Pianist, composer, arranger
Martin Denny is known as the King of Exotica. A classically trained jazz pianist who traveled widely, he began incorporating rhythms and instruments from South America and Asia as well as ambient touches that evoked the jungle in his music. This led to the popular term for his style of instrumental music—exotica—which was also the title of his group’s first long-playing record.
Born in New York City on April 10, 1911, Denny was raised in both New York City and Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles as a young adult. A musical prodigy, he began playing piano at a young age and started formal studies at age ten with Lester Spitz and Isadore Gorn. When he was 20, Denny was asked to assemble a group for a six-month engagement at the Granada Hotel in Bogata, Colombia, with Don Dean as the bandleader. At the end of the engagement the group toured throughout South America, primarily along the west coast. Political turmoil forced them out of Santiago, Chile, in 1932, but they eventually reached Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“When we got to Buenos Aires, we didn’t have any bookings, and we were the first ones to carry news of the revolution, because all the wires had been cut,” Denny told Dana Countryman of Cool & Strange Music! magazine in a 1997 interview. “We were interviewed by newspaper reporters who came up to our hotel room. By coincidence, one of the boys in the band’s name was Noble Don Montero. Now ‘Montero’ also happened to be the name of the absconding Chilean president. The reporters picked up on it and the headlines in the paper said that the son of the president of Chile was traveling incognito with an American jazz band! We hit the front page of the leading newspapers, and on the strength of the publicity that was generated, we were booked into the Broadway Theater. The press had to retract the statement, and even the Chilean ambassador called to find out if it was true! Although we denied it, we still received publicity from that.” The band stayed in the Argentinean capital for three and a half years. Denny says his years touring South America greatly influenced his music.
Denny made his first recording in 1933 for Victor Records as “Los Studientes de Hollywood/The Students Of Hollywood.” (This was, in fact, the Don Dean Orchestra.) Denny returned to the States in 1935, and served in the air force during World War II. After his discharge in December of 1945 he began to study piano, composition, and orchestration at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, working privately as well with Wesley La Violette and Arthur Lange.
Denny took small West Coast gigs for the next several years. He moved to Hawaii in 1954 when a friend, who played at Don the Beachcomber’s (a popular Waikikiclub),
For the Record…
Born on April 10, 1911, in New York, NY; married June (born Barbara June Ruppert; died 2001) in Washington; children: Christina. Education: Attended Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California.
Toured South America with Don Dean Orchestra, 1931-35; founded Martin Denny Group in Hawaii; signed Liberty Records contract, 1955; released Exotica, 1957; became hit, 1959; last recording for Liberty, 1970s; released From Maui with Love, 1980; retired, 1985.
Awards: Billboard Award, Most Promising Group of the Year, 1959; Hawaiian Association of Music, Hoku Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1990.
left for another engagement and suggested Denny take his place. “At that time, I was playing at a lounge, in of all places, Eureka, California with a trio and I wasn’t too happy about it,” Denny told Cool & Strange Music! magazine. “So this invitation was very timely. I played solo piano for about 6 or 7 months.” He moved to Las Vegas briefly, but “I missed Hawaii and returned that same year and freelanced.” Aside from three years spent in Beverly Hills, California, and his extensive travels, Denny has lived on the island ever since.
When Don the Beachcomber’s asked Denny to assemble a band, he put together a trio with Arthur Lyman, a vibraphonist who was working as a desk clerk, and John Kramer, a bassist who worked for the Territory of Hawaii as an accountant. The group started playing George Shearing tunes, since Shearing also used vibraphone and piano. The group was signed to Liberty Records in 1955, the same year they were founded.
Near the end of this contract, aluminum magnate Henry J. Kaiser was preparing to open the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Oahu. Around the same time, Denny asked the management of Don the Beachcomber’s for a raise and was refused. The Hawaiian Village Hotel promptly signed the jazz group, making the Martin Denny Group headliners at the resort’s Shell Bar.
The trio continued to play jazz, but not for long. A young Puerto Rican named Augie Colon asked Denny if he could “sit in”—play as an invited guest—on bongos with them. “The audience loved him, and he got a tremendous amount of applause,” Denny told Countryman. “I would invite him to come up anytime he wanted, to sit in with the group, so he would show up every evening!” Denny added Colon to the group in January of 1956.
With the addition of Colon, Denny began to arrange tunes and experiment with percussion, fusing musical sounds from the South Pacific, Asia, and South America. