Monday, June 7, 2010

Two of a Kind: Having Fun with Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin

In 1960, one of the best songwriters of the twentieth century and an exciting newcomer who had recently become a crooner came together to record an album. The result of this very special rendez-vous between Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin was Two of a Kind, a one-of-a-kind record that sounds as enjoyable now as when it was first made. This article is a reflection on that landmark record date, which produced an album that turned out to be a tribute to the bygone era of twenties and thirties pop music by two men who were, indeed, two of a kind.

A Little Background
According to the original liner notes of the album, written by Stanley Green, it was Bobby Darin's suggestion to undertake this project, and Johnny Mercer "was excited about the idea right from the start." Listening to the finished product, there is no doubt about that. The two are really enjoying themselves in the studio, which means that we, as listeners, are allowed to share in the fun. Mercer and Darin were at very different stages in their careers as they walked into the Atlantic Studios in New York City. Johnny was one of the best things that ever happened to the Great American Songbook, one of the most renowned, wittiest lyricists of his time. He had also enjoyed quite a bit of success with his recordings in the 1940s, great songs like "Candy" and "My Sugar Is So Refined," duets with Nat King Cole such as "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," and delightful get-togethers with Bing Crosby on radio. Bobby had started as a rock'n'roll singer with such ditties as "Splish Splash" and "Plain Jane," but following the success of his recording of "Mack the Knife" in 1959, he had changed gears and become a swinging, tongue-in-cheek crooner. Without any doubt, it was the perfect moment for a collaboration between these two men, and fortunately, Billy May was on deck to take care of the arrangements.

Back to the Jazz Age
If this is such a unique album, it is in no small part because of the song selection, which gives us a very good idea of how thoroughly Mercer and Darin knew the pop music of the twenties and thirties. As Green notes, there are hardly any standards in the album: "For this recital, both men decided that though the accent would be on the old-timers, the all-too-familiar warhorses would be kept carefully locked up in the stable." Thus, Darin and Mercer go through a great selection of old tunes, most of them harking back to the era when the ukulele was king. And from "Indiana" to "East of the Rockies" to "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jellyroll," all the songs are delivered with a casualness that makes them simply irresistible.

One of the assets of the LP lies in Johnny and Bobby's decision to unearth and rework a few obscure, forgotten gems. "My Cutie's Due at Two to Two," by Albert von Tilzer, Irving Bibo, and Leo Robin, is a cute novelty song à la turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley, whose lyrics are an astounding exercise on the art of the onomatopoeia. They also pay tribute to the artistry of the great Cliff Edwards, artistically known as Ukulele Ike, one of the most exciting uke players of all time. "Paddlin' Madelin' Home" and "Who Takes Care of the Caretaker's Daughter," both recorded originally by Edwards in the 1920s, are two outstanding numbers from the Ukulele Ike catalog, and even though there is no ukulele in these arrangements, Billy May is clearly attempting to travel back in time to the Jazz Age with this material. Another effective choice is "Mississippi Mud," a classic written by Harry Barris and originally performed by Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Barris himself as the Rhythm Boys, at the time when Der Bingle was starting to hone his craft as part of the extremely popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the latter part of the twenties.

Mercer and Darin as Songwriters
But the album is not simply made up of old tunes. Some of Johnny Mercer's own compositions are also highlighted in this project, proving once more that he is one of the most gifted lyricists of all time. To Mercer, a song lyric is a poem set to music, and his lyrics show his unique ability to make words and music intersect, as well as his mastery of the English language. For instance, "If I Had My 'Druthers" is given here an enjoyable, laid-back treatment, while the reading of the humorous "Bob White" must be counted among the best ever committed to wax.

Bobby Darin, described by Green in the liner notes as "a serious student of popular songs and their interpreters," felt the need to contribute some lyrical updates to a few of the tunes, and he even teamed up with Mercer in the writing of the title track. "Two of a Kind," a tale of friendship and camaraderie, is a splendid collaboration between Bobby and Johnny, complete with ad-libbed asides that remind us of the timeless tradition of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Just like any of Bing and Bob's Road to... movies, the rapport between Johnny and Bobby on this record oozes with mutual admiration, charm, and sheer fun. In fact, that very well may be the secret of the appeal of the album: it gives us the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of the Atlantic Studios while two great performers are having a wonderful time together.




Jeff Stoodt said...

I absolutely adore this album. Their repartee is a time-honored show business tradition that sadly is not utilized much these days. Maybe Harold and Kumar can head to the studio. Do you know of the CD that Michael Feinstein and Cheyenne Jackson released? It recalls Two of a Kind (a little).

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your message! I completely agree with what you say about Two of a Kind. In my opinion, it is one of the best albums in the careers of both Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin, as well as one of the most enjoyable vocal collaborations I have ever heard. Besides the wonderful rapport between Johnny and Bobby, what I really like about this album is that it digs deep into the marvelous wealth of songs from the '20s and '30s, and so we have remarkable renditions of little-heard (at least by the 1960s) numbers like "Paddlin' Madelin' Home," "Who Takes Care of the Caretaker's Daughter," and "My Cutie's Due at Two-to-Two," among others.

I don't have the Feinstein-Jackson CD that you mention, although I have heard a couple of songs from it, and it certainly sounds interesting. From what I've heard, I agree that it does recall Two of a Kind a little.

Thanks again, and cheers!

Anton G.-F.

iamfelix said...

My favorite album EVER. My parents bought it when I was a kid and I've listened to it hundreds of times ... and it's always a joy, for all the reasons you mention.