Forgotten Artists: Johnny Darrell

Paul W. Dennis | July 24th, 2008

Forgotten Artists: Johnny Darrell

One of life’s biggest mysteries (or at least one of Country Music’s biggest mysteries) is that Johnny Darrell (1940-1997) never became a star. Arguably country music’s first “outlaw,” Darrell recorded for United Artists from 1965 to about 1973, but United was only a bit player in country music, and so Darrell’s records didn’t get the major promotional effort they deserved.

Darrell had a clear, strong, and masculine voice–somewhere between tenor and baritone, but his true strength was in identifying great songs and great songwriters. Among the songs he was the first to record were (with subsequent cover artist in parenthesis):

  • “Green Green Grass of Home” #12 CB (Porter Wagoner, Tom Jones)
  • “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” #7 CB / 9 BB (Kenny Rogers)
  • “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” #14 CB / 22 BB (O.C. Smith)
  • “With Pen in Hand” #3 BB / 4 CB (Billy Vera, Vickie Carr)

Darrell’s biggest hit was “With Pen In Hand,” which rose to #3 on the country charts. A much inferior cover by Billy Vera was simultaneously a hit on the pop charts, and if United Artists had done a decent job of promoting and distributing Darrell’s version–which was nearly impossible to find for purchase in many parts of the country–it almost surely would have crossed over and taken the place of Vera’s.

Darrell’s most remembered record today is his rocking version of “Why You Been Gone So Long,” written by Mickey Newbury, which rose to #17 BB/20 CB with a spattering of pop airplay as well.

All told, United Artists issued seven albums on Darrell, plus a handful of budget reissues on its Sunset label:

  • As Long As The Winds Blow (1966, United Artists)
  • Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1967, United Artists)
  • The Son of Hickery Holler’s Tramp (1968, United Artists)
  • With Pen in Hand (1968, United Artists)
  • Why You Been Gone So Long (1969, United Artists)
  • California Stop-Over (1970, United Artists)
  • The Best of Johnny Darrell (1970, United Artists)

His first five albums followed the usual pattern for country albums: one or two singles, a few covers, and some filler. Where Darrell’s albums differed from the norm, however, was in the fact that the filler wasn’t really filler at all, and that the covers were sometimes of lesser hits. His first album featured an early Kristofferson song “Don’t Tell My Little Girl,” as well a Bobby Bare composition, “Passin’ Through,” and his second, Ruby…, featured a June Carter/Johnny Cash composition, “She’s Mighty Gone.”

The majority of Darrell’s catalogue was recorded in Nashville, but due to his inability to score the big country hit, United Artist tried recording his later work in California. It was there that Johnny uncovered gems by then-largely unknown songwriters such as Mickey Newberry, Lowell George, Jackson Browne and Ronnie Self. Unfortunately, the album California Stop-Over again failed to produce hits, but did eventually become a collector’s item, especially among fans of The Byrds, due to Clarence White’s guitar work on the album.

After the relative commercial failure of California Stop-Over, United Artists and Darrell parted company, largely marking the end of his career, but for only a few more singles and one more album of new material (Water Glass Full of Whiskey, Capricorn, 1975).

Darrell struggled with a deadly combination of alcohol and diabetes, leading to his untimely death at age 57. Unfortunately, very little of the singer’s material is now commercially available–the Australian label Raven issued a CD combining his greatest hits with California Stop-Over in 1999 (Singin’ It Lonesome — The Very Best… 1965-1970), a collection well worth hunting down. More readily available is The Complete Gusto/Starday Recordings, an album of remakes which find Darrell in typically strong voice, although they lack the sparkle of the original recordings.

(BB= Billboard; CB = Cashbox. The two charts were equally regarded prior to 1982, with about 45% of the radio stations following each chart service. There was also a third chart, Record World, which was in less general use.)

2 Pings

  1. [...] happy to report that he’s now writing a feature for The 9513 called Forgotten Artists.  The first one is on Johnny Darrell.  Paul is a  walking encyclopedia of country music history, as many of you [...]
  2. [...] I love 9513’s feature “Forgotten Artists.” The country music blog takes a look at Johnny Darrell and Charley [...]
  1. Patrick
    July 24, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I worked in publishing and attended one of Johnny’s Los Angeles sessions.
    He was a big favorite of those of us in the business…kind of like Willie was in those days. Unfortunately for Darrell, he became harder and harder to work with and I think it it simply reached a point where the Nashville suits decided he was more trouble than he was worth. He probably was, but he was also an original and exciting artist (with a bad attitude).

