Nixon's blatantly unconstitutional "no knock" laws. My paper, the 'Voice for the Voiceless,' was on the front lines of most progressive social issues like fighting bigotry, adult censorship, etc. We ran many stories on the dangers of drug abuse which we viewed as a medical crisis needing more education, not prison. Decriminalisation with strict controls was then a new idea and gains acceptance today.

Bobby's career prevented him from publicly taking controversial stands, so he vicariously "spoke" through my Las Vegas Free Press. The 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 and 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 10 weeks. We revealed his shady past and underhanded methods, and stopped him cold.

We ran stories on medical care, legal aid and the Bill of Rights. We were the very 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 was 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, as a co-owner.

He was an exciting entertainer with a sparkling personality. Few knew it, but Bobby was a member of Mensa, an authentic genius. His IQ was 137, in the top 2%. He was a 22-year show-biz veteran, with a polished stage presence, a gift for comedy sketches and a natural timing for actual or rehearsed ad-libs. He choreographed and danced with gusto, and had magnetism. He played musical instruments well, including piano, guitar, vibes, harmonica and drums. He did great impressions of James Cagney, Clark Gable, Jerry Lewis, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Walter Brennan, Groucho Marx, Rex Harrison, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Cary Grant. Bobby sang to each of us, a very personal connection. His magical allure was honesty, direct from his soul. He was animated yet authentic, 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 and seriously misunderstood. Lifelong pain affected his music, but never lessened his commitment to do his best every time he performed. Triumphant 1970-1971 Las 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 and Desert Inn sell-out engagements ended his quiet period and he again achieved national fame. Rushed by ambulance to his first open-heart operation, for plastic heart valves, he recovered, and continued his soaring comeback only to succumb, in December 1973, after his second surgery failed. 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 prime time variety shows after his jubilant Las Vegas comeback. Those shows were his most important TV ever. After his first surgery he required antibiotics before even routine dental work. One time, he forgot. A major infection put strain on a lifetime of illness, requiring a second operation to replace the now-faulty heart 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 darn 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 celebrated event 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 December 20th 1973, he was gone, just when offers were multiplying, just when Bobby's lifelong dream to be a superstar was coming true.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted Bobby in 1990, posthumously, with his son Dodd Mitchell, then 29, accepting. 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 and wide variety of skills earn him a special class apart, almost like Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Today, the tragedy-plagued Bronx boy finally has 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 his 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, the American Heart Association, 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's 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.

It's been suggested that I write Bobby's definitive biography. This tribute was written solely as a "labour 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 might consider it. If done, one chapter would be new worlds Bobby might have conquered had he lived, in theatre, advancing the arts, as a TV host, film director, producer, philanthropist, or media owner. One thing for sure, 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 and intense personal tragedy. It spans an epic period, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Bobby's entire life was filled with the cruel knowledge he was running out of time. He was so alive and full of energy. Had he lived, the gifted, dynamic entertainer would surely be a superstar. His music improves with age, like fine wine. DJs often get sentimental about him, like reminiscing about a friend, which he still is, to hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. Bobby 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.

1936                                1973

Rest well, Bobby Darin, you earned it.


Article copyright Jay Tell 2003 - featured in 'Sixties City' with the kind permission of Jay Tell


This tribute is on many web sites, and is travelling the globe via address books. I never expected this outpouring. Numerous appreciative, glowing e-mails have been received from Bobby's loyal fans around the world. To publish this tribute, in honour of Bobby's unparalleled life, e-mail jaytell@hotmail.com ~ Ph 818.774.9997, 818.515.1222, or write Jay Tell, pres, Americana Stamp & Coin Galleries, Inc, 16060 Ventura Blvd PMB105A, Encino CA 91436


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