Alexandra Elene Maclean "Sandy" Denny (6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978) was an English singer and songwriter, perhaps best known as the lead singer for the folk rock band Fairport Convention. She has been described by Allmusic's Richie Unterberger as "the pre-eminent British folk rock singer".
After briefly working with British folk band the Strawbs, Denny joined Fairport Convention in 1968, remaining with that band until the end of 1969. She formed the short-lived band Fotheringay in 1970, releasing one album with them (another unreleased album surfaced over thirty years later), before focusing on a solo career. Between 1971 and 1977, Denny released four solo albums: The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, Sandy, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, and Rendezvous. She is also noted as the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin studio album, when she shared a duet with Robert Plant for "The Battle of Evermore" on Led Zeppelin IV (1971).
Music publications Sunday Express, Uncut and Mojo have each called Denny Britain's finest female singer-songwriter. Her composition "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" has been recorded by many artists as diverse as Judy Collins, Nina Simone, 10,000 Maniacs and Cat Power.
Denny was born on 6 January 1947 at Nelson Hospital, Kingston Road, Merton Park, London. She studied classical piano as a child. Her Scottish grandmother was a singer of traditional songs. At an early age Denny showed an interest in singing, although her strict parents were reluctant to believe there was a living to be made from it. Sandy Denny attended Coombe Girls' School in Kingston upon Thames. After leaving school, she started training as a nurse at the Royal Brompton Hospital.
Her nursing career proved short-lived. In the meantime she had secured a place on a foundation course at Kingston College of Art, which she took up in September 1965, becoming involved with the folk club on campus. Her contemporaries at the college included guitarist and future member of Pentangle, John Renbourn. After her first public appearance at the Barge in Kingston-Upon-Thames Denny started working the folk club circuit in the evenings with an American-influenced repertoire, including songs by Tom Paxton, together with traditional folk songs.
Denny made the first of many appearances for the BBC at Cecil Sharp House on 2 December 1966 on the Folk Song Cellar programme where she accompanied herself on two traditional songs: "Fhir a Bhata" and "Green Grow the Laurels".
Her earliest professional recordings were made a few months later in mid-1967 for the Saga Records label, featuring traditional songs and covers of folk contemporaries including her boyfriend of this period, the American singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank. They were released on the albums Alex Campbell and his Friends and Sandy and Johnny with Johnny Silvo. These songs were collected on the 1970 album It's Sandy Denny where the tracks from Sandy and Johnny had been re-recorded with more accomplished vocals and guitar playing. The complete Saga studio recordings were issued on the 2005 compilation Where The Time Goes.
By this time she had abandoned her studies at art college and was devoting herself full-time to music. While she was performing at The Troubadour folk club, a member of the Strawbs heard her, and in 1967, she was invited to join the band. She recorded one album with them in Denmark which belatedly came out in 1973 as Sandy Denny and the Strawbs All Our Own Work. The album includes an early solo version of her best-known (and widely recorded) composition, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes". A tape of that solo version found its way into the hands of American singer Judy Collins, who chose to cover it as the title track of an album of her own, released in November 1968, thus giving Denny international exposure as a songwriter before she had become widely known as a singer.
From Fairport to Fotheringay
After making the Saga albums with Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo, Denny looked for a band that would allow her to stretch herself as a vocalist, reach a wider audience, and have the opportunity to display her songwriting. She said, "I wanted to do something more with my voice." After working briefly with the Strawbs Denny remained unconvinced that they could provide that opportunity, and so she ended her relationship with the band.
Fairport Convention conducted auditions in May 1968 for a replacement singer following the departure of Judy Dyble after their debut album, and Denny became the obvious choice. According to group member Simon Nicol, her evident personality and musicianship made her stand out from the other auditionees "like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes". Beginning with What We Did On Our Holidays, the first of three albums she made with the band in the late sixties, Denny is credited with encouraging Fairport Convention to explore the traditional British folk repertoire, and is thus regarded as a key figure in the development of British folk rock. She brought with her the traditional repertoire she had refined in the clubs, including "A Sailor's Life" featured on their second album together Unhalfbricking. Framing Denny's performance of this song with their own electric improvisations, her bandmates discovered what then proved to be the inspiration for an entire album, the influential Liege & Lief (1969).