  2. Stormy
    July 24, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    The Statlers also recorded Green, Green Grass of Home and Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town (my favorite version because the minor key harmonies really make that last “for my sake turn around” ache). Perhaps they were in a kartel alligned against him.

  3. Chris N.
    July 24, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    This is a cool idea for a recurring feature. I’d like to see more of these.

  4. John Maglite
    July 24, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    I agree with Chris. This was really interesting. I think that the blog world, which often seems caught up in a perpetual here-and-now, could use more history. I vote for more Paul W. Dennis!

  5. Rick
    July 24, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I second that vote for far more cool historical articles on overlooked country artists from Mr. Dennis here at The 9513. Country Universe got a leg up with their excellent “Top 100 Women of Country Music” series, so now its time for The 9513 to catch up and get out that big can of Dr. Phil’s Whoop-Ass! (lol)

    Before this article I had never heard of Mr. Darrell, but since I initially got focused on country music starting in 1985 most of what happened in the country realm prior to that is a mystery to me. I truly enjoy these types of articles a great deal as they serve as an antidote to the soul to counteract the daily overdose of Airhead Country billowing out of mainstream Nashville in these New Dark Ages of commercial country music….(Sorry about the run on sentence. I guess Nashville isn’t the only thing with a tendency to billow these days…)(lol)

  6. Brady Vercher
    July 24, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Articles that highlight parts of country music history are definitely something that we’ve wanted to do for awhile and have done on occasion with our “Behind The Music” series, but I think Paul’s knowledge is an indispensable asset for any such venture. I also enjoy comments like the one from Patrick that carry little nuggets of history that you probably won’t find anywhere else.

    The only bad thing about articles like this is that it might just empty my wallet out trying to find the music. Walmart seems to have the cheapest price of the recommended album.

    Good job on an article well done, Paul. I look forward to more.

  7. Stormy
    July 24, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Me too.

  8. Rick
    July 24, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    I’ve been thinking(!,uh-oh), can we make suggestions for future subject matter? I’d nominate “Sam Phillip’s Greatest Sun Label Regret: The Miller Sisters”. The Miller Sisters (in law) released three singles on the Sun label circa 1955-6 which failed in the marketplace in spite of their quality. They were let go from the label and the act dissolved at that time.

    The Miller Sisters’ Sun tracks were finally compiled on a CD by the AVI label in the mid 1990’s which was titled “The Miller Sisters, Sun’s Singing Sweethearts, Sun Country, Volume 3″. This CD has been distributed mostly in Europe but I did find exactly one retail outlet in the US named Crypt Records in New York City that carries it. The liner notes tell the interesting tale of how their domineering manager, who was the big brother of one of the gals and the husband of the other, destroyed their chances at success. Col. Tom Parker saw them perform at a concert with Elvis in 1955 and wanted to manage them but was re-buffed by Mr. Miller! Who knows what these gals might have been capable of in the long term…..

    Its worth checking out the wacky offerings available at Crypt as the country artists they feature tend to be mostly forgotten types like Wynn Stewart. The USA location dumps the country artists into the “Rockabilly” category.

    Link: http://www.cryptrecords.com/

    Well, it was just a cheeky suggestion… (and my last one for the day. I promise!)

  9. Dan M.
    July 24, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Love this, Paul. Exactly what I was hoping you’d do. Although this is going to make me even more broke. Thanks for the link, Brady.

  10. Kelly
    July 25, 2008 at 5:28 am

    I am with everyone else. Great write-up Paul. I have enjoyed 1100 Springs recent cover of “Why You Been gone So Long”, and I have wondered about it’s history, but havent done any “looking up”, so this takes care of that. I look forward to more!

  11. leeann
    July 25, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Dang it! I’m gonna have to make another album purchase today…and it’s not even 9:30 in the morning.

    Intriguing article, Paul. Great voice and I love the sound. Off to amazon I go.

  12. leeann
    July 25, 2008 at 8:38 am

    …Okay, not amazon, since there’s not much by way of digital options for him there. I might have to stop being lazy and just set up an account on walmart.com then.

  13. Stormy
    July 25, 2008 at 9:36 am

    You might see if he has downloadable tracks on Myspace.

    What’s weird about Walmart is that the “shit” in my Eve song is bleeped but the gigantic “fuck” in my Blue October track is left in.

  14. leeann
    July 25, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Maybe if “Shinola” was used, they would have left it in.

  15. Paul W Dennis
    July 25, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    A point I’d like to clarify about “covers”. In the context of Johnny Darrell’s career, a “cover version” meant that the song was recorded AND released as a single by another artist.

