The Hurdy Gurdy Man who wrote of
This 66 year old Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist has 28 studio albums – the first released in 1965 and the latest in 2012. He was arrested for marijuana possession in the mid ‘60’s and his albums have charted in both the US and UK over many years. During one of the periods when he ran away from home as a 14 year old, he found an old guitar and started to learn how to play it. At the age of 18 he signed his first publishing contract with Pye Records. Being a friend of leading pop musicians including Joan Baez, Brian Jones, Bruce Springsteen, and The Beatles, he was one of the few artists to collaborate on songs with the Beatles. He influenced both John Lennon and Paul McCartney when he taught them his finger-picking guitar style in 1968. More recently, in 2010 and ‘11, some of his songs were featured on three episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ and he released a new CD. In April 2012, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I’m talking about Donovan.
He was born Donovan Phillips Leitch on 10th May 1946 in Maryhill Glasgow to Winifred Phillips, a catholic factory worker, and Donald Leitch, a protestant Rolls Royce factory worker. His father had a love of poetry and folk music, an influence that would remain with him always. Due to the fact that he contracted polio as a child, it left him with a limp for the rest of his life. When he was 10 years old, his family moved from the tough, rough and bomb scarred city of Glasgow to the lush countryside of Hatfield Hertfordshire, England. This move had a great effect on Donovan and greatly influenced his understanding of beauty and nature, themes he sought to express in his early songs. His music would eventually reach a whole generation during the revolutionary Sixties and continues to influence the poetry and lyrics of subsequent decades.
He ran away from home more than once and on one expedition at fourteen, he found an old guitar in a rubbish bin. It was still good enough to play and learn the basics on. When he went to college he discovered a world of Bohemian ideas, Buddhism, poetry, art and radical thought. He went to Art school but dropped out because he wanted to live a ‘beatnik’ lifestyle on the road.
Donovan started to play the local clubs in Hatfield and St Albans and taught himself the crosspicking guitar style by watching local guitarists like Mac MacLeod and Mick Sofley. He teamed up with Gypsy Dave and played in Manchester. In order to live the life of a beatnik, he travelled way south to Torquay in Devon with his friend Mac MacLeod. They played, wrote songs, went busking and generally taught themselves the guitar. Most of the time, they slept on the beach.
On one night in 1964, Donovan was in a pub at a gig and at the break, he asked the management if could he play and sing for nothing. He was allowed. They liked his style and ask him to record a 10-track demo tape. These found their way to the ears of Elkan Allan, producer of Britain's popular rock show "Ready, Steady, Go!" Donovan's first appearance (in cap and denims) led to a short residency on the show. This tape was recently rediscovered and released on iTunes, which included the original recording of "Catch the Wind", his first single, and "Josie". The first song revealed the influence of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had also influenced Bob Dylan. Dylan’s comparisons followed him for some time. This resulted in Pye Records signing him up.
While he was recording the demo, other artists in nearby studios heard him and they struck up a friendship. One of them was Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Donovan also developed a relationship with Brians girlfriend, Linda Lawrence, which lasted for five years in an on-off kinda way. She moved to America. However, they met again in 1970 and they got married on 2nd Oct 1970 in Windsor registry Office. They honeymooned in the Caribbean. Brian died in 1969.
Donovan was only 18 when Pye Records released his first single, “Catch the Wind,” in March 1965. It hit Number Four on the U.K. charts and sold 200,000 (as did its follow up, “Colours”). Before the year was half over, Donovan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival (at Pete Seeger’s request) and a massive concert at Wembley’s Empire Pool with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.
As I said, Donovan was compared to Bob Dylan and in May 1965, the two men met in London in the Savoy Hotel. Even though the press was encouraging rivalry between them, the meeting went well and Donovan played some songs for Bob. Bob then mentioned Donovan in one of his songs “Talking World War Three Blues”, which didn’t go down well with audiences because it was seen that he was slagging him off.
Donovan and Bob were ahead of the trend in opposing the war in Vietnam (and war in general). One of Donovan’s earliest releases was a four-track EP of antiwar songs, including a definitive take on Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Universal Soldier.”
The two men also had shared influences, e.g. Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott key among them, but Donovan drew more deeply from figures from his native U.K. folk scene. People like Bert Jansch (who wrote the guitar instrumental made famous by Paul Simon - Angie), Davey Graham, Martin Carthy, Alex Campbell, an American expatriate named Derroll Adams and a colourful drifter known as “Dirty Phil.” Donovan studied their styles, so he could devise his own.
