Dear all, this blog will no longer exist as a separate entity – all posts from here have moved to my blog entitled “Beyond Boundaries” which can be found here http://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/ (yes, I know the url has no connection to the title, but that’s a long story!). I will continue to add music-related posts to that blog, so please hop over and find me there. Thanks.
The few albums that Simone recorded after her contract with RCA ended in 1974 are wildly contrasting in style and quality. Baltimore (1978) is undoubtedly the best, a wonderful album that is alternately moving and joyful and, ultimately, one of the artist’s most accessible albums. Fourteen years later, in 1992, she released A Single Woman, another wonderful album that would prove to be her swansong when it came to official releases. Here, Nina managed to produce some wonderful ballad performances, elevated by the lush orchestrations and betraying no sign of her continued ill health. The albums in between are troubled affairs. 1987’s Let It Be Me is a difficult live album, finding Nina in such poor voice that one wonders why she agreed to the release in the first place. She had been videotaped at Ronnie Scott’s in London just three years earlier, and the deterioration since that performance is startling and heartbreaking (she is much better on A Single Woman). 1985’s Nina’s Back is wild mess of an album that sees Simone adopting the use of synthesiser’s, but the whole thing must have sounded dated even when it was released.
Even taking the above into account, Nina Simone’s most obscure studio album, Fodder On My Wings from 1982, remains something of a bizarre entry in her catalogue. As with all the 1980s albums, it is uneven, but doesn’t deserve to be as little known as it is. It is a strange, erratic concoction, though, which includes remakes of two songs that had appeared on Baltimore, and also songs that would later be remade on Nina’s Back.
The album opens with I Sing Just To Know That I’m Alive, an upbeat, rhythmical number that ultimately doesn’t quite take off in the confines of the recording studio. A much better live version was captured a couple of years later and released as part of the Empress Live release, and a live version can also be found on the video recording of the Ronnie Scott’s performance from 1984. That recording, like the whole Ronnie Scott concert, is rather subdued, but Simone is in much better voice and her sense of timing is much better, too. On the studio recording, she tends to anticipate the beat and the whole thing sounds rather scrappy.
Fodder On Her Wings is another song which would fare better at Ronnie Scott’s, with the longer running time giving a chance for the song to really capture the listener’s attention fully. While the introduction on the studio album is impressive, the vocal section seems cut short and it all ends just as it’s about to get going. This is a fine song, though, supposedly about reincarnation, and one of Simone’s greatest efforts of the period.
Vous Etes Seuls, Mais Je Desire Etre Avec Vous comes next, and is one of the highlights of the album, despite the lyrics consisting solely of the title sung over and over. But this is captivating stuff, starting with Nina singing alone, with the sound building up, layer over layer, with the effect being almost hypnotic. One could certainly imagine this being given a new lease of life one day with an imaginative DJ taking Simone’s vocals and adding a dance track – I’m not sure I would approve, but it would work.
Il Y A Un Baume A Gilhead is a re-recording of Balm In Gilhead from Baltimore, but this is a more subdued affair, and it’s difficult to see what Simone was trying to achieve. Liberian Calypso is a joyous romp telling of the singer’s time in Liberia. But once again, this seems to work better in a live setting, with the videotaped performance from 1990 in Montreux eclipsing the one here, despite the fact that this one is solid enough.
Alone Again Naturally is a rather strange choice of material, with Simone writing new lyrics. She obviously wanted to get the story of her father’s passing out of her system, but it makes for depressing listening, despite the fine vocal. I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them changes the mood rather effectively, and this rhythm number is memorable for the intense, yet light, vocals and the rather infectious arrangement. Color Is A Beautiful Thing is another rather odd addition to the album, also known as The Ding Dang Song, and running for less than a minute.
Le Peuple en Suisse is the best ballad performance on the album, although sadly the song lacks the hook required to make it as memorable as some of the other titles here. Heaven Belongs to You is another Baltimore re-recording, and sounds more like a live performance as Nina addresses the listener before singing. It’s fun, lively and infectious, but still isn’t an improvement over the original attempt. Thandewye is a fine recording, drawing on Nina’s live repertoire. In recent years, however, we have been treated to a previously unreleased live recording from nearly a decade earlier as a bonus on the CD reissue of It Is Finished, which features a stronger, more captivating vocal. The erratic nature of the album continues with Stop, a song about the singer’s hatred of Send in the Clowns(!), before it reaches a bizarre conclusion with the thirty second snatch of They Took My Hand (aka They Took My Teeth).
