When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a voice.
First, I fell in love with a song. I heard a rendition of “Mack the Knife” during a concert on PBS, and I thought it was really catchy. The program mentioned that Bobby Darin sang the most famous version of the song in the 1950s. I loved our local oldies radio station, and I vaguely felt like I’d heard it on there, so I started listening for it. It took a lot of listening, but on July 7, 1997, I heard it. The next day, I went to an entertainment store and bought a cassette tape of Bobby Darin’s greatest hits.
Yes, a cassette tape. We still had those in 1997, and they were cheaper than CDs. I just wanted that one song to listen to over and over. I didn’t want to spend lots of money for music I might not even like. So even though the store had a couple CDs of his music, I opted for the tape.
I was a little nervous to listen to it around my parents because… it might be awful. Of the ten songs on it, I’d only heard of four of them. The other six might be terrible. Spending five bucks on a tape just for one song on it made sense to me, but it might not to them. So I waited to listen to it until I went to bed that night.
Most nights, when I was in my late teens, I would sit up in bed with headphones on, listening to my oldies station and writing stories longhand in a notebook. That night, I listened to the tape instead. I have such clear memories of it. Three songs into the tape, I quit writing and just listened. By the time the tape flipped to side B, I’d turned off the light and lay there in the dark, eyes closed, Bobby Darin’s voice running through my mind. And when I hit the ninth song on that tape, I knew with absolute certainty that my inner life had shifted in a new direction.
Have you had a moment of clarity like that? One where you feel yourself falling off an emotional cliff or veering onto a new path? I’ve had a few in my life, and that was the first one I can remember clearly. I knew that voice would change me.
I listened to that tape until I knew all ten songs by heart. It was a matter of weeks before I was buying CDs of his music too. And then finding a few of the movies he was in and watching them over and over. And buying more CDs. And learning all the songs on those by heart too.
But why? What about Bobby Darin’s voice appealed to me so much when I was seventeen? And still appeals to me today, twenty-two years later, when I own dozens of CDs and movies and LP records of his, and even an original 45 of “Mack the Knife”? It’s hard to tell now. His voice runs through my life, as familiar to me as the voices of my family. I know so many of his songs so well, I can listen to them in my head without playing a CD or record. I can think my thoughts in his voice. I wrote an entire book with his voice for the narrator. But what do I love about his voice, his music, his acting?
I’ve been puzzling over this while working on this article. Why him? Why Bobby Darin and not Frank Sinatra, who sang very similar music? Part of it is just that his voice appeals to me more. I like Darin’s timbre and range. I like that he dabbled in every musical genre that existed in his time. I like that he didn’t just record songs; he wrote them too, music and lyrics both. I like the way I can hear him smile when he’s singing. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s what his voice conveys, beyond the words he’s singing.
I know that, at seventeen, I felt initially drawn to the Bronxy flavor of his voice, the way it projects this you-can’t-make-me-if-I-don’t-wanna attitude. I identify with that attitude a lot, I’m afraid. But Darin adds a smooth layer of class and elegance over the defiance that makes it sound like he could behave like a gentleman if he wanted.
Maybe that’s the best way to explain it—he has the voice of a defiant, dangerous gentleman. A guy who would stand up for those he cared about, who wouldn’t let others push him around, but who could also be kind and gentle and considerate. As a teen, that was the sort of guy I was looking for. As an adult, it’s still the sort of guy I like best. Whether or not Bobby Darin really was a dangerous gentleman, he sounds like one, and after all, it’s his voice I fell in love with when I was seventeen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com