How He Got Over: An Oral History of Darondo Fandom

"Darondo" by Frances Marin
Painting by Frances Marin

There’s a certain espirit de corps in the following posts, all of which stem from our basic love for Darondo and his music. He was also from the Bay and just sharing the same turf makes his eccentricities and songs personally more touching. The majestic “Didn’t I” struck a chord with all those who heard it– and all who did, all wanted more. That’s how a chance discovery of said single led to wonderful meetings with Darondo, culminating in songs resurfacing and him doing the splits onstage again at age 60. With Darondo, the more layers that peeled away, the more endearing he became.

Spry with a pompadour and belt buckle bearing his name, he was an actual former pimp who drove around Oakland with a mini-bar in his car. He sometimes wore a cape and sported huge, almost novelty jewelry. He had local cable access shows, one was called Darondo’s Penthouse After Dark. There are more lovable asterisks to his story but ultimately, what we adore is his music– the only thing tantamount would be his personality. After recording a few more in the ’60s, he did odd jobs and left the US during the ’80s before settling into the real estate business where he floated until the market slowed in the early 2000s.

Here’s where we pick up the story; Darondo’s songs are rediscovered by clued-in cats who were awestruck and moved, compelling them to share and officially release what was doable. All the funny, interesting lore aside, anyone who saw Darondo live was struck by his natural stage acumen and dirty humor. He radiated during those performances, energized though at times visibly old and shaky.

When word got out of Darondo’s passing, we tapped our Nerdtorious braintrust to cover a bit of the history behind his late but more than worthwhile ascent, including those who aided his career in its later stages. The stories here highlight Darondo’s pronounced persona. If only there were a time machine to relive the magic of hearing “Didn’t I” again for the first time. Rest in peace soul-master D. Thank god cats like you existed. – DM

darondo signed

Justin Torres, Bay Area Soul Music Historian, Record Collector
I got my copy of “Didn’t I” on Music City from this guy on 3rd Street here in San Francisco just digging through his records. I had never seen or even heard of Darondo. When I took it home and heard it, I was floored. It was unique but was also local so I was totally geeked.

For a time I would bring up his name to people but no one seemed to know who he was. This was before the internet was all that great. So all there was and I searched and called everyone in there that I thought could remotely be Darondo. I called everyone one-by-one. I even asked Josh [Davis] and Dante [Carfagna] about him and no one had a clue. I really thought this was a random thing and I’ll never be able to find him.

I was sitting there about to eat lunch one day and I get this call. “Hey man I hear you’re looking for me!” I was like, “Perhaps, who is this really?” And he goes “It’s me, Double D, Darondo baby!” “Oh Shit!” was all I thought and we just spoke for the next 2 hours.

So me and my friend Dave set up a meeting at Darondo’s house, and we brought a video camera and equipment and all that. Darondo had a nice home in Oak Grove. He was just this laid back, skinny old black man who was just so welcoming. He had a little hat on and huge gold rings. He couldn’t have been friendlier. He was all open arms and was just the friendliest musician I had every met. And I’ve met and interviewed musicians and stuff before up to that point but to see Darondo standing there and for him to be as cool as he was, I was thinking “This is my holy grail right now.”

He ducked out from his room with a guitar and we played “Didn’t I” as he tuned the guitar. After a try or two, he just started singing. We’re there on his big white couch and he’s singing “Didn’t’ I” for us in his living room. Sometimes he struggled since he hadn’t sung it for like 30 years or something. As we left he said “And when you boys come back, we’ll all go in the pool for a while!”

About a week later, *Andrew from Ubiquity called and asked if I had any additional info on Darondo, which was just so totally random because I had finally found him after trying forever. I had already asked Darondo about reels and if he had anymore music laying around but he kept saying “no, no, no.”

I gave Andrew Darondo’s info hoping to get Darondo some dough since Gilles Peterson had just put the song on a comp and people were starting to catch on. Andrew called Darondo and between the time I had spoke to Darondo earlier and a week later, Darondo said he had found an old reel. Andrew picked it up and put it out on Ubiquity.

Darondo was having a lull with his real estate business, this was like 2007 or so. But that allowed him to get back and perform again and ride whatever wave that was there and allowed him to make some really good money again. People bought his records and he played in front of crowds again. I mean, from him not being able to tune his guitar correctly and barley being able to remember “Didn’t I” to performing at SXSW is amazing, man. He made money again! Real money!

Andrew Jervis, Chief Curator at Bandcamp, former Head of A&R at Ubiquity
For a second, all roads led to Darondo, in one of those “we were destined to meet” confluences of people and ideas. Gilles Peterson had recently played “Didn’t I” on his BBC Radio 1 show, and he and I were about to start working on his “Digs America” compilation for Luv N’Haight. Simultaneously both *Chris Veltri of the Groove Merchant and Bay Area soul music aficionado Justin Torres were playing me Darondo’s singles. Justin had recently met with Darondo, possibly even recorded an interview, and was kind enough to introduce us.

I went to hang with Darondo and his wife. I had explained by phone that Luv N’Haight was interested in telling his story and re-issuing his singles. I asked him to pick a spot he liked and that lunch was on me. I don’t know if it was just convenient, or whether he liked the joint, but we met at a Dennys. D pulled up in his Cadillac SUV, looking dapper in a silvery grey suit and hat, his Darondo belt in-hand for show and tell. Lunch was mellow, Prem (his wife) was very quiet but smiled occasionally, and Darondo was curious as to how and why there was a sudden interest in his work. Afterwards he invited me back to their place where he excitedly handed over a CD and master tapes of unreleased music. Obviously I couldn’t wait to get in the car and listen to what would make up the rest of the Let My People Go album, which would eventually be released on Luv N’Haight.

Several months and a few meetings after our first encounter, Darondo and I met up at the San Francisco studio to finish a couple of tracks on the master tapes that were unfinished. D wanted to add background vocals, guitars and other instrumentation – he was very concerned that whatever was to be released should sound as good as it could. Quinn was warming up his vocal chords – singing little hooks from the Darondo songs I’d sent him. Darondo then turned to me and whispered, “He sings like one of those white boys.” This was followed by a painful pause during which I wondered whether we’d be able to continue. But then D added, “You know, the Gibbs. I love the Bee Gees, that’s who he sounds like.” Phew.

Over the next few years Darondo’s music grew from being a prized possession of a few clued-up collectors to an in-demand artist playing festivals and earning all kinds of acclaim. Weary of performing at first he soon warmed to the idea and would wow crowds with an amazing live show that was full of humor and even the splits (yes, even in his 60s.) A high point for me was the Ubiquity showcase at SXSW in 2008, at which Darondo brought down the house and was seen by many to have performed one of the shows of the week.

I left Ubiquity Records (home to the Luv N’Haight label) a few years ago. Darondo and I stayed in touch, but more sporadically than before. He was a Sacramento Kings fan and would love to give me a hard time when/if they beat my [Golden State] Warriors. His health slowed him down over the last year or so, but whenever I asked how he was doing he’d always say, “Aw, just cuttin’ it up, you know…”

You Did: Thoughts on a Stone Cold Classic
didnt i 45

“Cool” Chris Veltri, Groove Merchant Records
My introduction to Dorando was actually through his toughest single, “Legs”. I found it in the storage unit of a now defunct mission record store about 13 years ago. It was great haul, but “Legs” was by miles my best score. It wasn’t until about 4 years later that I even heard “Didnt I”, and of course, like everybody, I was floored. For years Justin Torres and I tried to find him with little success. Even Bay Area musician Larry T who I would hang with, claimed to know him and would see him from time to time at bars and low key blues clubs. Nobody ever could pin him down though. Then Justin did, and the rest is history. I know of very few musicians who have left an impression as deep as Dorando with just 3 singles. What a talent.

Oliver Wang,
What’s remarkable about Darondo is that his legend is really based off of one song, “Didn’t I.” It wasn’t the only single he ever released but ultimately, it’s what he’s known for and yet that one song was so sublime, so endearing, that it compelled people like my friend, Justin Torres, to search him out and help bring him back into visibility after being off people’s musical radar for decades. That’s not a unique story, of course, but people resonate with “Didn’t I” in a way that has few comparisons in my memory. I think it’s a testament to how, sometimes, all the right elements come together in a song and produce something truly

Nate LeBlanc, Nerdtorious Staff, Record Collector
I got my copy of ‘Didn’t I’ under very fitting circumstances—a side deal with some aging cholos as part of a larger record purchase. While I’d love to have a perfect copy someday, I love having one that’s been played at countless parties, cried to, and fought over. A few years later, once the Ubiquity album had been released, the song started popping up in odd places. Hearing ‘Didn’t I’ on Breaking Bad was both off-putting and extremely rewarding. As the sweet soundtrack to Walt’s descent into vigilante-ism, the song fits nicely, but I am always suspicious of the motives of music supervisors who use ‘our’ music. I can only hope that Mr. Pulliam saw a nice check upfront and a slow trickle of residuals.

DJ Platurn, Oakland Faders
Darondo makes you proud to rep the Bay. Have to admit I didn’t get hip to him until the resurgence but hearing his music at any point in our time on this earth is enough to make you a believer. Although ‘Didn’t I’ put him on the map for the lovers of sultry sweet soul, ‘Do You Really Love Me‘ in my opinion sums up the undeniable funk tinged angle to his sound a tad bit more. That versatile Bay Area soul sound is truly some of the best. RIP to a master of his craft — had the pleasure of seeing him perform live at Stern Grove some years back and it was truly amazing to see the man killing after so many years. A Bay Area legend who will survive in our music history for centuries to come.

Jonathan Sklute, Good Records NYC
When I first heard “Didn’t I”, it was Justin Torres who played it for me. I was back in San Francisco, after six years in New York trying to grow up, and figure out what I wanted to be when that eventually happened. I was struck by the song’s fragility. The record felt like it was barely there, and yet it stuck in my gut for months.

At that time, I had been digging for records for a while but didn’t really know anything; I owned some rare stuff because of chance or because I had shelled out, but nothing made sense. Meeting Justin was kind of a revelation – this guy had a focus, and a plan, and I for one – despite having been raised in the Bay Area and being hip to soul and funk sounds from a relatively young age – had no clue to the breadth and depth of the scene there. That day, we got together, dug around for records in the South Bay, and returned to his apartment in SF where he played me some choice pieces from his Bay Area-centric collection of 45s. “Didn’t I” was one. The back story I think was that Darondo was a retired pimp who had sought refuge or solitude in Fiji, or some other small, tropical island. Maybe he was in hiding. Nobody could find him.

I didn’t get my own copy of the record until years later, but he sent me a mix called “The Break-up Letters” that featured it. On a primitive I-pod, I isolated the track and would play it on repeat. It soundtracked many a romantic encounter. Darondo’s voice conjured Al Green, but he never asked for forgiveness, only comeuppance. He knows what he’s worth, and he’s not going to take it by force, but he’s damn sure going to mount a convincing argument. That’s logic that made sense to me. Everybody wants their fair share in life, and in love. It’s a truly universal song in that respect. When quantity of the record turned up a few years back, I bought a bunch. They all sold quickly. The song itself was old but it is a record that everybody wants to own. In an era of extremely disposable music, that’s important.

Recently I was asked by a friend at a major record label to suggest songs a famous soul singer might cover, and this was top of the list. I hope it gets done.

The Funkiest Parking Lot On Earth: San Jose Left In Flames, Farewell Dynamite D

Will Sprott, Singer/Songwriter formerly of The Mumlers
In 2008 I got a job helping book artists for a music festival in San Jose. My friend Tommy Aguilar was also working for the festival & had some connection to the Park, the band that was backing Darondo at that time. Through Tommy’s connection we got them to play in a parking lot in the middle of downtown San Jose & once again Darondo burned the place to the ground. After the show I talked to him for a minute. He was funny & happy & full of life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who seemed to enjoy performing as much as he seemed to.

My first exposure to Darondo was in photographic form. I don’t remember exactly where I saw the picture, but I was immediately drawn to him because he was old. I just like old people to begin with but this guy looked extra intriguing. He had his hair in a pompadour, wore big gold rings & he had a mysterious name. From that point on, everything I learned about him just made me like him more.

