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Joel Dorn

No wonder seasoned professional producer, Joel Dorn, keeps on winning those Grammy Awards-He’s experienced, he’s intuitive, and he’s comfortable with himself.

It takes years for each of us to find our "self." Dorn has done that. It shows in his work and in his relatedness with others. Maybe that’s why Aces Back To Back, the Bobby Darin legacy, turned into the masterpiece Dorn hoped it would be-a collector’s item highlighting a brilliant performer whose time has come.

Many biographies have been written about Bobby Darin, teen-age heart throb of the American Bandstand era. Darin woke up the teen set with Splish-Splash before turning the corner to become a hot, rounded performer in the caliber of Sinatra.

After sifting through myriads of video recordings, Joel Dorn captured Darin’s essence on CD and DVD, which includes personal interviews with George Burns and Bobby Darin, plus great performances on stage during Darin’s television show. Lost footage has been recovered for this one-of-a-kind set.

JazzReview: When did you first become aware of Bobby Darin’s tremendous talent?

Joel Dorn: I became aware of him when Splish-Splash first came out while I was in high school, during the ‘50s.

I began watching the flower start to blossom from Splish-Splash to Dream Lover to Mack The Knife. But in the late sixties, I saw him at a club outside Philly called the Latin Casino where he did his Vegas/Miami act. And when I saw his act, I couldn’t believe it.

I knew he was a great recording artist, but I had no idea the scope and breadth of his talent. He had an absolutely magnetizing effect that drew me to him. He could do everything. He could sing. He could dance. He was funny. He played instruments. He commanded the stage in that old-fashioned kind of way. And, he could sing any kind of song-swing, ballad, a folk song, or rock. Whatever he wanted to do, he could do. So that sealed the deal for me.

JazzReview: Beyond his talent, you saw the tremendous spark inside Darin that drove his fire.

Joel Dorn: You know, he has an odd story. He was a person who was very ill as a child, who wasn’t supposed to make it past his mid-teens. So he was driven in a way that even though dynamic performers are driven, they aren’t driven in the same way. So there he was, blessed with all of this great talent, plus the obsession and desire to make it. And at the same time, he knew that at any moment, he could die! It’s unique, and it’s what drove him.

Plus, he had an odd story. The woman he thought was his sister was really his mother. The woman he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother. Until later, he never knew who his father was. At the absolute height of his career, he found out his sister is his mother. As if he didn’t have enough making him crazy, this was like the cherry on the sundae.

JazzReview: I understand he took a three year hiatus to regain himself.

Joel Dorn: Right. You know, he was also one of those great neurotic geniuses. Success sometimes wreaks more havoc on you than failure. He wanted to be what he wanted to be and the world wanted him to be what they wanted him to be. So he figured he had to go away for a while and figure it out.

JazzReview: I think that happens to a lot of people who are successful-yourself included. You go along with the program for so long, then discover you’ve disconnected from yourself.

Joel Dorn: Sometimes we find where we thought we were headed isn’t where we were headed. Or we find out who we started out as isn’t who we are now. Everybody handles it differently. Darin just closed down. He did what he wanted to do. Then when he was re-comfortable with himself, he came back pretty much at ease with who he was. But he still had the other demons-what kind of family am I from and how long am I going to live? So it was not a comfortable life.

JazzReview: He was considered in a hurry for stardom. Do you find this as one of his strengths, or do you see this as working against him?

Joel Dorn: It goes both ways. When you have a manic drive to make it, coupled with what you become when you have that manic drive, it helps you and it hurts you.

He was a sublime talent. He was also a brash, cocky, foul, difficult person. They go hand-in-hand. If you have someone with talent such as that, living in a world with people who are not blessed with talent such as that, it’s difficult because they just can’t understand who and what they are. So they’re constantly in conflict.

JazzReview: When did you decide to do Aces Back To Back? This is a tremendous piece of work. And you’ve caught some really great footage.

Joel Dorn: I’ve been intrigued with Darin for years. The way this happened is: My son, Adam, and I had done a Judy Garland set-four CDs and a VHS and a booklet, which took well over a year. That set included some duets with Barbara Streisand, Peggy Lee, and Ray Bolger, and one of them was with Bobby Darin.

