“Call me Donny”

Don Kirshner has died. Maybe best known to the general public as the host of TV’s “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” he was far more important for the songwriting talent he discovered and nurtured: Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Neil Sedaka; and many others.

Here’s a bit on his earlier days, from my liner notes for the Bear Family album “Bobby Darin Rocks.” At the outset of our conversation, Kirshner insisted that I should, like pretty much everybody in the industry, “Call me Donny.”*

Somewhere down the line, Don Kirshner entered the scene.

“I was working as a bellhop in Atlantic Beach, and had just written my first song. One day I was at a candy store near my house in Washington Heights, and a girl I knew walked in with Bobby – who was working as a janitor in the neighborhood. He was impressed because I was big-time; I’d just had my first song [In All Of My Dreams] published. We walked over to the girl’s place, where she had a piano. Bobby proceeded to play me five songs; I said ‘Let’s team up, and we’ll be the biggest thing in the business’.”

Kirshner did not attend the same high school as Darin. “I went to George Washington high school – I wasn’t smart enough to get into Bronx Science, and was concentrating more on sports than on my marks.”

Darin moved in with Kirshner, and they began writing commercial jingles for local businesses. “I was the lyric writer, he was the melodies, but he was the talent.”

One of the singers Kirshner and Darin used on their jingles was Connie Francis. Just beginning her career, she was managed by George Scheck, a former vaudevillian and prototypical “man with a big cigar.” He also hosted a local talent show, ‘Startime,’ on which Francis – then Connie Franconero – had been a regular performer.

Through his contacts, Scheck placed several Darin-Kirshner compositions with recording artists including Bobby Short (Delia), Davy Hill (By My Side), LaVern Baker (Love Me Right) and the Jaye Sisters (School’s Out and Real Love). He also took the young man on as a management client, convincing Walden Robert “Bobby” Cassotto to adopt “Bobby Darin” as his stage name. Darin himself told conflicting stories of its origin at various times: either the name was pulled from the telephone directory, or he spotted a Chinese restaurant whose neon sign glowed with only the last five letters of “mandarin.”

A Darin-Kirshner composition, My First Real Love, became Francis’s fourth single for MGM records, with backing credited to “The Jaybirds” – a multiply-overdubbed Bobby Darin. Francis wouldn’t break through until Who’s Sorry Now, but My First Real Loveand the other recordings were an encouraging start for the songwriting team…

Directly after the [Tommy and Jimmy] Dorsey “Stage Show” appearance, though, Darin and [Steve] Karmen made some personal appearances: at a multiple-artist show in a basketball stadium with Gene Vincent, Charlie Gracie and Vikki Carr (“The first song we did was Timber and the audience was dead. The second show, we kicked the tempo up.”), followed by a two-week stand at the Gay Haven, a nightclub in Detroit. “While we were in Detroit, we went to see Elvis Presley do an afternoon show at the Fox Theater. It was an electrifying experience, and Bobby was very jealous.” (Al DiOrio’s Darin biography, “Borrowed Time,” features an advertisement for an appearance at The Cabin Club in Cleveland, Ohio, by Darin “with Don Kirshner and his guitar,” that Kirshner finds particularly amusing: “Not only do I not read or write music, but I don’t play piano or guitar. I get such a kick out of that!” It was, of course, Steve Karmen.)

In November, 1956, Little “Lambsie” Penn recorded Darin and Kirshner’s I Wanna Spend Christmas With Elvis for Atco, a recently-formed subsidiary of Atlantic Records…

As Darin and [Woody] Harris began to collaborate, Kirshner’s business interests took him elsewhere: the man who couldn’t read or write music became (with partner Al Nevins) one of the most successful publishers of popular music in the ‘50s and ‘60s; headquartered at 1650 Broadway (not the Brill Building) and representing the catalogs of Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, among others.

Later, his company supplied The Monkees with much of their early hit material. And, though Brand New House, the Darin-Harris collaboration, wasn’t released as a single, it was recorded several years later by Chicago blues pianist and singer Otis Spann.

Artie Wayne was there in the early days. He shares his memories here

* I’d been spelling it “Donnie,” but Neil Sedaka says “Donny,” and who am I to question Neil Sedaka?