Legendary folk-rock troubadour Donovan helped define the last half of the 1960s. One of few artists to collaborate with the Beatles, he had a string of 11 consecutive Top 40 hits, and number ones on both sides of the Atlantic. His career in music began busking in 1964, and the next year Donovan released a string of gentle acoustic hits such as ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Colours’, and a version of Buffy Sainte Marie’s protest anthem ‘Universal Soldier’. He then went on to record the enduring and enigmatic pop masterpieces ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’ which have defined his career ever since.
Throughout the early stages of his career, Donovan was followed by comparisons with Dylan. Dylan himself said he was a fan of Donovan, and the two artists clearly shared similar influences such as Woody Guthrie. But by 1966 Donovan’s sound had developed, through collaboration with John Cameron, into more of a psychedelic rock sound, with electric guitars and influences from jazz and Eastern music. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison all cited Donovan’s playing style as an influence, and they twice invited Donovan to collaborate with them; his voice features on the final orchestral version of ‘A Day in a Life’ and the grand finale of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, and his lyrics and vocals appear in ‘Yellow Submarine’. In the early stages of his career Donovan also played with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, and utilised a young Jimmy Page on some of his recordings.
Donovan rose to fame in the UK through a series of successful appearances on pop TV series ‘Ready Steady Go!’ in early 1965. In the US, where he became equally famous, his profile was established when he became the first artist signed to the new CBS/Epic Records label by Clive Davis, the man who went on to become the mogul of the CBS empire. Some initial contractual problems led Donovan to believe he might never publish again and he retired to Greece briefly, but he eventually signed a $100,000 deal.
Whilst recording in 1964 Donovan had met The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones who was in a nearby studio. More significantly, he met Jones’ ex-girlfriend Linda Lawrence who became Donovan’s muse. Their one-off romance was a pivotal influence, and Donovan’s confused feelings for Lawrence spilled out in some of his greatest works including ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda’. After years of refusing, Lawrence eventually agreed to marry Donovan in 1970 at the Windsor registry office.
Reaching number one, the single ‘Sunshine Superman’ sold 800,000 copies and the release of Donovan’s following album was preceded by a quarter of a million advance sales. In 1966 ‘Mellow Yellow’ reached number two in America’s Billboard charts and was awarded a gold record for sales of more than one million. Both songs were thought to contain drug references (though Donovan later claimed ‘Mellow Yellow’ actually didn’t) but Donovan’s reputation as a hedonistic hippy was firmly established in mid-1966 when he was the first of a series of high-profile musicians to be arrested for drugs.
In 1967 Donovan contributed many songs to Ken Loach’s film ‘Poor Cow’; and then recorded ‘A Gift from a Flower to a Garden’, only the third pop-rock double album, which was split thematically, first a record for his parents generation, then one for the coming generation. The album contained a message to all young people to give up drugs.
Throughout the 70s Donovan continued to record and chart, particularly in the US. When the punk wave came in 1977 the optimism of his style of music was a target of the new genre, and he was the subject of a press backlash – which only really served to prove how much he’d previously defined his era.
Over the 80s and 90s, Donovan continued to tour and his live popularity frequently promoted revivals of his work in compilations and re-releases. He then found an unlikely ally in The Beastie Boys’ Rick Rubin, a long time fan of his work. Despite their established musical orientations being poles apart, the two recorded the critically acclaimed ‘Sutras’ in 1996.
So far this decade has seen Donovan publish his autobiography ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’, perform ‘Sunshine Superman’ at the wedding of the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark, release a jazzy album reminiscent of his 60s recordings – ‘Beat Café’, and tour all over the UK, Europe and America. His shows have included dates at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and appearances in aid of filmmaker friend David Lynch’s foundation.
Donovan’s life has been successful and very colourful. Packed with a very full career’s worth of hits, his live shows promise to be just as successful and colourful – inevitably a highlight of the summer.