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David "Damon" del Conte talks about "Song of a Gypsy"

'Song of a Gypsy' is a true monster of U.S. psychedelic music. Album contains very laid-back, stoned vocals with nice fuzz guitar and even a sitar and it's truly among the pillars of rare psych albums.

Thanks to Egon and his Now Again Records the album is restored/remastered transfer, pitch/speed corrected for the first time ever. First edition contains second CD/bonus LP: Damon’s ’60s recordings, and never-before-heard demos. Extensive booklet contains dozens of unpublished photos and images, a thorough investigation into this landmark album, and an extensive interview with Damon.
This edition investigates a seemingly impossible story – one that encapsulates the last bloom of the flower power movement before it decayed into the haze of the 70s underground. It traces a pop hopeful descending into chaos, and becoming the tortured soul who would create an LP to file alongside works by other lost greats of the late ‘60s, from Shuggie Otis to Rodriguez.

We really recommend you to get expanded edition of Damon’s psychedelic masterpiece 'Song Of A Gypsy'.

You were born as Damon Del Conte. Where did you grew up and what can you tell me about your childhood?

I was born David Carlton Del Conte in Rochester N.Y. in 1940. The Del Conte family lived in a two story home, where the lower part of the house was Del Conte's Beauty Parlor, and the upper floor was our home. Our family moved a few times while in Rochester then moved to So. Cal in 1948 and lived in several different cities - Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Alhambra, Westchester, Inglewood, Morningside Park, & more. This caused me to go to several different grade schools, and each new school taught me how to learn to get along with others (somewhat). 

I was always "the new kid" a bit of an outcast - I had no choice. Our whole family moved a lot. Even then I felt like a gypsy. It wasn't till years later that I found out I come from a Viking, Italian, Romano Gypsy heritage.

Perhaps the first big change in my life was at around 15 years old.  During high school summer break, while preparing for the move from Sophomore to Junior (10th - 11th grade), I grew 6" in height to 6ft tall and filled out to the point where I was no longer bullied.  I got tough.  Out of necessity (as well as a little pay-back) I got tough.

When did you start playing instrument and what would you say influenced you to do so?

In the 7th grade I heard a sax player named Earl Bostic on a song called "Danube Waves". I spoke to a music teacher and he suggested I start with the clarinet because of the size. Same instrument as a sax, just smaller. By high school I was playing clarinet in marching band and sax in school orchestra. I got pretty good. I became 1st chair reed section. Our high school band was very good.

If I may ask, what year were you born? You were a teenager in early 60s and I would like to ask if you travelled a lot back then as a teenager?

My teenage years were the 50s. On the weekdays I went surfing, and weekends I used to go to the Coffee Houses to "dig on the beatniks, man. too cool."  Jazz, poetry & finger snappin'. Pot, puff, smoke, whatever - I was a teenage bum.

Did I travel much then?  Then and now - Always.  Several states in the USA & many other countries.   The 60s . . . .  Beatniks became "Hippies".  I was in my late 20's and early 30's during the Haight Ashbury era. Actually, I wasn't a hippy. Never. Some were very nice and others weren't. I just didn't want to protest.  At the time I liked America just the way it was. Not anymore. I feel sorry for the younger generation.

Anyway, somewhere in the 1960s I had become a junkie. Strung out on Heroin, used LSD often, and was bailed out of jail a lot. In 1979 I gave my life to Jesus. I did what He told me to do - START OVER!!!  

In early 1966 you self released two singles on your label called just 'Del Con'. There were two releases 'I Wonder Why / Lovin' Man' and 'They Call Me A Fool / The Battle Hymn (Of The Republic)'. Am I right?

Yes, I recorded those songs. Being a pretty good club singer, having a nice following, several recording studios owners, engineers, or others would offer me free studio time. My very first record was a song I wrote, "The Lonely Surfer" recorded around 1961. I heard about a band called "The Crossfires" who were playing weekends at the Hermosa Biltmore Hotel. I went to see them. They were a surf band and could really play. There were 5 of them. I paid them $20.00 each to back me on my surf record. They eventually became "The Turtles."

