Podworthy: DONOVAN

While my first entry in this series, The Beatles, is probably an easy sell, Donovan Leitch may well not be. I’ve always liked his voice, and many of his own songs, following his career through several distinct periods from the 60s to now, an enthusiastic fan through the 60s and 70s, less so after that, though finding some tracks I liked on most of his releases. I saw him live twice, once at Madison Square Garden around 1970 in front of a massive audience, once a few years later at a rock  concert theater venue on his way down in popularity, but still putting on a fine show. He largely disappeared in the 80s, but had a pretty good comeback release in 1996, “Sutras.” Since then he’s mainly redone some older tracks.

The first part of Donovan’s career he was a folksinger in small British venues, heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and his peers, who also influence Bob Dylan, and Donovan was often called a Dylan clone, though he never actually performed any Dylan songs. His vocal style was similar at times, though Donovan’s vocal abilities were stronger and had much more range than Dylan. This period was captured in his early records for the Pye label in the U.K., released in the U.S. in a very annoying way on the Hickory label and later others. Each release had some of the same songs, usually the hits “Catch the Wind” and “Colours” with a few new tracks, so finding all the tracks became an expensive project that I gave up on after a few albums. When I was getting Donovan material together to put on my iPod, I found the “Summer Day Reflection Songs” collection online, which has all the Pye tracks plus about a dozen unreleased or alternate ones. I bought it as downloads, and loaded all but a few tracks on my iPod. Some favorites from this period, in addition to the hits, are “To Try For The Sun,” “Circus of Sour,” “Belated Forgiveness Plea,” the title track, and “Sunny Goodge Street.” The last one marked a transition to Donovan’s next period, with a smooth jazz arrangement.

Donovan next teamed with producer Mickie Most and arranger John Cameron to create some of my favorite tracks of his career. The arrangements were full of variety, some very jazz influenced, some more folky, a few rockers like “Season of the Witch,” with clever lyrics and great melodies. Donovan’s vocal style matured, often going for a breathy sound that some people don’t like but I do, while showing on other tracks that he had the pipes to rock out when needed, or the craft to make other styles work well for him too. The first album in this period was “Mellow Yellow,” then “Sunshine Superman,” the poorly titled “A Gift From a Flower to a Garden” (two discs, one aimed at children), “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Barabajagal.” Of these, the first two are my favorites, but I like all of them, and wanted nearly all the tracks on my iPod. Online I found that newly remastered versions of all but “Gift” were released a few years ago, and I decided to splurge and ordered the four CDs. I already had “Gift” on CD. All those original tracks went on the iPod, and some of the bonus tracks, which include singles not on the albums like “Lalena” and “Poor Cow,” and demos, some good some not.

Donovan’s first album after splitting with Mickie Most was “Open Road,” released around 1970, and at the time it became my favorite album. Some of the songs are a bit silly and self-indulgent, but I like them all, especially “Celtic Rock.” In fact, this was an attempt to create a Celtic Rock band, but it didn’t last long.

Donovan’s next effort was “HMS Donovan,” released only in the U.K., and because of that I didn’t find out about it until a few years ago, though I heard some of the songs on it from time to time, not knowing where they were from, like “Celia of the Seals” and “Lord of the Reedy River.” It’s a bit of an odd mixture of mostly children’s poems and songs with some originals, and I can’t say I love it, but I like it well enough to put most of the tracks on my iPod.

Donovan continued to record through the 70s, and I liked what he did then less and less as time went on. Donovan had embraced the flower child image in the 60s, and when that seemed no longer relevant he tried to become a more mainstream pop star, but it never worked well for me. Despite that, there are twelve tracks on the album “7-Tease” I like well enough to include, and eight on “Slow Down World,” with a few on each of the others that I picked up from the anthologies “Try for the Sun” and “Troubador” along with some unreleased tracks that are good.

“Sutras” from 1996, produced by Rick Rubin, was a new phase for Donovan, going back to his folk roots with very simple arrangements and sparse close-miked vocals. It’s kind of melancholy in parts, but in general I like it a lot, and included all the tracks. Some later releases I haven’t yet heard, but plan to listen to them online eventually.

So, 194 Donovan tracks on my iPod. Haven’t gotten tired of any of them yet!

5 thoughts on “Podworthy: DONOVAN

  1. Johnny Bacardi

    I hope you have several from 1973’s Cosmic Wheels, I think it’s by far the best thing he did since his late 60s heyday.

    Like you, I wasn’t aware of H.M.S. Donovan (the album which preceded Cosmic, actually, but really different sound-wise) until much later, but I really like that cover.

    You’ll get no stick for liking Mr. Leitch from me!

  2. Todd Post author

    From “Cosmic Wheels” I have the title song plus “Maria Magenta” and “I Like You.” Considered a few others but decided on just those.

  3. Tim

    A couple of years ago I discovered these clips of Donovan, along with sitar player Shawn Phillips, appearing on Pete Seeger’s show “Rainbow Quest” in 1966. Prepare to be mesmerized!
    – “Three King Fishers”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRxKl0zz2tE
    – “Guinevere”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKnu2WULok8
    … And as a bonus track (used to be on YouTube, can’t find it there now) some conversation from the same episode of RQ, where Fisher shows his sitar to Rev. (Blind) Gary Davis, another guest on the program. A rare meeting of musical minds.

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