Denny left Fairport Convention in 1969 to develop her own songwriting more fully. To this end, she formed her own band, Fotheringay, which included her boyfriend, Trevor Lucas, formerly of the group Eclection. They created one self-titled album (a second left unfinished in 1970 was finally released in 2008) which included an eight-minute version of the traditional "Banks of the Nile", and several Denny originals, among them "The Sea" and "Nothing More". (The latter marked her first composition on the piano, which was to become her primary instrument from then on.) The group dissolved when producer Joe Boyd left to take up a job at Warner Brothers in California.
Solo career and final years
She then turned to recording her first solo album The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. Released in 1971, it is distinguished by its elusive lyrics and unconventional harmonies. Highlights included "Late November", inspired by a dream and the death of Fairport band member Martin Lamble, and "Next Time Around" a cryptogram about Jackson C. Frank, one of her many portraits in song.
Sandy with a cover photograph by David Bailey followed in 1972 and was the first of her albums to be produced by Trevor Lucas. As well as introducing eight new original compositions, the album also marked her last recording of a traditional song, "The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood" (words by Richard Fariña), with Denny's ambitious multi-tracked vocal arrangement inspired by the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic.
Melody Maker readers twice voted her the "Best British Female Singer" in 1970 and 1971 and, together with contemporaries including Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings, she participated in a one-off project called The Bunch to record a collection of rock and roll era standards released under the title of Rock On. During this period, Denny also appeared in a brief cameo on Lou Reizner's version of The Who's rock opera, Tommy, and duetted with Robert Plant on "The Battle of Evermore" from Led Zeppelin's 1971 album (Led Zeppelin IV), becoming the only guest vocalist ever to appear on a Led Zeppelin album.
In 1973, she married long term boyfriend and producer Trevor Lucas and recorded a third solo album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz. The songs continued to detail many of her personal preoccupations: loss, loneliness, fear of the dark, the passing of time and the changing seasons. The album contained one of her best loved compositions, "Solo", and featured a cover image by Gered Mankowitz.
In 1974, she returned to Fairport Convention (of which her husband was by then a member) for a world tour (captured on the 1974 album Fairport Live Convention) and a studio album, Rising for the Moon in 1975. Although her development as a soloist and songwriter had taken her further away from the folk roots direction that the band had pursued since Liege & Lief, seven of the eleven tracks on Rising for the Moon were either written or co-written by her.
Denny and Lucas left Fairport Convention at the end of 1975 and embarked on what was to become her final album Rendezvous. Released in 1977, the album is now generally thought to be overproduced despite containing some of her finest compositions such as "I'm A Dreamer", "One Way Donkey Ride" and the classically-influenced "All Our Days". Having relocated to the village of Byfield in Northamptonshire in the mid-seventies, Denny gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Georgia in July 1977.
A UK tour to promote Rendezvous in the autumn of 1977 marked her final public appearances. The closing night at the Royalty Theatre in London on 27 November 1977 was recorded for a live album, Gold Dust, which, because of technical problems in the recording of the electric guitar, was belatedly released in 1998 after most of the guitars had been re-recorded by Jerry Donahue.
Denny had apparently suffered from substance abuse problems for some time, and by 1977 her addictions were obvious to others. During her pregnancy, she drank and took cocaine. Linda Thompson told The Guardian that shortly after her daughter Georgia's birth, Denny "was crashing the car and leaving the baby in the pub and all sorts of stuff." Thompson also noted that the child was born prematurely, yet Denny seemed to have little concern for her new baby.
In late March 1978, while Denny's husband Trevor Lucas was on one of his "disappearing acts", on holiday with her parents and baby Georgia in Cornwall, Denny was injured when she fell down a staircase and hit her head on concrete. Following the incident, Denny suffered from intense headaches; a doctor prescribed her the painkiller Distalgesic, a drug known to have fatal side effects when mixed with alcohol. On 1 April, several days after the fall, Denny performed a charity concert at Byfield. On 13 April, concerned with his wife's erratic behaviour and fearing for his daughter's safety, Trevor Lucas left the UK and returned to his native Australia with their child, leaving Sandy without telling her.
