This collection of Bobby Darin performing closes with “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife”, two of the singer’s biggest hits. Darin’s image is usually aligned with one of these two signature songs. He is either remembered as a ‘50s pop star (“Splish Splash”) or a Vegas lounge lizard (“Mack the Knife”). Although Seeing Is Believing does not completely dispel these two handy stereotypes, Darin’s expansive instrumental and singing skills are displayed in such a way that most will be convinced, hopefully, that when it came to Bobby Darin, there was so much more than met the ear.
As an example of the Darin-you-never-knew, his take on “Got My Mojo Working” is both strange and revealing. It opens with Darin blowing some mean blues harp before he plays a smokin’ vibe solo later in the song. Clearly, vibes are not the blues instrument the harmonica is, but Darin somehow makes these two unlikely elements fit together nicely. The song selection alone is also striking, especially since Darin spent a good amount of his time performing at white bread Vegas casinos, instead of blues BBQ joints. There is also a spot where Darin accompanies himself on electric piano for a version of “Splish Splash”, which somehow combines the sounds of Ray Charles, Jerry Lewis and Chuck Berry into one show stopping performance. Conjuring the spirits of these iconic performers reveals how Darin wanted to be respected for his musicianship.
Another standout is Darin’s take on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. This Cole Porter classic is normally done as a slow, smoldering, finger-snapper. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to divorce the song’s melody and lyric from Frank Sinatra’s familiar recording. Sinatra is nearly synonymous with it. But Darin’s vision for the song is entirely different, as he transforms it into an upbeat declaration. Yep, Darin could also swing. For more swinging evidence, just dig his hot performance of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Holding a microphone cord thick enough to be handled by a rodeo rope trick expert, Darin is supported by a fat horn arrangement that bounces off echo-y electric guitar. His singing is bold and powerful, and more Tony Bennett than Sinatra. He closes out the tune with a soulful vamp worthy of ‘70s R&B man Bill Withers. “That’s a dynamite old song!” he exclaims after the music stops. No, Bobby. You’re one dynamite singer.
This disc also gives viewers a chance to watch Darin sing a few male/female duets. First, there is the medley of “Proud Mary”, “Polk Salad Annie”, and “Never Ending Song of Love”, with Bobbie Gentry. During Darin/Gentry moments, these two seemingly dissimilar vocalists look into each others eyes the whole time. Their mutual respect is obvious, and they sound great together. Who would have guessed that? Later on, in a clip taken from a black & white Ed Sullivan broadcast, Darin trades lyrical lines with Connie Francis during “You Make Me Feel So Young”. One flaw in this DVD’s packaging, by the way, is that neither one of these duets are noted in packaging liner notes. There is a sticker on the front that mentions Francis and Gentry’s appearances, but once you take off the plastic wrapping, that information is gone forever. The least they could have done was list these two women on the song lineup.
The majority of these clips are relatively modern, meaning they were shot in color. A few, however, such as “Dream Lover”, are in black & white. This one in particular features Darin backed by three actual guitarists to his left, and three guitar-shaped set pieces to his right. It’s kitschy, but still cool.
Darin was a true singer’s singer; one who could sing almost anything. This set finds him taking on Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Bread’s “If”, both most closely associated with the modern rock era. Unlike stereotypical lounge singers, Darin never tied himself to the songs of the pre-rock era. A good song was a good song. Period.
Darin was equally comfortable with folk music, a style represented by Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter”. He doesn’t look so comfortable singing it here, however, dressed in his sharp suit, powder blue tie and shined shoes. The song’s lyric tests a lover’s devotion: Will this high society woman marry a blue collar man? Ironically, Darin performs these poignant words in front of a splashy TV audience, yet somehow protects the poetic song’s dignity. Somehow, Darin always transcended his circumstances.
Contemporary ears often ignore voices from Darin’s era; perhaps they’ve sat through one too many Jerry Lewis telethons packed with B-list Rat Pack clones. But Darin was more than just another showbiz hep cat. Instead, he deserves the same respect Tony Bennett now receives. His bluesy take on “Come Rain or Come Shine”, with its understated horns and saloon piano, is so beautifully phrased, it is hard to imagine Bennett, or anyone, doing it any better.
Darin might not receive the respect he deserves because “Splish Splash” is such a lightweight song. Heck, it has been used for countless soap commercials and such. Even “Mack The Knife”, written by the esteemed Bertolt Brecht, was once used for a McDonald’s commercial campaign. Darin’s rendition of “Beyond The Sea”, probably his third most popular song, is done a disservice on this collection. It is tossed off within a medley. In contrast, Tony Bennett’s signature “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is practically that city’s national anthem, and you would never even dream of seeing him relegate it to a medley.
Seeing Darin’s talent expansively displayed throughout this DVD may earn him a few new believers. Even so, Hyena Records should have also tacked on at least a small documentary. Just watching clip after clip does not provide any context. Sadly, Darin was only 37 when he died. Seeing Is Believing is a good place for Darin newbies to start. But it does not tell the whole Darin story. A more complete documentary, with both performances and interviews, is what Bobby Darin deserves. But until such a project comes along, this DVD will have to do.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article