By Richie Unterberger
Erik Darling might be more well known for the groups in which he's played than for his relatively small body of solo recordings. The singer-songwriter, guitarist, and banjo player performed on hits by the Tarriers and the Rooftop Singers, as well as replacing Pete Seeger in the Weavers. In fact, he was in both the Tarriers and the Weavers at the time he recorded his self-titled debut album for Elektra in the late 1950s. While some of the folk artists Elektra recorded in its early days veered toward the more pop-oriented sector of the folk field, Erik Darling was one of the label's rootsier early efforts, steeped in earthy traditional folk and blues.
Darling, like so many young musicians of the 1950s, became immersed in the folk scene after moving to New York and getting involved in the legendary Sunday folk jam sessions in Greenwich Village's Washington Square. "One New York Sunday, I took a double-decker 5th Avenue bus down to Washington Square, where I had been told people sang folksongs," he remembers on his website, www.erikdarling.com. "I had my guitar and the nine chords I had learned in upstate New York, the chords of simple folk music -- 'cowboy chords,' as I've heard them called. At the fountain in Washington Square, a large group of people were singing. Roger Sprung played a five-string banjo, and his brother, George, held in his lap two loose-leaf books with typed lyrics. Various people flung their fingers at their guitars with varying degrees of amplitude, aptitude, attitude, and timidity. I didn't dare play that first day, but I became part of that crowd, and did not miss a Sunday for years. My homework was learning what I could remember of the melodies, chord progressions and words of those songs from the books."
Darling made his recording debut as a member, with Roger Sprung and Bob Carey, of the Folksay Trio, singing and playing guitar on four songs that were released on a ten-inch compilation LP for the small Stinson label. Darling reports, in fact, on his website that "our syncopated version of 'Tom Dooley' on this little record was the one from which the Kingston Trio got their version of the song (as the [Kingston Trio's] late Dave Guard has told us), and that song gave them the number one hit that began their career." After hearing Pete Seeger play a five-string banjo on the Almanac Singers' Sod Buster Ballads, he bought an old wooden banjo for himself the next day. He'd play the instrument as an accompanist on numerous recordings, and also put together his own group, the Tarriers, with Bob Carey and future star movie actor Alan Arkin.
The Tarriers had a Top Ten hit in early 1957 with their arrangement of a Jamaican folk tune, "The Banana Boat Song," even if it had to split sales with a competing version by Harry Belafonte that also made the Top Ten. It was the most popular song of the short-lived calypso craze, though it wasn't wholly representative of the repertoire of Darling or the Tarriers, who played North American folk music of several different styles. Shortly after Arkin left the Tarriers to pursue his acting career, Darling was recruited into the Weavers to replace one of his inspirations, the legendary Pete Seeger; Erik would tour and record with the group for the next four-and-a-half years.
It wasn't long after joining the Weavers that Darling, at the age of 24, cut Erik Darling for Elektra. "He and his wife, [future television director] Joan Darling, were friends of ours," explains Elektra president and founder Jac Holzman, who produced the LP. "Erik had played banjo on the Dalliance series [of Ed McCurdy albums of bawdy folk songs on Elektra]; Alan Arkin had played recorder. So I knew Erik, and we used Erik off and on. He had a very nice, light touch on the banjo. It had a resonance which was not unlike a harpsichord, which was how we tended to play on the Dalliance records. Erik was extraordinarily reliable."
Unaccompanied by other musicians, Darling sang and played guitar and banjo on the LP, which in keeping with many folk revival albums gathered material from numerous diverse sources. "Oh, What a Beautiful City" and "Candy Man" came from the bluesman Reverend Gary Davis; "J.C. Holmes" had been recorded by Bessie Smith; and "Salty Dog," Erik disclosed in his liner notes, was "sung one hot Sunday afternoon in Washington Square Park by a drunk person in fine spirits." Pete Seeger's influence was prominent on "The Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase," though Darling wrote that he'd heard recordings of that song by both Seeger and Uncle Dave Macon. Erik learned the version of "Paul and Silas" he recorded on this LP from Tommy Geraci, with whom he'd busked as a duo in the streets, subways, and loft concerts of New York.
Darling did not abandon his group projects in favor of a solo career, and in fact never did another album under his own name for Elektra. He did record for the label as part of the Folksingers, who put out an Elektra LP shortly afterward, and also played as a sideman on other Elektra albums by the likes of McCurdy, Judy Collins, and Jean Shepherd. His biggest commercial success, however, would happen after he left the Weavers to help form the Rooftop Singers. Darling had the idea to record the blues/folk classic "Walk Right In" with two twelve-string guitars, though they had to wait six months while the Gibson Company built the instruments for them. When "Walk Right In" was released by Vanguard, it became one of the biggest hit singles of the folk revival, soaring to #1 in early 1963. He'd record several albums with the Rooftop Singers, as well as doing albums for Vanguard as a solo artist and part of a duo with Pat Street.
"I was disappointed that we didn't know about the Rooftop Singers before they signed with Vanguard, because that's a band I absolutely would have recorded," reflects Holzman. "Our intelligence wasn't working at that point. We did not know what was going on. Although 'Walk Right In' was certainly a wonderful record and a big hit, I think we could have made a slightly better record. Vanguard didn't know anything about recording groups. We knew a little more. We tended to make much drier recordings than they did." At least he did have the chance to capture one of their members in the studio as a solo artist on Erik Darling, which makes its CD debut with this reissue. -- Richie Unterberger
Unterberger , 2000-2010
unless otherwise specified.
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