    It was fairly routine for LPS of the 50s, 60s and 70s to feature recordings of other artists recent hits – I bet I must have 20 or more recordings of songs such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “With Pen In Hand”, Rocky Top” and “Gentle On My Mind” on the LPs issued by various artists. The Statler Brothers never issued either “Green, Green Grass of Home” or “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” as singles

  16. Matt B.
    July 26, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Stormy,

    Rap and R&B albums are scrutinized a lot more than pop/rock records are and if only one or two tracks contain a cuss word (only once in the song) then they won’t edit it.

  17. victoria fields
    May 26, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    HELLO TO ALL, I RECENTLY MEET A AMASING LADY BY THE NAME OF “JODY DARRELL” . THE WIDOW OF JOHNNY DARRELL. WHO WANT’S ME TO LET THE COUNTRY MUSIC PEOPLE KNOW THAT SHE HAS SIGNED A CONTRACT ON THE LIFE OF JOHNNY. I TOO THANK EVERYONE FOR SUCH A GREAT SITE. I LOVED IT ALL. I WILL HAVE COFFEE WITH JODY TOMORROW AND AS SHE SAID “LIVING LIKE WILLIE STILL ” I REALLY ENJOYED LEARNING ABOUT JOHNNY HERE.BUT I LOVE HER STORIES BEST.WOW WHAT A LADY !!! PEACE OUT, TEXASREDBUD

  18. victoria fields
    May 27, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    watch out for the upcoming movie

  19. LARRY FRANKUM
    June 26, 2009 at 11:02 am

    MY NAME IS LARRY FRANKUM A FRIEND OF JODY DARRELL AND I THINK THIS WRITEUP ON JOHNNY DARRELL IS LONG TIME COMING,, JODY IS KIND OF CRAZY, BUT SHE IS ONE OF THE BEST PEOPLE I HAVE EVER MET,, SHE TUCK CARE OF JOHNNY FOR MANY YEARS WHILE HE WAS SICK,, LOVE YOU JODY, BEST WISHES, THANK’S FOR WRITING THE ARTICAL VICTORIA,,,,LARRY FRANKUM

  20. LARRY FRANKUM
    June 26, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    JODY WAS JOHNNY’S BEST FRIEND AND PROVED IT IN THE END, SHE WAS HIS BIGGEST FAN AND MORE THAN LOVE KEEP IT THAT WAY, JODY WANT’S TO THANK EVERY ONE FOR THIER SUPPORT IN THE PAST, I’AM HER FRIEND AND I KNOW WHAT SHE HAS GONE THROUGH,THE MUSIC WORLD IS A HARD WORLD, BUT JODY DARRELL IS A STARTER AND A FINISHER,, SHE WILL FINISH THIS,,LOOK FOR A VERY GOOD MOVIE TO COME OF JOHNNY AND JODY’S LIFE,, I KNOW I WONT TO SEE IT,, LARRY FRANKUM

  21. John Davis
    October 5, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    I had aspirations to become a country singer almost 4 decades ago. I sat and quaffed some beer (didn’t know he was a diebetic, so the beer probably wasn’t doing him much good) with Johnny Darrell and Billy Stepp at Deemen’s Den (owned by singer Nancy Dee) down on Broadway in Nashville back in the early 1970’s. He and Billy both treated the crowd with a song or two, as was common at the “Den” back then.

    I think Johnny’s arrest for pot possession that landed him in the Davidson County Jail for several months at a most inopportune time of his then blossoming career played a crucial part in his lack of success thereafter. Pot possession was a big no-no in those years in most places, and the punishment was severe. The County lock-up was still known at the time for putting people in leg-irons and sending them out to break rock, although I can’t say if Johnny somehow avoided this aspect of punishment because of his status as a recording artist.

    His non-traditional voice and style may have become more acceptable to the mainstream country fans later in the Seventies if he had kept it going. I’m sure his health played a part, but he never really recovered the momentum after his stint in the county jail.

