Martin Denny – “The Father of Exotica”

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Introduction to Martin Denny

Martin Denny was an American musician, regarded as the “Father of Exotica.” He developed his sound called “exotica,” which included sounds from strange exotic instruments as well as from animals like frogs and bird calls. He incorporated these into a Lex Baxter original piece “Quiet Village.” It soon became a hit in 1959, and its album called (what else) Exotica reached #1 on the Billboard album chart. Needless to say, the exotica began to grow in popularity, but it proved to be a fad. Nonetheless, Denny continued to perform actively even in his retirement age; at one point he reunited with his original bandmates (including Lyman) to sold-out club gigs. In 2005 Denny died in Honolulu, Hawaii, aged 93.

Early life and career

Martin Denny was born in New York City, New York on April 10, 1911 but grew up in Los Angeles, California.

He studied classical piano when he was ten and became a child prodigy. During the 1930s Denny toured South America with the Don Dean Orchestra for four and a half years. There Denny discovered Latin and exotic rhythms and would collect a number of ethnic instruments for his repertoire.

In 1945, after his discharge from the army, Denny continued to enhance his musical talents by studying piano and composition as well as orchestration in Los Angeles, California.

From California to Hawaii, where “exotica” was born

In 1954 Denny moved to Honolulu, Hawaii (before the island became a state). There, Denny was employed by club owner Don the Beachcomber to play nightly engagements.

The year after Denny moved to Hawaii, he formed his own combo that included Arthur Lyman (who would also soon make a name for himself and even become a rival of Denny’s in the exotica department). Lyman was a vibist in Denny’s group, which also originally consisted of bassist John Kramer and percussionist Augie Colon.

Denny’s invention of “exotica” genre came as joke. The band was playing on one of their usual evening engagements at the Shell Bar, which had a small pond near the stage. Denny and his bandmates noticed the bullfrogs croaking while they were playing music — likewise, as they stopped playing, so did the bullfrogs’ noises. When the combo played again, the bullfrogs resumed croaking. As a running gag, one of Denny’s bandmates began to imitate bird calls as they performed and the bullfrogs croaked.

It was nothing more than just a joke, until someone suggested to Denny to do a musical arrangement with the birds and frogs sound effects. Denny realized that this made perfect sense. So he incorporated these sounds during their rehearsal of an instrumental number called “Quiet Village,” a Les Baxter original.

Fueling the exotica craze with the hit “Quiet Village”

When “Quiet Village” was released as a single, it was billled under “The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny.” Its naturally exotic, tropical sounds delighted lots of listeners.

“Quiet Village” became a Top 10 hit on the Billboard pop chart in 1959, peaking there at #4. It also went to #11 on the R&B singles chart that year. As the decade drew to a close, exotica and Tiki culture became really popular in mainland US. Many people began to wear colorful Hawaiian shirts and parties with Tiki themes became “in” at the moment.

However, the exotica craze proved to be a fad, and Denny never duplicated or surpassed the success of “Quiet Village.” Nevertheless, Denny enjoyed minor pop hits such as “A Taste Of Honey,” “The Enchanted Sea” and “Ebb Tide” and had three to four of his albums finding their way on the charts simultaneously. He continued to release records copiously throughout the 1960s; many of his albums featured model Sandy Warner who would change her looks (mostly the color of her hair) often depending on the album’s design.

After the exotica craze…

Denny was still active performing and maintained a busy schedule throughout the 1970s. In the mid-1980s Denny retired from active performing and settled in Hawaii with his wife; but a few years later he grew restless and was back on the stage again. He reunited with his old mates (including Lyman) as well as added a new member Archie Grant to the fold. The band played to sold-out dates not only in Hawaii but elsewhere. His vintage LP’s began had become prized by vinyl lovers and collectors, as the interest towards the exotica and space age pop experienced a sort of revival; because of this, a CD reissue of his best works was released on Scamp label.

Denny was still on the road even when he was into his 80s. “The Father of Exotica” died in Honolulu, Hawaii on March 2, 2005, aged 93.

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