In the time early 60s, I was playing lots of clubs - mostly as just a singer. No instruments, just my voice. Over that decade I had a 3 or 4 piece combo. I was the front man. I'd sing in various languages, doing all kinds of music from Blues to Boogie, Jazz to Rock, and even did some comedy. Here's how it worked - The band would play for approximately 15 minutes. I would go up and sing for about 1/2 hour, the band would take a break while I was on stage for the next 15 minutes to talk, tell stories, jokes, whatever.

It was lots of fun, but in time I realized that I was becoming a "Lounge Lizard" and I didn't want to end up that way in my "later years".

Well, it's now my later years (I'm 72) and I never became a "Star", I accomplished a whole lot and shared my music with people all over the world who have been touched by it. Believe it or not, my CDs are still selling. Not a lot, but very steady. I'm getting small orders every week. I'm amazed. 

As far as everything else, you are right. From Yalta to Sweden, Argentina, Lithuania, Spain, Chili, Ukraine, Amsterdam, several Islands in the Caribbean, and more.

I would love if you could tell us about this songs you recorded back then. Where did you record it and where did you press it and how many copies were made?

I recorded ''Song of a Gypsy'' at Western Recorders in Hollywood. I recorded the next 9 songs on the album at Hollywood Sound recorders. I pressed it at a shop in El Segundo California, but I can't remember the name of the place.

What were this songs about?

The songs were about my life as it was at the time.

I understand, in the 60s you traveled as a folk singer. What places did traveling took you and what people did you meet in those years. I would like if you could 'paint' us a picture of the years before releasing LP in 1969.

I began singing in a rock band. I soon moved in to top 40. Eventually I became a jazz singer. I then moved on to become a lounge singer. I actually enjoyed that. I could do show tunes, songs in other languages, ballads, and light rock.  It was fun.  Pretty soon I realized that I had to be more ME, and then became a folk singer.  I also filled in as a rhythm guitar player with several other bands when they were short a guitar player. These were one or two nights at a time. At the time I would take whatever I could.  There was only one job I quit after one night.  It was a topless bottomless club in Hollywood.  To be honest with you, it was gross seeing those women spreading their legs for the audience. I sang mostly in Southern California until around 1967 when I began traveling as a gypsy folk singer.

Is there any particular story, you keep in your mind from those early pre LP days, that you would like to share with us?

As I just said, I enjoyed being a lounge singer, doing show tunes, ballads, foreign language songs, and oldies.  It was the easiest, but I saw no future in it. Singing other people songs left me a bit empty. I needed to do my own music. That's what brought me to "Gypsy Rock" music.  It was mine.

How did you make up a living back then and did you have a place to stay or how did the typical day of yours looked like? You were located in Los Angeles?

I had a little place that had been a storage shed that I made into a little crash pad. It had a big room, a bedroom, and a bathroom with a shower in it. I also had a Chevy Suburban that had a mattress in back for traveling.

How did you meet Charlie Carey?

I was playing a club in L.A. and Don Preston was my regular guitar player. Don was one of the guitar players with the Shindogs on the TV show Shindig. Every once in a while they would call him in to do a show and he always sent me someone to fill in for him. One night Charlie showed up and said, "Howdy, I'm Charlie Carey and I'm filling in for Don Preston tonight".  I handed him the chord charts of the show and he looked at me and said, "That's OK.  I won't need them".  He was right - he didn't need them. He has a great ear.

'Song of a Gypsy' is idea from you both? Tell me how did you got an idea to start recording together?

''Song of a Gypsy'' was all mine. I wrote it, and picked the best musicians I knew at the time to go into the studio with me. Charlie caught the vibe right away, and so did everyone else on the session.

Where and when did you start recording an LP. Who all was in the lineup and where did you got all those musicians that are a part of this LP?

