‘Me and Bobby D’ sheds light on singer

Author recalls childhood friend, early forays
into show business

Staff Writer

Author recalls childhood friend, early forays
into show business
Staff Writer

FARRAH MAFFAI staff Composer and lyricist Steve Karmen reads an excerpt from his book, “Me and Bobby D,” at the East Brunswick Public Library.FARRAH MAFFAI staff Composer and lyricist Steve Karmen reads an excerpt from his book, “Me and Bobby D,” at the East Brunswick Public Library.

EAST BRUNSWICK — By his own account, Steve Karmen missed his big break into show business.

However, to those who gathered to hear him speak at the East Brunswick Public Library recently, his talent, charisma and abundant success is undeniable.

Karmen, a veteran composer and lyricist whose creativity spawned 0some of advertising’s most memorable jingles, can now add the title of "author" to his achievements, following the publication of his autobiographical book, "Me and Bobby D," in May.

The book is Karmen’s account of his friendship with performer Bobby Darin, the band the two had formed while in their teens, and an early nightclub engagement that led to the duo’s split before Karmen had his shot at celebrity status.

Growing up in the west Bronx, Karmen said, he felt stifling pressure from his parents to enter a "professional" career and cast off his passion for music. Although he attended Bronx High School of Science, Karmen still found time to serenade classmates with unaccompanied saxophone recitals in the hallways. It was at the high school in 1956 that Karmen met Darin, "a funky kid, a drum player." Darin became his best friend and the two formed a band.

"I never felt like I was doing something rebellious," Karmen said. "I just wanted to do something I loved: make music."

To the disappointment of his parents, who Karmen said centered their lives on the academic success and eventual medical career of his older brother, he dropped out of college and pursued music with Darin.

Though his decision was treated as a disgrace, Karmen thought he detected a spark of excitement in the eyes of his father.

"I thought I was raking the embers of some long-buried spirit of adventure," Karmen wrote of his father’s subtle endorsement. "If he could make it halfway across the world, then maybe his son could make it in show business."

Karmen and Darin seemed destined for success when, according to Karmen, Darin was told to drop his partner and break out as a solo star. Karmen was left behind.

"Bobby Darin was going to escape the ghetto he lived in. He knew this from the very beginning," Karmen said of Darin’s determination.

It was that same drive that helped catapult Darin to stardom with little regard for his band mate. Darin died in 1973 at age 37.

Karmen spoke of his own career as an "endless fight to withstand rejection. Rejection is the hardest thing in the arts."

In 1957, Karmen made appearances on "The Arthur Godfrey Talent Show" singing calypso melodies, and toured for a few years in various nightclubs on the strength of his performances. A video recording of his original performance brought murmurs of recollection from the audience.

Karmen watched Darin’s fame grow with the release of songs like "Splish Splash," "Queen of the Hop," "Dream Lover" and "Mack the Knife."

His own career stumbled along, marked with jealousy at his friend’s good fortune. "We started out together, and it hurt like crazy," Karmen said.

Karmen drifted from making music for low-budget movies to advertising, where he found success and a 30-year career. Well-recognized jingles like "I love New York," "Weekends were made for Michelob" and "You deserve a break today" are only a handful of Karmen’s former musings.

Through the years, Karmen’s jingles have been recorded by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and performed by the New York Philharmonic. Humming andsnapping, Karmen added a few of the well-known slogans into his presentation, producing nods and smiles from the audience.

Karmen told residents that Bobby Darin "gave me the fire in so many ways." However, hearing Karmen speak, it is clear that he used personal obstacles and doubt from those around him to fuel his determination.

Reading aloud from his book, Karmen animated the candid prose of his story like a stage performer and produced laughter and applause from the crowd.

The path to the publication of "Me and Bobby D" left Karmen facing repeated rejection, though he found an alternate route to success, similar to his musical career. "Me and Bobby D" was published by Hal Leonard, a major publisher of sheet music with which Karmen already had a working relationship.

Karmen’s next goal is to turn the story into a musical and have it produced. "Club Temptation," the name of the fateful nightclub where Karmen and Darin last performed, is a possible title. He has already written a four-hour production and hopes to winnow it down to manageable size. "With a little luck, maybe," he said.

"Don’t tell me I can’t do this," Karmen said over and over as he spoke.

A major film is now being produced about Darin’s life, with actor Kevin Spacey in the role of Darin, though Karmen will not be involved.

With the jingle business waning as companies use popular music with growing frequency, Karmen’s career speaks of a lost art. "Nobody is inventing jingles today," he said. "No ad campaign lasts more than 13 weeks."

Karmen, with inspiring creativity and energy, is now a self-driven success story, arguably worth more than the iconic superstardom of his youthful fantasies.

In giving advice for those who seek a musical career, Karmen shared a quote from Darin: "Do it. Sharps and flats are only details." Karmen’s appearance was sponsored by the East Brunswick Friends of the Library.