January 5th, 1976
Darrow wasn’t expected until around noon, so on Perry’s advice, I dropped into friendly little place called the Folk Music Centre – a surprisingly authoritative Collets-style shop, oddly situated in the heart of Claremont, which I hardly considered the most accessible focal point for folk enthusiasts. The shop, run by a walking encylopaedia called Charles Chase, had a little room in the back where customers (and passers-by, it appeared) could go and play guitar – all day long if they wanted.
Chase knew Darrow well: “He’s been coming in here for years, ever since….. it must have been around 1962 or 3. May even had been earlier – God knows, it seems like I’ve known him every since I moved here and opened the store”.
“I know he had a guitar around the time of the so-called folk boom, because his reaction to all that Chubby Checker/Frankie Avalon stuff that used to fill the radio was the same as that of most of the other thinking teenagers of the time….. he’d just as soon forget it and start looking for some real music”.
“The folk boom was a strictly commercial fad really, and only a few ever got below its superficial skin, but in Chris’ case it was merely a jumping board, the “fad” stimulated a deep interest in folk cultures. He spent half his life in here, just playing instruments, browsing through the literature, and listening to records”.
“He was mainly interested in old blues recordings, which reflected the Country’s musical heritage – but then I turned him on to bluegrass; I played him a record by Earl Taylor. We often joke about it, so I remember it very well….. it changed his life, he reckons”.
“That’s right; Earl Taylor and his Stony Mountain Boys…… an album on United Artists, I’ve still got it – and even now it’s one of the best bluegrass records ever”. The speaker was Chris Darrow,. He’d just breezed in from the west in his battered Chevy station wagon, and was now supping wine in Epp’s music rrom, the walls of which were covered with Kaleidoscope posters from the golden age – from the San Francisco dancehall jobs to silk-screened masterpieces advertising gigs in such remote venues as the Nicholas Murray Hall, Lancaster High School.
I’d explained how Zigzag had reverted to Frame’s ownership (3) and how he was anxious to feature the long promised Darrow/Kaleidoscope legend – and we had a good laugh about what an incredibly stupid cunt he must be to have lost his interview tapes. “It’s funny” said Darrow, “…. He never struck me as being a twirp”.
The “rehearsals” had been postponed until Tuesday because a certain “key membert” (that’s all he would say, apart from “you’ll just have to wait and see”) was still out of town – so Chris said he’d be happy to devote the rest of the day to giving me all the dope I needed. Fenrus went out for more wine, and we got on with it.
I suggested he resume where he’d left off – talking about Chase’s folk emporium and its influence.
“Well, that little shop really fanned the flames in my heart – and that Earl Taylor record just knocked me on my arse.”
(Apparently, Taylor, who I had never heard of, was from Baltimore, and had what Darrow called “a red hot band”).
“That band sent me into outer space – especially the mandolin sound, which just tinkled my brain……. That record opened up my musical horizons and started me on the road to learning about and playing other instruments.
Up until then, he’d discreetly fingered a plain and simple guitar.
“I got it when I was 14. I’d been a clarinet player at school, but only began to take an interest in music when I heard the Kingston trio…. The guys who popularised folk music – they made me consider the possibilities of playing, rather than just listening.
“My father was a jazz musician – he played clarinet and saxophone – and he was an avid record collector….. so I grew up surrounded by jazz, to the extent that by my early teens I had a pretty thorough knowledge of the styles of jazz and its precedents, dating back to around the turn of the century.
“Besides this jazz environment, I was also into rock’n’roll and pop music – though I didn’t play it. I listened to the radio a lot, and also had my own television – my grandfather bought it for me when I was 5 years old…. So I have been media conscious, in a sort of way, for a long time – without really realizing it.
“I was listening to a lot of black stations, and a lot of Mexican oriented stations in Southern California; they played stuff by people like Don Julian & the Meadowlarks……. The El Monte sound – on which Frank Zappa is probably the world’s greatest expert and exponent.
“Then came the ‘folk-era’, and all sorts of people I knew were getting into folk music. Whether or not they were all influenced by the Kingston Trio, I don’t know – but they were having a huge effect on the population on a national scale – instigating an interest in folk, which was the logical alternative to pop that a lot of people wanted: it was pure, straightforward and appealing.
