A music historian looks back at his search for a lost Bay Area soul icon
By: Akash Pandey
In the streaming era, soul music from the 1970s can seem like an afterthought. However, through the art of sampling, hip-hop producers have helped younger listeners discover classic songs from a bygone era. One such song that’s been manipulated and looped by over 40 artists from around the world, is “Didn’t I.” The single was recorded by a Bay Area soul singer who almost disappeared from musical history.
I would go interview people around the Bay Area. They were like, oh yeah, yeah. I haven't seen that guy in 20, 30, 40 years or whatnot. And some people knew who he was, but most people didn't, they just knew of him.Justin Torres
Born in Berkeley 75 years ago this month, Darondo emerged onto the soul music scene in style. He drove a white Rolls Royce, carried around a big wad of cash, and attracted rumors of being a pimp because women flocked to him. Darondo taught himself to play guitar and released only three singles, including “Didn’t I,” which sold 35,000 copies, mostly in the Bay Area.
Darondo left music behind after an alleged falling out with a label owner. He briefly hosted a late night cable access television show, before leaving California to find balance in his life. Darondo disappeared for decades, leaving few traces for Justin Torres, a local music historian, who started looking for him in the late 1990s.
Torres, born and raised in San Francisco, was originally trying to track down musicians to learn the history of Bay Area soul music. He’d found success, but with Darondo, he noticed there wasn't much to go on. “Some people knew who he was, but most people didn't. They just knew of him,” Torres said. Worse yet, the people who knew Darondo told Torres they hadn’t seen him in decades.
The mystery compelled Torres to go searching for answers. The internet, far from its current state, provided little assistance. So Torres turned to a more traditional approach. When travelling around the Bay Area, he would find the local phone book and copy down names. He knew Darondo’s real name, William Pulliam, and he called dozens upon dozens of Pulliams. None of them matched.
In the mid 2000s, Torres met a record collector named Dave Gabriner, who was equally obsessed with Bay Area soul music. They hit it off and joined forces to conduct more interviews with local musicians and label owners. They still hadn’t found Darondo, however. Gabriner was intent on locating the man, telling Torres, “We need to find this guy. You're going to call all those people again.”
Torres made the calls. He got nothing. A few weeks passed, and Torres was sitting down getting ready to eat lunch when his phone rang. He picked up and heard, “Is this Justin Torres?” Yes, he replied. “Hey man, this is Double D Darondo. I heard you've been looking for me.” Torres couldn’t believe it. He sat in amazement for the next two hours, doing nothing but listening and asking an occasional question.
Torres called his friend Dave Gabriner afterwards. The two of them had been filming interviewees in their homes and they knew they had to get Darondo on tape. They requested permission from Darondo, then packed up their car and drove up to Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, where he was living.
“When he opened the door with his hat on and those rings, I was like ‘Sold!’” Torres remembers. Darondo greeted the men with a big smile and ushered them into his home. He narrated his life story and answered specific questions they had about Bay Area soul.
Music seemed to be a distant thought for Darondo. Torres and Gabriner learned that he hadn’t even heard his song “Didn’t I” since he produced it some 30 years before. They brought out a record player and played the single for him. His eyes lit up and he mouthed some of the words.
Gabriner took a chance and asked Darondo if he’d be willing to play along. He hesitated, but Gabriner asked again politely. Darondo told him he would give it a shot, but only with the original guitar he’d first sung the song with.
As he went to get the guitar, Torres and Gabriner tried to contain their excitement. Torres recalled how he felt. “If I could even say the word giddy that would be an understatement. This was like [being a] six, seven year old kid on Christmas.” Darondo came down the stairs with the guitar and specks of dust flying off of it. He took a few minutes tuning it, before strumming the chords and singing along. Darondo took off his rings to get a better feel for the guitar. He couldn’t hit the high notes like he used to, but he laughed and smiled through his initial attempts.
Finally, after a few tries, Darondo conjured up some of the magic that made “Didn’t I” so special. “It's something that'll just stick with Dave and I forever,” Torres says. Darondo’s impromptu performance was the culmination of years of Torres searching him out, but the moment was more than that. “This man grabbed his guitar and tried to find his voice to sing something he hadn't done in 40 years. It was touching,” he said.
The following week, Torres introduced Darondo to Andrew Jarvis at Ubiquity Records, who went on to produce his 2005 album Let My People Go. Darondo went on tour, including at South by Southwest, and released a second album in 2011. He passed away on June 9, 2013 at age 66.
Edited, produced, mixed by Akash Pandey
Archival tape provided by Dave Gabriner