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Join music journalist, critic and historian Rich Kienzle as he chronicles country music ... and a lot more.

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You've probably seen the current TV ads for the iPad Mini. The music features two guys dueting on a song titled "Two of A Kind."  It's an engaging performance, even if you're not certain who it is.   I should know. It's the title song of one of my all-time favorite recordings. I'm talking Desert Island quality here.  The record: Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer's 1961 album Two of A Kind, recorded with Pittsburgh native Billy May's Orchestra.  As you may suspect, there's a story behind it. 

The contrasts between Darin and Mercer were striking in 1960.  Darin at 24 was one of the era's hottest stars. "Splish Splash," "Early In the Morning" and "Dream Lover" made him a rock and roll icon. Then his 1959 megahit  "Mack The Knife"  took him to a broader pop context expanding his range to encompass not just rock but Sinatra, Dean Martin,  Tony Bennett and Buddy Greco. Mercer was a different story. 

Mercer, one of America's greatest and most acclaimed lyricists, was nearing age 51 in 1960, and suffering from a serious personal/professional slump. Alienated by rock and roll, he sensed himself growing irrelevant to a music industry in which he'd spent virtually his entire adult life.

He was more than a songwriter. Mercer was a stellar, swinging vocalist who incorporated his laid-back Savannah, Georgia drawl into his writing and singing. He'd had a run of hit records in the 40's and early 50's. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road") and "Accentuate The Positive" were Mercer originals. 

According to Darin biographies and Philip Furia's Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, (St. Martin's, 2003), Darin and Mercer met when doing a TV appearance on a the 1959 CBS TV variety show The Big Party. Steve Blauner,  Darin's manager, suggested the idea to his client while the show was being produced. Darin enthusiastically agreed.

Contacted by Blauner, Mercer was totally dumbstruck that anyone wanted to sing with him, especially a young, hot star like Darin who was totally of the moment and had legions of young female fans. The gap seemed unbridgeable on the surface.

Mercer, however, wasn't yet aware of an important fact. Despite his youth and appeal to the young, Darin was also a serious student of American popular music who treasured and revered the very same 20's and 30's Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville tunes Mercer, born in 1909, grew up with.  Darin fully understood and admired Mercer and his milieu.  Later, comic George Burns, even older than Mercer, became one of Darin's closest showbiz friends.

Together in a Hollywood studio August 13, 14 and 17, 1960, older and younger man quickly bonded through that common love of old tunes. Thoroughly enjoying the sessions, both had a ball, tossing off comments and asides in mid-song, left on the final recording. For the most part, they chose to bypass Mercer's material, favoring old ditties like "Back Home Again in Indiana," "Mississippi Mud" and other songs dating back to before World War I.

Four Mercer tunes nonetheless made it into the album: "If I Had My Druthers,"  "Lonesome Polecat" and "Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight)" and the title song, "Two Of A Kind." Mercer wrote the latter during the sessions.  Darin offhandedly threw in a line or two. Mercer, generous with credits, gave Bobby half, to Darin's surprise.  This is the full version. Note the spontaneous wisecracking.

"Two of A Kind" (Johnny Mercer-Bobby Darin)


"If I Had My Druthers" (Johnny Mercer-Gene DePaul)

Mercer wrote this for a 1956 Broadway adaptation of the Al Capp comic strip "Li'l Abner." 

"East of the Rockies" (Sid Robin-Lou Singer)

Darin and Mercer so enjoyed working together that they insisted on a fourth session that yielded "Kind" and three other tunes. Those other three numbers, including the super-old tunes "Cecilia" and "Lily of Laguna," have never seen the light of day. A warehouse fire later destroyed many of Atlantic's master tapes and there were no backup copies. Damn.

As for Mercer, his slump ended soon after that when he co-wrote two pop masterpieces with Aliquippa native Henry Mancini: "Moon River" for the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's then "The Days of Wine and Roses" for the 1962 film of the same name.  He died in 1976, three years after Darin.

So...you may wonder where Two of A Kind is available. It's s been out on vinyl and on CD, and Amazon has it in download form  So does iTunes.

It makes perfect sense to me why Apple's ad folks chose "Two of A Kind." Over half a century has enhanced its explosive, exuberant and life-affirming spirit, and I apply those remarks to the entire album.

As a lifelong fan of both Mercer and Darin, I fell in love with Two Of A Kind the first time I heard it.  It brought a smile to my face then and still does today. It should be available not just on download, but on CD and, for that matter, on vinyl   Maybe that'll be a fringe benefit of the iPad commercial.

 

Comments (2)Add Comment
...
written by LarryZ, November 27, 2012 - 11:11 AM
Nice piece Rich.

I think though that Bobby Darin's hit was titled "Dream Lover", not "Dream Baby".

Not often I can get one on you smilies/smiley.gif
...
written by Rich Kienzle, November 27, 2012 - 01:49 PM

Thanks for the catch. Actually, I'd been listening to Orbison shortly before writing this. No excuse. It's fixed now.

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