“I started playing locally with my best friend, a real good guy called ROGER PALOS, who was a Mexican from my neighbourhood.(which was basically Mexican); we used to sing and play guitar together at parties and so on….. and I wrote my first songs – teenage heart-throb things, you know….. real meaningful songs about my girlfriends – like one called ‘Oh Linda’, I remember.
“But after a year or so, I realized that I could play guitar as well as most of the people on the folk scene – and most of the my enthusiasm for commercial folk music dried up real fast, and I fell in love with the blues. That’s when I started spending most of my spare time in the shop, just listening to records by Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie and Sonny, anything I could get my hands on… Chas played me that Earl Taylor track, and I was hooked. Bluegrass music took over my whole life.”
Impelled by Mr. Chase’s startling revelations, Darrow proceeded to squander his entire wealth on a mandolin and, having amassed a rudimentary working knowledge of the instrument and its uses, formed a bluegrass group with ROGER PALOS on guitar, and one PETE MADLEM, who had been on year below Darrow at school, on banjo. Plundering the pithy wit of the ethnic folkie, they tried on various names, finally agreeing that THE RE-ORGANIZED DRY CITY PLAYERS fit them best.
Gorblimey – what a mouthful – and not so much as a mention in Frame’s notes (the useless sod). “Ah yes, the, er, the bluegrass trio”, I bungled on.
“Well, it was only a trio to begin with, after a while we got in a bass player – a guy called BILL STAMPS, who was the only person I knew who was into bluegrass and rock’n’roll at the same time….. he’d been a group called Rosie and the Originals” (4).
Stamps was replaced by PETE FULLERTON (5) and Madlem, eccentric about time-keeping, was ultimately replaced too. When admonished for missing a gig, he’d draw himself up with such injured truculence that his accusers usually withdrew in confusion. For this reason, rather than being fired, he rotated with his eventual permanent successor, who turned out to be none other thant BOB WARFORD (6),
“Bob Warford and I were going to school together – a private boys’ school in Claremont called Webbs, which I attended for about a couple of years. Richard Greene was there at the time too, and Robert Mitchum’s son was in my class. It was basically a school for rich kids, but I was getting my tuition free, because my father taught art there…. And I’d wanted to transfer there because I was really into athletics and they started inter-school athletics a year earlier at Webbs.”
Darrow’s was not the only ensemble operating in the area, but of all local bluegrass groups, only one was held in equal esteem: THE MAD MOUNTAIN RAMBLERS, who Darrow used to see at a club called the Cats Pyjamas.
Obscure as it was, I was already familiar with this place: Roger Bush, from Country Gazette, who was living in El Monte at the time, had told me all about “the teenage bluegrass scene” as we passed a pleasant hour on the steps of the CBS caravan, eating cheese and drinking tins of Tartan, at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July.
“There was this club called “the Cats Pyjamas” he’d told me. “It was in a place called Arcadia, which is an approximate mid-point between, El Monte, Claremont, Los Angeles and Pasadena…… it wasn’t any place as such, but it was a center, if you understand.
“You didn’t have to pay to get in, and you could buy hot cider and pizza. Every weekend they presented music; Jim Kweskin would come – looking for people to join his jugband, guys would come from Pasadena, and the Claremont crew would also venture over….. It was like a testing ground, and a showcase rolled into one”.
(3) At the end of 1975, Tony Stratton Smith – in a precedented burst of generosity – gave me back Zigzag.
(4) Rosie and the Originals had one (and one only) huge American hit single in the early sixties….. ‘Angel Baby’. On the basis of this, and it’s even better b –side, the group has remained a solid favourite of such rock connoisseurs as John Lennon, John Tobler and Robert Plant (who even mentioned them on the inner sleeve of ‘Houses of the Holy’).
(5) Pete Fullerton later played b ass in We Five, another local group – led by Michael Stewart, who had a big hit with ‘You were on my mind’. Michael Stewart (brother of John) had previously been in the Ridge Runners – a Kingston Trio copy group…. even down to clothes, patter and songs. He later formed West (on Epic Records) and is now a producer of some repute.
(6) Robert Warford later became a member of Michael Nesmith’s Countryside band, as well as doing some incredible stuff as a session man. He was a pupil of Clarence White, who reckoned that Warford was better than he was.