Sandy Denny - Biography

By J Poet

For many people, Sandy Denny’s luminous vocals defined the sound of British folk rock. Her work with Fairport Convention, particularly on their earth shaking Liege and Lief (1969 Island UK, A&M US), the most seminal album of the British folk revival, set a high bar for any woman singer that followed her. Denny’s incandescent stage presence and her strong, clear, emotional alto touched everyone who heard her, and her deep knowledge of the folklore of the British Isles was an immense contribution to every project she undertook. She made major contributions to the work of the Strawbs and Fotheringay, and while she only made four solo albums before her untimely death in 1978, they’re some of the best folk rock sides ever recorded. Denny was also an excellent songwriter producing standards like “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and “It’ll Take a Long Time” and the only singer ever invited to a solo on a Led Zeppelin album, delivering a wrenching vocal on “The Battle of Evermore,” on Led Zeppelin IV (1971 Atlantic) the Zep’s epic folk rock set.


Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny was born in 1947 in a small town just outside of London. Her grandmother was a singer and collector of folksongs, many of which she handed down to her granddaughter. Those old songs awakened Denny’s love of traditional music and she later became an amateur folklorist. She studied classical piano as a child, and began singing at an early age. In 1965 she joined the folk club at her school the Kingston College of Art. Other folk club members included John Renbourn, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. She started singing folk songs and American singer/songwriter material in clubs while still in school and in 1967 was asked to join The Strawbs. She recorded one demo with them, Strawbs Sampler (1969 Witchwood) which had a limited run of 99 copies, of which only two are known to have survived. Next they went to Denmark for All Our Own Work released later on as Sandy Denny and The Strawbs (1973 Hallmark, 1991 Hannibal). She quit The Strawbs and made sporadic recordings with a few other folk flavored bands, collected on It’s Sandy Denny (1970 Saga).


Her big break came when she replaced the departing Judy Dyble in Fairport Convention in 1968. Up until that time the band had been trying to play San Francisco flavored psychedelic folk rock. Denny’s knowledge of British folk music made her push the band in a more English direction and they quickly evolved into the legendary Fairport we all know. With Denny as lead singer and contributing songwriter, they recorded the three albums that made their reputation in the next year - What We Did on Our Holidays (1969 Island, 2008 Water), with Denny’s “Fotheringay” the standout tack; Unhalfbricking (1969 Island, 2008 Water) which includes another version of Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and Liege and Lief (1969 Island UK, A&M US, 2008 Four Men With Beards) still considered by many to be the best British folk rock album even made.


Denny quit Fairport in 1970 to start Fortheringay with her future husband Trevor Lucas. They cut one promising album Fortheringay (1970 Island UK, A&M US, 1991 Hannibal) before Denny started her solo career. Denny had always been plagued by stage fright, which she medicated with alcohol and drugs. In 1971 she was hanging out with fellow ne’er do well Robert Plant and Jimmy Page which led to her guest shot on “The Battle of Evermore,” on Led Zeppelin IV (1971 Atlantic). Reviews of Zep shows from that era say that Denny blew Plant away when they sang duets.


Denny began her solo career with three excellent albums The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971 Island, 1991 Hannibal) which included excellent guitar work by Richard Thompson and the Denny originals “Late November” and “John the Gun,” Sandy (1972 Island UK, A&M US) which included “It'll Take a Long Time” and Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (1974 Island UK, A&M US, 1991 Hannibal) a melancholy collection of original tunes that showed Denny’s arrival as an artist in her own right. Melody Maker voted her Best Female Singer in 1971 and 1972.


In 74 she rejoined her Fairport pals for Live Convention (1974 Island) and Rising For the Moon (1975 Island, 1998 PolyGram), the band’s last great folk rock album, which Denny writing most of the album’s tracks. She left Fairport for good in 1976 and cut Rendezvous (1977 Island UK, A&M US, 1991 Hannibal). The album sat on the studio shelf for more than a year and got mixed reviews, some calling it a classic, others deriding its heavy production methods. Denny thought about retiring and raising a family. She’d married Trevor Lucas in 1973 and was pregnant with her first child, although her drinking and drug us was getting out of control. In early 1978 she fell down a flight of stairs and injured her head. She was given a powerful pain medication, which may have interacted badly with her alcohol consumption. On April 17, 1978, she was staying with friends, and after complaining of a bad headache, she passed out. She went into a coma and never recovered, dying four days later at he age of 31.


Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1991 Hannibal) is a three CD compilation of her best stuff from the Strawbs, Fairport and Fotheringay years, while The Best Of Sandy Denny: The Millennium Collection (2002 A&M/Uni) collects the best tracks from her solo albums.

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