With a still-flourishing music career that has included playing with pop music icons like Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Sonny & Cher, John Fahey and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among many others, Chris Darrow got in at the ground floor of the ’60s rock ‘n’ roll explosion. As a charter member of the Kaleidoscope, one of the era’s striking originals, Darrow was in the right place to share stages with just about every giant of the era. The exotic-sounding, southern California-based combo shared stages with Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Big Brother & the Holding Co. with Janis Joplin, Moby Grape and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Darrow was kind enough to chat at length about those magical times from his southern California home.
How did the Kaleidoscope get off the ground, Chris?
I was the last of the guys to join Kaleidoscope. I was going to grad school at Claremont, and I’d had my own band called the Floggs. Three of the songs from [Kaleidoscope’s album debut] Side Trips came directly from the Floggs stuff. David [Lindley] and I had played bluegrass. We had a band called the Mad Mountain Ramblers, and that went into the Dry City Scat Band with a number of notables, including Richard Greene from Sea Train (and later on with Bill Monroe) and Pete Madlem who’s now a quite well known classical writer. It was the summer of ’64 and we had been playing bluegrass at Disneyland on Friday and Saturday nights on the Mine Train ride. And people like Ry Cooder and Joe & Eddie would be performing there. We were in a situation called the Pepsi Hootenanny. A guy named Steve Gillette, a well known singer/songwriter at the time, was in on the thing too, along with a guy named Steve Mann. Also one of the guys from the First Edition was in there and a guy named Mike Post who later wrote The Rockford Files. It was a very interesting summer.
Playing bluegrass, you must have been the only kids around that summer who were unaffected by the Beatles.
I remember Richard brought some guy to the show that summer who didn’t look like anybody else we knew. He was wearing little square dark glasses and had bobbed hair and was wearing Beatle boots. And none of us really knew much about the Beatles at that time. He said he’d just got back from England and all this stuff was happening over there. He had one of those John Lennon Red Gibsons. And it was Jim McGuinn. I was really good friends with Chris Hillman at the time. I remember Chris, at the end of that summer, telling me, sort of disparagingly, that he’d joined a rock ‘n’ roll band. He was almost embarrassed to tell me. Us bluegrass guys were totally into playing bluegrass. We listened to rock ‘n’ roll and stuff, but most of our heroes, like Buddy Holly, had died. By ’63, there wasn’t really much going on in pop music, and by that time we’d already established ourselves as the hot bluegrass guys in southern California. In fact, Chris Hillman’s band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, took our place at Disneyland when we finally moved on.
You couldn’t have escaped the Beatles’ tidal wave much longer.
Right after that, I heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and I knew who it was immediately, even though I’d never heard them before. I said, “Oh, I get it. It’s the Everly Brothers.” All of a sudden, everybody I knew, including myself, we all got electric guitars and started forming bands. The Floggs came into being around that time. After we stopped playing bluegrass together, David started playing around town with different guys. I was going to graduate school. I had a son in ’64, and after the Floggs had been together almost two years, people were getting disinterested and going their separate ways. I was getting discouraged because all these guys were jumping ship. Then one night I got a call from David saying they were forming this leader-less band and are you interested?
Did he tell you what kind of a band it was going to be?
No, but David’s taste and mine were always very similar. We’d always got along together very well, musically. So, to make a long story short, I show up at the first rehearsal, and it’s David and Solomon Feldthouse, Chester Crill who played under a number of pseudonyms: Fenrus Epp, Max Buda and Templeton Parsley and John Vidican, the drummer, and myself. Chester is quoted as saying, “If you hadn’t showed up, Chris, it probably wouldn’t have worked because we didn’t have enough guys who knew what rock ‘n’ roll was.” I had the most rock ‘n’ roll experience, because most of us came out of bluegrass and folk music. Most of the west coast guys, like Jerry Garcia, were all from folk bands. Previous to the English Invasion, most of the guys who were our age and getting all the record deals were on the East Coast, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band guys. David, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and I were all part of the Ash Grove scene, and they had formed the Rising Sons.
How did the first days of rehearsal go?
