When crate-diggers unearthed the long-forgotten Bay Area '70s soul hit "Didn't I" by Darondo Pulliam in the early years of this decade, they stumbled onto one of the greatest musical treasures to ever come from that scene. By all accounts, Darondo has led a charmed and picaresque life. The man — who professionally goes by his first name only — opened for James Brown, hung out with Sly Stone, hosted a sketch comedy show, and traveled the world. In the '70s he was a fixture on the fabled East Bay nightlife scene, and though he was blessed with a beautifully soulful voice and mastered a unique guitar style, a music career was never his focus.
Spurred by Ubiquity's 2006 compilation Let My People Go, Darondo's music experienced a revival and was championed by the international music press as one of the strongest musical excavations of that year. This development surprised Darondo more than anyone. The album's warm reception inspired him to re-enter the studio to work on a new album scheduled to drop next year. On December 19, the singer-songwriter will play his first Bay Area show in 30 years at the Rickshaw Stop.
"What they don't realize is that Darondo still got it," he says. "All I need is a shot of a martini. I'm ready. ... They may not be ready."
Darondo was born William Daron Pulliam in 1946, and grew up in West Berkeley. After his mother bought him a guitar when he was 10, he fell in love with the R&B and rock that was popular at the time. But it wasn't until he picked up Kenny Burrell's 1963 album Midnight Blue that he found his niche. "I learned guitar from listening to Kenny Burrell," Darondo says. "Him and Wes Montgomery. I got my chords from them. I'm not going to lie about it. Kenny Burrell was cold."
Darondo's big break came when he met experienced jazz pianist Al Tanner, who was also "cold." Tanner was impressed with Darondo's style and suggested that he should go into the studio. That session produced the single "I Want Your Love So Bad," and though the song didn't exactly light up the charts, it caught the attention of Ray Dobard, who owned the record label Music City.
Darondo and Tanner recorded nearly an entire LP in one session at Dobard's studio. Though the session produced the Afrobeat-inflected Black Power anthem "Let My People Go" and the vulgarly funky "Legs," it was "Didn't I" that became Darondo's breakout track. The breakup ballad is among the most haunting songs released in the Bay's vibrant '70s soul scene. It paired Darondo's wiry falsetto, which would occasionally break into a bassy warble, with plaintive guitar chords and understated, melancholic orchestration.
Local radio put the song into heavy rotation, and the single went on to sell 35,000 copies. "When they put out 'Didn't I,' [the DJs] didn't even say it was me," Darondo remembers. "They just played it, and everyone thought it was Al Green. I don't know how many copies it sold before they said it was Darondo."
During his early-'70s run, Darondo opened up for James Brown ("he was very strict"), "tore Bimbo's up," and, by all accounts, lived the high life. He'd purchased his signature Rolls Royce from a "cold" car dealer. "This Rolls had racing lights," he recalls. "It had a bar in the back. It had a picnic table that would slide out of the trunk, and a woman's makeup case thing that would pop up. It even had a portable stove. I put all the scanners and other mess up in it, so that if the police pulled up behind you, you could hear everything they say. It was too cold."
Darondo also acquired a powerful acquaintance in the music industry, one Sly Stone. "I met Sly in the studio," he remembers. "It was around the time I was recording. He was heavy. There was this band, Willie and the Wild Bunch, that was recording. I went down to the studio and pulled my Rolls right up to the doorway. At that time, I had mink coats, diamond rings. I stayed sharp. Sly pulled up behind me in his car and blocked me in and came into the studio and was like, 'Whose Rolls Royce is that pulling all the way up so that I can't get in?'"
Darondo's reply: "Who has a white mink coat on up in here? You better know whose it is."
If it seems as if Darondo was living a little too well for a fledgling regional star, that was because he had other sources of income. Most reports put the man as a successful pimp, though he disputes this portrayal.
"When people see something, they're going to think one way or they're going to think another way," he muses. "When they saw a chauffeur driving me around in a Rolls, they said, 'That boy is a pimp.' I made money, but I was working. I had a job ... I was a janitor. I drove up [to the hospital] in the back of my Rolls with my mink coat on ... and I'd take the elevator down and change in [the janitor's locker]."
And the fleet of girls who reportedly stayed plastered to his arm? "I had a bunch of girls around me; I won't say they weren't. But I didn't want to keep a bunch of [guys] around!" And the girls who lived in his penthouse? "It was a cold pad. I had about four or five girls, but I was renting rooms to those girls." And the cash transactions? "Sometimes the girls would run up to me on the street and give me their money. I wasn't asking nobody to stay on no streets. I ain't hit nobody upside the head."
By the late '70s, Darondo's musical career had come to an end. It was partly because of a financial dispute with Dobard, but Darondo never really saw himself as a professional musician. "Music was a hobby, and I was having fun. ... I was singing because I liked singing."
His exit from the music scene was also expedited by another adventure. From the late '70s to the early '80s, Darondo produced and starred in a series of late-night cable-access shows, the most famous being the Doze Comedy Hour and Darondo's Penthouse After Dark. "On the Penthouse, I might have some fine young ladies with me, and I might have some champagne," he remembers. "We did it like that, and I ended up having [a] hit program on the TV that went on for about four or five years."
Even though his television shows brought him more attention than his music ever did, Darondo's days in the fast lane were almost over. The freewheeling hedonism of the '70s had given way to the darker, more cynical '80s, and he was on the cusp of a breakdown. "I was moving too fast. I had that thing going on, that cocaine thing," he says. "I said, 'This ain't me.' The best way to get off of anything is to leave people alone. You gotta get away from whoever is messing with it. Go to a place where you don't know nothing. I got on a plane and swoosh ... I was in London, in Piccadilly [Circus] at the Ivanhoe Hotel."
Darondo didn't stop there. After staying in London for a few months ("I was just cutting up," he remembers), he took a ferry to France and headed for Paris, where he would cavort with French women (he's a big fan), play blues in Parisian clubs, and, eventually, get ripped off by local pickpockets. Next, he took up a job playing guitar on a cruise liner and traveled to places like Trinidad, Grenada, and the Virgin Islands.
When he returned to the States, Darondo was "fresh" and sober and ready to leave the high-octane janitorial life behind him. He enrolled in college, and soon after became a physical therapist and a speech pathologist ( "the best job I ever had"). He married, had a kid, and in the '90s played the real-estate market, amassing enough money to allow him to live very comfortably in the South Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove. Music was absolutely the last thing on his mind.
When Gilles Peterson heard Darondo's long-forgotten single "Didn't I," the British tastemaker put it into rotation on his radio show and eventually included it on his 2005 compilation, Gilles Peterson Digs America. Ubiquity's Andrew Jervis heard the song, and contacted Darondo about reissuing his first two singles as well as a few recently unearthed demos and outtakes. Released in 2006 on Ubiquity subsidiary Luv N' Haight, Let My People Go garnered positive reviews in Rolling Stone, XLR8R, and Urb.
Though Darondo initially thought the idea to release his old material was "crazy," he warmed over when positive reviews started rolling in. "I never imagined this," he says. "People give me all kinds of shoes and clothes, everywhere I go. And I read all this and look at all this stuff on this MySpace. I think I must've done something. I thought, let me jump back into it. So here I am again."
Whether his upcoming show and album signal a final bow for Darondo or yet another new chapter remains to be seen. But if the singer's past is any indication, one thing is for sure: His return to the music world is bound to be entertaining.