  22. JODY DARRELL
    October 26, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    HI’ MY NAME IS JODY DARRELL, YES, JONNY DARRELL’S WIDOW, THANK YOU ALL FOR THANKING OF JOHNNY, I HOPE TO DO A BOOK AND A MOVIE ON HIS AND MY LIFE SOME DAY,, IF ANYONE IS INTERESTED IN HELPING ME I WOULD RAELLY LIKE THE IMPUT, I HAVE A LOT WRITTEN DOWN AND NEED HELP ON THE REST,, CALL ME AND LESS MAKE A MOVIE, IT NEEDS TO BE DONE, JODY DARRELL, 281-248-3905

  23. JODY DARRELL
    December 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    JODY DARRELL HERE, IN THE NOTE ABOVE MY PHONE # HAS CHANGED NEW # 830-773-3445 THANK YOU JODY

  24. DENNIS GLASER
    January 19, 2010 at 4:37 am

    When I was writing for now-defunct “Country Rambler” magazine back in the ’70s, Johnny showed up at the Glaser Brothers Studio and occupied a sofa in my office for a few days/nights. His old DJ friend, Capt Midnite, told me Johnny’s story and I did an article on him–but it was never published. I’m including a chapter on Johnny in my forthcoming book, “Music City Memories,” which is due out sometime this year.

  25. Texasbeachboy
    February 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Jody , you were great hostess for the Merle Haggard concert. Great Johnny cool jam sounds ,and bet he rocked from listening to you !…Ill check him out -youtube- soon. Keep living his spirit ,as you had great spirit yourself !

  26. Vikki Sallee-Dillard
    March 30, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Hello Jody, I have searched for you all over the internet. It is good to know you are still working Johnny’s Music! He was truly the greatest male singer ever in my book too and you know that. I did everything I could to help and do not regret any of it. I loved Johnny and I will always love you too. The days we had together were some of my most fun also. You were so good to Johnny and I have never seen anyone more devoted. I wish you all the best in getting a movie together and you know I think that would be awesome. If you ever need to talk to me about these things please let me know. I was around Johnny from the early 70’s until his death as you know and I hope you always know that I will always be happy to share any of all of our experiences with you. My life has changed a great deal but I will always think of you both with a warm and loving heart. LOVE,your sister and buddy always, Vikki

  27. Vikki Sallee-Dillard
    March 30, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Hi TO Dennis Glaser, I bet I could add some to your Music City Memories.I will check it out for sure.Thanks,Vikki

  28. LARRY FRANKUM
    January 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    HI’JODY
    LARRY FRANKUM HERE, CALL ME , 918-567-4329, HOPE YOU ARE DOING OK, I AM FINE, JOHNNY’S MUSIC IS ALL OVER THE PLACE NOW, WHAT HAPPEN TO YOUR PART ?? YOUR ACER IS READY HERE,, AS ALWAYS LOVE, LARRY FRANKUM,,

  29. JODY DARRELL
    January 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    JODY DARRELL HERE,, THE MOVIE ON JOHNNY DARRELL AND ME ,JODY DARRELL IS IN THE MAKING,,LOOK FOR IT TO COME OUT SOON,,,

  30. tom frazier
    February 14, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Have his album, Ruby. Love it.

  31. LTB
    February 27, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I knew Johnny Darrell when I lived at his mom’s house in Kennesaw, years ago. He was an absolutely wonderful person and a good friend. He was a friend and treated me like he was an older brother. The following year, I married a young man from Hopewell, AL. Looking back it seemed like such a small world. I used to like to go for walks with him (he needed to because even then, his diabetes effected the circulation in his legs). I am glad that technology has advanced to the point that some of his music is available online. I do hope that a movie is made of his life.

  32. Tara Woman of Feathers
    June 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Jody and I have been doing a lot of running around lately, seeing Willie during his B-Day bash so he could get his people to get up with her people in Hollywood so the movie, “The Unknown Outlaw – The Johnny Darrell Story” can get to the next stage. Will keep you up to date … :)

  33. Dennis Glaser
    June 18, 2011 at 5:09 am

    My book, “Music City’s Defining Decade,” is now in print and available at amazon.com and barnes&noble.com. In addition to a chapter on Johnny, there’s chapters on other recording stars of the ’70s, from Waylon, Tompall, etc., to people you may not have heard of. Lots of “now it can be told” stuff, and behind the scenes experiences on and off of Music Row.

  34. Tim
    July 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Hey Jody this is Tim i am the Medic that drove you guys to the hospital not too long ago just wanted to see how yall were doin and wonderin what website i could go to see about the movie.I talked to my stepdad about it and he cant wait to see it he has a huge collection of the old country music guys like i told ya so anyways you can email me at Timbedair@yahoo.com thanks alot i prey for the best…

  35. Rose
    March 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    HEY Jody my name is Rose I hope you remember me and I hope I have the right Jody. If it’s you then we used to be neighbors you took me to Austin to see Willie in your white van. I’ve been wondering what happened to you we lost touch when I moved. I would love to hear from you my email is roque.rosario@ymail.com

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