Donovan – The Sunshine Superman

Donovan is a guy I’ve been wanting to write about since practically Day One of the blog. Let’s get to it. First, a little history courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Donovan Phillips Leitch is a Scottish musician, songwriter, and record producer. He developed an eclectic and distinctive style that blended folk, jazz, pop, psychedelic rock, 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.

He emerged onto the scene in 1965 with three UK hit singles: “Catch the Wind,” “Colours” and “Universal Soldier,” the last written by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

In September 1966, “Sunshine Superman” topped America’s Billboard Hot 100 chart for one week and went to No. 2 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, and then “Atlantis,” which reached US No. 7 in May 1969.”

So as you might imagine, Donovan – believe it or not, people close to him call him Don – was ubiquitous and was in some ways the perfect hippy-dippy musician for the times.

I’ll start off here with one of my favorite Donovan tunes “Season of the Witch.” (Sounds nice on headphones..)

When I look out my window
Many sights to see
And when I look in my window
So many different people to be
That it’s strange
So strange
You’ve got to pick up every stitch
Must be the season of the witch

From an interview in Guitar World: “Can you describe the session when you recorded “Barabajagal” with Jeff Beck?”

“It was incredible. (Producer) Mickie Most said, “We’ll ask Jeff and bring the whole Jeff Beck Group in.” So they had a night off and I had a session. So everyone was there waiting around, and Mickie said, “Well, where the fuck’s Jeff?” And then Jeff walked in, and it was like Spinal Tap.

He came in and sat down with everybody else. We waited, and we waited, and Mickie said, “Okay, Jeff get your guitar out.” So Jeff’s looking around like, “Where’s my guitar?” All the instruments have been hired—nobody had brought, and nobody had thought! His guitar’s locked up somewhere in the van on the road.

Mickie goes, “No guitar, Jeff? What are we gonna do?” Jeff says, “Just call somebody and get a Strat.” Suddenly the whole of London is looking for this Strat for Jeff. And of course, everybody wants to get it to him—and one arrives.” Donovan calls Beck the best guitarist he’s worked with.*

I used to listen to Donovan’s Greatest Hits all the time. I don’t know if “Lalena” was really one of his hits but I fell in love with it even though it’s a bit overproduced. (No, not Lola or Layla but Lalena).

Interestingly, “In 2004, Donovan revealed that the song was inspired by the actress Lotte Lenya and that the song’s lyrics, addressed to a societally marginalized woman, were Donovan’s reaction to Lenya’s character in the film version of The Threepenny Opera:

“She’s a streetwalker, but in the history of the world, in all nations, women have taken on various roles from priestess to whore to mother to maiden to wife. This guise of sexual power is very prominent, and therein I saw the plight of the character.

Women have roles thrust upon them and make the best they can out of them, so I’m describing the character Lotte Lenya is playing, and a few other women I’ve seen during my life, but it’s a composite character of women who are outcasts on the edge of society.”

“My first meeting with the Beatles was when Bob Dylan played in London. I sat on the floor, Bobby was on a chair, and we didn’t say anything to each other like “Hello,” because the best thing for artists to say to one another is nothing — everyone is always asking questions — so we never ask each other anything.

Anyway, as my eyes became acclimated, I realized that there were other people in the room sitting on the sofa. My eyes became accustomed, and there were John, Paul, George, and Ringo. so our first meeting, we never said anything.

Donovan taught John and George a guitar fingerpicking style which they later used on the White Album, notably “Julia” and “Dear Prudence.” And of course, Donovan famously went to India on their Maharishi expedition.

“Catch the Wind” is a good song where, clearly, Don is trying to be Dylan. Doesn’t make it any less of a song though. There’s a spoken line in Simon & Garfunkel’s tune “Fakin’ It,” where a woman’s voice is heard saying, “Good Morning Mr. Leitch, have you had a busy day?” I’d always heard that that was Simon’s off-handed smackdown of Donovan for trying to be too Dylan-esque and maybe it was. (Simon has been accused ot the same multiple times.)

But then there’s this: “The woman performing was singer Beverley Martyn, who was friends with Donovan. Donovan’s last name is Leitch, hence the name’s use in the song. Simon knew Martyn from his days living in England, and she was often around the duo’s circle of friends at the time of recording.” So your call.

One way or another I suppose you know Donovan’s calypso tune, “There Is a Mountain.” Oddly this evolved into “Mountain Jam,” which can be heard in all of its 33-minute glory on Eat a Peach. But the Allmans don’t appear to have done it first, the Dead having quoted a few bars of it on their 1968 album Anthem of the Sun.

