A second shot at fame

Darondo went from ’70s R&B phenom to recluse to globe-trekker to pimp to janitor to physical therapist to being Elk Grove’s very own Godfather of Soul

Photo By Larry Dalton

William Daron Pulliam stood backstage at August’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, looked at the audience of thousands and nearly panicked.

Hot damn—I don’t know if I can go out there, he thought, a sense of dread creeping into his chest.

This would be, by far, the largest crowd the 63-year-old musician, better known by the singular moniker “Darondo,” had ever played. For a few reckless seconds, he considered making a fast escape.

But then Darondo pulled a swig of confidence off a rum and Coke and, slightly buzzed, decided, Well, this is it.

Onstage, backed by musician Nino Moschella and his band, the anxiety quickly dissipated as the musicians broke into “Didn’t I,” Darondo’s buttery smooth 1975 single.

There, before the enthusiastic crowd, he grabbed the microphone and quickly snapped into Darondo mode: prancing and crooning, his voice still perfectly raspy after all these years. By the time the band started playing “Legs,” Darondo was tearing it up, moving in wild, energetic leaps—performing the splits even.

Later, Darondo couldn’t tell you what came over him. It mystified him.

“I was hypnotized. I didn’t know I had it in me.”

Darondo’s always had it in him, but to understand the full impact of his presence on that stage, you have to go back more than three decades to the mid-’70s, when the singer-songwriter was on the verge of a big music career. He’d cut a handful of singles, opened for James Brown and headlined a string of shows at Bimbo’s 365.

But just as it seemed that Darondo’s career was set to explode, the musician, plagued by drugs, abruptly decided to quit music.

In the decades following, Darondo’s scant catalog became highly collectible, with original pressings for “Legs” and “Didn’t I” fetching as much as $500. With each prized single sold or traded, the man’s legend grew into near mythlike status:

Darondo was a pimp, a heavy hitter, a man you didn’t want to mess with.

Darondo laughs about it now as he sits at a giant, marble-topped table in his spacious, two-story home tucked away on a cul-de-sac in Elk Grove. Wearing a red tropical print shirt, khaki pants and a natty captain’s hat, he hardly looks like a man who once paraded around Oakland, dressed to the teeth in a mink coat and alligator shoes.

He started making music in the early ’60s after he watched a cousin pick up a guitar and play a honky-tonk tune.

“I said, ‘I can do that—show me how.’”

Darondo’s mom trekked down to a local music shop and purchased an acoustic guitar nearly as big as her preteen son. And, over the next few years, Darondo taught himself to play—first country music, then soul and later jazz, imitating, in particular, the chords on Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue album.

By the time he was in high school, Darondo was playing with his cousins in the Witnesses, which performed regularly at the Lucky 13, a teen nightclub in downtown Albany, near Berkeley.

“We played rock ’n’ roll, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, ‘Gloria’—you remember that one don’t you,” he says, and then sings the chorus, his voice lilting into a high-pitched falsetto: “G-L-O-R-I-A.”

A few years later, Darondo happened to meet two influential Bay Area musicians, guitarist Eddie Foster and producer Al Tanner, and played them a song he’d written called “How I Got Over.”

“Al says, ‘Darondo, did you write that?’ And I says, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to get you into the studio.’ He was really impressed.”

Impressed enough to book a recording session and cut the song, along with “I Want Your Love So Bad” as a single.

Tanner passed the record around and eventually it ended up in the hands of Ray Dobard, who quickly signed Darondo to his Music City label, which released three singles. But although the songs were a hit in the Bay Area, Darondo says he never made much money off the deal.

Money wasn’t Darondo’s only worry, however. Now in his late 20s, the musician was heavy into drugs, spending as much as $500 a night on cocaine and partying.

“I had that fast thing going on. … People around me were dying and going crazy and I said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

Suburban life: Darondo shares his favorite CDs at his Elk Grove home.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Darondo packed a suitcase and decamped for London. But it was a short-lived stay.

“They were still speaking English, and since they knew what I could be talking about, I figured I should get out of there.”