Even though I had signed clearances, I always contact the estates or whoever’s handling the business of the artist-there can be problems. I met Steve Blauner who was Bobby’s manager, who some 30 years after Darin’s death still handles the affairs of his estate. We struck up a conversation, got the business out of the way and became pals.

After speaking on the phone every couple of weeks, I started talking to him about doing a Bobby Darin package. I wanted to do it with the blessing of the estate because there are a lot of Bobby Darin compilations out there. I wanted to do a package containing 90% of what hasn’t been produced on CD before. And I wanted it to define him. I wanted to cover the scope of what Darrin had done-to define him in a more exact way [with] all different types of material, all on the same CD.

The kicker was, I wanted access to the entire archive of the estate so I could have the visual component, the DVD. As great a singer and as broadly based a vocalist as he was, when you see him, it finishes the story. I wanted to put something together so you could hear Bobby Darin and see Bobby Darin. Then after you see him, you go back and listen and it’s entirely different.

JazzReview: You absolutely caught it. On the DVD, after he does Beyond the Sea, he takes us to something rooty-tooty and does a side slide with his feet it’s magnificent!

Joel Dorn: He was an entertainer. I only saw him one time, but he killed me. When you saw him on stage, he mesmerized you.

JazzReview: You have a penchant for bringing people from behind-for digging in, finding what’s good and knowing it.

Earlier this year, you produced Frank and Joe 33 1/3, with Jane Monheit doing the Great American Songbook. It was fantastic.

Joel Dorn: I had just finished producing her first three albums, so I felt she’d fit with Frank and Joe. Once again, they’re brilliant musicians and they’re kind of one-of-a-kind guys. I’ve always been drawn to that talent. I like one-of-a-kind, world-class originals. They don’t always look like they’re going to make it because they’re generally artists who go against the grain during their time.

JazzReview: They’re all tremendous talents. Do you think this is going to be a trend?

Joel Dorn: I have never been able to predict a trend, in my life-even when I worked with trendsetters like Bette Midler or Roberta Flack. I always saw them as stand-alone units. I never knew whether or not they’d become linchpins in the state that was coming.

JazzReview: They both became stars and you had something to do with it. So, you have something innate that

Joel Dorn: I just know what appeals to me. I wish I could make something more of it than it is. A one-of-a-kind artist with world-class chops-that’s what appeals to me. I don’t know who it’s going to be. I kind of respond a certain way when I hear people.

I do like people at the beginning of their careers. At least with the great ones, what I’ve found is: there’s a combination of brilliance and innocence, so you catch them reaching. Once they know what they’re doing, you still have excellence, but it doesn’t have that-I call it the ‘reach’ factor. That ‘look at me, I’m over here, love me,’ sort of thing. When that disappears, they still have brilliance but, not the stretch-- not what I’m looking for.

JazzReview: Working with a big band leader down here, I see him reach into the audience and make them part of the performance. A lot of performers do wonderful jobs of performing, but there seems to be an invisible wall between performer and audience sometimes.

Joel Dorn: Ahh, yes. There’s something about the old tradition. One of the things Bobby did was reach into the audience. He was born on an interesting cusp. He was able to be part of rock and roll and still stay true to the old variety performer-part vaudeville and part rock and roller.

If he’d been born five years earlier, he wouldn’t have been who he was; five years later, he wouldn’t have been who he was. [He was] part Jolson, Bing Crosby and Sinatra, as much as he was Dion and The Belmonts, and rock and roll.

JazzReview: You produced a lot of footage. How did you decide what to narrow it down to?

Joel Dorn: This isn’t going to sound very brilliant, but I just looked at a lot of stuff. You know, a lot of this is just hard work and following your instincts. In order to do the CD, I listened to 50 CDs and narrowed it down to 59 minutes. In order to do the DVD, I looked at 25 VHS’s of his TV show, documentary footage that people have not seen, old newsreel footage. It was endless. That’s why it took a year and a half.