Donovan next made an artistic breakthrough with a unique sound and style that fused folk, blues, jazz, classical, Latin and Indian elements. The first mixes could be heard in “Sunny Goodge Street,” from 1965’s Fairytale, which had flutes, strings and jazz drumming. “That song had within it the embryo of everything I would do thereafter: project mystical lyrics, touch on mythological figures and experiment,” Donovan said. “I wasn’t trying to sound like anybody else. Basically, I was just experimenting all over the place.” Donovan concocted a fusion of styles before the phrase “world music” was coined to describe such hodgepodges. His music wasn’t strictly rock or pop, but it worked in those realms
At this stage, he is still only 18/19 years old and, remember, he only started to teach himself the guitar when he was 14.
In late 1965, Donovan split with Pye management and signed with Ashley Kozak, who was working for Brian Epstein's NEMS Enterprises. (To leave Pye Records, he had to forfeit any future record royalties for his first two albums and several singles; a total of about 34 recordings. He still collected writer's royalties, though; from the songs he had written while on the Pye label.) Ashley introduced Donovan to American impresario Allen Klein (who later took over management of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles). Allen in turn introduced Donovan to producer Mickie Most, who was instrumental with the success of his chart-topping productions with The Animals, Lulu, and Herman's Hermits.
Mickie Most was a producer of almost all Donovan's best recordings, although Donovan said in his autobiography that some of his recordings in this period were self-produced, with little or no input from Most. Their collaboration produced a string of successful singles and albums, recorded with leading London session players including Big Jim Sullivan, Jack Bruce, Danny Thompson and future Led Zeppelin members John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page.
Many of Donovan's late 60’s recordings featured a core group of musicians who regularly recorded and/or toured with him, including his key musical collaborator John Cameron on piano, Danny Thompson (from Pentangle) or Spike Heatley on upright bass, Tony Carr on drums and congas and Harold McNair on saxophone and flute. Tony Carr's conga style and McNair's distinctive flute playing is an intrinsic feature of many of these recordings. John Cameron, Harold McNair and Tony Carr also accompanied Donovan on several major concert tours and can be heard on his 1968 live album Donovan In Concert.
Around 1966, Donovan dropped the Dylan/Guthrie influences to become one of the first British pop musicians to adopt a "flower power" image. His music was developing and changing quickly as he absorbed jazz, blues, Eastern music, and the new generation of US West Coast bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. He was now entering his most creative and original phase as a songwriter and recording artist, working in close collaboration with Mickie Most and especially with arranger, musician, and jazz fan John Cameron.
The session musicians used on Donovan’s records included Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” – his big hit from 1968, on which both played – offered a foretaste of Led Zeppelin’s mix of acoustic folk and electric rock. It reached Number Five in the U.S. and Number Four in the U.K., where it was his seventh Top 10 hit in a little more than three years. Donovan devised a jazz-blues hybrid on “Season of the Witch” and “There Is a Mountain,” with both songs becoming favourites among rock musicians who discovered that its chord changes lent themselves well to jamming.
1966 was a big year for Donovan, due to “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow,” which hit Number One and Number Two respectively in America.
However, in the U.K., he found himself tied up in legal knots in contractual red tape for much of that year which resulted in his records being delayed in UK. Because of this, the albums Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow were combined into one for the U.K. market. By late 1966, the American contractual problems had been resolved, and Donovan signed a $100,000 deal with Epic Records.
In mid-1966, Donovan became the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for possession of marijuana. Donovan's drug use appears to have been moderate, and was mostly restricted to cannabis with occasional use of LSD and mescaline. Although Donovan's brush with the law was not as sensational as the later arrests of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the charges brought against him meant that he was refused entry to the U.S. until late 1967 and was therefore unable to perform at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June that year.
At this time Donovan was a rising star in the U.S. and was among the frontline British acts – along with the Beatles and Cream – who made waves at a time when popular music was embarking on oddly alluring new tangents.
W.B. Yeats and Lewis Carroll were inspirational to Donovan as a writer, this led to many of his songs being based on a poetic style. Examples include , “Jennifer Juniper,” about his previous girlfriend Jenny Boyd (sister of Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s wife) and “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” (about his wife Linda Lawrence); pastoral visions (“The River Song,” “Three King Fishers”); illusions and riddles (the Zen-like “There Is a Mountain”); and paeans (A paean is a song or lyric poem expressing triumph or thanksgiving) to universal love “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”.
“Mellow Yellow” sketched the social scene of Swinging London, with whiffs of sensuality and pot smoke amid the procession of New Orleans–style horns. Donovan wrote knowingly of the world he inhabited in “Sunny South Kensington” and “Hampstead Incident.” “Poets have a sense of place,” he said. “My place was London, and I sang about it.”
