Bobby Darin (Everett Collection)
Imagine finding out that the woman you thought was your sister was really your mother and that your “mother” was really your grandmother. That's what happened to singer Bobby Darin when he was 32 and was told about his real mother, who had become pregnant at 16 and never revealed the identity of the father. Darin died on Dec. 20, 1973, 40 years ago today. He was just 37.
Darin and fellow singer Connie Francis had a romantic relationship during the early part of his career when he was writing songs for her. But her father didn’t approve, so they parted ways. In her biography, Who’s Sorry Now?, Francis said the biggest mistake of her life was not marrying Darin.
On a more upbeat note –– and he had plenty of them –– Darin’s songs proved to be winners, particularly his first million-seller Splish-Splash (1958), then Dream Lover (1959) and Mack the Knife (1959), which became his signature song and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. Forty years later, Rolling Stone magazine listed the song (recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, among others) at No. 251 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Darin’s recording successes took him to Las Vegas, where he was a popular casino headliner, then to Hollywood, where his acting career earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Captain Newman, M.D. in 1963. During this heady time, he married teen idol/actress Sandra Dee after they met on the set of the romantic comedy Come September. They were married for six years. Their son Dodd was born in 1961, and they divorced in 1967.
Darin, who played piano, drums, guitar, harmonica and xylophone, was also versatile in his singing and songwriting styles, which ranged from pop to jazz, folk and country. In the 1960s his country music caught on with Things (1962) and topped out with his recording of Tim Hardin's If I Were A Carpenter (1966), his last major hit.
Darin's range drew some criticism when he was posthumously inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Dodd Darin, who accepted the award, acknowledged in a New York Times interview before the event that many people defined his father's style as "adult pop." But Dodd noted that his father's earlier work included "a number of hit rock records before 'Mack' and even after. And later he was doing a lot of songs by contemporary artists: Simon & Garfunkel, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan." Dodd quoted Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who said that "the spirit of rock is adventure and taking chances. And my dad took chances throughout his career."
Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto in the Bronx. He was a sickly infant, and rheumatic fever weakened his heart, which gave him problems throughout his life. His first heart surgery took place in 1971 and it took him almost a year to recover. Following that, he sometimes needed oxygen after performing, but the early damage could not be fully repaired. After undergoing open heart surgery at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in 1973, he never regained consciousness and died of heart failure in the recovery room. A doctor had told his family when he was a child that he probably wouldn’t make it past 16 –– which may have driven his ambition and success.
Actor Kevin Spacey co-produced, co-wrote, directed, starred and sang in a 2004 film about Darin’s life, Beyond the Sea.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.