Introduction to Donovan

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Donovan is a Scottish folk and pop singer and guitarist, at first being dubbed as the “British Bob Dylan.” He later developed his own bright, psychedelic form of folk that was the staple of the late 60s music era-Flower Power movement with hits and now-oldies music favorites like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.” He was born in Glasgow but raised in Hertsfordshire where he inherited his love of folk music from his family. He rose to fame with his early big hits in his homeland: “Catch the Wind” and “Colours.” Then he shot to international stardom when 1966’s “Sunshine Superman” topped the US Hot 100, and “Mellow Yellow” was a US #2 hit. He also had other US Top 10 hits: “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and “Atlantis.” He collaborated on most of his 1960s records with Mickie Most.

Donovan also toured consistently and to sold-­out crowds once his fame rose. After he split with Most, his commercial success began to diminish, and since from the 1970s onward he had been recording sporadically and eventually vanished from the music scene. He experienced a revival during the 1990s through the releases of the tribute album Island of Circles, and the two­-CD boxed set The Troubador: The Definitive Collection 1964-­1976. With his unlikely new fans in the rave circuit, his reputation was continually restored. His latest album, Shadow of Blue, marked his historic return to Nashville, Tennessee as it was here where Donovan began his American recording career back in 1965.

Year Song US Billboard Hot 100 UK Singles Chart
1966 Sunshine Superman #1 #2
1967 Mellow Yellow #2 #8
1968 Hurdy Gurdy Man #5 #4

Key Takeaways

  • Donovan’s early work defined the 1960s Flower Power era with hits like “Catch the Wind.”
  • His musical influence persisted across decades, leading to a 1990s resurgence.
  • The album “Shadow of Blue” represents his enduring legacy and cross-generational appeal.

Early life and start in music career

Donovan in 1965
Donovan in 1965

Folk singer­-songwriter Donovan was born Donovan Philips Leitch on May 10, 1946 in Glasgow, Scotland. He developed his love for music, most especially folk music, when he was a teenager. Donovan learned to play guitar and soon he was absorbed into the UK folk circuit.

When he was 18 he recorded his first demo, and later made his first television appearance on the popular British musical variety show Ready, Steady, Go! Donovan issued his first single “Catch The Wind” in early 1965 and his debut album What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid (which contained the single) followed soon after.

“Catch The Wind” peaked at #4 on the UK singles chart, and #23 on the US Billboard Hot 100 (#15 US adult contemporary). What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid peaked at #3 on the UK album chart, and #30 on the US Billboard 200. With the popularity of the single, Donovan earned the reputation (rather undeservedly) as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan. Donovan would develop his own style of folk ­­ bright and optimistic, which is ideal for the Flower Power movement, as opposed to Dylan’s bleak, introspective style. Donovan eventually got to meet Dylan in May 1965, when the latter was having his UK tour.

Donovan made his US debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Following the gig, he released his second LP Fairytale, which featured the #4 UK hit “Colours.” He then met producer Mickie Most later that year, and their collaboration brought most of Donovan’s 1960s hits.

  • US Chart Success: Donovan’s singles consistently performed well, with “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis” achieving top 10 status.
  • Exploration of Sound: By integrating exotic instruments and merging genres, Donovan crafted a distinctive style that made his music synonymous with the psychedelic era.
  • Collaborations: Working with renowned artists like Paul McCartney and the Jeff Beck Group, he showcased his versatility and range as a songwriter.
  • International Influence: His travels, particularly to India, expanded his musical horizons, feeding into the lyrical and melodic sensibility of his later work.

“Sunshine Superman”-era

Billboard advertisement, June 15, 1968
Billboard advertisement June 15 1968

In 1966 Donovan signed with a major label Epic in 1966, and released his third LP Sunshine Superman. The title track was made a single, and became Donovan’s breakthrough US hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK it charted at #2. Sunshine Superman’s unique and even exotic instrumentation (employing flutes and congas, which would make up of Donovan’s characteristic sound) became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The album fell just one position short of making it into the Billboard 200’s top 10 album. In the UK Sunshine Superman went to #25.

Donovan’s follow-­up Mellow Yellow was released in early 1967. The title track, which featured the Beatles’ Paul McCartney (he also played bass on some of Mellow Yellow‘s tracks) went to #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the UK singles chart.

During the psychedelic era, Donovan’s career flourished. The Scottish singer­-songwriter was still performing well on the charts through his following singles “Epistle To Dippy” (non­album single; #19 US), “There Is A Mountain” (non-­album single; #11 US, #8 UK), “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” (#23 US), “Jennifer Juniper” (#26 US, #5 UK), “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” (#5 US, #4 UK), “Lalena” (#33 US), “Atlantis” (#7 US, #23 UK), “To Susan On The West Coast” (#35 UK), and “Goo Goo Barabajagal” (#36 US). His songwriting was also influenced by his sojourn to India along with the Beatles and other celebrities.

His albums were also doing well at this point. They included: Mellow Yellow (#14 US Billboard 200), the quite ambitious double­-LP album A Gift From A Flower To Garden(#19 US, #13 UK), Barabajagal (which featured the Jeff Beck Group; #23 US), and Open Road (#16 US, #30 UK).

Later Career

Donovan’s successful and productive professional relationship with Mickie Most ended in 1969. Donovan released his self­-produced album Barabajagal in 1970, and the album’s single off that album, “To Susan On The West Coast Waiting” was to be his last US Top Ten hit (at #7). With his departure from Most, his commercial fortunes also began to dwindle. In the 1970s his music and hippie image also began to receive some backlash from his detractors.

Donovan retreated into seclusion in certain periods, performing sporadically in the 1970s and the 1980s. He reunited with Most in the early 1973, releasing Cosmic Wheels later that year. It made a relative comeback, peaking at #15 on the UK singles chart and #25 on the US Hot 100.

He released a few albums in between, and played in small clubs and venues. He had virtually retired from music altogether until in the 1990s via the retrospective and tribute releases Island Of Circles and the two­-CD boxed set Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964­1976. He released his comeback LP Sutras in 1996, and then followed by Pied Piper (2002), Sixty-­Four (2004 ­-it contained Donovan’s demo tracks he recorded in 1964), Beat Cafe (2005), Brother Sun, Sister Moon (2004 ­ it was released exclusively on iTunes), Ritual Groove (2010) and Shadows Of Blue (2013). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

Frequently Asked Questions

How has Donovan’s contribution influenced contemporary trends?

Donovan’s contribution to music has paved the way for seamless genre crossovers, influencing contemporary artists to experiment with folk elements in alternative and indie music. His emphasis on the lyrical narrative and mystical themes continues to resonate with modern songwriting trends.

What are the core themes that Donovan often addressed in his works?

Donovan’s publications often address themes such as:

  • Spirituality and Consciousness: His lyrics delve into self-discovery and the human spirit.
  • Nature and Environmentalism: He frequently draws inspiration from the natural world.

What methodologies does Donovan employ in his work?

Donovan’s works included methodologies like:

  • Utilizing poetic and abstract language to invoke emotional responses.
  • Combining traditional instruments with electronic experimentation to create new sounds.
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