We started working out material, and the idea was that this was a band of four leaders and a drummer. Each one had different strengths. Solomon, obviously, had his Middle Eastern stuff, David had played Flamenco, and he and I overlapped with the Cajun and Country stuff. A lot of the Goodtime stuff comes from Chester and from me. Chester had played in jug bands, and my dad, Paul Darrow, was a jazz clarinet and saxophone player. I grew up, from the time I was a little boy, listening to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. By the time I was five years old I could sing Jack Teagarden songs. Consequently, I have an older knowledge of music that came before, because of my father. If anybody brought a song to the band, he would be the one to say this is how it’s going to go, at least start the ball rolling.
The Middle Eastern material must have been a real eye-opener.
None of us knew much about Middle Eastern music, so when we were doing stuff in 7/8 and 9/8 time we’d have to learn it by going “duh-da-duh, duh-da-duh, duh, duh.” And that’s how we’d learn that stuff, because we were all in our 20s and all really good musicians. It was like going to a university of music. There was so much overlap. David was really into Ravi Shankar, and Solomon was really good at blues, and 12-string, almost like a Leadbelly guy, but he hated rock ‘n’ roll. So, I became the major songwriter in the band, because nobody else wrote much. With my time in the Floggs I had a couple of years on those guys in terms of experience.
Where did the exotic instruments come from?
Pretty much by hook and by crook. At that time you couldn’t get electric anything, so we were pasting contact mics onto anything we found. The grandparents of Ben Harper had a place in Claremont called the Folk Music Center, world-renowned now, but it was just a little shop back then that sold folk instruments from all around the world. David’s an inveterate collector, as is Solomon and so am I. At the time we played bluegrass, Mike Seeger was an idol of ours, a multi-instrumentalist who could play banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. So, as young musicians, we weren’t afraid to pick up an instrument and learn how to play it. By the time I started playing with the Kaleidoscope, I could pretty much play anything, or figure it out by applying the knowledge of one ins trument to another. And David and Solomon and Chester were the same way. It was tremendous. We had four guys who could play fiddle in the band.
How did you come by the very apt name for the group?
We didn’t have any name for the band for a long time. It just sat there. We called ourselves the Baghdad Blues Band. One of the secretaries for Barry Friedman, our producer, I think she was the one who came up with the name Kaleidoscope. I thought it was perfect. I was the one who came up with the name Side Trips for the first album. “Trip” was a big word at that time. And we were on Epic, part of Columbia, with the Byrds, Donovan and Moby Grape who all had these beautiful, psychedelic record covers. And we couldn’t wait to have a color cover for our album. Then we get this black and white cover with blue ink on the back. It was done by the guy who did the art for ESP-Disk [an ultra-hip New York label for “new thing” jazz]. At the time we were pissed-off about the black and white, but, in retrospect, the cover sets us apart from almost everybody else.
What do you remember about the guys in the band?
I remember going to Solomon’s place. He lived in this big five-car garage in the back of this big house. He had kids and cats and dogs, and he lived like a gypsy. His wife was a belly-dancer. That was exactly at the time when Jimmy Page saw us at the Avalon Ballroom up in San Francisco when he said we were his favorite band of all time.
Where did you guys live. There’s some erroneous info out there that you came from the Berkeley area. But you’re all from southern California, right?
I’ll tellya, we probably should have been from Berkeley because of our stance. I think we were much more of a northern California band than a southern California band. I lived in Claremont, David lived in San Marino, Chester lived in Pasadena, and John lived in Arcadia. We’d always rehearse in weird places. We played a lot of early gigs in Claremont. My ex-wife and I worked at this place called th e Raku Gallery and we played there. We played a lot of local, friendly gigs around Pasadena to get our feet wet. We were very well rehearsed. We recorded seven songs in our first session for the Side Trips album. We were so tight we could have recorded the whole album in three days. That’s why it’s so crisp and deliberate. Everything’s about two and a half minutes long. Jac Holzman [of Elektra Records] called that his favorite album of all time. And Mojo magazine has called “Keep Your Mind Open” one of the top 50 psychedelic songs of all time. It’s one of mine and I sing it, so that’s very nice.
