Obituary: Johnny Darrell

Johnny Darrell, singer and songwriter: born Llopewell, Alabama 23 July 1940; married (one daughter); died Kennesaw, Georgia 7 October 1997.

British country music fans of a certain age will fondly remember Johnny Darrell's visit to these shores back in 1969. Appearing alongside Hank Snow, Willie Nelson and Nat Stuckey on a tour designed to coincide with the first birthday celebrations for Opry magazine, he proved himself an interesting talent with the potential perhaps to become a major crossover star. But he was unable to build upon his early success and within a few years had virtually disappeared from view.

Darrell had taught himself to play guitar whilst still in his early teens and on joining the army performed at base dances. By 1964, having left the military, he was managing a Holiday Inn motel in the Nashville area and found himself regularly dealing with people in the music business.

Keen to pursue his own interest in that field, it wasn't until the country star Bobby Barc arranged a meeting with United Artists that he got the chance to cut a record. His debut disc for the label in 1965, the first recording of Curly Putman's now classic "Green, Green Grass of Home", fared poorly, becoming a country hit only when covered the same year by Porter Wagoner and an international smash when tackled by Tom Jones in 1966.

His next single, "As Long as the Wind Blows" (1966), again penned by Putman, found its way into the country Top 30 and saw Darrell being named "Most Promising Male Artist" by Cash Box magazine.

His chart run continued and in 1967, by now produced by the label head and former Buddy Holly associate Bob Montgomery, his version of Mel Tillis's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" went to the Top 10. Inspired by an incident during the Second World War, the song's reference to "this crazy Asian war" was widely believed to refer to Vietnam and, trading on that presumed association, became a huge pop hit two years later for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.

Darrell's next single, the original version of another future pop smash, Dallas Frazier's "Son of Hickory Hollow's Tramp" (1968), made it only into the Top 25. It was followed by "With Pen In Hand", the closest Darrell came to a chart-topper and his only single to edge its way into the US pop chart. After "I Ain't Buying" (1968) and "Woman Without Love" (1969) came a duet, "The Coming of the Roads", with the underrated Anita Carter of the famous Carter Family; its lowly chart placing failing to reflect its obvious quality.

Having garnered the respect of the cream of Nashville's songwriting community, Darrell next turned to two of its heaviest hitters, gaining Top 25 successes with first, Mickey Newbury's "Why Have You Been Gone So Long" and second, Billy Ed Wheeler's "River Bottom" (both 1969).

The hits however, begin to dry up, a label switch to Monument producing the uncharacteristic "Dakota the Dancing Bear" (1973), and a further move to Capricorn resulting in one album and a final hit, an unsuccessful reworking of the bluegrass standard "Orange Blossom Special" (1975).

Diagnosed in the mid-Seventies with the diabetes which eventually would kill him, Johnny Darrell cut just one further album, in 1979 re-recording of his hits for Gusto before fading into an undeserved obscurity.

- Paul Wadey

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