JazzReview. That answered my next question. A year and a half is a lot of work.

Joel Dorn: That wasn’t 12-hours a day, day and night. I did four or five other albums while I was doing it. But for a year and a half, I searched through material with permission and cooperation of the estate. That would be Steve Blauner, his manager. And, Jimmy Scalia was the co-producer on this. He’s the official Bobby Darin archivist, so it was a cooperative effort.

You know, it was the kind of project that was so much work, we were kind of sad when it was over. It was just fun, and hearing things I never heard before I pretty much know his body of work, not down to the last period on the last sentence, but I know what he did going into Capitol. When I got access to all the performances that had never been on record, then I was able to match them up with the visual aspect.

It was very exciting because I think, [and] this is not a knock on any of the other Bobby Darin packages, but I think Aces Back to Back is the only one within the space of 140 minutes between the CD and DVD, that really defines who and what Darrin was-the breadth and scope of his artistry. At least that’s what I hope I accomplished. It feels good. There’s other material that’s good, but this is my one shot at Bobby Darin.

JazzReview: Yes. I think you managed to do that very well. Did this coincide with the movie to be released next month with Kevin Spacey? Was it deliberate timing or did it just happen that way?

Joel Dorn: They just sort of happened at the same time. Kevin Spacey had-start to finish, from the time he wanted to do the project until he was able to pull it off, was 12 years. I started toying with the idea maybe two or three years ago. Once I got Steve’s permission, it took a year and a half. You know, a year and a half is a big chunk of time.

Here’s the thing: relative to his prodigious talents, Bobby Darin never got the recognition he deserved. So there’s a window opening up right now with Aces Back to Back and the movie and other companies re-issuing their works a general awareness of Darin.

It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of all our efforts and works. Hopefully, there’ll be a new generation of people who maybe never heard of Bobby Darin, or who have heard of Mack The Knife on an oldies station, or something They’ll become aware of who Bobby Darin actually was.

Don’t forget, Darin was a Grammy-winning recording artist and a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He was nominated for an Academy award. He was so much-you’d figure a guy with this kind of talent in so many areas, at the level at which he performed; you’d figure he’d become a pop icon.

JazzReview: Do you think that’s because we switched-you know, right after that period of time, we went into Motown?

Joel Dorn: I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he died so young and he never really had a chance to grow into his brilliance, where other people had that opportunity. I think that had a lot to do with it. But also, he was a tough customer. I think he made some enemies along the way. He was branded as difficult to work with. But whatever it was, he never got what he deserved. He deserved a lot and hopefully now, he’ll finally get the recognition he should have. Hopefully now he will, because I don’t see another onslaught of records, CDs, DVDs and movies about him happening again. This was one of those confluences of nature where all of a sudden, for whatever the reason. Everybody’s looking for somebody with that 15 minutes in the spotlight and you hope that it’ll change the course of his personal history.

JazzReview: In recent years, we’ve see Rod Stewart going back to the Great American Songbook, Tony Bennett, re-ignite his career also with the Great American Songbook, and we’re seeing older artists teaming with newer talents trying to bring themselves back into the spotlight. Do you think our kids are hungry for smooth music and old-fashioned talent?

Joel Dorn: Maybe. I mean, anything can happen at any time. I know when I was working with Jane Monheit, she was like the next artist after Diana Krall. Then there’s Peter Cincotti, Michael Bublé, and the Rod Stewart phenomena. It just kind of happens. I don’t think people plan for this. A song comes along, a movie, a commercial comes along, there’s a million reasons why. All of a sudden there’s a new trend, then it goes away. Do you remember disco? No one in the record business ever designed an Elvis Presley or a Frank Sinatra. I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years and I’ve never heard anybody say, "Get a sexy, good looking truck driver from Memphis who sings like a black man." This just comes along and all sorts of domino stuff starts happening.

JazzReview: You’re a four-time Grammy winner, but you don’t define yourself by your successes. You define yourself by what feels good.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Joel Dorn
  • Interview Date: 11/1/2004
  • Subtitle: The Bobby Darin Project
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