Darondo gives his everything
by Oliver Wang
William “Darondo” Daron Pulliam passed away today, June 12, 2013, at age sixty-seven. Ubiquity Records, who first reissued his music, released a short statement on their Facebook page:
Today we at Ubiquity have heavy hearts as we learn of the passing of William Daron Pulliam aka Darondo a true artist, performer, character and friend. RIP.
The following article was originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 16 (April 2006).
The name “Darondo” is so unique, it’s hard to forget. But for many years, all people knew of him was only that: a name on a faded label. In his brief recording career, the Bay Area native only released three 7-inch singles, all in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In the music world, only a select circle of sweet-soul aficionados and Bay Area music collectors had any awareness of his existence, though he held his own notoriety in local cable television and, shall we say, “other” pursuits.
The thing about Darondo’s music though—especially the sublime “Didn’t I,” his best-known single—is that once you hear it, you crave more. That curiosity is largely how the Bay Area native has resurfaced after thirty years. Ubiquity recently released Let My People Go—less an anthology and more of a long-delayed debut album that combines his six songs on single plus an additional three songs taken from a previously unreleased reel of recordings from the same era. At last, Darondo is finally emerging out of obscurity, bringing his small but intriguing legacy with him.
William “Darondo” Daron Pulliam, aka “Double D” Darondo, aka “Rolls Royce” Darondo, grew up in Berkeley, California, where his mother bought him his first guitar when he was eight. While never a serious, professional-minded musician, he played well enough that he and his high-school friends became a house band for a “teenage nightclub” in Albany called the Lucky 13 Club. “I mean, it was set up strictly for teenagers,” he says. “I think the age group was thirteen to sixteen. On Friday and Saturday nights, they’d open around seven and they’d close, maybe, at ten.”
Music was always a hobby; as a young man in his twenties, Darondo had actually trained to be an electrician. However, when he half-seriously told his friends that he wanted to record a record, their skepticism only fueled his desire to go out and get it done. “So many people out there were talking, ‘Darondo, you’re not going to do nothing,’ ” he recalls. He responded by insisting, “I’m going to show you suckers something. I don’t care if I have to do it myself; I’m going to put this thing out.”
His first single was for Leroy Smith’s Ocampo label, where he recorded “How I Got Over” and “I Want Your Love,” two slices of funky soul that showcased Darondo’s distinctive voice: an almost mournful, crooning style reminiscent of Al Green but grittier. Riding on the strength of that, he came to the attention of Music City’s Ray Dobard, who brought Darondo down to record an entire album’s worth of material, starting with the single, “Didn’t I” b/w “Listen to My Song.” Unlike the more lo-fi sound of his Ocampo recordings, the Music City material was clear and lush, especially thanks to the orchestral accompaniment that Dobard added to the arrangement.
Unfortunately, the single was all that ever came out of that session. “We did about ten tracks,” says Darondo. “I think [Dobard] stole the records. I don’t know what happened to those songs, I don’t know what he did with it.” There’s persistent rumors that the studio reels are sitting in a vault at Polydor or Atlantic and that a stash of hundreds of “Didn’t I” singles is collecting dust somewhere in Oakland. All that is certain is that the song ranks as one of the most incredible pieces of sweet soul to ever emerge from the Bay Area…or anywhere else.
Darondo’s last single would end up as his rarest, recorded for the uber-obscure Af-Fa World imprint: “Legs” b/w “Let My People Go.” By this time, Darondo’s voice had matured, settling in with a refined falsetto that harkened to his years listening to and singing gospel, or what he calls, “spiritual things.” “Spiritual and rhythm and blues—it’s two different things,” he explains. “If you can sing a spiritual thing, you can mostly sing anything, because you are hitting so many more…high pretty notes.”
One of the great ironies to Darondo’s music is that as angelic as his voice could be, his day-to-day life and profession were bound up in the earthliest of human desires. The man was a pimp—literally. For many years, both preceding and following his music career, Darondo was a local pimping legend, on par with Fillmore Slim and other Player’s Ball VIPs.
To be sure, it’s a topic that the man himself refuses to speak about, neither confirming nor denying, though he does elliptically refer to it as his “fast life” days. If even half the stories of his pimping days are true, “fast” is an understatement. Not only did the lifestyle pay well—he didn’t get the nickname “Rolls Royce” for running a car dealership—but it also brought him into contact with many local notables, including Sly Stone, whose infamous mansion/home studio was a frequent destination for Darondo and his stable of women.
Even in the midst of this life, Darondo could see the dark side creeping up. Though he recorded “Let My People Go” about ten years before he got out of pimping for good, he explains that the song encapsulated much of the concern he felt for those who couldn’t handle the fast life. “People wanted the money thing; if it ain’t about money, it’s about sex. In the end of it, all it adds up to is destruction. That’s why I was singing, ‘Let My People Go.’ I’m talking about: give us a land, or island in the sea, good food so we can work the land, so we could all live in harmony—the Black man, the White man—everybody lives in peace. All you other suckers, go ahead and do what you want to do.”
Appropriately, in the early 1980s, Darondo did find an island in the sea—several in fact—traveling to Great Britain, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Fiji, as well as France, Venezuela, Mexico, and other places. As he puts it, he traveled so much as a way to “cool” down, “in order to get yourself together. No sense in me lying: I was very fast. When you’re running too fast, you got to slow down,” he says.
With his pimping days behind him, Darondo still found interesting ways to ply a living. KDIA’s Johnny Morris introduced him to Chuck Johnson, a fellow radio DJ who founded the local Oakland cable station Soul Beat in 1977. Morris convinced Darondo that he’d be perfect for television, and in the early 1980s, the two helped pitch Johnson on a suite of variety shows that included Darondo’s Penthouse After Dark, Doze Comedy Videos, and Talent Exposure.
Ubiquity has a few clips from Penthouse and Doze up for viewing on their website. Suffice it to say, they’re an entertaining time capsule of Oakland’s local culture, but they also capture “Dynamite D” Darondo’s personality in full performance. Through them, it’s easy to see how he could have gotten into showbiz and, shall we say, “other pursuits,” with his flamboyant attitude and slick charisma. Thanks to the shows, Darondo found fame in a different way from his past. He remembers that his son once told him, “ ‘Dad, do you know that as soon as people get out of school, they’re running home to the TV to look at Darondo’s Penthouse?’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ ”
While he wasn’t recording music anymore, he still found ways to use his singing and playing to positive effect. In another strange twist of careers, Darondo ended up as a physical therapist for a few years, after his TV days had ended. He’d bring his guitar into the hospital and play for the sick and infirm, and, as a form of therapy, it often produced unexpected results, even from those suffering from paralyzing strokes. “I was amazed at the responses I was getting for the music,” he says. “They would be sitting up there all day, trying to blink their eye or do something. The music, a lot of the time, would bring stuff out of them.”
Darondo now lives in quiet semi-retirement in Sacramento, but he’ll still blow the dust off his guitar and play on request. His voice doesn’t ring with the same power as it did thirty years back, yet the delicate tremble that’s crept in with age only seems to enhance his voice’s appeal. He was never a shouter but a crooner, speaking to love and loss with a hushed intimacy that has seduced many a listener (and Lord knows whoever else). There’s a tinge of regret when you hear him, the obvious thought of “what might have been” had Darondo turned his erstwhile hobby into a full-blown career. It’s hard to get too greedy, though, considering the handful of songs he did leave behind. On the finest of those few he asks, “Didn’t I treat you right?” Yeah, Darondo, you did.