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Singer's star burned briefly but brightly

In his prime, he possessed Frank Sinatra's swagger, Dean Martin's effortless cool, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s insatiable desire to be loved as an all-around entertainer. Yet in the 31 years since his death, Bobby Darin's once-brilliant star has dimmed in the public's memory, and his legacy has faded to the point where younger generations probably know little about him, if they know anything at all.

That will probably change when ''Beyond the Sea," a Darin biopic starring Kevin Spacey, who also co-wrote, directed, and produced the film, opens nationwide today. It's the story of Walden Robert Cassotto, a sickly kid from the Bronx, who through talent and tenacity headlined at the Copacabana, won two Grammy awards, sold millions of records, and scored two evergreen classics, ''Mack the Knife" and ''Beyond the Sea." He even received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1964 for the film ''Captain Newman, M.D." -- all before he turned 30.

It was all the more remarkable because his doctors once believed Darin wouldn't live to see his 15th birthday.

''He was show business royalty by the time he was 24, dueting with Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, and George Burns," says David Evanier, author of the recent biography ''Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin." Sinatra, Martin, and Davis ''accepted him as a peer. He had risen to the top of the heap and has an enduring greatness and originality."

So dynamic was Darin as a live performer that he was the only act Davis -- certainly no slouch himself -- respected so much that he refused to follow him onstage. Yet Darin was propelled not only by his ability but a brash, indefatigable will to accomplish as much as possible in whatever time he had. He was stricken as a child with rheumatic fever, and his heart was severely weakened. Yet the lingering effects of his illness also heightened his sense of his own mortality.

''I have the feeling I'm going to die young," Darin told the Los Angeles Times in the late 1950s. ''So I've got to do what I'm going to do now." Darin would be so physically spent after a show that he would require oxygen from a tank kept backstage. He was only 37 when he died during open-heart surgery in 1973.

''I know it sounds trite and clichd to say, 'Oh, he had this cloud hanging over his head,' but it's true," says Michael Starr, author of ''Bobby Darin: A Life."

''It can't be overstated. But it served him well because it gave him the confidence not to be afraid to do whatever he wanted to do," Starr says. ''It fed his desire to explore everything. He was obnoxious, brash, and cocky, but he had the talent to back it up. Here he was singing 'Queen of the Hop' one year, and then he's snapping his fingers like Frank Sinatra, and singing 'Mack the Knife.' "

Darin, Evanier adds, ''knew his life would be very short. He only did what he really wanted to do, so he kept changing and shifting. He went from rock to standards to country to protest folk music. He kept changing his image, though in show business, that's career suicide."

To some extent, that experimentation may undermine Darin's legacy. Still, his music retains a strong presence. His ebullient 1960 hit ''Beyond the Sea" has been featured in such diverse films as ''Goodfellas" and ''Finding Nemo" (sung by Robbie Williams). And though Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded wonderful renditions of ''Mack the Knife," Darin's is the gold standard. Armstrong first gave the song a jazzy flair, but it was Darin who really transformed Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's dirge about a ruthless murderer into a full-on swingin' affair. It also won Darin the 1959 Grammy for record of the year.

By that point, Darin had evolved from the sudsy rock 'n' roll of ''Splish Splash" and the teen heartache of ''Dream Lover" to interpretations of American standards. His 1959 album ''That's All," (featuring both ''Mack the Knife" and ''Beyond the Sea") cemented his reputation as a tuxedo-wearing, finger-snapping hipster -- the epitome of early '60s cool.

In 1961, he married screen queen Sandra Dee -- they were the hot Hollywood couple of their day -- with whom he had a son, and his career continued to flourish. Still, if audiences loved him, some critics complained Darin was more adept at imitating other singers than establishing his own musical identity.

''Bobby had a tendency to be an impressionist. Whatever he heard, he absorbed," Evanier says. ''There were times when he sounded too much like other performers -- Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Little Richard -- but you have to sift through all of that stuff. There was true gold there."

As the sociopolitical upheavals of the '60s erupted, Darin began to chafe against the constraints of his slick lounge act. He grew a mustache, traded his tailored tux for jeans, and restyled himself as a guitar-strumming folkie. In a nod to Bob Dylan, he even changed his name from Bobby to Bob. Darin was also moved by the burgeoning civil rights movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington. For a time, he even retired as a nightclub performer, devoting more time to political activities.

''He was interested in the world beyond himself, perhaps because he'd been bedridden as a boy. He had time to think and read because he was a loner," Evanier says. ''But in changing his image, audiences walked out on him. He lost that hold and never quite regained it even though he made a comeback. You don't go back to exactly where you were once you break that bond with your audience."

Darin's last hit was a cover of Tim Hardin's ''If I Were a Carpenter" in 1966. Hurting for cash, he returned to nightclubs, and he could still fill the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles or the Flamingo in Las Vegas. But he was shattered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and especially Robert Kennedy, who had become a friend.

Darin briefly considered a political career, but those plans were scuttled after he discovered a long-held secret about his family. Raised believing his grandmother Polly was his mother, he was 32 when he learned that Nina Cassotto, whom Darin knew as his older sister, was not his sister but his real mother. Darin never reconciled with Nina, who had lied because she was young and unmarried when she became pregnant. (Polly had died several years earlier.)

''Bobby died of a bad heart physically, but I think emotionally, he died of a broken heart," Starr says. ''He lived another five years after learning this secret, but from that point on, he was so full of anger and bitterness."

Darin was posthumously inducted in 1990 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which cites him as ''one of the most ambitious and versatile performers of the last forty years." In ''Beyond the Sea," that's Spacey's voice audiences will hear performing Darin's best known songs. Spacey is credible -- he's recently toured with a big band singing familiar Darin tunes. Yet nothing can match Darin's unbridled exuberance as a singer, an effervescence still palpable in his recordings nearly a half-century later.

''He never wanted to be pigeonholed as a teenybopper or a Sinatra wannabe," Starr says. ''His music holds up, and that's the sign of a true artist. He gave a lot of joy to a lot of people, even if it was just for a very brief time." 

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