Reading back over my comments, the feeling that comes through most of all is that the album is a bit of a mess. This is true, I think. But it doesn’t mean that it is not enjoyable, in fact compared to records such as Emergency Ward and It Is Finished, it is remarkably accessible. Most of all, despite all its flaws, it sounds like a Nina Simone record, which cannot be said for Nina’s Back. No, Nina isn’t on her best form, and no, the song choice isn’t always the best, but somehow it works. Despite the strange mix of styles, moods and languages, it somehow holds together as a cohesive whole. It is something of an oddity in the Simone canon, but it surely doesn’t deserve to be as unknown as it is.
When Sinatra recorded his album “Nice n Easy” in March 1960, it was something of a departure. Firstly, it was the first Sinatra album to be built around a hit, even if the title song had little in common with the rest of the album (the same scenario occured in the mid-60s with the Strangers In The Night album). But, more importantly, it was the first time since his first album (The Voice, released by Columbia in 1945) that Sinatra recorded an album of ballads not obviously linked by theme. In The Wee Small Hours was about loneliness, whereas Only The Lonely was about despair. Nice n Easy was simply an album of beautiful love songs, lushly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. Sinatra’s performance and the orchestration seems to me to be inspired by a wonderful album by another great singer: “Rain Or Shine”, recorded by Dick Haymes.
Haymes was a singer that never quite got the same level of fame as Sinatra. His baritone was deep and rich, with a wide vibrato that often got out of control in the singer’s later years. His life was plagued by an addiction to alcohol and it was at one of his career and professional low-points that he signed with Capitol. His two-year marriage to Rita Hayworth had been a disaster and he was without either a film or record contract at the time, and at an all-time low.
In 1955, Haymes (who also started his career with the big bands) signed to Capitol and teamed up with arranger Ian Bernard for his greatest work, “Rain or Shine”. Ian Bernard came from the Cool Jazz school and his arrangements for the album, despite being string-based, have remarkable harmonic depth, sometimes even Ellingtonian in its harmonic structure (Ellington would himself record a similar-themed album, Ellington Indigos). The deep, slightly dark arrangements are a perfect background for Haymes’s simple, yet jazz-tinged, vocal.
The album begins with a retread of Haymes’s signature song, “It Might As Well Be Spring” (from State Fair), but he had matured a great deal since his first recording and the recording is beautifully rich. I remember my Mum having this album on vinyl when I was a kid, and we used to have an old radiogram at the time. Haymes’s voice would literally pulsate through the floor due to its full, dark, rich baritone. “Sping” isn’t the only remake on the album, “The More I See You” and “Where Or When” (both highlights) were also recorded by Haymes on the Decca label in the 1940s. The songs on the album are all familiar standards, but Haymes manages to make them all fresh. Check out his wonderful phrasing on “The Very Thought Of You”:
This is music to cuddle up in front of the fire to on a winters evening. The performances are uniformally superb, and the singer is totally in control from beginning to end – only in the little-known “Is There Something Lovelier Than You” does his vibrato spiral out of control. His performance of the title song “Come Rain or Come Shine” is remarkable, and “Where Or When” was clearly the inspiration for Sinatra’s own rarely-heard ballad recording of the song from a year or so later (but unreleased until the 1970s).
Haymes only recorded two great albums for Capitol before ill-fortune and the self-destruct button took over once again. His follow-up to “Rain Or Shine” was “Moonglow”, which was in effect “Rain or Shine Volume 2″, and was almost as good. Haymes is one of the forgotten singers from the period, perhaps because his spell with a major label in the 1950s was so short, and yet his two Capitol albums are highly regarded by lovers of jazz vocals everywhere – even if they rarely get mentioned in general discourse. “The Complete Capitol Collection” 2CD gathers together both of these albums plus a handful of outtakes, single sides and unreleased masters (although I prefer the earlier, single disc “Capitol Years which features both albums but not the singles which break the mood set by the albums). For lovers of great music this is well worth the few pounds it costs. Haymes made a number of “comebacks” but never again recorded anything near the standard of his two Capitol albums. He died in 1980 after a long battle with cancer.
