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CD Review: Two Of A Kind - Darin & Mercer (Omnivore Recordings 2017 reissue)
May 12, 2017
I discovered the swingin’ sounds of BOBBY DARIN back in the mid-80’s . At that time there were only 3 LP’s of Darin’s early work still in print: Darin At The Copa, The Bobby Darin Story and Two Of A Kind. The U.K. reissues of Darin’s Capitol albums had not yet made their way to my local record store so I bought what I could get my hands on as a teenager. The Bobby Darin Story, a greatest hits package released 4 years after his breakout hit “Splash Splash” featured many of his fantastic pre-1963 ATCO hits singles on one LP that was great to have. The live Copa album always left me sort of cold for some unknown reason (even after 30 years, I'm still not a fan of the album ) yet Two Of A Kind was a compactly different animal and frankly unexpectedly charming.
Surrounded with killer charts by Billy May that simply smoked, it was the incredible musical partnership of Darin and Johnny Mercer behind the microphone, which took a novelty-type album to another level of musical significances. Listening to all this infectious musical exuberance coming from my Brother Charisma II tabletop stereo as a teenager, it made me wonder who in the hell thought of this peculiar partnership of Darin and Mercer in the first place.
At the time of the recording of Two Of A Kind, Mercer was 51. He was known as one of the premier lyricists of the 1940’s, one of the founders of Capitol Records, a double Oscar winner ("On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening") and a popular singer/entertainer who’s career was slowing. On the other side of the generation gap was Darin, 24, one of the top performers in the nation who was at the peak of his career. This partnership makes no sense on paper, yet it was Bobby’s manager Steven Blauner who suggested the concept of putting this crazy twosome together to Darin and the president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun. Bobby, who was a student of the Great American Songbook, not only loved this idea but also was urged by Ertegun to try to co-write a number with Mercer for this album. Johnny was skeptical of this entire idea at first and didn’t think their two styles would mesh, but reluctantly he decided to give this a try.
Quickly, Mercer and Darin found common ground and developed a deep mutual admiration for the other. Recording got underway in the summer of 1960 over 2 days at United Studio B in Hollywood, with one of the most sought-after engineers behind the controls, Bill Putnam. In total 14 songs were waxed for the album with 12 making the cut such as Mississippi Mud, Indiana, and Ace In the Hole. Four compositions written by Mercer made the album as well: Bob White , If I Had My Druthers, Lonesome Polecat and the title track, Two Of A Kind, co-written with Darin.
When finished, this exquisite Darin/ Mercer album stayed on the ATCO shelf for the next 8 months since the marketplace was full of upcoming Darin albums: For Teenagers Only in September and the Christmas album The 25th Day of December (recorded at the same time as Two Of A Kind) for an October 1960 release.
With a fantastic cover photo by Murray Garrett and Gene Howard (the duo who shot many amazing Martin Denny/Sandy Warner and Julie London covers for Liberty records) Two Of A Kind was issued in April 1961 to strong reviews but slow sales. It did reach #38 on the Cashbox Mono album chart, but there was no singles released from the album which harmed it’s radio air play, LP sales and overall chart potential. Regardless, ATCO kept Two Of A Kind in print domestically until 1968, reissued the album again in the 1980’s on vinyl and then on CD in 1990.
Two Of A Kind was mixed and released on LP by ATCO in Stereo and Mono. Having original “harp label” pressings of both versions, I feel the original Mono mix is much tighter, clearly focused, and gives the vocals a dimensional quality, which is lacking in the original Stereo mix. Atlantic’s 1990 CD release recycles the original 1961 stereo mix, but Bill Inglot remastered a few tracks (in stereo) for the Rhino’s As Long As I'm Singing 4-CD Bobby Darin box set in the mid 90’s. Songs selected for the box-set remaster did receive a huge sonic boost over the original 1961 stereo mix, but in a shoot out, the mono mix still wins.
In late 2016, it was announced thatOmnivore Recordings would reissue an expanded edition of Two Of A Kind on CD. I was happy to see the album going back into print, but what caught my eye were the seven previously unissued performances being issued. I found this odd since the story goes the 1977 Atlantic Vault fire destroyed virtually all unreleased masters, alternate takes and many session reels by artists who recorded with the label between 1948 – 1969.
We know Bobby left at least 25 unreleased songs in the ATCO/ Atlantic vaults that have never seen the light of day, so…. where did these reels for Two Of A Kind come from and have copies of the others been found as well? If so, nobody is talking---yet we did learned the session reels for Two Of A Kind have been around since the 1990’s. Rhino accessed these reels for the As Long As I'm Singing box set, but it was decided not to use any of the unreleased material from this album on for that release. An odd move, if you ask me.
Cheryl Pawelski, the founder of Omnivore, was head of A&R at Rhino when these session reels were located, decided to licensed Two Of A Kind for a reissue on Omnivore and placed those “unknown” outtakes as bonus cuts!! Grammy winning engineer Michael Graves of Osoris Studios in Atlanta remixed the album (in stereo) with his "professional-grade digital audio equipment" along with the Cedar technology. After hours of critical listening to this new CD, I found the overall audio to be a tad compressed with some high frequencies on selected tracks squelched. The smoothness of the original recording has been somewhat removed, but overall Graves does an agreeable job putting some life into the Stereo mix for a casual listen in the car, yet this is no Audiophile release. Of course you can tell this was a total labor of love for the team at Omnivore, and I highly commended then for spending a good chunk of cash reissuing an album into a marketplace that is sadly not claiming for this type of music anymore. Most likely this will be the last time in the next 20 or so years someone spends that kind of money to remix this album for release, so I just wished it sounded better overall. Yes, Darin's ATCO output was never sonically as rich as his Capitol tracks, but they didn't suck either. Graves is a fantastic mixer (listen to his Hank Williams: The Garden Spot Programs if you don’t believe me!), so I'm not sure what happen here with Two Of A Kind.
Cheryl Pawelski & Michael Graves
The real star of this reissue are the 7 previously unissued cuts with 4 being alternate takes from the album and 2 songs that didn’t make it to the final playlist: Cecilia and Lily of Laguna. Even with the warts of the remasting, the music is still wonderfully delightful and easy going that will leave a smile on your face.
Over the next 2-½ after the release of Two Of A Kind in 1961 both Darin and Mercer went onto greater successes. Bobby had 9 more Top 40 singles and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Caption Newman, MD. Mercer teamed up with Henry Mancini and went on to win 2 more Best Song Oscars for “Moon River” and “Days Of Wine And Roses”. It’s unknown if Darin and Mercer were sadden by the lack of public acceptance of the album, but there was talk about producing a follow-up, yet sadly these two greats never worked together again.
Two Of A Kind is one of my top 10 “Desert Island” albums (joining such classics as Pet Sounds, Kind Of Blue, Concert Sinatra, Elvis’ first album and many of the Ella Songbooks) a true mid-century masterpiece that is the most musically cohesive album Darin would ever recorded. The new Omnivore release is recommended on two counts:
If you don’t have a copy of this album in your collection, buy it now.
If you do have the album, buy it now for the 7 unreleased tracks---you will thank me!!!!
It won’t blow your original Mono LP out of the water when it comes to the Stereo mix, but it’s the music on this album that takes you back to a magical time in popular music that we will NEVER see again today. Long live Bobby, Johnny and Billy!!!!
MUSIC: **** out of ****
SOUND: **1/2 out of ****
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!