An unlikely pairing results in good fun

Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer  Two of a Kind (Omnivore Recordings)

In 1961,  the teaming of 24-year old rocker Bobby Darin with bandleader/songwriter Johnny Mercer, who was 27 years older, might’ve seemed a bit odd.  Yet, if you follow Darin’s career trajectory, it makes perfect sense. A new, deluxe edition of Two of a Kind, has just been issued by Omnivore Recordings.  

Bobby Darin burst onto the charts in 1958 with the rocker “Splish Splash,” but the East Harlem native had bigger aspirations, and just a year later had moved onto more adult-oriented material like “Mack the Knife,” “Beyond the Sea,” and the Bing Crosby number, “You Must’ve Been a Beautiful Baby.”  Darin set his sights on Vegas and the more middle-of-the-road approach, assuming, like many, that rock n’ roll was just a passing fad.  In this context, Two of a Kind makes perfect sense.

There’s a third partner in this great set, Billy May, who arranged countless sessions for heavyweights like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole & Peggy Lee.  His involvement ensures that everything swings infectiously – hearing the horns in one speaker, and the saxes in the other is absolutely breathtaking.

This is a duet album in the classic sense (think Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) where Darin and Mercer spar with each other over classic tunes mainly pulled from the Tin Pan Alley catalog.  Both singers are trying to make the other one laugh, and it sounds like everything could come unglued at any moment.  Yet, the two pros always manage to keep it together

There was a conscious attempt to not simply go with obvious choices – so you get obscurities like “Indiana” and “My Cutie’s Due at Two-To-Two Day.” They even dig into a few songs that Mercer wrote, like “Bob White” and “If I Had My Druthers.”

The most revelatory thing here is that Darin completely holds his own – even though he’d only been around for a few years.  His timing is impeccable and his interaction with Mercer sounds like they’ve been partners for years.

As an added bonus, they’ve included seven bonus tracks.  The five alternate versions show that there was a great deal of spontaneity in these sessions.  Take, for example, the much faster alternate of “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody My Jellyroll,” where there are times when both men have trouble keeping it together.  The real surprise is an unreleased song, “Cecilia,” which worth the cost of the album by itself.  The back and forth of Darin & Mercer during the instrumental break is absolutely hilarious.

The accompanying booklet includes the original liner notes, plus an extra essay written by Omnivore head Cheryl Pawelski, who gives insight into the history of these recordings.

There is no way you can listen to this album and not have a smile on your face.  —Tony Peters