Sixties Music and Records          

The Hurdy Gurdy Man of the Psychedelic Sixties – Donovan Leitch


by Felice Prager

His are not the albums I have chosen to add to my collection in DVD format, but they are on my list. Lately, I have been hearing his music in commercials as background music – a phenomenon of our present culture. 

The albums of his that I owned were worn down from tracks played over and over again, scratched with album covers bent and torn and sleeves often missing. I believe I had to give them away at a garage sale in the early 1980s when I no longer had a record player but was graduating to cassettes and then CDs. Back then, his songs made me feel good. They were positive. They were sweet. They were mellow – Mellow Yellow, even. They were psychedelic. They talked about sunshine and girls named Jennifer Juniper. They had trickles of French lyrics that we thought were so wonderful because of their lilting sound and how they glided gently over our tongue. 

They were happy, yet they were not considered bubble gum music or anything less than music about peace. During the days of the Vietnam War, Donovan’s voice sang out songs about happiness and psychedelic drugs that were so popular. Today, I hear these same songs as I scour the supermarket for foods with little or no carbohydrates. Today, I cannot remember what foods were on my grocery list that I accidentally left on the kitchen counter, but I can sing along with Donovan – never missing a beat – never forgetting one line of a lyric.

Born Donovan Philips Leitch in Glasgow, Scotland on May 10, 1946, Donovan was part of the British folk scene and the British music invasion in America. His style was distinctive and incredibly eclectic. As a child, Donovan was vaccinated with the polio vaccine and contracted polio. Though the vaccine was later made safer with the Sabin oral vaccine, the disease and treatment left Donovan with a limp. The public never knew this. 

He began playing guitar at 14 and enrolled in art school but dropped out, hoping to live out his Beatnik dreams by going on the road. His early attempts at success included gigs in local clubs, doing street performances – busking, learning specialized guitar picking techniques, studying traditional folk music, and writing songs. He came to fame in early 1965 with a series of live performances on the British pop TV show, Ready, Set Go! From there, his popularity spread quickly to the USA and the rest of the world. 

After signing with the British record label, Pye Records - whose other major pop performers included The Kinks and Petula Clark, he began a long, successful collaboration with a leading record producer, Mickie Most. Most had gained success with The Animals, Lulu, and Herman's Hermits. With this collaboration, Donovan had a string of hits in the UK and the USA that included several British and American #1 hits and million-selling records. He established close relationships with leading musicians of the time including Joan Baez, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. 

He taught John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles his finger-picking guitar technique. On his first trip to the USA, he performed in New York with Pete Seeger, and he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, and Shindig! He gained critical acclaim and acceptance when he performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Though early on, he was compared with Bob Dylan, their influences and styles differed. Both artists had truly unique sounds and styles. By 1966, Donovan had shed the Dylan/Guthrie comparison and had become one of the first British pop musicians to adopt the "flower power" image. More importantly, his music was developing and changing rapidly. He immersed himself in jazz, blues, Eastern music, and the new generation of US West Coast groups (Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.) His music contained many drug references during this time. His recordings were also the first pop music to contain the sound of the sitar – later copied by other famed music groups.
In 1966, Donovan was the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for possession of marijuana. Though Donovan's drug use appeared to have been moderate and his drug use was not on the scale of others such as Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones who later died from overdoses, his use of LSD is referred to in many of his lyrics. Public attention was drawn to his drug use by a TV documentary, A Boy Called Donovan, which was broadcast during that year and newspaper coverage of the drug scene in England. 

The documentary showed Donovan and friends partaking in illegal substances at a party. Donovan's arrest proved to be the first in a long series music scene arrests, including members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Donovan's arrest attracted much publicity – positive and negative – much of it exaggerated by an overly zealous reporter who, according to Donovan’s autobiography – Hurdy Gurdy Man (2005) - was responsible for leaking information to the police about many performers who were participating in the drug scene and spreading misinformation by confusing performers’ names.

On February 9, 1967, Donovan was one of the guests invited by The Beatles to join them at Abbey Road Studios for the final orchestral session for the Lennon-McCartney collaboration "A Day in the Life," the grand finale to their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

After parting with Mickie Most in 1969, his popularity and commercial success slid. He continued to perform occasionally in the 1970s and 1980s, but his musical style and hippie image was criticized, especially with the advent of punk rock music. Though he stopped performing, there was a resurgence of popularity in his music in the 1990s with the emergence of the rave scene in GB. Late in the 1990s, he recorded a successful album entitled Beat Café (2004) – almost 40 years after the beginning of his professional career.

On October 29, 2007. Donovan and David Lynch announced that they plan to open the Transcendental Meditation University in Scotland. According to the Associated Press, the 61-year old Donovan said, "I know it sounds like an airy-fairy hippie dream to go on about '60s peace and love but the world is ready for this now, it is clear this is the time."
Partial Discography:

A Gift from a Flower to a Garden 


Beat Cafe

Catch the Wind


Donovan’s Greatest Hits

Essential Donovan


Hurdy Gurdy man

Mellow Yellow/Wear Your Love Like Heaven

Pied Piper


Sunshine Superman


What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid

more articles By Felice Prager

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