Donovan - Biography
Donovan is the ultimate hippie troubadour, the personification of flower power, a psychedelic purveyor of peace and love, the eternal child/man with a heart full of soul and his eyes full of stars. His music successfully blended Celtic folk, pop, jazz, rock, blues, and Eastern impulses with lyrics that ranged from the spiritual to the carnal, and some might say, insipid, heavily influenced by the poets he loved as a boy from Robert Burns to William Blake. Donovan was the perfect bard for the turbulent times, a voice of peace and reason even during the darkest days of the late 60s. His continued interest in spirituality and his steadfast refusal to surrender his idealism did little to help his career, but showed everyone that his belief in peace and love was no gimmick. Although he hasn’t released a successful album since Sutras (1996 American), he continues to write and tour, thrilling fans old and new with his varied back catalog.
Donovan Leitch was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1946. His father loved Celtic poetry and literature and he passed that love on to his son. He contracted polio after being vaccinated for the disease and walks with a slight limp to this day. Dealing with the disease may be one reason Donovan developed such a compassionate take on life’s travails. When he was ten, the family moved to countryside of Hertfordshire, England. Guided by his father's love of Celtice folk music, Donovan learned to play the guitar by age 14. He attended college long enough to be introduced to the Beat poets, Buddhism, and radical politics. He decided to become a beatnik and traveling poet. In 1963 and 64 he hit the road with his pal Gypsy Dave, and began busking on the streets. He delved into various guitar techniques, studying with famous folk musicians Mac MacLeod and Mick Softley and started writing original songs. His first tunes were heavily influenced by folkies like Martin Carthy, Woody Guthrie, Alex Campbell, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Buffy St.-Marie, John Renbourn, Jesse Fuller, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Billie Holiday.
Donovan began playing in local clubs and soon attracted manager Geoff Stephens who signed him to a publishing contract and arranged for his first demo recordings, recently unearthed and reissued on Donovan’s own label as Sixty Four (2004 Donovan Discs.) At the demo sessions Don met Brian Jones and his girlfriend Linda Lawrence, who Donovan courted sporadically for many years. She inspired “Sunshine Superman” and “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” as well as many other tunes. The demo was good enough to get Donovan signed to Pye Records; they also landed him an appearance on Ready, Steady, Go, the premiere British pop TV show. He was so popular, the show brought him back for three weeks running, an unprecedented feat, and one that helped his first single “Catch the Wind” become a smash. The album What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid (1965, Pye, UK) went to #3 on the British charts. It was released a few months later in the US as Catch the Wind (1965 Hickory.)
Donovan’s second release, available only in the UK, was the EP Universal Solider (1965 Pye), a four song anti-war mini-album. It could have been commercial suicide, but instead it proved Donovan was willing to risk success to take a stand. Soldier topped the British EP chart for eight weeks and hit #14 on the singles chart. That year he also appeared at the Newport Folk Festival where Joan Baez joined him for several tunes.
Those that dubbed Donovan “the British Dylan” were probably shocked when he signed with Epic and cut “Sunshine Superman,” one of the first psychedelic classics. It was his first #1 pop hit. Sunshine Superman (1966 Epic), was released in two versions because Donovan was still under contract with Pye in England. The British Superman (1966 Epic UK) includes tracks that appeared on the US version of Mellow Yellow (1967 Epic). The arrangements by producer Mickie Most used lush string charts, harpsichord, sitar and tabla, all of which became de rigueur on future psychedelic recordings. That year Donovan also had several songs on the soundtrack of the Ken Loach film, Poor Cow.
Donovan was part of the musical elite in the 60s, a friend of Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and one of the artists invited to contribute to the overdub sessions for The Beatles “A Day in the Life.” In 1966 he was the first pop star busted for drug possession; it was a petty bust and had no ill effect on his career, except that the US refused him entry to the country thereby preventing him from performing at the Monterey International Pop Festival.
His next offering, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden (1967 Epic UK) was a two record set, delivered in a beautiful box. Epic at first refused to release the two-record set in the US, preferring to sell the albums separately as Wear Your Love Like Heaven (1967 Epic) and For Little Ones (1967 Epic). It was a return to Donovan’s acoustic roots, gentle and poetic and much calmer than his psychedelic outings. Epic eventually released the boxed version, which went gold after three years of steady sales. In 1968 he joined The Beatles at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. While Donovan was in India he gave John Lennon acoustic guitar lessons, inspiring “Julia” and McCartney’s “Blackbird.”
Back in England, Mickie Most wanted Donovan to get “heavy” and make a rock album in order to increase his popularity in America. Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968 Epic) was a bit of a misfire, although the title track became a hit in both the US and UK. Barabajagal (1969 Epic) mixed hard rock tracks featuring the Jeff Beck Group with more sedate singer/songwriter fare. The lead single, “Atlantis” became a Top 10 hit, despite its five minute length. Open Road (1970 Epic) was another change of direction, a Celtic folk rock album that left fans puzzled, although it sounds fresh and energetic today. HMS Donovan (1971 Dawn) was allegedly a children’s album, with Donovan composing tunes for works by poets like Lewis Carroll and Yeats to music. It was only released in England, and did poorly, another gorgeous album that went unnoticed at the time.
The 70s and 80s were not kind to Donovan; his gentle, folk-flavored tunes fell out of favor and his writing lost its grace and innocence. He cut nine albums between 1973 and 1983, most of them unsuccessful. The one bright spot is 7-Tease (1974 Epic), which despite its title, is solid work. It’s the only pessimistic album he ever made, showing a wide musical range including rock, soul, Dixieland, smooth jazz and folk. He also played against his image by adding his vocals to Alice Cooper’s hit “Billion Dollar Babies,” made a film The Pied Piper (1972) and contributed tunes to Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973).
Donovan stayed away from music for almost a decade until his comeback album, Sutras (1996 American), a stripped down acoustic set produced by fellow spiritual seeker, Rick Rubin. It’s reminiscent of his earlier work, it again failed to find a receptive audience and he retreated again.
For Beat Café (2004 Appleseed), a tribute to the beat-era poets, Donovan used a small jazz combo, but the lyrics were tired and while the playing is fine, the playful spark that made Donovan’s earlier work so lively is gone. In 2007, according to Internet chatter and a few interviews, he was working on a new album.