“Larger than life” are words that could apply to no-one more than George Melly. The jazz and blues singer, art critic, writer, journalist and raconteur passed away just siix years ago, but my fear is that this huge character will soon be all-but-forgotten. He didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but nor did he have to. His stage presence and cheeky humour more than made up for that. He was a walking talking encyclopedia of everything related to early jazz, early blues and surrealist art and delighted audiences with his lengthy introductions to the long forgotten songs that made up his repertoire, telling the stories behind the songs and the artists who sang them.
I was lucky enough to see Melly perform three times. He was a singer in the 1950s, but gave it up to concentrate on being an art critic and writing a newspaper column. His musical comeback took place in the early 1970s, with his first performance with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in Norwich, where I live, prompting him to return to the city many times over the next three decades (a little longer than his associations with the Feetwarmers). The first time I saw Melly was actually at his very last full-length concert with the Feetwarmers. John Chilton no longer wanted to tour to the same extent that Melly did, and so the two went their separate ways. Melly was in fine form that night, singing better than he had for years, and he delighted the audiences not only with songs but also lengthy anecdotes – some not for those easily offended, but that was Melly’s style. The show lasted nearly three hours including the interval – not bad for someone in their mid-70s.
I wasn’t quite so keen on his association with the Digby Fairweather band that followed. I always found Fairweather slightly patronising towards the now-ailing Melly when they were on stage. Melly now sat throughout his performance, with ill-heath setting in. His singing voice had lost any subtleties it had, but Melly knew how to work around such things, and how to work an audience with self-depracating humour, slightly lewd jokes and fascinating info on each song. At this point his three main volumes of autobiography had been reissued in one volume by Penguin, and Melly did a lengthy book-signing session during the interval, which was meant to be twenty minutes or so, but which was double that due to his lengthy chat with each person.
I saw him again the following year, but the signs of struggle were showing more now, and the repertoire wasn’t all that different from the year before. Hugely enjoyable, all the same. When Melly visited the city for his shows he would often be seen wandering around the antique, bric-a-brac shops and used record stores. His trademark Zoot suit wasn’t only worn on stage, but also off as well as he went about his business. The only time I saw him not wearing it was about half an hour before this final performance. The audience had started filing in, but Melly had obviously left something on stage during the rehearsal or sound check. On he wandered, wearing pyjamas. He turned to us and said “you have to forgive an old man. I only get dressed for performances these days!”. After the show he joined some of the audience in the bar, and I was lucky enough to chat to him for a while. And, despite his ill-health (he had emphysema and lung cancer by this point) and the onset of dementia, he remarkably remembered my name from the book-signing the year before. It goes without saying that he got through about four drinks to everybody elses one.
Melly returned the following year, but I didn’t go and see him. There were reports that he was a shadow of his former self, and I wanted to remember him as he was. I had spent six or seven hours sitting just a few feet away while he was on stage, and spent an hour or so in his company off-stage, and I didn’t want to taint those memories. That turned out to be his final performance here.
Melly was a household name here in the UK for many years, with his skills as a raconteur making sure he was a staple of the chat show circuit for decades. He also wrote and presented one-off documentaries on surreal art and forgotten jazz musicians, and had his own music series in 1982. Much of his stage act (and the LPs he made with Chilton) was centred around reviving songs from the early jazz era which would otherwise be forgotten. But, five years after his passing, Melly himself now seems destined to be forgotten himself. The chat-show today is a place to sell your wares; there seems to be no place in the world today for people who simply like to talk and share their knowledge. Stephen Fry is probably the only real raconteur we have left. An article in The Independent newspaper sums Melly up:
“…to meet the delightful Mr M is to encounter a constant blizzard of amusing tales. You soon learn that he would much rather swap literary stories, showbiz gossip and Green Room hilarities than talk soberly about his Life and Current Projects. Amazon explorers…have an easier time of it than the hapless interviewer who tries to steer Mr Melly through thickets of anecdotal charm towards a straight answer about what he is up to these days.”
