In an era when nearly everything and everyone in music sounds derivative of some earlier time, guitarist and vocalist Ward Darby is an original. An artist whose sound and sensibility was forged in the fires of gospel, country-western and vintage rock and roll, Darby is without question the real deal.
Following up on the success of "Old Gospel Guitar", his 2012 solo electric guitar album, Darby has crafted two new gospel tracks – this time with support from a three-piece accompanying unit – that hearken back to the church music of his youth in West Virginia. “He Made It for You” was released in July 2013, on his homespun Dar Bee Music label, and “Open Your Heart” was released in December 2013.
Born in War, West Virginia, in 1939, Darby began playing guitar at age 11. While gospel may have been his first musical outlet, it didn’t take long for him to catch the country-western bug that was going around in Appalachia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the time he was 15, Darby was already capitalizing on the new medium known as television. He would travel through the mountains every week for more than a year to Bluefield, West Virginia, to perform in the local TV studio there.
“The studio didn't use videotape back then,” he recalls. “It was all live. If you made a mistake, it went out over the air. There was no stopping, no second takes. Whatever you played was what people were going to see and hear. I wish there were videos of those shows. I’d love to see some of that stuff now.”
By the mid 1950s, something akin to country western – but much more rhythmic and primal – was starting to emerge: rock and roll. Inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Darby assembled a four-piece band called The Rocks. In 1957, they recorded their first single, “Satellite,” with a B-side called “Arrow in My Heart.” In tandem with The Rocks, Darby and fellow guitarist Jimmy Robinette also performed briefly as a country western duo known as The Guitar Twins, an act patterned after the highly popular sibling duo, The Everly Brothers. The Guitar Twins recorded “Come Walk with Me” in 1958.
Keyboardist and songwriter Ray Bowling entered the picture toward the end of the 1950s. Bowling had been a sales rep for King Records, and his territory included Bluefield. Having seen The Rocks on TV, he was anxious to meet the young band. He joined he lineup, which opened up opportunities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
But capitalizing on those opportunities required a relocation, and the move to Pittsburgh resulted in some personnel changes. The newly assembled band became known as Ward Darby and the Raves. In 1959, Darby and The Raves recorded “Safari” (b/w “Wham-O”), a single that enjoyed healthy sales nationwide.
Despite the success, Darby grew disenchanted with the business side of music and dropped out of the scene – but only briefly. Within two years, he had relocated to Ohio and was gigging in a circuit of clubs that stretched from Cincinnati at the southern end of the state all the way up to Cleveland in the northeast.
Things got into high gear when Darby met guitarist/fiddler/singer Charlie Daniels in Baltimore (nearly two decades before Daniels scored big with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in 1979). Together they assembled a four-piece band called Charlie Daniels and the Jaguars, and spent three years working the tour circuit from their base of operations in Baltimore all the way to the West Coast.
In 1974, Darby opened a nightclub in Lexington, Kentucky, called the Night Light. He spent the next several years performing at the club and other spots around the state before moving to Florida in 1980 and working the club circuit there as frontman for The Ward Darby Band.
After 15 years of performing in Florida, Darby moved to Branson, Missouri, in the spring of 1996 and joined a vocalist named Jennifer Wilson in a long-running musical theater show called “Jennifer in the Morning.” Darby and Wilson entertained morning audiences for five years until the show closed in 2001.
In the spring of 2012, he released Old Gospel Guitar, a collection of solo electric guitar interpretations of tunes that have been among his favorites since his boyhood days in the church in West Virginia.
This journeyman guitarist and songwriter who witnessed first-hand one of the most pivotal chapters in the development of American popular music – and made a modest but lasting contribution to it – continues to maintain a solid and consistent presence in Branson, his home for more than a decade. Across all the years and miles, he has stayed true to his musical roots by following that same inspiration that launched his career as a gospel singer and country-western guitarist more than sixty years ago.
“My passion to play music will always be a part of me,” he says. “I enjoy just about every kind of music that comes out of the American tradition – not only gospel but jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, all of it. I play every one of them. I keep writing and recording songs, I keep performing, and I just keep putting my best foot forward.”