Book Talk: Roman Candle

“He was the quintessential glitzy nightclub performer in Las Vegas, one of the biggest draws in the history of that town as well as the hottest attraction at the Copacabana in New York, the most important nightclub in the United States…at his peak, he outdrew Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. He was the last great trouper, the personification of the golden age of show business.”

“Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin” by David Evanier (2004)

Indulge me. If you read my posts, you already do but – indulge me. Years ago, I was happy to find the Bobby Darin album Darin: 1936-1973 on cassette. This Motown release was Bobby’s first posthumous album and I liked it so much that I converted the tape to mP3 and donated the cassette to the local thrift store. Time went by and I regretted this. Fast forward to a lovely summer morning and my wife and I are garage saling as we do every Saturday morning during the season. I see some tapes in a shoe box at one sale and I start poking. Not only do I find my Bobby Darin tape but I see others I had donated. I knew they were mine as some I had copied onto blank tapes to preserve them. I mentioned this to those having the sale and they tell me that their father had purchased these tapes at the thrift store. Their father – in his 70s –  ambles over and we start talking about Bobby. He tells me he has a book on Darin inside. He goes in, gets it and gives it to me, gratis. This is the stuff, people. In my house, we call this a Garage Sale Miracle.

The book the old gent gave me is the one we’re looking at today, Roman Candle by David Evanier who is an author who has written novels and also books on singer Jimmy Roselli, Woody Allen and Tony Bennett. One little beef I have with his book on Bobby is that it was published in conjunction with Kevin Spacey’s film on Bobby, Beyond the Sea. Spacey writes the forward of this book and, while this is strictly a personal feeling, it frustrates me when I think that it took Spacey – at one time a major Hollywood player – making a film about Bobby to prompt the release of a decent book about him.

“A death sentence hung over him from childhood…He devoured life but rarely enjoyed it. In 37 years he conquered the world but could not quell the static within him.”

Due to the lack of books out there about Darin, this one is certainly welcome and definitely serves a purpose. Evanier has interviewed key players in Darin’s story and this lends credence to his account. Personally, while reading, I stumbled a bit when Evanier quotes a source, as I felt the quotes lacked some context and focus. And perhaps there are some editorial errors as both Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong are identified as “Louie”. Similarly, Sinatra’s point man at Reprise Records was Mo Ostin; Evanier identifies him as “Moe Austin. But these are minor quibbles.

The positives outweigh the negatives and in this book you will learn of the hardscrabble upbringing in East Harlem of the man born Walden Robert Cassotto. His grandfather was a small-time hood aligned with Frank Costello; in fact, it was Costello who gifted the Cassotto’s with the piano that Bobby Darin would grow up playing. You’ll hear about the tuberculosis that Bob suffered as a child that would weaken his heart and define his very existence; Evanier says that Bobby felt he “needed to become a legend by 25 because he expected to be dead by 30”. Evanier goes into detail about Bobby’s family, his mother who he grew up assuming was his sister and of the extreme poverty that he despised. In fact, Bob grew to actually loathe his family; Bobby felt they were coarse and vulgar and they made Darin want to aspire to more and better things.

Young Bobby.

One fascinating episode you’ll read about comes early in Darin’s career and involves Bobby’s relationship with Connie Francis, another fledgling singer who at this point shares a manager with Bob. Connie’s father, George Franconero, was old school in the extreme; any man who wanted to date his daughter he considered “the scum of the earth” and he formed a “particularly obsessive hatred for Bobby” at the outset. One night coming home from a date, Bobby and Connie see her clothes packed and sitting outside her front door and they know her father has had enough. Bobby begins pleading with Connie to marry him. She fully believes that if they marry, her father will kill them both. The next day, Franconero gives the couple’s shared manager an ultimatum; get rid of Darin or I’m taking my daughter away. As Connie was further along in her career, the manager has no choice and Bobby is cut loose and the young couple end their relationship.

“He fell in a place where on one side there were the Mick Jaggers, who thought he was too much of a Rat Packer, and the Rat Packers, who thought he was too much of a Mick Jagger type.”

Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records

I was fascinated to learn about Bobby’s love of and affinity for black music. In fact, he was the first white artist signed to soul label Atlantic Records. Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary figure who ran Atlantic said “Bobby sounded to me as close to black music as Elvis Presley was. We at Atlantic tried to get Presley but it didn’t work out. So to me this was the answer”. Bobby would hit paydirt at Atlantic with “Splish Splash”, a record that had the industry thinking it was sung by a black man.

You will read a lot of comparisons between Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. At first, to me, this seemed a little desperate on Evanier’s part; who can compare with Sinatra? Until I thought about it; well, Bobby Darin can. The author gets you thinking about Bobby’s pure tones, his gentle way with a ballad and, most significantly, his innate ability to swing. One thing is clear from Darin’s recordings and it is reiterated in these pages; Bobby had an intrinsic sense of rhythm and could swing with the best of them. It is suggested that Bobby ranks with Frank on the strength of Bobby’s dynamic stage show.

“Darin was one complete Broadway show posing as a nightclub act. He was a walking spotlight. The guy was like a grenade — he had a pin he would pull at a certain point, and he would just explode.”

Nik Venet, Capitol Records producer

Another interesting thing you’ll get from Roman Candle is references to Bobby’s sense of old vaudeville style. This shouldn’t be surprising after the reader has been told about Bobby’s upbringing but it’s something that maybe gets lost while you’re marveling at Darin’s stellar recordings. In this book, many episodes are related describing the love shown Bobby by the likes of Jack Benny and George Burns; these old vaudevillians considered Bobby one of their own. I was also fascinated to learn about Darin’s move into music publishing. This book discusses the writers on Darin’s payroll like Arthur Resnick who wrote “Under the Boardwalk” and Bobby’s shepherding the early career of Wayne Newton.

David Evanier has interviewed Bobby’s long-time manager, Steve Blauner and Bobby’s last girlfriend Andrea as well as Darin’s son with Sandra Dee, Dodd Darin. Hearing from these people gives Roman Candle an authoritative tone. Aside from a few errors and wobbles in presentation, the book is excellent and really drives home Bobby Darin’s brief life, his intense drive and his immense talent.

Bobby Darin 1936 – 1973

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