Donovan Philips Leitch (aka Donovan) was born in Maryhill, Glasgow in 1946. As a child he contracted polio and his father, a poetry buff, read to his young son. In 1956 the family moved to Hatfield, Hertfordshire where young Donovan grew to like the folk music of Woodie Guthrie and Derroll Adams. He began playing guitar at fourteen and became a regular at the St Albans folk club at The Cock pub. There he met Mick Softly and long-time collaborator and companion Gypsy Dave. Aged 16, Donovan was a competent guitar player and played with a distinctive finger picking style (which he later taught John Lennon). In 1963 he dropped out of Art school and caught the wonder lust, travelling the country as a busker. He started writing songs with his two friends and when they arrived in Brighton, Donovan played during gig intermissions. His reputation grew and Geoff Stephens and Peter Eden employed him as a song writer. When Elkan Allen (producer of 'Ready Steady Go'), heard Donovan’s demos he took the unprecedented action of putting the unknown denim clad folkie on the program. His bold action was rewarded and Donovan became an instant hit with the Mod audiences. Donovan made his TV debut in 1965 and had his guitar emblazoned with the words "This Machine Kills."
Inspiration came from his hero Woody Guthrie whose guitar bore the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists". Pye Records quickly signed the eighteen year old and his first single “Catch the wind” went to Number three in the UK charts on release.
Many of Donovan songs were inspired by his wife Linda Lawrence. Linda had previously been the girl friend of Brian Jones but eventually Donovan and she got married, and celebrate one of the longest marriages in show business. Donovan follow up was "Colours," then the antiwar "Universal Soldier."
Both did well in the charts but late 1965, Donovan parted company with his original managers and signed with Ashley Kozak, who was working for Brian Epstein's NEMS Enterprises. Ashley Kozak introduced Donovan to American impresario Allen Klein who in turn introduced Donovan to producer Mickie Most. Most had previously made his reputation working with The Animals and Herman's Hermits. Donovan was now acknowledged as a notable UK folk singer. Public comparisons were quickly made with Bob Dylan and the two met in 1965. They enjoyed each other’s company and Dylan invited Donovan to tour with himself and Joan Baez. Pete Seeger, too recognised the emerging talent and invited him to play at the Newport Folk Festival in the US. Donovan had a fan following in the US but ran into contractual difficulties which interrupted his record releases. In 1966 he signed a $100,000 deal with the CBS subsidiary Epic Records. In the same year he was busted for possession of marijuana and became the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested. Now super hippy, Donovan used his notoriety to highlight his political beliefs for nuclear disarmament and against the injustices in a materialistic and violent world. Donovan's best recordings were produced by Mickie Most and featured excellent session musicians including: Jack Bruce (Cream), Danny Thompson (Pentangle), Spike Heatley (upright bass), Tony Carr (drums and congas), John Cameron (piano), Harold McNair (sax and flute), and John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin). Mickie Most and John Cameron (arranger) combined pop with Donovan’s soft folk style to produce a run of psychedelic hits including "Sunshine Superman,", "Mellow Yellow," (arranged by John Paul Jones and featuring Paul McCartney on uncredited backing vocals), and "Hurdy Gurdy Man,"(featuring Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones).
During this time Donovan became a close friend of the Beatles and appeared uncredited on several of their studio recordings including 'A Day in the Life', from the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967).
He was attracted to the philosophical teachings of the Indian guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and journeyed to India with the Beatles to meditate. As the sixties progressed, Donovan continued to record successful material in accord with the developing UK psychedelic but growing tensions between Mickie Most and Donovan came to a head in late 1969. The two parted company and Donovan joined forces with Jeff Beck to produce the rockier, “Goo Goo Barbajagal.”
Disillusioned with the music scene Donovan dropped out for almost six years before he finally re-emerged. His commercial appeal had waned and although he continued to perform and release albums, the popular phase of Donovan music was over. The singer relocated to the US where he continues to have a loyal following and regularly tours. Donovan is a committed conservationalist and enjoys much popularity on the retro circuit.
Worth a listen:
Catch the wind (1965)
Universal Soldier (1965)
Mellow Yellow (1965)
Sunshine Superman (1966)
Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968)
Goo goo Barabajagal (1969)