Did you work into the exotic stuff, or were you playing that right out of the chute?
At that time they were trying to get you to have hits. When I joined the band they’d already recorded demos of “Please” and “Why Try,” and those were the songs that got the band the deal with Epic. Everybody wanted us to have hits. Consequently, the first album had short songs but things like “Egyptian Gardens” and “If The Night,” songs that were trying to be “with it.”
“Pulsating Dream,” to me, sounds kind of Byrds/Moby Grape-ish.
We were all into that. It was designed to be one of those kinds of songs. We were going after the Byrds and those guys. Moby Grape was my favorite California band. I loved them. After the Kaleidoscope, I had a band with Bob Mosley for a while called the Darrow-Mosley Band. It was a wonderful band. And you’re right about “Pulsating Dream.” It was aimed at the center of the radio dial. In terms of material, both Chester and I were mainly responsible for the outside material. We had the best record collections.
Chester and I are still playing together. In fact, he was over here just yesterday. We’re working on an album right now called Island Girl which is gorgeous. We’ve never gotten in any hassles. We’ve always been real good friends. I love his playing, and he seems to like mine. It’s a collaborative unit. Whenever we do any thing together, it’s always Darrow/Buda.
I know you played the Ash Grove and, I assume, the Troubadour, too.
Our first gig at the Troubadour was with Hoyt Axton, and we did a number of gigs at the Ash Grove, one of which was with Doc Watson. And we did the Whisky, too. But we also did a lot of work up in SanFrancisco. And, it never seemed like we were in competition with anybody there. We’ve been called the first World Beat band because of our eclecticism, but it was probably our undoing, too. Somebody who liked the psychedelic stuff might not like the Old Timey songs. Or they might not like the Middle Eastern stuff. I kept thinking that this is a great record, people will love it. And then our records would do OK, but wouldn’t sell. I think Side Trips sold between five and ten thousand.
Too bad you didn’t get some exposure at the Monterey Pop Festival. That would have been a natural showcase for you.
We were asked at the last minute to take the Grateful Dead’s place at the Monterey Pop Festival, and then the Grateful Dead changed their minds and said they were gonna do it. So we ended up driving all night and [Monterey Pop officials] basically told us we couldn’t play on the main stage. We ended up playing at nine in the morning for the Hell’s Angels in the area where they parked their bikes. By that time, we had developed a really strong stage show, different every night.
You played with Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Big Brother with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and just about every other big name in the business.
We did a number of gigs with the Airplane. We played with them and Doc Watson, James Cotton and Janis Ian at the 1967 Berkeley Folk Festival, [the Magic Mountain Festival] on Mount Tamalpais and the big festival in southern California at Devonshire Downs. In fact, we had a chance to see pretty much everybody play. I thought Grace Slick was a great singer. The Steve Miller Band, too, at that time was sensational.
I’ve got plenty of posters of you guys at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
We played the Family Dog shows a lot. I just loved it. I really liked the Avalon Ballroom. It had a very hospitable tone. I liked those people. Chet Helms was a very sweet guy, very accommodating. We also played the Carousel Ballroom [before it became Fillmore West in 1968] with the Sons of Champlin, Canned Heat and Count Five. And we played Longshoremen’s Hall with Steve Miller, Sopwith Camel and Mount Rushmore. I left the band before Stu Brottman could join as my replacement. We had a number of east coast gigs and I’d never been to New York, so I went along. We played at a college, I think it was Stony Brook, with Jefferson Airplane.
Why did you leave the band?
David and Solomon wanted the band to go more Middle Eastern, while Chester and I were much more interested in having the band be more Western. That wasn’t our cup of tea. So, it was time for me to move on. From the standpoint of it being a golden time, the remarkable thing was that it really was that way for a while. You could walk down Haight St. and feel it. When you went into a store and heard music, you liked it. Everybody was happy, everybody was pretty and everybody was friendly. I have to say I’m very proud of these two records. One of the reasons the first two Kaleidoscope albums are so enduring is that they really have that quality that was inherent in the times.