Charlie and I had become friends over the previous years. He had his own band and I had mine. When I was offered a free recording session at Western Recorders in Hollywood, I got Charlie for lead guitar, I played my gypsy guitar (a five string instrument that I sort of invented while in Big Sur, Ca. I found Helena at a club called "The Fez" and asked her and her dumbek player Richard Barham to play on the session, but at te time I didn't have a regular band so I add no drummer or bass player. I forgot where I found Mike Pastora the conga player and I used him on drums - good conga player, but not a good drummer - but I remember how I got Atlee Yeager to play. He was a friend of Charlie and he had his own trio playing at the "Whiskey a go go" at the time. I couldn't stand the guy. He had an enormous ego and he was a real jerk. But I have to admit he could really play the bass. Charlie convinced him to play. He played great.

What are some of the strongest memories from producing and recording this LP? Was there any concept behind it or was just song after song?

My concept was to write what I was living. Song after song just came into my head.

Where did you got LP pressed and how many copies were made. There are two versions. A black one is gatefold and I beleive the run was 100 copies. How about the white one? Why did you choose to do two versions of this?

The black one was expensive, but I felt the music was worth it. I pressed 500 Black Gatefold albums and 500 White ones because of the cost.

Was it a self release? Ankh was the name of the label and it had something to do with Egyptian history. What exactly?

Yes, the Ankh was part of Egyptian history. The top half represented the circle of life, while the cross was beneath it to show that we could rise above any crosses we bore in life. It was also the sign of "Rah" the Sun god, worshipped in Egyptian culture.

What can you say about the cover artwork?

I met a girl named Betty McCarrol on Catalina Island. We hit it off and she drew the cover for me. She was a wonderful lady - gorgeous too.

I know this might be a hard question to answer, but since I ask most musicians I interview I will do the same in our interview. Would you like to comment your songs from the first LP, so that readers will perhaps get to know more of your song writing…

A1  Song of a Gypsy -  We all have times of darkness and despair.      

A2  Poor Poor Genie - This was about a real girl who had nowhere to run, so she ran with us.
A3   Don't You Feel Me - Just what the words say. You can feel someone you love even when you're apart.
A4   Did You Ever  - Life brings many unexpected things.
A5    Funky Funky Blues -  Good blues cures all

B1    Do You   -   It's all about dreaming.

B2    The Night  -  It's all about a night of love tat brought me into manhood.
B3    I Feel Your Love  -  Same thought as Song #3 - feeling love.
B4     Birds Fly So High  -  Life can be what you make it.        
B5     Road of Life -  My life experiences

Along with the album there were also two singles made 'Can't You Feel Me' / 'Poor, Poor Genie' and 'Song of a Gypsy' / 'Oh, What a Good Boy Am I'. Was this pressed at the same time and how many copies were made?

All done at different times.  I honestly can't remember.  It's been over 50 years ago.

Did the lineup featured on the LP perform any concerts? If so where and with who all did you shared stage?

Several concerts. Things have changed a lot, but locally "The Coach House" "The Galaxy" and several joints in San Fran - a big tour of Spain, and others.

What would you say inspired you to write songs?

Need to connect with others.

Did psychedelic drugs have any role in your music?

Yes. Drugs, life, love, pain, pleasure passion - all had a role in my music.

What happened in the 70s thru 80s and 90s to you. What occupied your life?

Heroin was my life throughout the 70's then Jesus took over in 1979 and life has been wonderful since.

You are still very active. In 1999 you released 'Gypsy Eyes' and I heard you are preparing the last album of this trilogy. What can you tell me and why trilogy. So there is a concept to it?

Yes. It is a concept. From being lost, to living life, and finally finding a home.

Are you still in contact with members that appeared on your first LP?

Only Helena. She is a special lady and a special friend. The rest either died or became self centered. I hope I am Christ centered.

What currently occupies your life and what are perhaps some future plans?

I found 2 sisters, Hannah & Maia Currie, age 13 & 15 who are gifted in music. I am currently recording them.

Thank you so much for taking your time. Would you like to send a message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?

Yes. Don't give up your dreams. My dream took 50 years to come true. Just be you.

Interview by Klemen Breznikar/2013
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1 comment:

Dennis Swanson said...

I just learned recently that David del Conte has passed away. He was a generous talented friend.