Forgotten Artists: Johnny Darrell
One of life’s biggest mysteries (or at least one of Country Music’s biggest mysteries) is that Johnny Darrell (1940-1997) never became a star. Arguably country music’s first “outlaw,” Darrell recorded for United Artists from 1965 to about 1973, but United was only a bit player in country music, and so Darrell’s records didn’t get the major promotional effort they deserved.
Darrell had a clear, strong, and masculine voice–somewhere between tenor and baritone, but his true strength was in identifying great songs and great songwriters. Among the songs he was the first to record were (with subsequent cover artist in parenthesis):
- “Green Green Grass of Home” #12 CB (Porter Wagoner, Tom Jones)
- “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” #7 CB / 9 BB (Kenny Rogers)
- “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” #14 CB / 22 BB (O.C. Smith)
- “With Pen in Hand” #3 BB / 4 CB (Billy Vera, Vickie Carr)
Darrell’s biggest hit was “With Pen In Hand,” which rose to #3 on the country charts. A much inferior cover by Billy Vera was simultaneously a hit on the pop charts, and if United Artists had done a decent job of promoting and distributing Darrell’s version–which was nearly impossible to find for purchase in many parts of the country–it almost surely would have crossed over and taken the place of Vera’s.
Darrell’s most remembered record today is his rocking version of “Why You Been Gone So Long,” written by Mickey Newbury, which rose to #17 BB/20 CB with a spattering of pop airplay as well.
All told, United Artists issued seven albums on Darrell, plus a handful of budget reissues on its Sunset label:
- As Long As The Winds Blow (1966, United Artists)
- Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1967, United Artists)
- The Son of Hickery Holler’s Tramp (1968, United Artists)
- With Pen in Hand (1968, United Artists)
- Why You Been Gone So Long (1969, United Artists)
- California Stop-Over (1970, United Artists)
- The Best of Johnny Darrell (1970, United Artists)
His first five albums followed the usual pattern for country albums: one or two singles, a few covers, and some filler. Where Darrell’s albums differed from the norm, however, was in the fact that the filler wasn’t really filler at all, and that the covers were sometimes of lesser hits. His first album featured an early Kristofferson song “Don’t Tell My Little Girl,” as well a Bobby Bare composition, “Passin’ Through,” and his second, Ruby…, featured a June Carter/Johnny Cash composition, “She’s Mighty Gone.”
The majority of Darrell’s catalogue was recorded in Nashville, but due to his inability to score the big country hit, United Artist tried recording his later work in California. It was there that Johnny uncovered gems by then-largely unknown songwriters such as Mickey Newberry, Lowell George, Jackson Browne and Ronnie Self. Unfortunately, the album California Stop-Over again failed to produce hits, but did eventually become a collector’s item, especially among fans of The Byrds, due to Clarence White’s guitar work on the album.
After the relative commercial failure of California Stop-Over, United Artists and Darrell parted company, largely marking the end of his career, but for only a few more singles and one more album of new material (Water Glass Full of Whiskey, Capricorn, 1975).
Darrell struggled with a deadly combination of alcohol and diabetes, leading to his untimely death at age 57. Unfortunately, very little of the singer’s material is now commercially available–the Australian label Raven issued a CD combining his greatest hits with California Stop-Over in 1999 (Singin’ It Lonesome — The Very Best… 1965-1970), a collection well worth hunting down. More readily available is The Complete Gusto/Starday Recordings, an album of remakes which find Darrell in typically strong voice, although they lack the sparkle of the original recordings.
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