The term “buried treasure” is bandied about with a rather monotonous frequency — hell, chances are you’ve probably read that phrase on this site more than a few times. But let’s be honest: most really good music doesn’t stay buried forever. Every now and again a song or an album will reemerge, popping up out of the cultural flotsam and washing ashore for our benefit. But it’s hard for legitimately great music to stay hidden. Most “buried treasure” gains credibility simply by virtue of its age, giving us a whiff of an elusive past that we somehow missed the first time around, if not quite the same heady aroma of a true classic. Very rarely does a classic album — classic in terms of both vintage and status — appear out of thin air.
And yet that is exactly what Let My People Go has done. Like a magician pulling a previously-invisible rabbit out of his hat, the good folks at Luv N’Haight have given us an album of forgotten early ‘70s soul that legitimately deserves to share shelf space with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and James Brown. That may seem like a tall order, but Darondo is more than just a footnote. Even if his recorded output prior to this release was only six tracks, wow, what a six tracks they were!
In the early ’70s, Darondo released three singles. That might look like a short sentence, but that was the story of his discography. He lived in the Bay Area and recorded with session men like guitarist Eddie Foster and producer Al Tanner. He opened for James Brown, hung with Sly Stone and Fillmore Slim. And then . . . well, sometime between now and then he found a wife in Fiji. Which should give you an idea of how far afield from the world of R&B superstardom he found himself.
And that was basically it. If it weren’t for the long memories of a few obsessive crate diggers who fondly remembered those three classic singles, Darondo would probably have faded from mere obscurity into total oblivion with the passage of time. But one of those crate diggers just happened to be a man named Gilles Peterson, who reintroduced Darondo to the world on 2005’s Gilles Peterson Digs America compilation. Do we owe the existence of this fine album to Peterson’s visionary trainspotting? Not being privy to the inner working of Luv N’Haight’s thought processes, I hesitate to say (the brief timeframe argues against it, despite the fact that both Peterson’s compilation and Let My People Go were published by Ubiquity) — but Peterson’s timely reintroduction definitely created an anticipation that would not have otherwise been present.
Let My People Go is composed of Darondo’s first three singles and three previously unreleased studio outtakes. Despite the slightly stapled-together nature of the compilation, it doesn’t lose anything in terms of cohesiveness. The unreleased tracks are easily of the same quality as the original singles — and with only nine songs to choose from, a sag in quality towards the end of the album would definitely stick out.
The album begins with the title track, “Let My People Go”, and it’s easy to see this track as something of a rejoinder to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, in particular “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”. Both songs begin with mentions of the space program — but whereas Gaye makes a less confrontational point (“Rockets, moon shots, / Spend it on the have-nots”), Darondo goes straight for the jugular:
“Man builds a rocket ship, /
Take you to the moon, /
A billion dollar mission, just to bring back a piece of rock, /
We got starvation, panic over the land, /
And here’s a fool in a rocketship, /
Trying to be Superman.”
You don’t need to hear the audible disdain in Darondo’s voice to know he’s pissed. This is soul music with sharp teeth, not just politely curtseying around the total failure of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and the disintegration of the northern inner city that served as Martin Luther King’s last great Quixotic crusade, but attacking the breakdowns head-on. Darondo’s undisguised anger and cynicism serve as something of a precursor to the urban poets who would chronicle the further failures of American democracy when hip-hop swept the country just a short decade later.
The b-side to “Let My People Go” is “Legs”, as purely sexual a track as the flip side was political. The music here is ramshackle, slightly disjointed — it sounds like a house party after the house band has had the chance to get well lubricated. “Didn’t I” is a slow, mournful ballad in the mode of Al Green. Lamenting the end of a failed relationship, Darondo seems to be berating himself as much as he’s pleading for forgiveness — “Didn’t I treat you right?” he asks, as much for his own benefit as for ours. The languid strings and slightly countrified electric guitar are perfect accompaniment to the singer’s plaintive falsetto.
“I Want Your Love So Bad” is a rare misstep, built around a falsetto hook that Darondo doesn’t quite nail. It’s a reminder that for all his acumen, he was still essentially an amateur singer at the time of these recordings. With such a slight body of work, the fact that he managed to achieve as compelling a presentation as he did is just short of amazing. Maybe he didn’t quite have the polished tone of Messrs. Gaye or Green, but the ease with which he swung between the slightly haggard baritone of “Let Mt people Go” and the sweet melodicism of “Didn’t I” belies any lack of experience or ability.
“How I Got Over” is a rocker that showcases Darondo’s charismatic delivery in front of a Latin-influenced rhythm section — Santana is not a usual touchstone when discussing ’70s R&B, but I was definitely reminded of those first few (essential) Santana albums, particularly Gregg Rolie’s distinctive organ contributions. (My promo copy of Let My People Go is short on credits, so I am left wondering who exactly his different sidemen were on specific tracks.) “My Momma and My Poppa” is a surprisingly tender jam on the virtues of his parents — showcasing not only a vulnerable side to Darondo’s multi-faceted personality, but a surprisingly squonky bit of quasi-Coltrane saxophone from his sideman.
“Sure Know How To Love Me” is the first of the three previously unreleased tracks. A slow-burning jam that again points to Green’s distinctive Memphis sound without overly cribbing, it could easily have been a fourth single. “Listen to My Song” pus the singer’s falsetto to better use than on “I Want Your Love So Bad” — and the slight gospel flavor adds another satisfying layer of depth to the man’s sound. The album finishes with “True”, a Motown-influenced track that cuts away the rest of the album’s stylistic smorgasbord in favor of a fairly straightforward R&B number of the type that could have been a hit at any point in the two decades surrounding its recording.
Let My People Go isn’t a perfect album, and Darondo is far from a perfect singer. But what he does have — and what this album showcases to phenomenal effect — is charisma, the type of weather-beaten magnetism that can only come from experience. If he’d somehow managed to survive the high-living of the early ’70s without dropping out entirely, he could have been a talent on a national scale, every bit the equal of any of his more polished peers. As it stands, his career was woefully brief, but we should be glad we finally got what we have here. Compared with the depressing prospect of these recordings languishing in obscurity forever, this is simply an embarrassment of riches for which we should all be grateful.