Popular Culture (Music) 20110121: Donovan

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

One of the most popular, and in my opinion, most talented of the British Invasion solo acts was Donovan Philips Leitch, known simply as Donovan.  He had several monster hits both in the UK and in the US in the mid 1960s, and many people recognize the music but not necessarily the artist.

His style was more folk than rock, and I personally believe that if it had not been for Bob Dylan Donovan would be remembered as the greatest folk singer of the 1960s.  Fortunately, he is still with us and has a talented progeny as well.  

Donovan is Scottish, unlike most of the British Invasion.  Born in the Maryhill part of Glasgow in 19460510, he is now 64 years old and still performs occasionally.  If you have seen live performances of videos of them you might notice that he has a bit of a limp.  This was due to a case of polio when he was young, and he never recovered completely from it.  This makes me realize that I really need to do a Pique the Geek installment about polio, one of the most destructive infectious diseases that can be just about completely eliminated.

In any event, this piece is about Donovan.  I am not going to go through a complete history on him like I have for other artists, but enough to give you some flavor for his work with only a short biography.  He was at the peak of his popularity around 1968 or so.  This was despite a drug bust in 1966, and, interestingly, the United States government did not block his entry into the country for performances.

He had what is now termed a psychedelic style and was very acoustic rather than hard electronic.  He also used extremely sexually graphic lyrics (for the time) but wrote his material so cleverly that no one in authority really noticed that they were explicit.  For example, here is a live version of his first big hit, Catch the Wind.  This song was on the record What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid (titled in the US as Catch the Wind).  By the way, this song was recently used for a TeeVee advert here in the US.  This is a live version from the US TeeVee show Shindig!.  The record was originally released in 1965.  It hit number four on the UK charts and 23 on the US Billboard chart.  After doing some research, I think that I will do a piece entirely devoted to Shindig! in the near future.

The lyric

To feel you all around me…

certainly is a sexual reference, and there is an even a more daring one in a song to which we will get to later.

His next big hit was Colours, released in 1965 as well.  It also hit #4 in the UK, only #61 here is the US.  It is a wonderful song, with a subtle reference to psychedelics.  Here is a version, also from Shindig!.

As you can see, his style is completely different from that of my favorite band, The Who.  But his work is hauntingly beautiful and, actually, relaxing.

His next hit was not one of his own composition but rather by the female folk artist Buffy Sainte-Marie (who is also still with us).  This song, The Universal Soldier, made it to #1 in the UK, but only #53 here.  It is a wonderful rendition of her song.  I do not know the source of this video.  The original was released in 1965.

Once again, hauntingly beautiful it is.

For some reason that I can not determine, Donovan became more popular in the US than in the UK in 1966.  His next big hit was his only #1 Billboard entry, but only made #2 in the UK.  It is the famous Sunshine Superman, with another extremely explicit sexual reference.

I have included both a live version and the original studio one for this number, since they are so different.  Which one do you like better?

This is the live one:

This is the one from the record:

I prefer the studio version, but that is just me.  Here is what I perceive to the be explicit reference to cunnilingus:

Superman or Green Lantern, ain’t got nothin’ on me.  I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea.  You can sit there thinking, on your velvet throne

Perhaps I just have a dirty mind.

The next big hit of his (#2 in the US, but only #8 in the UK) is probably his most well known song, Mellow Yellow.  There is some history involved here, and it has to do with smoking bananas.  At the time, it was thought that if one took banana peels and scraped the soft material from them, dried it, and rolled it into a cigarette that smoking said cigarette would get one high.  The interesting thing is that the song came out before the story about the supposed psychoactive properties of the banana broke.  In retrospect, it seems that some wiseguys took the song and made a “story” about it.  Trustworthy research has proven that there are no psychoactive substances in the banana.

Here is a video that is recent, from 2010.  I am not sure that is not lip synched, but he seems to be holding up pretty well:

Here is the studio version from 1966:

I very much like the song, and the lore that goes with it.

After that, his popularity started to wane.  However, he still had a few left in him.  This live video is from the Bobby Gentry Show, a very short lived US TeeVee show.  Bobby Gentry rose to fame rapidly with her song Ode to Billy Joe and plummeted shortly thereafter.  This tune made it to #8 in the UK but only to #11 on Billboard.

Still, the hauntingly beautiful character of his music is evident.