He was from the Bay. He had hosted odd low-budget TV shows. He drove a Rolls Royce with a bar in it. He had recently resurfaced after a decades-long hiatus from the music business. I went & saw him play in San Francisco & not only was he good, he was one of the best performers I had ever seen in my life. I saw James Brown play. I saw Nina Simone play. I saw Bo Diddley play. Darondo could hold his own in that league. He tore the house to pieces.

If I could transmit my gratitude for his songs & his spirit to some plane where he could receive it, I’d like to do that.

Allen ‘Overflo’ Johnson, Birthwrite Records
Few artists transcend music industry standards like high album sales, chart topping singles, & national tours and thrive with undeniable natural talent. Darondo’s soothing falsetto, brilliant songwriting, & unforgiving past prove his legendary status in Bay Area music history & in an unlikely fashion his music can bring about a smile or tear to any listener. Words can hardly sum his soft strum of a guitar & a sweet hum into a microphone. There is no doubt, in 2013 we lost one of the greatest soul singers of all time.

Andrew Jervis, Chief Curator at Bandcamp, former Head of A&R at Ubiquity
I’m disappointed we hadn’t spoken more recently and was devastated by the news of his passing. I learned by way of friend of a friend who was due to make a documentary that involved Darondo. He had called Darondo to set up a recording, only to learn he’d died the day before. Other filmmakers and companies had previously talked about making a movie of his life story. Perhaps his passing will push that idea to fruition. Regardless, his music lives on.

Nate LeBlanc, Nerdtorious Staff, Record Collector
The first time I had a chance to see Darondo perform was at the Independent shortly after his album had been released, and though it was an excellent overall performance, the thing I remember most is his monologue about treating ladies right, and solving relationship problems with whipped cream and cherries. Though I have not taken his advice, I appreciate it deeply.

Though I had heard that his health was failing, I was surprised and saddened to hear that Darondo had passed away. His music is very important to me. His plainspoken wisdom, his exuberant funk, and his underrated way with social commentary have been a constant presence on my turntable for years. His late-career resurgence was supremely unlikely and deeply meaningful for those involved, however tangentially.

As others who we’ve asked to participate in this oral history can attest, something magical took place in a parking lot off to the side of Darondo’s only post-revival show here in San Jose. He absolutely commanded the stage, sang beautiful renditions of his slight but mighty catalog, and brought a palpable sense of joy to the intensely dim surroundings. It was a transcendent musical performance, one that I will always remember.

Darondo in San Jose, 2008. Photo by John Chacon
Darondo in San Jose, 2008. Photo by John Chacon

* Thanks to all those involved for their time and effort in sharing a bit on Darondo. And mostly, thank you Darondo. RIP. – DM


8 thoughts on “How He Got Over: An Oral History of Darondo Fandom

  1. Great stories. I remember the excitement when Justin found him & I also remember being struck by “Didn’t I” on The Break Up Letters mix. It’s just such a beautiful song, kind of a unique chord progression too in Soul. One of those ones which you’d come up with because it sounds sweet, not necessarily because you’re following the rules of Music or anything like that. Just building it by running down the first three chords in G minor & then doubling the harmonic rhythm, so simple but so genius to propel it forward. Then when he hits F major it’s like such a perfect resolution but then when the falsettos over the Db to Bb bit come in, it just keeps you going “whoa”, where did that come from?! Although I’m sitting here half a world away “Didn’t I” is just one of those songs which you don’t come across everyday & the ability of that track to move you is just made all the more incredible by the feel-good rediscovery story. I was lucky enough to chance upon two of the three presses of the 45 fairly early on and had the green-label & white-label (big lettering) ones filed for a long time. I eventually gave my girlfriend at the time the green-label one because it’s a song which seems fitting to share with someone you love. I was ecstatic when the 12″, LP & then the Music City stuff came out because the depth of his other stuff is so strong too. So much beauty in his catalog, the fact that it was unknown for so long is criminal. At the end of the day “Didn’t I” is one of those 45s which will always hold a special place in my collection, not just because of the artifact but because of the song & because of the story.


    1. I had the pleasure of playing in a backing band for Darondo, playing percussion and singing back up vocals circa 2007-09. Some of the most memorable moments of my life.
      Mikey natural


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