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.
Proficient on guitar, bass, fiddle, violin, banjo, Dobro, lap steel, and mandolin, Darrow never actively sought employment as a musician, but the work always managed to find him. 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 rock ‘n’ roll group, The Floggs. Together with David Lindley, Darrow would go on to found revered psychedelic 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 while crossing 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, California, 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 music shop, Claremont’s 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, 73, 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 nearby 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.”
Kaleidoscope was formed in 1966, and included Darrow along with bandmates David Lindley, Solomon Feldthouse, and Max Buda. The group pioneered an adventurous blend of Middle Eastern, country, folk, blues, and psychedelic musical styles that introduced Western ears to the intriguing instrumentation like that of the Turkish oud and bağlama (saz). The genre-defying sound of Kaleidoscope’s 1967 debut, Side Trips, was recorded on some of the first eight-track recording machines in America, with its musical content anticipating the Worldbeat movement by decades. The diverse nature of Kaleidoscope’s 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, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, 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 album Beacon From Mars. Soon after his departure, however, he got a call from his former Kaleidoscope band mates 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. Fortunately, the band was able to perform with loaner gear borrowed from fellow southern Californian, Frank Zappa, who was in town recording with The Mothers of Invention. That night, Kaleidoscope opened for German singer, Nico, (whom Darrow had previously met in Los Angeles), who performed 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 Tears David Clayton-Thomas were all hanging out.”
Following Kaleidoscope’s set, Leonard Cohen approached the band about playing on his forthcoming album and they agreed to help. The 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,” remarked Leonard Cohen upon meeting Chris Darrow face to face for the first time in 34 years. Playing bass on the sessions with Cohen, Darrow appears on album tracks “So Long Marianne” and “Teachers.” The Kaleidoscope/Cohen collaborations that didn’t make Songs of Leonard Cohen’s 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 next joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and returned to Los Angeles as an official member of the group. Chris recorded two albums with the Dirt Band including 1968’s Rare Junk, also appearing in a cameo with the band in the Clint Eastwood musical, Paint Your Wagon.
In 1969, Darrow and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna broke off and started their own group called The Corvettes, releasing two singles for the Dot label, which were produced by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. At the same time, Linda Ronstadt, a regular at Los Angeles clubs, the Ash Grove and Troubadour, was in immediate need of a backing band and the hard driving country sound of The Corvettes was a perfect match for the young singer’s voice. While backing Ronstadt, Darrow and Hanna requested that they be able to keep their own identity, performing a Corvettes song or two per set. Hanna eventually returned to his full-time gig in the Nitty Gritty 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 and was 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 and seizing the opportunity in front of him, Darrow extended an invite to Asher to come see their show at The Bitter End. Five years later, Asher would go on to produce hit records for Linda Ronstadt. 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.
In 1972, Chris signed to Fantasy Records as a solo artist and released his first LP, Artist Proof. 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,” Darrow reminisces. “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.”
In the mid-'90s, Darrow started recording for Germany’s Taxim label, which released a two-CD collection entitled Coyote: Straight from the Heart in 2000 that includes a 40-minute instrumental suite and 20 original songs. Taxim also rereleased Darrow’s solo albums Fretless (1979) and A Southern California Drive (1980). In early 2001, BGO Records in England released Darrow's second and third albums, Chris Darrow (1973) and Under My Own Disguise (1974).
In retrospect, during the late 1960s and 1970s, there seemed to be a delicate balance of relationships that would influence the evolution of country rock music for the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Chris Darrow was right in the middle of all of this and played an integral part of the formation and ultimate success of more than just a handful of his contemporaries.
Photography by Althea Sachs