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Donovan (born Donovan Philips Leitch, 10 May 1946) is a Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist. He developed an eclectic and distinctive style that blended folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and world music (notably calypso). He has lived in Scotland, Hertfordshire (England), London, California, and since at least 2008 in County Cork, Ireland, with his family. Emerging from the British folk scene, Donovan reached fame in the United Kingdom in early 1965 with live performances on the pop TV series Ready Steady Go!.
Having signed with Pye Records in 1965, he recorded singles and two albums in the folk vein, after which he signed to CBS/Epic Records in the US – the first signing by the company’s new vice-president Clive Davis – and became more successful internationally. He began a long and successful collaboration with leading British independent record producer Mickie Most, scoring multiple hit singles and albums in the UK, US, and other countries.
His most successful singles were the early UK hits “Catch the Wind”, “Colours” and “Universal Soldier” in 1965. In September 1966 “Sunshine Superman” topped America’s Billboard Hot 100 chart for one week and went to number two in Britain, followed by “Mellow Yellow” at US No. 2 in December 1966, then 1968’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in the Top 5 in both countries, then “Atlantis”, which reached US No. 7 in May 1969.
He became a friend of pop musicians including Joan Baez, Brian Jones and the Beatles. He taught John Lennon a finger-picking guitar style in 1968 that Lennon employed in “Dear Prudence“, “Julia“, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and other songs. Donovan’s commercial fortunes waned after parting with Most in 1969, and he left the industry for a time.
Donovan continued to perform and record sporadically in the 1970s and 1980s. His musical style and hippie image were scorned by critics, especially after punk rock. His performing and recording became sporadic until a revival in the 1990s with the emergence of Britain’s rave scene. He recorded the 1996 album Sutras with producer Rick Rubin and in 2004 made a new album, Beat Cafe. Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
[…] On 24 October 1966, Epic released the single “Mellow Yellow“, arranged by John Paul Jones and purportedly featuring Paul McCartney on backing vocals, but not in the chorus. In his autobiography Donovan explained “electrical banana” was a reference to a “yellow-coloured vibrator”. The song became Donovan’s signature tune in the US and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 3 on the Cash Box chart, and earned a gold record award for sales of more than one million in the US.
Through the first half of 1967, Donovan worked on a double-album studio project, which he produced. In January he gave a concert at the Royal Albert Hall accompanied by a ballerina who danced during a 12-minute performance of “Golden Apples”. On 14 January, New Musical Express reported he was to write incidental music for a National Theatre production of As You Like It, but this did not come to fruition. His version of “Under the Greenwood Tree” did appear on “A Gift from a Flower to a Garden”.
In March Epic released the Mellow Yellow LP (not released in the UK), which reached No. 14 in the US album charts, plus a non-album single, “Epistle to Dippy”, a Top 20 hit in the US. Written as an open letter to a school friend, the song had a pacifist message as well as psychedelic imagery. The real “Dippy” was in the British Army in Malaysia. According to Brian Hogg, who wrote the liner notes for the Donovan boxed set Troubadour, Dippy heard the song, contacted Donovan and left the army. On 9 February 1967, Donovan was among guests invited by the Beatles to Abbey Road Studios for the orchestral overdub for “A Day in the Life“, the finale to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
[…] In early 1968 he was part of the group that traveled to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. The visit gained worldwide attention thanks to the presence of all four Beatles as well as Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, as well as actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (who inspired Lennon to write “Dear Prudence“). According to a 1968 Paul McCartney interview with Radio Luxembourg, it was during this time that Donovan taught Lennon and McCartney finger-picking guitar styles including the clawhammer, which he had learned from Mac MacLeod. Lennon used this technique on songs including “Dear Prudence“, “Julia“, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Look at Me”, and McCartney with “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son“.
[…] After another US tour in the autumn he collaborated with Paul McCartney, who was producing Postcard, the debut LP by Welsh singer Mary Hopkin. Hopkin covered three Donovan songs: “Lord Of The Reedy River”, “Happiness Runs” and “Voyage of the Moon”. […]
From Houston Chronicle, August 26, 2016:
While I had Donovan on the phone, I had to ask. I’ve always heard that Paul McCartney is on “Mellow Yellow” and that’s him saying “quite rightly” after you say, “They call me Mellow Yellow.” True?
“Partly. Paul is on the recording, but he’s only singing background. That’s my voice saying ‘quite rightly.’ Paul just happened to be in the studio that day and pitched in.“
Donovan and the Beatles go way back.
During their 1968 trip to India to see the Maharishi, Donovan showed Paul McCartney and John Lennon a style of guitar picking called clawhammer. That’s Paul doing it on “Blackbird” and John on “Julia.”
“One day, Paul came over to my apartment and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Writing songs.’ So we sat on the floor and showed each other what we were working on. That was very common back then. Paul had a song about ‘Miss Daisy Hawkins.’ It went something like ‘Ola Na Tungee, blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay.’ That later became ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ He also was working on a song about a yellow submarine. He was missing a line and I said, “Sky of blue, sea of green.’ Paul said, ‘That’ll do.’ We all helped each other.“
During that visit, there was a knock on the door. It was a cop, about to write a ticket for the Aston Martin parked illegally out front.
“Paul came around to the door, and the cop recognized him. He asked Paul if that was his car. Paul said yes. The car with the radio left on and disturbing the neighborhood? Yes. The car parked with one tire on the sidewalk? Yes. You know that’s illegal, right? Yes.
“Then the cop said, ‘Well, Mr. McCartney, if you’ll give me the keys, I’ll go turn down the radio and park the car legally for you.’ He then saluted Paul! I turned to Paul and asked, ‘Is that the way it is?’ Paul said, ‘That’s the way it is.’ The Beatles were royalty in England – everywhere in the world.“
From an interview with Goldmine, October 16, 2008:
Rumor has it that Paul McCartney sang background on “Atlantis.”
Donovan: No. (chuckles) Paul did the “Mellow Yellow” session and added the clap and the giggle. The only thing we ever got close doing was that Mary Hopkin album.
You had three songs on that first Apple album of hers.
Donovan: Yes, that was a project Paul and I did. David Lynch and I have invited Paul over the past three years to join us and to put meditation in every school in the world (chuckles). It’s no small dream, but it’s becoming a reality. But, Paul was going through that extraordinary thing himself in the last year and a half.
Where you disappointed when The Beatles renounced the Maharishi?
Donovan: It’s very simple. It was a set-up. John wrote a song about it, but it had more to do with their private lives at the time and nothing to do with Maharishi. There was a bad apple in the camp. I think Magic Alex didn’t like that John’s relationship was building with Maharishi. And he poisoned John’s feeling for Maharishi. This is common knowledge now, but John realized it later, and George apologized, too. It was nothing at all what people imagined, and it was a sad affair, of course, but what was magic was the meditation, and we continued to do that.
So, it was The Beatles’ friend Magic Alex who started a rumor that the Maharishi was sleeping with the women?
Donovan: There was an Australian nurse that said something, ha ha ha, and even Mia [Farrow] said something, but that was absolutely nuts, mad, and nothing to do with Maharishi. It was a shame that it happened, but that’s what happens around great teachers.
Last updated on October 21, 2019
Songs written or co-written by Donovan