Wear your Love like Heaven never made the UK charts, but it did hit #23 in the US.  I remember this song well because it was used shortly after it was released in 1967 for the TeeVee adverts for Herbal Essence Shampoo!  Does anyone else remember that?  I like the song very much.

His haunting artistic abilities are still evident.  I use the word “haunting” a lot in this piece, but that is the best term that I can think of for his style.  It gets to me.

I had forgotten all about this next song until I did the research, I absolutely remember that tune.  It is Jennifer Juniper, and the back story is quite complex, and since I am running up against my deadline to post, will not go into it.  We can discuss it the comments if you wish.  It is another beautiful piece of lyrical work from Mr. Leitch.  This song reached #5 in the UK, but only #26 on Billboard.

I sort of wonder if Donovan likes gin, since juniper is the major flavoring agent in it.

His last Top Ten in the UK was Hurdy Gurdy Man.  This was sort of a different direction for him, but is an excellent song.  It made #4 in the UK and #5 on Billboard.  I find it sort of strange, but still flavored with the Donovan haunt.

Here is a live, recent recording from 2007:

And here is the studio version:

Some electronic effects were used on the studio version, obviously.

His last big hit, in the US and NOT in the UK was what I think might be his best song, Atlantis.  I remember this song very well from when I was only 11, since it was released in 1968.  It only made #23 in the UK, but #7 on Billboard.  I love this tune!

Listen to his Scottish brogue on the introduction for this one!  It is wonderful.

He never had another Top Ten song either in the UK or the US.  I still think that he is genius, and hope that he realizes that there are lots of us still out here that value his music.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention one of his other great songs that did not do well on the charts.  It is Lalena, about a prostitute and written with extreme empathy for working girls.  Deep Purple Mark I covered the song on their third album as well.  By the way, Deep Purple material is hard to find for free on the tubes or I would have done a piece about them already.  The first iteration of the band was outstanding, but they deteriorated after kicking out Evans and Simper.  Here is Lalana.

I WAS able to find the Deep Purple cover of this song.  They were really good at one time.

Well, that is about it for this evening.  I hope that you have enjoyed going down memory lane with one of the most gifted of all of the British Invaders.

I did mention that he had talented progeny.  One of his sons is the actor, Donovan Leitch, Jr., and one of his daughters is the, yes, hauntingly beautiful Ione Sky.

This just in:  I am done with MSNBC.  Kicking Keith off was not only stupid, but counterproductive.  I will NEVER tune to that channel again, unless they realize their mistake and restore his program.  I know that he will land on his feet, but to hell with MSNBC.

Warmest regards,


Featured at TheStarsHollowGazette.com.  Crossposted at Dailykos.com


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  1. some really great music, and for a tribute for a great artist?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I owned that album in the 60’s.

    You missed my favorite and arguably most covered Donovan song- Season of the Witch.


    Vanilla Fudge-

    My Favorite cover is Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger-

  3. As you may know from my weekly Original v. Cover series, I’m a music junkie as well, so find your articles to be very interesting.  

    I suppose the reason that you didn’t include “Season of the Witch” is that it didn’t chart, even though it is a great song. As with any article like this, one has to draw the line somewhere, and in the process many good songs are left out of the mix.  

    Although there were obvious differences, I suspect there is some similarity between Donovan’s music and that of Cat Stevens, whose popularity peaked a few years later.  

    There is something to be said for including lyrics that can be interpreted in more ways than one. That’s probably so those with dirty minds can be entertained, too?

    “Catch the Wind” sexually explicit? But it sounds so innocent! And how parents in the 1960s must have been relieved to overhear their offspring listening to something more sedate than the Rolling Stones.

    Maybe Donovan was a little early here with his rendition of “Universal Soldier” since in 1965 the opposition to the Vietnam Conflict was just beginning to gain momentum.  It’s a great song, however.

    Although I like most of Donovan’s music, “Sunshine Superman” and “Jennifer Juniper” are not among my favorites.  Too commercial perhaps?  Or maybe it’s just me.

    “Lalana” is perhaps my favorite Donovan song. The cover version by Deep Purple must be one of the mellowest songs I’ve heard them perform, but I like both versions. Can’t understand why a song like this doesn’t make the charts, but “Sunshine Superman” does. Another of the many mysteries that come to the fore when investigating songs and performers.  

    Although I’m sort of lukewarm toward “Mellow Yellow”, I’ve always thought that the following version, which includes some clever animation is fun to watch:

    Thanks for reminding us about Donovan’s considerable musical contributions.  

    Take care!

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