On 24 October 1966, Epic released the loud, brass-laden single "Mellow Yellow", arranged by John Paul Jones and purportedly featuring Paul McCartney on unaccredited backing vocals. It was rumoured that the phrase "electrical banana" referred to smoking banana peels to get high but in his autobiography Donovan explains that the phrase was simply a reference to a yellow-coloured vibrator.
Through the first half of 1967, Donovan worked on an ambitious double-album studio project, which he produced himself. In January he gave a concert at the Royal Albert Hall accompanied by a ballerina who danced during a 12-minute performance of "Golden Apples".
Also in Jan ’67 Epic released the Mellow Yellow LP (not released in the U.K.), which reached no. 14 in the album charts, plus a new non-album single, "Epistle to Dippy", a Top 20 hit in the US.
On 9 February 1967, Donovan was among the select group of guests invited by The Beatles to join them at Abbey Road Studios for the final orchestral overdub session of the Lennon-McCartney collaboration "A Day in the Life", the grand finale to their new work Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In July, Epic released the single, "There Is a Mountain", which just missed the top ten in the US and was later used as the basis for The Allman Brothers's Mountain Jam.
In September, Donovan embarked on a tour of the US, backed by a small jazz group and accompanied by his father, who introduced the show. Also in 1967, Epic released his fifth album, a two-disc set entitled, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, the first rock music box set, and only the third pop-rock double album released. In late 1967, Donovan contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the Ken Loach film, Poor Cow. The title track (originally called "Poor Love") was released as the B-side of his next single, "Jennifer Juniper". See the paragraph above about Jenny Boyd.
Already a friend (and occasional unaccredited musical guest) of the Beatles, Donovan was one of the high-profile British musicians who, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (who inspired John Lennon to write "Dear Prudence"), as well as Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love among others, were attracted to the philosophical teachings of the Indian guru, the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, in the late sixties and journeyed to India to study with him. The visit gained worldwide attention.
During this visit Donovan taught John Lennon and Paul McCartney various finger-picking styles such as clawhammer (known to American folk guitarists as "Travis picking" - the American style of "Clawhammer" is markedly different) which he had learned from his St Albans friend and guitar mentor, Mac MacLeod. John Lennon went on to use the technique on songs including "Dear Prudence" and "Julia" and Paul McCartney with "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son".
Donovan's next single, released in May 1968, was the psychedelic classic "Hurdy Gurdy Man". The song was intended for Mac MacLeod, who had a heavy rock band called Hurdy Gurdy. After hearing Mac's power trio version, Donovan considered giving it to Jimi Hendrix, but when Mickie Most heard it, he convinced Donovan that the song was a sure single and that he should record it himself.
In July 1968, Epic released Donovan in Concert, the recording of his Anaheim concert in September 1967, which was one of the first true live LPs by a major British pop artist.
The open road beckons in many of Donovan’s songs, and he named his 1970 trio (and their lone album) Open Road. Incidentally, Open Road – Donovan’s first album of the Seventies – was one of his strongest; delivered in a lively acoustic style he called “Celtic rock.”
Donovan continued to pursue his pacifistic, bohemian outlook in the Seventies with such releases as Open Road, Cosmic Wheels and 7-Tease. Themes of love, compassion and understanding have run throughout Donovan’s work, from his earliest recordings to albums of more contemporary vintage, such as 1996’s Sutras (produced by Rick Rubin) and 2004’s Beat Cafe. Donovan’s autobiography was published in 2007.
Donovan's fall from the pinnacle was much more gradual than his meteoric rise. Throughout the 70s, as Progressive, Punk and Hard Rock replaced Psych and Folk Rock in commercial favour, Donovan continued to play the laid back hippie. By 1974 his albums were barely making it onto the charts, and by 1977 they were failing to chart at all.
Thirty years later, upon the release of Sutras, his outlook and methodology remained very much intact. “I never considered myself an entertainer,” Donovan maintained. “I always felt I had to be connected to something meaningful, or it wasn’t worth doing.”
The release of several compilations of his work in the '90s helped generate new interest. He continues to record new material, and in November 2005 St. Martin's Press released "The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man."
Though not a major player in popular music since the end of the 1960s, Donovan continues to tour and perform, and recall the experiences and friendships of his heyday for the media. His music (recorded and live) appears frequently in programs about the Sixties era, and has reached the newer generations through its use in TV commercials. In late 2005, he published an autobiography, "The Hurdy Gurdy Man."
Donovan is now living in Cork, Ireland and we are delighted to have him on our shores. He has even taken an Irish TLD (top level domain, to those uninitiated who don’t know) www.donovan.ie and you can see all his thoughts and ideas there.
Good Luck Donovan and I hope to see you live sometime soon.
By Bob Tallent
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