William Daron Pulliam – better known as funk and soul icon Darondo – passed away from heart failure on Sunday June 9th.
Born and bred in Berkeley, California, Darondo first played professionally at the age of 18 in the Witnesses, a blue-eyed soul troupe resident at East Bay teen club the Lucky 13 in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the singer-guitarist hit his stride. He fashioned a unique blend of down-and-dirty funk and sweet soul, informed by Al Green, James Brown, the Dells and others, but always identifiable by his own special delivery, as he slid from gravelly baritone to wailing falsetto in the space of a measure. Being a musician was however just one facet of this gregarious, flamboyant individual, who made the scene in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area with snazzy threads and a tricked-out Rolls Royce Silver Cloud as his wheels.
As a natural entertainer, it makes sense that Darondo would move into the then-developing world of video. Appearing weekly on local cable television, as the host of a local talent contest, or a music video “vee jay”, he spread his infectious bonhomie to homes throughout the Bay Area. After leaving the cable TV arena in the mid-1980s, the entertainer took a sabbatical and decided to see the world. He travelled to Hawaii, spent time in London and Paris, before basing himself in the Caribbean for several years, where he island-hopped as an entertainer on a cruise ship. His stories from this period range from voodoo ceremonies to frequently being mistaken for Little Richard, but eventually Darondo returned to the Bay Area, and a new, and perfectly appropriate, vocation as a physical therapist. He used an unorthodox, entertainer’s approach, utilizing music as his primary therapeutic tool, yet saw success in rehabilitating patients deemed untreatable otherwise.
Darondo’s original recording career stretched to just three self-penned singles, ‘How I Got Over,’ ‘Legs,’ and ‘Didn’t I,’ the last named released on the Berkeley-based Music City label in late 1973. Discovered by the crate-digging fraternity in the ‘90s, Darondo’s records came to symbolize that appealing tributary known as “lost soul.” The heartbreaking downtempo ballad ‘Didn’t I’ would subsequently become the artist’s signature tune, sampled and featured on soundtracks around the world. It also led to Darondo’s rebirth as a cult performer in the late 2000s, delighting a new set of fans with a show that drew heavily on his trademarked style and repertoire.
I got to know Darondo during the assembly of “Listen To My Song: The Music City Sessions” in 2011. A couple of years prior, the dozen or so reels bearing his name were amongst the first that I put on the tape machine, as I commenced the exhaustive process of auditioning and transferring the recently-liberated Music City masters. As each song played through, I was blown away by his consistent and compelling sound. This was prime mid-70s East Bay street soul, rough-hewn but infused with a tremendous atmosphere. ‘Luscious Lady,’ ‘I’m Lonely,’ ‘I’m Gonna Love You’, ‘The Wolf” – even the unadorned, bare-boned takes were essential, as Darondo alternately preened and pleaded in equal measure on a brace of fantastic unheard originals.
The man was as charming as could be when we first talked, singing the lyrics to some of the titles down the phone to me before we had even met. His reaction when first hearing the forty year-old recordings was a mixture of incredulity and jubilation: “I cannot believe that you got this stuff; you done mystified me, like the Twilight Zone or something! But this is the root, you got the root!” Darondo’s reminiscences were priceless, whether it was about “cutting up” as a player back in the day, or joking about his testy relationship with Music City’s obstreperous Ray Dobard. He did however adopt a serious tone when refuting the sensationalist claims of some commentators as to his being a pimp: “ain’t no way in the world could I do something like that, ‘cos to me, that’s just too low.”
We kept in regular touch and it was always a pleasure to pick up the phone and hear, “heeeeyyy, it’s D!” As he had recently completed a new album, we discussed his adding vocals to a pair of uncompleted backing tracks from the Music City stash. When we sat in my car to listen, Darondo began to softly sing the lyric to one, the lilting ‘Sayanora,’ and it was as though he was right back there. How I wish now I had recorded that moment. I only got to see him perform once, at a small club in Oakland doing a guest spot on a Sunday night to a sparse crowd. When Darondo bounded on stage, the energy level in the room, stagnant most of the night, rose one hundred percent as he launched into what proved to be a twenty-minute extrapolation of ‘Didn’t I,’ complete with an X-rated, if good-natured, rap and some rather lasciviously timed press-ups.
As tireless as he seemed on stage, Darondo admitted to me on the phone the next day that such shows really took it out of him. It was obvious in our subsequent meetings his health was not the best, particularly after he’d had to cancel an appearance at the prestigious Bonnaroo festival last summer, on doctor’s orders. But he knew he had made a mark with his music, and seemed especially happy that the Music City recordings, long thought lost, had survived. And it was a thrill for me as a reissue producer, and a fan, to share with the world the infectious artistry of this one-of-a-kind cool cat. I’m really gonna miss him.
By Alec Palao