The Scottish singer, songwriter, and guitarist Donovan Leitch turned 70 on May 10, 2016. Somehow I missed it, alas. He was one of those musicians that borrowed from folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and calypso to create a notable and rather recognizable sound that helped define the 1960s.
Like many artists of the period, such as the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, his UK and US releases were quite different.
I associate Donovan with the Beatles. He contributed the line “sky of blue and sea of green” to “Yellow Submarine.” Donovan was among the guests invited to Abbey Road Studios for the orchestral overdub for “A Day in the Life”. He taught John Lennon a finger-picking guitar style in 1968.
Most notably, Donovan traveled to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, where all four Beatles, two Beach Boys, and actress Mia Farrow also showed up.
I have one much later album, Sutras, from 1996, described as deeply meditative, produced by Rick Rubin in the same period he was producing Johnny Cash. Though neither critically nor commercially as successful as the Cash albums, I enjoyed it.
Here is a list of 10 essential Donovan songs. And my favorite 16, with links, though only the first two songs are assured of their slots.
16. Eldorado (1996)- the words are by Edgar Allan Poe.
15. Epistle To Dippy (#19 in 1967) – this is, midst the nearly indecipherable psychedelia, a pacifist song.
14. I Love My Shirt, a sweet, simple song I remember watching on the Smothers Brothers TV show. It was the B-side of the single Atlantis in 1968 in the UK, but not in the US.
13. Universal Soldier (#53 in 1965) – it was written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, then covered by him.
12. Catch the Wind (#23 in 1965) – Donovan’s debut single brought the comparisons to Bob Dylan. It’s a “lovelorn ballad about Linda Lawrence (then the significant other of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones) who later became Donovan’s wife.”
11. Jennifer Juniper (#26 in 1968) – the song was inspired by Jenny Boyd, sister of George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
10. Wear Your Love Like Heaven (#23 in 1967). This shows up in some commercial for perfume, I think.
9. Rikki-Tiki-Tavi (#55 in 1970). It uses the mongoose from Rudyard Kipling’s story in The Jungle Book as a metaphor. “When I was a young man I was led to believe there were organizations to kill my snakes for me. i.e.: the church, i.e.: the government, i.e.: school. But when I got a little older I learned I had to kill them myself.”
8. Colours (#61 in 1965). Lovely in its simplicity.
7. Season of the Witch (1967) – Jimmy Page on guitar. Not a single in the US, but played regularly in his live shows, and covered often.
6. Sunshine Superman (#1 in 1966) – Jimmy Page on guitar. The former comic book fan in me loves “Superman and Green Lantern ain’t got nothin’ in me.”
5. There Is A Mountain (#11 in 1967). Very Buddhist. “First there is a mountain, there is no mountain, then there is.” Copped by the Allman Brothers as the foundation of their Mountain Jam. I copped “Oh, Juanita” for a song I wrote that has fortunately never seen the light of day.
4. Mellow Yellow (#2 for three weeks in 1966) – this song with some suggestive lyrics, was kept out of the #1 slot by Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, then by Winchester Cathedral by the New Vaudeville Band. It reportedly featured Paul McCartney on backing vocals.
3. Hurdy Gurdy Man (#5 in 1968) – Jimmy Page was one of the electric guitar players and John Paul Jones played bass, arranged the track, and booked the session musicians. John Bonham may, or may not, have played drums, depending on who’s telling the story, and when, memory being tricky. The tambura which Donovan himself plays had been given to him in India by George Harrison.
2. Celtic Rock (1970) – Donovan said that he used the drone of that tambura to create this song. “Hey kala ho kala ho la jai.” It practically defines the genre it namechecks.
1. Goo Goo Barabajagal (#36 in 1969) – billed “with the Jeff Beck Group. “Love Is Hot,” indeed.