“According to the book Bill Graham Presents, one night at the Fillmore East when The Allman Brothers were there with the Grateful Dead and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Bill Graham came into an area where Duane Allman, Peter Green, and Jerry Garcia were jamming together on the tune. (Please tell me there’s a recording of that somewhere):

At 76, Donovan is still around still performing as evidenced by this post from The Diversity of Classic Rock. But I think it’s safe to say that his heyday was a long time ago and it’s not clear to me that the average younger fan who might dip back into the classic rock catalog has any idea who he is. A shame, and part of the reason why I do these posts.

Last song is “Sunshine Superman.” The song was Donovan’s first and, I think, only first number-one Billboard hit in the US. Effectively it’s a three-chord blues and both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – session musicians at the time – play on it. They were later to come to wider acclaim in a band whose name escapes me at the moment.

According to Donovan, while yes, there was a sunshine LSD, he really was talking about sunshine coming through the window and Superman is a reference to the book Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche who wrote about the evolution of consciousness to reach a higher superman state. (Far out, man).

The song was written for a woman named Linda Lawrence who Don had met on a pop show. She wasn’t ready for a relationship as she had been in one with Brian Jones with whom she’d had a son.

“One day in 1966,” says Linda, “I was home with my best friend when “Sunshine” came on the radio .At the end, Cathy just looked at me. “Oh my God,” she said. “He still loves you.”

They were married in October 1970 and have – remarkably for the show biz world – been together ever since.

*In addition to Beck, personnel on the Barabajagal album included Big Jim Sullivan, Ronnie Wood, John Paul Jones, Aynsley Dunbar, Nicky Hopkins, and on backing vocals, Rod Stewart. Yes, the cream of British rock.

Here’s yer Spotify list with a couple of extra goodies.

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12 thoughts on “Donovan – The Sunshine Superman

  1. Hi Jim. I always liked Donovan but didn’t make the effort to find out much about him, so thanks for the post. I enjoyed listening to those songs again. You mention Jeff Beck. What an awful loss but what a great legacy. He wasn’t my favourite guitarist but I think he was probably the best in his field technically. I regularly play the DVD of him live at Ronnie Scott’s. Amazing!

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    1. I enjoyed them too. I like them all but really thought a band could play ‘Season of the Witch’ and still sound pretty contemporary. As to Beck, did you not get the notice of my previous post? I had re-posted my series on him, or at least the first post of that series. You can find all things Beck on my site by going to the search bar. What a tragedy. He was the guitarist’s guitarist.

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  2. Nice post, Jim! It was my great guitar teacher who introduced me to Donovan and showed me how to play “Colours,” a great tune to learn when you start on the acoustic guitar. While I knew most tunes you highlighted, it occurs to me I never listened to a Donovan album in its entirety. I was also aware that Jeff Beck played on “Barabajagal” but didn’t know the fun background story. Good stuff!

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    1. I’d like to know exactly what that fingerprinting technique it was he taught the Beatles.”Barabajagal” is kinda one of those “lost” Donovan tunes. It occurs to me that he seems to have fallen into a classic rock chasm. I recall you doing “Sunshine Superman” not too long ago. I was going to forego it for “Atlantis” but had some other info and quotes I wanted to note.

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  3. I heard someone request “Season of the Witch” on the classic rock station and then of course they added it to the rotation a couple of weeks. I’d heard “Sunshine Superman” before, but didn’t realize it was the same guy. Ended up getting a “best of” album and found a lot more I grew to like.

    And what’s funny is I named one of my parakeets Mellow Yellow because the song was stuck in my head and I couldn’t get rid of it… but also she was just the yellowest parakeet I’d ever seen, so it fit. And she actually IS rather mellow (hee hee).

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    1. ‘Witch’ is a great tune. A simple blues but it captures a mood. I almost added ‘Mellow Yellow’ to my Spotify list. Come to think of it I still might. If nothing else than as a tribute to your parakeet.

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  4. It was interesting to read this because I don’t know his music very well. I liked the first two songs on the playlist, but I don’t like his softer stuff as much – he doesn’t quite have the warmth of a Cat Stevens, and kind of sounds self-consciously quirky and hippie for me.

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    1. Yes, I can’t argue that point. He was very much of his time and place which is probably why he hasn’t held up like some other classic rockers. And Cat is on my “to post” list.

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