Melly finishes the interview by saying “You know, I started life with an adolescent enthusiasm for three things – Surrealism, Bessie Smith and fly-fishing – and I finish up with exactly the same three. Isn’t that extraordinary?” In one of his last interviews he said “I’m no genius, but I do have a talent to amuse”.
Melly is featured as part of a BBC4 documentary on the 1950s British jazz scene this coming Friday. It will be sure to remind people of this charistmatic, talented man.
Prior to 2012, just a handful of the many albums recorded and released by Johnny Cash during the final decade and a half of his tenure with Columbia records had made it to CD. Despite this, Cash had entered the 1970s with his popularity at an all-time high following the success of the two prison live albums and his TV series. What’s more, Cash was as prolific during the period 1970 to 1986 as he had ever been, releasing over 30 albums. So, why is the second half of Cash’s years at Columbia so neglected?
One of the answers might lie in Cash alienating some of his listeners, particularly during the early 1970s. Ever since the move from Sun to Columbia, Cash had recorded a vast amount of gospel and sacred music, most of which would have been palatable even to non-believers. However, starting around 1970 there were a few years when the religious material took on a new fervor that is often hard to swallow. The Man In Black album opens with The Preacher Said “Jesus Said”. Not only does the song have a rather awkward title, it’s like tuning in to the audio equivalent of the God cable TV channel. This isn’t Cash singing hymns or gospel music, this is Cash literally preaching to his audience – and he even brought in Billy Graham to help him.
The same album is even concluded with I Talk to Jesus Every Day, which is slightly less in-your-face, but is still enough to make many reach for the stop button before the album has concluded naturally. A similar, preacher-like number, Here Was A Man was included at the end of the Johnny Cash Show album, which featured performances from the TV series. Worse was to follow in the self-indulgent double-LP soundtrack to Cash’s The Gospel Road documentary.
Perhaps these types of numbers would have been easier to swallow had they not so often been coupled with tracks that found cash not just in sentimental, but saccharine mode. Is there anything more vomit-enducing than, The Greatest Love Affair, the final track of The Baron LP? Or the well-meaning-but-awful No Charge from Look at them Beans. Cash had always had a penchant for these types of songs, but prior to the 1970s he had always managed to tread a thin line between putting over a sweet sentiment and making the listener want to hurl.
But what of the rest of Cash’s vast amount of recordings from this era? Is it worthy of re-evaluation? The answer is a resounding “yes”. The road from 1970 to 1986 was a rocky one, and Cash fell over a few times along the way, but there is some really great music here amongst the saccharine and the mundane.
Look at them Beans (was there ever a worse title for an album?) opens with one of Cash’s greatest studio recordings, for example. That opening track, Texas-1947, fits the singer like a glove. Cash was a natural storyteller, and here he gets to do that with spoken verses and a wonderful, exciting chorus with Cash in total command, sounding like he’s having a ball. Likewise, The Ballad of Barbara on The Last Gunfighter Ballad is a wonderful, catchy original that is well-produced and again finds Cash telling a story as only he can. The title song of The Baron only works because of the great performance – the story of the song is predictable and manipulative, but Cash makes it work so well that it was the inspiration of a TV movie a few years later. Cash also made mistakes – My Old Kentucky Home from John R Cash might have had acceptable lyrics in 1975, but in 2013 a song in which wife-beating is almost celebrated leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.
Despite his declining popularity during these years, Cash’s enthusiasm for what he did never seemed to wane, and he had a knack for finding great songs and making them his own. There is a wonderful clip of him on The Late Show with David Letterman in which he enthuses about Here Comes That Rainbow Again, a song by Kris Kristofferson he had just recorded, before going on to sing it. Seven years earlier he had successfully turned the Jagger and Richards song No Expectations into a Cash special on the lovely Gone Girl album. His recording of the country standard Song for the Life from the same album remains the best version of the song and is still intensely moving. He even took Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman and gave it the gravitas that Springsteen’s own recording lacked.
