Martin Denny - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Martin Denny was an American composer and pianist best known as the “father of exotica”, a branch of lounge or easy-listening music popularized in the 1950's that took standard pop tunes and original Tiki-inspired originals and gave them a languid, tropical feel with the introduction of non-western instruments and various sound effects including bird calls and choruses of crickets.


            Martin Denny was born on April 10, 1911, in New York City, but soon moved with his parents to Los Angeles. By all accounts Denny was something of a prodigy on the piano, and he studied classical piano and composition through his teen years with such noted teachers as Isadore Gorn and Lester Spitz, while also keeping his ears open to jazz and the popular music of the day. In 1932, when Denny was 20, he was asked if he wanted to tour as the pianist in the small Don Dean Orchestra on a tour the group was embarking on to South America. The group played Dixieland-style jazz, pop standards, and whatever else would get audiences up on their feet to dance. The group toured for 3 ½ years through such places as Lima, Peru, Santaigo, Chile, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, and played American-style jazz at hotels and clubs in the various cities. It was during this tour that the band started soaking in some of the Latin influences of some of the areas they were performing in, and Denny in particular took a great deal of inspiration, (and some ethnic instruments he collected along the way), that informed his later exotica work. At the end of 1935, the group broke up, and while Dean decided to stay behind and raise a family, Denny and the rest of the group returned to Los Angeles. Once Denny returned home, the swing era was in full swing, (no pun intended), and Denny joined the band of his friend Giggy Royce. The Giggy Royce Orchestra was actually booked to play some engagements in Honolulu, Hawaii, but as Denny had just returned from South America, he was in no hurry to rush off again to an exotic locale. Denny stayed in Los Angeles playing solo gigs and playing with several bands before World War II broke out. Denny served in the U.S. Army Air Forces throughout the war, and at war's conclusion he returned to L.A. and continued gigging while also studying composition and piano under Dr. Wesley La Violette and orchestration under Arthur Lange at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Later he also enrolled in music classed at the University of Southern California.


            As the 40's turned in to the 50's, Denny made a bit of a name for himself playing mostly solo piano at private parties in Hollywood and Las Vegas and even played piano at the opening of the Sands Hotel in 1953. At the end of 1953, Denny received a telegram from his friend Bill Howell who was at the end of his contract playing Don The Beachcomber in Waikiki, Hawaii. At that point, Denny was playing with a trio up and down the California coast and was also in the midst of a divorce, so the change of scenery and the offer of a six-month contract in a place often described as paradise seemed appealing. Denny appeared as a solo act for the first 6 or 7 months, and then returned to Las Vegas for a time, but missed Hawaii and returned to play a short contract at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After finding success at the Royal Hawaiian, Don The Beachcomber asked Denny back, and Denny accepted under one condition; that he would be able to form a group to perform with him. Denny recruited 21 year old Hawaii native Arthur Lyman to play marimba, vibraphone and multiple percussion instruments, and accounting clerk John Kramer to play bass. The group was originally a trio that covered a lot of George Shearing compositions. At one of their gigs, a young Puerto Rican percussionist named Augie Colon asked if he could sit in with them, and after Denny managed to help wrangle Colon out of another contract he had with another group, Colon stayed and became a visual focal point of the new group. It was in 1955 and 1956 that the sound of the group started to coalesce, with Denny using his arranging and orchestration skills to make the small combo sound bigger. It was also during this time that Denny and his bandmates made use of the various ethnic instruments Denny had collected over the years, as well as native Hawaiian instruments. Denny and his band performed outside at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. The band and the show they put on became a sensation in Hawaii, and word-of-mouth among vacationers, but especially among  military personnel stationed on Oahu, got them attention back on the mainland and eventually attracted the attention of Liberty Records, who signed Denny and his group to their label in 1956. While playing at the Shell Bar, outside near a pool of water, rocks, palm trees and plants, Denny noticed that the bullfrogs that lived in the planters and ponds around the bar would start croaking whenever the band played. If the band stopped, so too did the frogs stop. When Denny was orchestrating the what would become the group's first big hit song, “Quiet Village” ( a Les Baxter composition), he kept in mind the frogs and also had each of the members of the band recreate bird calls throughout the song, giving the aural impression of walking through a verdant tropical jungle and stumbling upon a band playing a quietly enchanting tune. When it came time to record their debut album, Exotica (Liberty) in late 1956, Denny recreated the sound of the frogs on a grooved cylinder.