Darondo’s next stop was Paris where, he was pleased to find that few people understood him. “I couldn’t ask for nothing and I couldn’t get nothing.”

Darondo weaned himself off the drugs but, still drinking, partied in the Parisian nightclubs until a pickpocket relieved him of his wallet. Broke, he returned to the States and started the next chapter of his life, hosting a handful of cable-access shows, including Darondo’s Penthouse After Dark.

It was around this time that his rep as a high-stylin’ pimp began to flourish.

Darondo certainly looked and acted the part. Living in a sprawling house in the Oakland hills, he rented out rooms to a chiropractor, as well as several women who came and went at all hours of the night and day.

And though Darondo still liked to party, still liked to dress fly and still liked to pay for everyone’s drinks with the wads of cash he kept in his wallet (“That’s how I got my nickname, they called me “Daron-dough”), he insists the rumors about his money-making ways are just that: rumors.

“[I] had a lot of girls at my house, but they were lawyers and secretaries—everyone figured, ‘Oh, Darondo’s doing this and Darondo’s doing that,’ but Darondo wasn’t doing nothing.”

The accusations, he says, are hurtful.

“It made me feel bad, very bad, ’cause that wasn’t me—I ain’t never in my life did that with no woman,” he says. All that money, he adds, came from various jobs, including his TV hosting gigs and a janitorial shift at a local hospital.

So even though it’s hard to believe Darondo’s tale of showing up for his janitorial shift in a Rolls-Royce, fully decked out in furs and jewels, there’s truth to the story that Darondo eventually quit this lifestyle and went back to school, embarking on a physical-therapy career.

That job, working with head-injury patients at Bay Area hospitals, was more rewarding than anything he’d ever done. But an on-the-job accident put him into early retirement.

Several years later, in 1999, Darondo moved to Elk Grove with his wife and their two daughters in search of a quieter lifestyle.

And that’s how it would have ended if not for those Darondo die-hards still collecting, swapping and playing his long-out-of-print singles.

One of those fans was Justin Torres, a filmmaker who, in 2005 was working on a documentary about Bay Area musicians and wanted to track down the guy behind some of his favorite funk singles.

But Darondo proved to be elusive, and it took many phone calls before he tracked down a “Daron Pulliam” in the phone book, who turned out to be Darondo’s grown son.

The junior Pulliam passed along the message and, before long, Torres and his documentary partner were meeting with Darondo in Elk Grove.

The reality vs. the myth, he says, was startling.

“You hear all these stories about the man, but he was more down-to-earth than we expected,” Torres says.

So down-to-earth that it took a lot of convincing to get the musician to dig his guitar out of the garage and literally dust it off to play a few tunes.

The results, Torres says, were magical.

“That raspy voice, the soulsy blues and nice jazz arrangements—his music just [epitomizes] the Bay Area,” Torres says.

As it turned out, Torres wasn’t the only one trying to track him down. Gilles Peterson, a London deejay, had been spinning “Didn’t I” in the clubs, and the song quickly became an underground hit across the pond; Peterson wanted to include it on a comp and asked his label, the Haight Street-based Ubiquity Records to track down the rights.

Coincidentally, label owner Andrew Jervis was friends with Torres. From there, Darondo’s re-entry into music was swift. In 2006, the label released Let My People Go, a collection of Darondo’s old singles, as well as a few previously unreleased tracks culled from an old cassette tape Darondo had kept in a box for more than 30 years. Ubiquity put Darondo in the studio to finish and rerecord those songs and the resulting compilation shows his range with everything from Afrobeat and jazz to sexy R&B grooves and get-up-and-dance funk numbers.

“His music is amazing,” Jervis says. “He’s from Berkeley, and around here people always say, ‘Why isn’t this guy as famous as James Brown or Al Green?’”

Older, wiser, Darondo says he’s enjoying his second shot at fame and success. He’s currently at work on an album of new material and plans to play shows for as long as he can leap across the stage and execute a well-timed split.

“I’m gonna keep doing it,” he says, laughing. “Those royalty checks are good.”