While some of the albums of the period are workmanlike, they are not dull and Cash always seems to be engaged. He was also willing to take chances. His album The Rambler is almost a stage monologue interrupted by songs. It fails as an album, but it is still a fascinating record and includes a couple of a very good songs, including Calilou. Even each of the live albums of the period were memorable. The 1972 prison album recorded in Sweden contains one of Cash’s very best performances in the intensely moving Jacob Green about a young man who kills himself after being arrested and thrown into jail for possession. The 1975 live album Strawberry Cake is a much more relaxed affair, and even includes the theatre being evacuated due to a bomb scare. And The Survivors finds Cash introducing Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as surprise guests – and both are on superb form.
If there is a problem with Cash’s 1970-86 recordings, it is that there are too many of them. Had some of the more mundane tracks been put to one side, and the albums been put together with the view of quality over quantity, we would be discussing some really classic albums. One could even make the comparison with Elvis Presley – there is some great material on his 70s albums, but there is also some dross that was included in order to make more product. But there is a significant difference – Elvis was recording that much because his contract made him, whereas Cash seemingly recorded because he got enjoyment from it, as is shown by the fact that he left behind numerous recordings from the period that were never even released at the time. Cash himself sang “some were for the money, and some were for myself”, and that is something which comes through on these recordings – recordings that don’t deserve the neglect they have suffered for thirty years.
In June, 1977, just a couple of months before his death at the age of 42, Elvis Presley released his last non-posthumous album. Moody Blue was a strange mish-mash of songs that had been recorded in various locations over the last three and a quarter years. The six studio cuts had been recorded at Graceland in February and October 1976 and, with it proving impossible to get Presley back into the studio to complete the album, producer Felton Jarvis took a four-track recorder on tour, hoping to capture on tape decent performances of songs that Elvis had not recorded before. He knew this was unlikely to happen (Presley’s live performances had become erratic and often lifeless by this stage) and Jarvis would “discard virtually every recording he had out of fear that releasing performances this poor could only be detrimental to Elvis’s career” (Jorgensen, 1998: 407-8), but still managed to record three “new” Elvis songs. The album was completed by transposing a recording already issued in 1974 onto the new record. Moody Blue was ultimately a strangely compelling record and while Presley is clearly heard to be an artist in decline, he comes across over the ten tracks as a man who was down but not yet out. Two months after the release of Moody Blue, Presley was dead and, later that year, the seemingly never-ending stream of posthumous records would begin. However, if Felton Jarvis, his record producer, had struggled to release material of good enough quality during Presley’s lifetime, how would the world’s view of the artist be changed in the decades to come as literally hundreds of hours of unreleased outtakes, private recordings and live concerts made their way into the market place, and would Presley’s name and legacy be damaged or changed as a result?
The first posthumous album was also, arguably, the most damaging. During Presley’s last tour in June 1977, he was filmed for a CBS TV Special. That special, Elvis in Concert (Dwight Hemion), would air in America in October 1977 and was accompanied by a double album of material from the two shows that were edited together to make up the TV special, including material which was deemed unfit for broadcast. Presley’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, describes the footage from the first of the two recorded shows as “almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror” (Guralnick, 1999: 638). The album itself is poor, with Presley clearly struggling both for breath and for vocal tone, but it is the television special that has lived long in public memory, showing as it does an overweight, struggling, often seemingly-disoriented Elvis. It’s worth noting that the album release (pictured at the top of this post) used no pictures from the special, but images of a healthy looking Elvis from a few years before. The special has never been repeated or issued officially on home video, although small sections have found their way into documentaries. Even so, those images have never been forgotten. Photographs from it have appeared in books to represent Elvis in his last years, the show has been bootlegged many times, and it is available in complete form on Youtube.
Other posthumous releases of “new” material followed over the next two decades, all of them more flattering than Elvis In Concert and mostly made up of live material, alternate takes, private recordings (often in poor sound), rehearsals and, occasionally, forgotten master takes of songs that had never been released before. In the late 1990s, a new label was set up specifically for collectors. It was called Follow That Dream (FTD), named after a Presley film of 1962. Since its inception, the label has issued over a hundred releases (some of them double CDs) and nearly all containing a large percentage of officially unreleased material.
