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Erik Darling, 1933 - 2008

Singer-songwriter helped lead revival of folk music

August 09, 2008|Martin Weil | Washington Post

Erik Darling, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist who played a vital role in the revival of American folk music and was identified with the pulsing 1960s pop hit "Walk Right In," died Aug. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 74 and had lymphoma.

Starting in the late 1950s as the replacement for Pete Seeger, Darling spent more than four years with the Weavers, the celebrated group at the heart of the post-World War II folk resurgence.

In an interview, Seeger called Darling a "tremendously talented musician with a subtle sense of poetry and musicianship. . . . He wasn't loud, he wasn't flashy, but very sensitive."

A master of the banjo, a virtuoso on the 12-string guitar and the possessor of a well-received tenor voice, Darling over the years could be heard or seen in films and on television, and on records and CDs, as well as on college campuses and at other concert venues in the United States and abroad.

Music reviewer Steve Leggett on called Darling a "behind-the-scenes innovator on the folk scene for decades."

Climbing quickly to the top of the 1963 charts, "Walk Right In," as arranged and recorded by Darling and the other two members of the Rooftop Singers, exerted an irresistible up-tempo appeal with lyrics such as "Walk right in, sit right down; Daddy, let your mind roll on."

Earlier, the Tarriers, another folk group in which Darling was a member, produced a highly successful version of "The Banana Boat Song," the catchy Jamaican folk number that included the cry "Day-O" and ignited a brief Calypso craze. (The Harry Belafonte version became even better known.)

With the Weavers, Darling was more than just a substitute for Seeger, according to one student of the folk scene. Instead, Ron Kolesko wrote in his online "Folk Music Notebook," Darling "introduced new songs and styles to the group and really held his own."

Fred Hellerman, one of the original Weavers, said this week: "Pete never swung the way Erik could swing. His banjo could take command and carry everybody along with it."

Of Darling's later career, Hellerman said his friend "was constantly full of surprises. Erik would disappear for a while and all of a sudden pop up with songs or an album so completely off the wall and different, and of such high quality."

Erik Darling was born Sept. 25, 1933, in Baltimore, where his mother's family lived, but grew up in Canandaigua, N.Y.

Much of Darling's musical education was obtained in New York's Washington Square, which during his teenage years was a focus of the burgeoning folk movement that included Seeger, Belafonte, Bob Dylan and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. In the mid-1950s, Darling formed the Tunetellers, which later became the Tarriers, and included future actor Alan Arkin.

The group soon had a top-10 hit in 1956 with the calypso-influenced "Banana Boat Song," which Darling reportedly had heard from folk musician Bob Gibson in Washington Square.

Darling left the Weavers in 1962 to form the Rooftop Singers, in which he was credited with leading a 12-string guitar revival when he hit upon the idea of using the instrument that year for his version of "Walk Right In." The song had been written and recorded in 1929 by Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and had been regarded as an essentially forgotten classic.

Darling formed the Rooftop Singers specifically to release "Walk Right In" in updated form. The song became Darling's biggest commercial hit.

He was divorced from television actress and director Joan Kugell Darling. He had no immediate survivors.

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