            When Exotica was released in 1957, it slowly climbed up the charts, and Denny and his group continued to work in Hawaii, becoming ever more popular. When the popular group ended their sold -out engagement at the Shell Bar to play some mainland dates, it's owner, Henry J Kaiser, tried to get the band to stay on, but was only able to get Denny's vibraphonist Arthur Lyman to quit the group and form his own band. Lyman went on to a long career reproducing a lot of the sounds and feeling of the Exotica album, and the work that he and Denny and other somewhat similar artists like Yma Sumac and Les Baxter produced came to be called “exotica” in later years. Denny replaced Lyman with a young vibraphonist and multi-instrumentalist named Julius Wechter, who would later go on to join Herb Alpert in the Tijuana Brass and would later form his own Baja Marimba Band.  By 1958, Exotica and “Quiet Village” were enough of a hit that the band was asked to play on American Bandstand, and, by 1959, “Quiet Village” was a #2 hit on the pop singles charts and Exotica was #1 on the album charts. Though the music was soothing and innovative for the time, Denny was also riding the crest of America's fascination with the South Pacific and Hawaii in particular, as 1959 was the year Hawaii was admitted to the United States as the 50th state. The late 50's was also the time when stereo was being introduced to replace mono, and Denny's lush sounding records were the perfect demonstration of the new sound separation stereo offered.


            As the 50's turned into the 60's, Denny continued refining and slightly changing his sound. His bassist John Kramer left, and was replaced by Harvey Ragsdale, and Denny added second percussionist Harold Chang soon after. After the success of Exotica, Denny and his group cranked out albums for Liberty on through the end of the 60's, and even though the exotica and Tiki craze was fairly short-lived, Denny did score a few more hit pop singles with versions of “A Taste Of Honey”, “Ebb Tide” and “The Enchanted Sea”. Most of his albums featured the alluring come-hither stare of model Sandy Warner in some sort of exotic setting, and highlights from his late 50's and 60's output include Exotica Vol. 2 (Liberty)(1958), Forbidden Island (Liberty)(1958), Hypnotique (Liberty)(1959), Primitiva (Liberty)(1958), Afro-Desia (Liberty)(1958), featuring more African influenced rhythms, Romantica (Liberty)(1961), A Taste Of Honey (Liberty)(1962), Hawaii Tattoo (Liberty)(1964), Hawaiian A Go-Go (Liberty)(1966), featuring a mod-age update of the Denny sound, A Taste Of India (Liberty)(1968), Exotic Moog (Liberty)(1969), featuring the sounds of the new Moog synthesizer,  and the Asian-influenced concept album Sayonara (Liberty)(1970).


            At the dawn of the 70's and with his Liberty Records contract fulfilled, Denny continued playing live in Hawaii and maintained a busy touring schedule throughout the mainland U.S. and the rest of the world. Denny toured up until 1985, when he announced he was retiring to his home in Hawaii with his longtime wife June. His retirement proved to be short, as three years later he reunited with Chang, Colon, Lyman and new bassist Archie Grant to play a series of sold-out club dates and a Japanese tour. At around the dawn of the 90's, Denny became the recipient of the Hawaiian Association of Music's Hoku Award for lifetime achievement, proof that Denny was treasured as a vital part of Hawaii's musical tradition. At around the same time, some elements of the underground rock scene in the U.S., becoming bored with loudly distorted guitars and booming drums, began to rediscover the quirky elegance of exotica and space-age pop that their grandparents had listened to, and soon albums by Esquivel, Les Baxter and Denny were being bought up again. Sensing a market ripe for Denny's sound again, the Scamp label began reissuing most of Denny's catalog in the mid-90's, once again making Denny hip. Denny occasionally hit the road for tours, but by the year 2000, most of his appearances were made primarily near his home in Hawaii. Just three weeks after playing a benefit concert to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Denny died at his home in Hawaii on March 3, 2005. He was 93.

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