Many of these releases have been in the “Classic Album” series. These are double disc sets, featuring the original album in its original running order, followed by bonus material, mostly made up of alternate takes. To class many of the albums released in this series as “classic” seems something of a misnomer. For example, Love Letters From Elvis, released in 1971, was arguably his weakest non-soundtrack album to date, is made-up of leftovers from a mammoth recording session the year before which had already yielded two albums, and is memorable less for Presley’s singing than for the peculiar overdubs which makes the album sound as much like elevator music as an album by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Despite these shortcomings, the album has been treated to the “classic album” format in which a number of the songs are heard in five or six different alternate takes each. A minor album in Presley’s legacy is therefore being elevated to “classic” status within this series – but does this in turn skew our view of Presley’s really classic work? While a reissue such as this is clearly intended for fans and only sold through selected outlets, these CDs still make their way into the mainstream through second-hand items being sold on websites such as Ebay or Amazon Marketplace or even through illegal downloads such as torrents. What is intended solely for the fan domain does not necessarily stay there.
If the treatment of the studio albums complicates our view of Presley’s legacy, then FTD’s endless stream of live recordings from the 1970s does so even more. Ernst Jorgensen, the man primarily responsible for the label’s releases has stated: “We will eventually release a show from every Vegas or Tahoe season, and most tours – of course limited by the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t have”. This has resulted in a number of concerts being released that find Elvis in less than stellar form. An example of this was the 2003 release of Dragonheart, a soundboard recording of a concert from October 1, 1974. One fan wrote of the release: “one of the weakest concerts of 1974… I was surprised how flat his singing was, listen to Bridge over troubled water, he heardly [sic] can hold a note, it seems he is running out of air”. Another fan writes that “the songs on this CD show Elvis’ erratic behaviour he’s trying too hard a lot of the time and it’s not working, his voice is all over the place [sic].” This is not to say that all fans felt the same way, and a number were quite defensive, with one writing: “I love the new Dragonheart release, and if you don’t… fair enough, but keep your crappy comments to yourself.”
But Dragonheart was the tip of the iceberg. Since then a number of other concerts showing Elvis in even worse form have seen the light of day officially. New Haven ’76 comes from what one reviewer calls a “dreadful” tour and features a moment where “Assesing [sic] his own poor state Elvis says he’ll do a medley of his records next, but whether he can or not is a different matter” (McDonnell, 2009). Similarly, a fan says of the 2011 release of Amarillo ’77 that “Elvis should have been in a hospital … In other words: Elvis should not have stepped on stage in 1977. Then we would not have had this album and, that to say it mildly, that would not be such a great loss”.
FTD is in a no-win situation. The vast majority of the concerts that it has access to were recorded during Presley’s final few years and so those years are going to be over-represented. On one hand, many fans will continue to lap up every second of new Elvis material but, on the other, how are these releases affecting the way we and future generations will view Elvis and his recorded legacy? While the FTD releases are aimed solely at the collector and even the poor performances can be seen as filling in part of the Presley story, with today’s technology these recordings are not staying solely within the fan domain. Many have found their way onto Youtube, for example, and remain there in complete form. Just because fans are clamouring for every second of Elvis that survives on tape (and the record company in turn is clamouring for their money), does that mean that his every utterance, every flat note and every dreadful on stage performance should be at their disposal? The effects that these releases will have on how Presley will be viewed in the future is something we are unable to gauge at this stage, but we can start debating the rights and wrongs of them. The Elvis Presley story is a tragedy, but are these releases slowly but surely robbing him of his dignity?
Guralnick P (1999) Careless Love. The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. London: Abacus.
Jorgensen E (1998) Elvis Presley: A Life in Music. The Complete Recording Sessions. New York: St Martin’s Press.
McDonnell G (2009) Review – Elvis: New Haven ’76 FTD CD. In: Elvis Australia. Available at: http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/reviews/review_elvis_new_haven_1976.shtml
 These comments come from the very active For Elvis CD Collectors forums: http://www.elvis-collectors.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2135&hilit=dragonheart
Bobby Darin was a musical chameleon, and had a career that covered rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, gospel, country, show tunes, folk, blues, protest material, and everything in between. His first recording sessions were for Decca records in 1956 and the eight songs recorded saw Darin jumping from one genre to the next. This was something he would continue to do with ease for the rest of his career, but the Decca recordings are a somewhat different situation, with the singer seemingly unaware of whether he was a country singer, a ballad singer, a folk singer or something in the middle. The eight songs for Decca (and the early recordings for Atco) find a singer in search of a voice.