On 17 April, Denny collapsed and fell into a coma while at friend Miranda Ward's home. Four days later, she died at Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon. Her death was ruled to be the result of a traumatic mid-brain haemorrhage and blunt force trauma to her head.
The funeral took place on 27 April 1978 at Putney Vale Cemetery. After the vicar had read Denny's favourite psalm - Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) - a piper played "The Flowers of the Forest", a traditional song commemorating the fallen of Flodden Field. The inscription on her headstone reads, "'The Lady' Alexandra Elene MacLean Lucas (Sandy Denny) 6.1.47 - 21.4.78."
Although Denny had a devoted cult following in her lifetime, she did not achieve the mass market success that she sought. In the years since her death, her reputation has grown. A four-album box set entitled Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (1985) was produced by her widower Trevor Lucas and Joe Boyd and included many rare and previously unreleased tracks. This was the first public indication that a large cache of unreleased material existed. In 1991, Joe Boyd issued a new version of Denny's All Our Own Work album with the Strawbs called Sandy Denny and the Strawbs on his Hannibal Records label. The album had strings added to some tracks including "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" and further tracks with Denny on lead vocal.
The Australian label Raven Records issued a CD in 1995 called Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas and Friends: The Attic Tracks 1972-1984 that included 12 previously unreleased Denny songs including the original piano version of "No End", demos recorded at home in Byfield, Rendezvous album session outtakes (including her final studio recording, a cover of Bryn Haworth's "Moments") and three songs from the final concert at the Royalty Theatre.
A one-disc compilation of Denny's solo BBC recordings was released on Strange Fruit Records as The BBC Sessions 1971-1973 in 1997 that due to rights issues was withdrawn on the day of release, thereby creating a highly collectible disc (up until the release of the comprehensive Live at the BBC box set in 2007). This release was quickly followed in 1998 when Denny's final performance at the Royalty Theatre, entitled Gold Dust, was issued on CD.
In 2005, remastered versions of all her solo albums came out with bonus tracks. Prior to their release, in 2004 a second comprehensive five-CD box set was released on the Fledg'ling record label called A Boxful of Treasures that included many unreleased recordings, in particular a whole disc of acoustic demos, many recorded at her home in Byfield that was highly prized amongst fans and critics alike, who had long asserted that her solo performances showed her work in its best light, revealing the true quality of her vocal style and compositions. When the Live at the BBC box set came out in September 2007 it was rapturously praised by The Sun newspaper.
In 2008, Jerry Donahue completed the unfinished second Fotheringay album begun in the autumn of 1970. It was released to general acclaim as Fotheringay 2 and contained some notable Denny performances, in particular earlier versions of two Denny compositions "Late November" and "John the Gun", and performances of the traditional songs "Gypsy Davey" and "Wild Mountain Thyme".
In 2010, a complete retrospective box set, simply titled Sandy Denny, was released by Universal/Island Records in a limited edition of 3000. It contained Denny's entire catalogue of studio recordings, including her work with the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and as a solo artist. The comprehensive 19-CD release also included a large number of outtakes, demos, live recordings, radio sessions and interviews. The box set was released to good reviews, including a 5-star review in Uncut and a 4-star review in The Guardian amongst others.
Further recordings were released in 2011 including a German recording of Fotheringay in concert released as Essen 1970 on the Garden of Delights label. The performance was re-mastered by original band member Jerry Donahue. This release was followed by 19 Rupert Street, a home recording of a rehearsal featuring Sandy and Alex Campbell recorded at his flat in August 1967. This release is notable for the fact that Sandy performs a number of tracks that are not available in any other versions, including a cover of "Fairytale Lullaby" by John Martyn. This CD was put out by Sandy’s former Strawbs band-mate Dave Cousins on his Witchwood label.
In late 2010, Thea Gilmore was commissioned by Sandy's estate, in conjunction with Island Records, to write melodies to unrecorded lyrics found in Sandy's paperwork. The resulting album Don't Stop Singing was released in November 2011 to generally good notices, including 4-star reviews in The Independent and The Guardian among others. On 21 April 2012 the single "London" was released as an exclusive Record Store Day 7″ single.
