William Daron "Darondo" Pulliam won't admit to ever being a pimp, despite testimonials from others about his days as the Fillmore Slim of the East Bay.
"He denies it," says Bay Area filmmaker and soul-music historian David Gabriner, "but to hear people who knew him back then tell it, it wasn't nothing to see Darondo walking down Telegraph Avenue, smacking some dude with his money. That was Dynamite D Daron-dough. And everyone knew it."
But the legend of Darondo stretches far beyond the women who shared his mansion on Royal Oak Road in the Oakland Hills. If pimping was indeed a part of his past, it wasn't the only lasting impression he made. It was simply the most provocative.
What is just as enticing and far more significant is his music, which resonates with DJs and record collectors both here in the States and abroad. One fan is five-time Grammy Award winner John Mayer, who learned of Darondo while tuning in to XM satellite radio and hearing what is perhaps his best-known work, the beatific "Didn't I."
"A song so pure that I instantly felt insincere in comparison," Mayer wrote in his blog at JohnMayer.com.
"Darondo is no joke," adds Berkeley author and scholar Rickey Vincent, who welcomed Darondo as a guest on his KPFA "History of Funk" radio show last summer. "He was very much a part of what was going on in a multifaceted Bay Area, but he also had this down-home, funky soul sound to him. His spirit was on a much broader level of living life."
Now, with the appearance of one of his previously unreleased songs on a new anthology, and the imminent rebroadcast of one of his old television appearances on cable, Darondo's reputation may finally catch up with his skills.
A Berkeley native, he began his life in music around the age of eight. "My mother bought me a guitar at the pawn shop," he recalls, "and I began messing around with that." As a teenager, he began performing at the youth-oriented Lucky 13 Club in Albany. His mostly white band played standards by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Van Morrison for a predominantly white audience, but singer and guitarist Darondo began to stand out for reasons other than color.
Music had always been a hobby for Darondo never a means to an end. Even when sneaking into the Continental Club to see entertainers such as Aretha Franklin or Jackie Wilson, "I was just young and checking things out," he says. There were no aspirations to stardom, or to recording, until he was approached by producer Al Tanner.
At Tanner's suggestion, Darondo would write and record "How I Got Over" and "I Want Your Love (So Bad)" for Leroy Smith's Ocampo label. "Just having fun, really," he says, but the buzz was serious enough to attract the interest of a friend at KSOL-AM, and then Ray Dobard, owner of Music City Records, who would release Darondo's second single, "Didn't I," backed with "Listen to My Song."
"Didn't I," produced by Dobard, would become Darondo's signature piece. Penned by Darondo and Tanner, it is a morsel of Bay Area soul so angelic that it could have been written by God himself. Darondo would release just one more single, on the obscure Af-Fa World Millionaires Inc. imprint, before leaving the music business.
"Plenty money, plenty fun," he says in reference to the word "millionaires" in the company's name. "The only problem is can you get some?"
At the time, Darondo's entire studio output consisted of just three seven-inch singles released in the late '60s and early '70s. But the slick-talking and easy-living man about town had no problem getting money by whatever means. This included a stint as the gregarious host of a series of variety shows on Soul Beat Television in the early '80s. But eventually, the fame and the life that came with it were too much for him.
"Your body will tell you that," he explains. "If you're having too good of a time, sometimes you've got to change your mind. I just had to let it go."
He found solace and love in travel, meeting his second wife Prem in the Fiji Islands. They have been together for nearly twenty years, and live a quiet life in Sacramento County with their two daughters, while Darondo attracts attention of a healthier kind through the efforts of soul music aficionados Gilles Peterson of London and San Francisco's Gabriner and Justin Torres.
Darondo took himself out of the spotlight 25 years ago, but he wasn't forgotten. A few months ago, one of his previously unreleased songs was included on Ubiquity's old-school compilation Super Cool California Soul 2. And with film producers at the Weinstein Company reportedly interested in the story of his life, according to label VP Andrew Jervis, and one of his Soul Beat variety shows optioned for Black Entertainment Television's We Got to Do Better series, the world may soon know more about Daron's dough.
"I've been incognito for a long time," he told Gabriner and Torres upon their rediscovery of his legacy. "I'm ready to come out of 'cognito.'"
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