His first recordings for the label took place at the beginning of March, 1956. Darin was nineteen years old and had been writing songs for some time with his pal Don Kirshner. Darin recorded two songs at the first session, the first of which was a take on Rock Island Line, which seems somewhat inspired by the types of recordings that Johnny Cash was making at the time at Sun Records (Cash would record his own version of the song in 1957). The structure and instrumentation of Darin’s version is close to that used in Lonnie Donegan’s version which hit the US charts just a couple of weeks after Darin recorded his, but had been a hit in the UK earlier that year. Despite the recording hardly being essential Bobby Darin, it is a remarkably confident debut, with no signs of nerves from the young teenager who is backed by just an acoustic guitar and drums. The B-side of this first single finds Darin turning from a cross between folk and country to a full-on Frankie Laine impression. Timber is a faux-work song co-written by Darin in the Laine mould and finds Darin accompanied by backing vocals and percussion-heavy instrumentation. It is a much better performance than Rock Island Line, and the arrangement cleverly uses a fake-ending around thirty seconds before the actual end of the song. It sees Darin for the first time approaching the type of material which would be the basis of his masterful Earthy LP six years later.
The dates for the remaining Decca recordings are unclear, but the next single release saw Darin turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom. Silly Willy was no Splish Splash, however. The problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempos and rhythms that the song employs. It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should. The B-side of this release is Blue Eyed Mermaid. If Timber saw the singer performing in the Frankie Laine style, then this number sees a move towards Guy Mitchell in a song that has a kind of fake sea shanty feel, although a line or two of the verses steals the melody of Ghost Riders in the Sky. Darin takes this Guy Mitchell style even further in Hear Them Bells, which sees him accompanied by an orchestra and chorus with a sound that is very close to that used in Mitchell’s hits My Truly Truly Fair and Cloud Lucky Seven, despite the semi-gospel nature of the lyrics. The Greatest Builder (the B-Side of Hear Them Bells) is the worst of all the Decca recordings. Again, the song has religious lyrics but this time lacks the vibrant nature of Hear Them Bells, and finds Darin sounding so earnest that one ends up not believing that he is sincere at all.
The final Decca single again finds Darin changing styles. Dealer In Dreams is a Darin-Kirshner song which would have worked quite well for Elvis Presley, being quite similar in style and structure to Don’t Leave Me Now, which Presley would record twice during 1957. Darin’s recording misses the mark because it is over-arranged; Darin is singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad with a Guy Mitchell arrangement. The B-side, Help Me, is pleasant enough, but again sounds as if it was written for someone else.
In the end, Darin’s short tenure at Decca must have been as frustrating for Darin as it was for listeners. He had recorded eight sides, none of which had attracted much attention, and was seemingly no closer to finding his own voice than when he stepped into the Decca recording studios a few months earlier.
Bobby Darin had failed to set the world on fire with his eight sides for Decca, but that didn’t mean he was about to give up on his dreams of singing stardom. In May 1957 he recorded four demo sides and these helped to land him a contract with the recently-formed Atco label. Atco purchased the four demos from Darin and released two of them as a single: I Found A Million Dollar Baby backed with Talk To Me Something. The first of these is most notable because it was Darin’s first attempt at an American standard in the recording studio. He still hadn’t found his own voice, but he had at least found a genre to focus on: rock ‘n’ roll. I Found a Million Dollar Baby is pleasant enough, and rises above mediocrity due to Hank Garland’s guitar as much through Darin’s vocals. Talk To Me Something was a Darin-Kirshner original and considerably better material than the originals he had recorded during him time at Decca. The performance is hardly a masterpiece (and Darin can’t quite work out whether he was Elvis or Jim Reeves), but there are some nice moments, particularly during the swell in emotion and volume during the third line of each verse when Darin and the backing vocalists sing together. Despite being a reasonable stab at hitting the charts with a contemporary sound, the single performed disappointedly.