Estate and family
After relocating to Australia and remarrying, Trevor Lucas died of a heart attack in 1989. Denny's estate is now managed by Lucas' widow, Elizabeth Hurtt-Lucas.
Sandy Denny's daughter, Georgia, has never spoken about her mother in a public forum and in the mid-2000s turned down an invitation to write the liner notes for Sandy Denny Live at the BBC. However, she flew to Britain from Australia in 2006 to accept, on behalf of her mother, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards award for Most Influential Folk Album Of All Time, which was given for Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief. Georgia gave birth to twin daughters on 29 April 1997, and a tribute album, Georgia On Our Mind, featuring many of Sandy Denny's former band mates and friends, was compiled in the children's honour.
Since her death, many tributes have been made to Denny, both in music and elsewhere. Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention recorded the tribute "Song for Sandy" on his 1983 solo album The Cocktail Cowboy Goes It Alone. Dave Cousins of Strawbs wrote "Ringing Down the Years" in memory of Sandy Denny shortly after her death. Songs more specific to the tragic death were Bert Jansch's "Where Did My Life Go" and Richard Thompson's "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?". Fellow Brit folk pioneers Spriguns changed the title of their 1978 album to Magic Lady after hearing of Denny's death while recording. In 1998, a variety of Daylily was named after her.
Denny's songs have been covered by numerous artists in the years since her death. Some of the notable acts to have covered her music include Yo La Tengo, former Marillion frontman Fish, Cat Power, Judy Collins and Nina Simone. Kate Bush named Denny in the lyric of "Blow Away (For Bill)", a track on her 1980 album Never for Ever.
Several radio specials have been produced about Denny's life and music, including BBC Radio 2's The Sandy Denny Story: Who Knows Where the Time Goes. In 2007, Denny's song "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" also received BBC Radio 2's 2007 Folk Award for "Favourite Folk Track of All Time." In 2010, she was recognized by NPR in their 50 Great Voices special series.
In April 2008, a tribute concert was held at The Troubadour in London, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Denny's death. Those taking part included Martin Carthy, Linda Thompson and Joe Boyd. A more extensive tribute was given later that year in December at the Southbank in the Queen Elizabeth Hall called The Lady: A Tribute to Sandy Denny with a band composed of members of Bellowhead, the evening featured a mix of young folk acts like Jim Moray and Lisa Knapp alongside those that had known and worked with Denny such as Dave Swarbrick and Jerry Donahue. These acts were joined by performers from outside the world of folk like PP Arnold and Marc Almond. The concert – which primarily featured songs written by Denny – received a four-star review in The Guardian. In May 2012 the Southbank concert was expanded into an eight date UK tour called The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny. The tour showcased Sandy's entire songbook taking in her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, her solo career and the new songs completed by Thea Gilmore on her album ‘Don’t Stop Singing’. The band was once more composed of members of Bellowhead. Acts performing included the aforementioned Thea Gilmore, up and coming folk acts Lavinia Blackwall of Trembling Bells, Blair Dunlop and Sam Carter, alongside more established folk stars Maddy Prior, Dave Swarbrick and Jerry Donahue. The line-up was completed with performers not normally associated with the folk scene; Green Gartside, Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman and PP Arnold. The tour was well received, getting a four-star review in the Times. and the London concert at the Barbican was filmed for BBC4, and broadcast in a 90 minute programme called 'The Songs of Sandy Denny' on 9 November 2012 at 10.05pm.
In the 2012 Irish film "Silence" (Harvest Films & South Wind Blows) ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ by Sandy Denny is used in the final credits and also during the film.
- It's Sandy Denny (1967)
- The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971)
- Sandy (1972)
- Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (1974)
- Rendezvous (1977)
- Gold Dust (1998)
- Live at the BBC (2007)
- 19 Rupert Street (with Alex Campbell) (2011)
References and notes
- Heylin, Clinton (September 1988). "Sandy Denny". Record Collector (109): 61–66.
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Image from Discogs