Saturday, August 09, 2008

Erik Darling, 1933-2008

In 1975 I went to a party in a big old apartment building on Riverside Drive at about 75th Street, in Manhattan's Upper West Side. There was another party going on in a nearby apartment, and guests from both parties were mingling on the landing next to the stairway. I heard some laughing and clapping, and went out to see what was going on. A man with long, dark hair, evidently well in his cups, was doing an impromptu dance. Just after I arrived on the landing, he said, "I'm going to bring my friend out. He's had monster hits." He went into the apartment where the other party was going on, and emerged a moment later accompanied by a stocky man with short, salt-and-pepper hair, carrying a twelve string guitar, who launched into "Walk Right In", a 1963 number one hit for The Rooftop Singers. When the song and the applause were over, I said "You're Erik Darling."

He held out his hand and I introduced myself. He introduced me to his tipsy friend, who was Nashville based singer-songwriter Vince Matthews. They invited me to join them at the other party, which was being given by a woman who hosted a country music program on one of the local not-for-profit FM stations (if I recall correctly, it was WKCR, the Columbia University station). The hostess greeted me, and we gathered in a circle on the floor for a sing-along, accompanied by Erik's guitar. Vince and I sang "On Susan's Floor", a song he co-wrote with Shel Silverstein and which was recorded by Gordon Lightfoot and later by Hank Williams, Jr., and Erik entertained us with "Al Perrin", a song about one of the characters he had known while growing up in charming Canandaigua, New York.

Vince's claim that Erik had "monster hits" was correct. One of his earliest musical accomplishments was creating and recording, along with Bob Carey and Roger Sprung, musicians that he met playing in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, the arrangement of the Appalachian ballad "Tom Dooley" that became the first, and a number one, hit for the Kingston Trio. Before the Rooftop Singers and "Walk Right In", Erik was a member of the Tarriers, a folk group formed in Greenwich Village in 1955, originally as the Tunetellers. Another member of the group was the then future actor Alan Arkin, who also became a director of , among other films, Little Murders (which I saw last night, for the first time in 37 years, at the BAM Rose Cinema). The third member, Bob Carey, was African American, making this one of the first, if not the first, interracial folk groups. In 1956, Art D'Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate, asked the Tarriers to back up Vince Martin on "Cindy, Oh Cindy":

The song charted in 1956, and I remember it, and Vince's haunting tenor, from my fifth grade year. It was later covered by, among others, Andy Williams, the Highwaymen (of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" fame), and the Beach Boys.

"Cindy's" tune was based on a Jamaican song. In this respect, it proved a bellwether. The Tarriers' first hit on their own account was "The Banana Boat Song", which Erik created by fusing two Jamaican songs he learned from fellow Washington Square singer Bob Gibson. This song, released in November of 1956, rose to number four on the Billboard pop chart, and was later covered by Harry Belafonte. It was also covered by Shirley Bassey and by the Kinks. There's an interesting account of its history here. The Tarriers also did a version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", which was taken to number one by the Tokens in 1961. This was an adaptation of a Zulu song which, under the title "Wimoweh", had earlier been a hit for the Weavers. Erik later left the Tarriers to join the Weavers, replacing Pete Seeger.

I first became aware of Erik by name in the late 1960s, when I began collecting folk albums and saw him credited as an accompanist, either on guitar or banjo, on many of them. Below is a clip of the Rooftop Singers doing their hit "Walk Right In". Erik is the shorter of the two men. The woman is Lynne Taylor, whose vocal style evinces her background as a jazz singer. The tall man is Bill Svanoe, who remained a close friend until the end of Erik's life, which came last Sunday, at the age of 74.


  1. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Thanks for this reminder. I got my 12 string many years after "Walk Right In", but that was the first tune I played on it. While I'm here, thanks for the Fairport Convention mention recently. Looking at your pix here, I believe that we sat near each other the last time FC played at Joe's Pub. Your favorite song list shows a very similar musical taste to mine.

  2. Anonymous1:30 AM

    I was pals with the late Vince Matthews (as well as Vince Martin, but that's another story). My band Slewfoot used to back up Matthews at O'Lunney's in the mid-'70s. Great cat. I haven't thought of "On Susan's Floor" in years. He was part of the Kristofferson/Mickey Newbury/Chris Gantry/et al Nashville crew of literate hardcore freaky songwriters. Before the Outlaw movement and before Willie and Waylon had long hair and before Austin had a "sound." Was the woman you referenced Dorothy Horstman, author of Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy? The latter was a fine anthology of country lyrics. She lived on the Upper West Side and would throw killer parties populated by inebriated pickers. I very well may have been present at the bash you describe. Physically at least.

  3. Anonymous1:49 AM

    As for "Walk Right In," Lincoln Myerson, the concert director at McCabe's Guitar Shop out here in Santa Monica, California, told me last week that after the song hit the charts, the demand for acoustic 12-strings surpassed the supply. The luthiers at McCabe's had to graft 12-string headstocks onto Martin bodies and retool the bridge to accommodate 6 extra strings.

  4. Tony and Michael, thanks for your comments.

    Tony, I'm afraid the only time I saw FC live was at Carnegie Hall in 1975. I wish I could have been at Joe's when they played there. When was that?

    Michael, I also once sang a duet with Vince Martin. I first heard of him from my college roommate, who had a copy of the album he and Fred Neil made, which I liked enough to get my own copy. One night Rick Danko was playing at the Lone Star, and he and Cheryl Floyd invited me up to the little room where musicians hung out between sets. I was sitting next to a man who looked a lot like the picture of Vince on the album cover, plus a few years and pounds, but I wasn't sure enough to ask him. Rick gave me an opening by picking up his guitar and singing "Cindy, Oh Cindy". When he was done, I said, "That's a great old Vince Martin song", and the man to my right held out his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Vince Martin." I told him how much I liked Martin & Neil, and he asked me what song I'd like to sing. I said, "Dade County Jail", Rick handed Vince the guitar, and we sang, with me making a pitiful atempt to sound like Freddie. Afterwards, we talked some more, and he gave me his business card, which said he was a real estate agent somewhere in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, I lost it.

    "Dorothy" does ring a bell, though my social/familial universe contains probably a statistically anomalous number of women with that name. There's a rave recommendation of her book here