The other two songs from the same sessions, are quite similar in style. Wear My Ring is another rock ‘n’ roll ballad, but the problem here is that there is nothing remotely original about either song or performance. Just In Case You Change Your Mind is basically more of the same. The song was eventually released the following year as a single A-side, but it found its real home as filler on Bobby Darin’s first album later in 1958.
A few months later, Darin was back in the studio with another quartet of songs. Don’t Call My Name finds him giving him a much more confident performance, and the resulting recording was a good solid rock ‘n’ roll number, but this too failed to set the charts alight. The B-side, Pretty Betty, is one of Darin’s worst attempts at a rock ‘n’ roll. The song, arrangement and recording sounds awkward and forced. An alternate take which appeared on a grey-market release features a slightly different rhythm underpinning the song. It’s still hardly a classic, but the song holds together better in the alternate. Rounding out the session were (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean. These find an improvement over the previous rock ‘n’ roll ballads. The recordings seem to be less forced, and the vocals are less affected, with Darin opting for a more gentle, intimate approach.
The next session took place five months later and finds Darin’s style improving dramatically. Brand New House finds him at last with his own style and his own unique sound. He somehow manages to merge elements of Ray Charles and Neil Sedaka here (although Sedaka had yet to have a hit). The orchestration is really quite similar to that which Darin would later use on the Sings Ray Charles album a few years later. Darin has added a far more aggressive vocal quality to his sound here as well, as he growls his way through the song. The recording also betrays signs of the ill health that plagued Darin’s life. On a number of occasions he runs out of breath at the end of a line, or attempts to snatch a breath without anyone noticing, but doesn’t quite succeed. In many ways it didn’t matter, for this was a significant improvement over his previous work.
You Never Called is a slight step backwards, and recalls the ballads (Since You’re Gone) I Can’t Go On and So Mean. Darin probably thought the same, for the song didn’t appear on an album until For Teenagers Only a couple of years later – although this might have been due to the technical fault at the beginning of the track. All The Way Home continues the rock ‘n’ roll style of Brand New House. Darin’s voice had never sounded stronger, and the song was deemed worthy enough to be included in the wonderful Rhino 4CD set of Darin’s best recordings As Long As I’m Singin’. Actions Speak Louder Than Words finds the singer surrounded by echo in an atmospheric recording of a fine ballad that again is a foreshadowing of Darin’s full-length tribute to Ray Charles.
The April 10, 1958 sessions basically saved Darin’s career. Despite the improvements he had made, there had still not been a hit record. Splish Splash would turn out to be that hit. As a piece of material, the song is certainly no better than some of that recorded a few months earlier at the previous session. Darin employs the same vocal tones in the song as in Actions Speaker Louder Than Words and Brand New House, but perhaps the song benefits most from the searing saxophone solo during the instrumental break and the novelty of the water effect at the opening and closing of the track. This may sound cynical, for it is a fine performance, and a song that has stood the test of time, but the only thing it has over the efforts of the previous sessions is novelty hook. With the sax solo, novelty subject matter and sound effects it stood out from the crowd and made audiences take notice. It was exactly what Darin was yearning for: to be noticed by the record-buying public. And Darin was on a roll. At the same session he recorded another hit side: Queen of the Hop. Again the instrumentation was borrowed from Ray Charles, while the subject matter was the same as many other hit singles of the time. The track is brilliantly recorded, making it sound considerably harder than it actually is. With Darin set back in the mix, we get the effect that his singing is much rawer. The driving beat is high in the mix and, together with another great sax solo, the effect was complete. It’s hard to comprehend that something as bland as Judy Don’t Be Moody was even recorded at the same session and with the same band.
With Splish Splash, stardom and Bobby Darin would finally meet after two years of trying to find each other. Darin’s career would have peaks and troughs as he wavered from a predictable career path to take in more genres than probably any other artist, and yet the consistency of performances from Splish Splash until the very end of his career was remarkably high. Due to a variety of factors, Darin’s popularity has had a resurgence over the last decade but, despite this, the recordings made for Decca and Atco prior to his first hit remain largely neglected.