Long before recording as a solo artist in the 1970s, multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow was a well-known musician and trusted sideman in Los Angeles’ tightly knit music scene. In 2009, Los Feliz CA-based Everloving Records is honored to reissue two classic Chris Darrow solo albums, 1973’s Chris Darrow and 1974’s Under My Own Disguise. Both titles were originally released via the United Artists label.
Proficient on guitar, bass, fiddle, violin, banjo, Dobro, lap steel and mandolin, Chris Darrow never actively sought employment as a musician, but the work always managed to find him. Even if you have never heard his name before, Darrow’s fingerprints remain in conspicuous corners of the public consciousness. His early career was spent playing in bluegrass combo The Dry City Scat Band with David Lindley, and fronting electric rock group The Floggs. With Lindley, he co-founded revered psych outfit Kaleidoscope -- hailed by Jimmy Page as his “favorite band of all time.” A stint with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band led to the formation of The Corvettes, which later resulted in long-term touring relationships with Linda Ronstadt and John Stewart. He contributed to pivotal session gigs with Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Hoyt Axton and crossed paths with Sly Stone, Sonny and Cher, Gram Parsons, Gene Vincent, Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa and even Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner.
Raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, CA (located 30 miles east of Downtown L.A.) Chris Darrow, came of age with the sounds of Ritchie Valens and the Everly Brothers on the radio. He was encouraged to explore his musical curiosities at a small, family-run instrument shop called The Claremont Folk Music Center, where he purchased his first guitar at age 13. “The Folk Music Center was a godsend to a kid like me who wanted to play guitar and learn about folk music,” marvels Darrow, who at age 64, still resides in Claremont. “You could take an instrument home and play it while you were paying it off.” (Ben Harper, grandson of shop owners Charles and Dot Chase, would later record a cover of Darrow’s “Whipping Boy” as the lead single for his major label debut.) At Pitzer College, Chris spent two years assisting respected folklorist Guy Carawan, who was teaching American Folk Life Studies. Carawan is responsible for introducing the world to iconic protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
With Kaleidoscope, Chris Darrow and bandmates David Lindley, Solomon Feldthouse and Max Buda, pioneered an adventurous blend of Middle Eastern, country, folk, blues and psychedelia that introduced Western ears to the intriguing instrumentation of the Turkish oud and caz. The genre-defying sound of Kaleidoscope’s 1967 debut Side Trips, recorded on some of the first eight-track recording machines in America, anticipated the World Beat movement by decades. The eclectic nature of their music allowed them the opportunity to perform with a wide spectrum of artists including Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Taj Mahal, The Byrds, Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, Steppenwolf, The Grateful Dead, The Impressions and Procul Harum. Kaleidoscope even gigged outside of the Monterey Pop Festival, playing to the Hells Angels.
Citing creative differences, Chris Darrow quit Kaleidoscope shortly after completion of the band’s sophomore effort Beacon From Mars. Soon after his departure, he got a call from his former bandmates who were in a bind. Stuart Brottman, the musician set to take over Darrow’s duties in Kaleidoscope, was not yet available for their December 1967 residency in New York City. They asked Chris to come with them.
Booked for a week of gigs at Steve Paul’s chic midtown Manhattan club The Scene, Kaleidoscope had their gear stolen almost as soon as they arrived in town. With loaner gear borrowed from fellow West Coaster Frank Zappa who was in town recording with The Mothers of Invention. The band opened for Nico (whom Darrow had previously met in L.A.), who was accompanied only by her Hammond B3 organ. “There were very few West Coast groups that had played in the East yet, and we ‘long haired hippies’ were the antithesis of the New York vibe at the time,” says Darrow while reflecting on that particularly pivotal night. “Warhol and his minions showed up, The Cyrcle was there, the Chambers Brothers, Leonard Cohen and a pre-Blood Sweat and Tears David Clayton-Thomas were all hanging out.” After Kaleidoscope’s set, Cohen approached the band about playing on his forthcoming album. They agreed to the gig and he next day Darrow, Lindley and Buda sat in Cohen’s apartment learning to play compositions that would become debut masterwork Songs of Leonard Cohen. “Boy you guys really saved me when I did my first album in New York,” says Leonard Cohen when he meets Chris Darrow face to face for the first time in 34 years. Cohen has come down the hill from nearby Mt. Baldy Zen Retreat and the two are sitting in Yianni’s Greek Café in Darrow’s hometown of Claremont CA. Lending his bass playing skills to those sessions, Darrow appears on album tracks “So Long Marianne” and “Teachers.” The Kaleidoscope/Cohen collaborations that didn’t make Songs’ final cut were later resurrected for use in Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller, including alternate versions of “Sisters of Mercy” and “The Stranger Song.”
After seeing them perform in New York City, Chris Darrow took up the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s offer to join forces, and Chris returned to Los Angeles as an official member of the group. Chris recorded two albums with the Dirt Band including Rare Junk, and appeared in the Clint Eastwood musical Paint Your Wagon. In 1969, Darrow and the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna broke off and started their own group called The Corvettes, releasing two singles for the Dot label, produced by Mike Nesmith. At the same time Linda Ronstadt, a regular at the Ash Grove and Troubadour, was in immediate need of a backing band. The hard driving country sound of The Corvettes was a perfect match for the young singer’s voice. While backing Ronstadt, they asked to keep their own identity and performed a song or two per set at The Corvettes. Hanna eventually returned to his full time gig in the Dirt Band, and was replaced by (future Eagle) Bernie Leadon.
While playing with Ronstadt in New York, Chris Darrow spotted Peter Asher checking into the band’s hotel. It was 1969 and Asher was fresh from his gig at Apple Records (where he had given a young James Taylor his first record deal), about to take on the position as Director of A&R for MGM Records. In addition to performing in Ronstadt’s band, Darrow had also done occasional work as her road manager. Seizing the opportunity in front of him, Darrow extended an invite to Asher to come see their show at The Bitter End. Asher would go on to produce hit records for Linda Ronstadt for the next twenty years. Asher had also extended the offer to produce The Corvettes for MGM, but by the end of the band’s stay in New York, Bernie Leadon had been recruited into the Flying Burrito Brothers and John Ware and John London became part of Mike Nesmith’s First National Band. Though an MGM deal for the Corvettes never transpired, Asher later called on Darrow to provide fiddle and violin on James Taylor’s wildly popular second album Sweet Baby James.
Chris soon signed to Fantasy Records as a solo artist and released his first LP Artist Proof in 1972. He moved over to the United Artists label for his next two releases, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise. Recorded in England and California with members of Fairport Convention, arranger and harpsichordist Dolly Collins, pedal steel genius B.J. Cole (Scott Walker, Elton John) and a host of others, these two albums pair Darrow’s raw California twang and taste for experimentation with the crisp English production of the emerging UK folk-rock scene. “I chose to go to England to record my second solo album Chris Darrow. I had recorded a real American album with Artist Proof. To move to the next rung, I felt that it was necessary to expand and search out new territories. In the early seventies there was a movement around the world to return to the roots. Groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were exploring the English tradition, and there were movements in France and Ireland pushing for the return of indigenous traditions. These people were like minds to me and I sought to meld the various traditions on a pan-world level.”
While these records have remained largely obscure, more than 35 years later, the music sounds incredibly modern. Chris Darrow was ahead of the mark on many fronts, and with these reissued titles the rest of the world may finally catch up to him.