“Two of a Kind,” Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer, Omnivore Recordings
The chief achievement of this recently released extended version of the 1961 collaboration between Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin is it calls attention to the original, which I still put on the turntable a couple of times a year. I say “between,” but that slights the orchestrations of Billy May, who with his orchestra is an equal partner with two singers cut from the same swinging cloth. Mercer is better known as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist of “My Shining Hour,” “It’s a Quarter to Three” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” just to name three out of roughly 1,500 numbers he wrote with the best American Songbook composers from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Those are his words on “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” for which he won two of his four Oscars in his prolific Hollywood career. But Mercer also had a fair voice — more than fair compared to most songwriters — and was a frequent guest on radio shows hosted by Crosby, Sinatra and the other big names of the Golden Age. His range was limited, but like Fred Astaire, who introduced many classics, he knew and stayed within his limits. The southern charm of the Savannahborn Mercer was captivating.
Darin was a far more gifted vocalist, but his personality was much of his success as well. He came along a generation later than Mercer, in the ‘50s, moving to Midtown New York from East Harlem as one of the struggling songwriters cranking out pop numbers in the Brill Building with Carol King, Leiber and Stoller and Gerry Goffin. He hit it big as a singer with “Splish, Splash,” which he co-wrote. But Darin didn’t stick with pop rock long. He quickly put himself on the big-club circuit with big band backups of standards, throwing in wisecracks and imitations of W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx and others (which pop up on this album as well) before New York and Las Vegas audiences. Another piece of vinyl that finds its way off the shelf now and then is “Darin at the Copa.” Their roots were hardly similar, with Mercer coming from a prominent family in a genteel town and Darin (real name Cassatto) from kin that included a mobster grandfather. But their showbiz personalities couldn’t be more compatible in “Two of a Kind.” The original 13 cuts range from upbeat to more upbeat, with Darin and Mercer trading jokes among songs that include such Mercer hits as “Bob White,” “If I Had my Druthers” and “Lonesome Polecat.” They co-wrote the title song, which both opens and closes the original Atco Records release. The first set of liner notes, by Stanley Green, credit Darin, then 24, with the concept: “Bobby, long a serious student of popular songs and their interpreters, felt that Johnny Mercer would be just the right one to join him in a tour of some of the long neglected corners of Tin Pan Alley.” The additional seven songs in this version, released by Omnivore Recordings, include two of note, “Cecilia” and “Lily of Laguna,” because they are less jokey and rapid-fire.
The rest are different versions of five of the original numbers, with little to distinguish them, and in a couple of cases, with Mercer going beyond his voice’s reach. Despite their age difference, Darin died three years before Mercer. Darin’s life story was well told in “Beyond the Sea,” starring Kevin Spacey. No movie bio yet for Mercer, but he tells a lot of his own story in a terrific recording, “An Evening with Johnny Mercer,” that was part of the legendary series conducted by the Jewish Y on 92nd Street in New York.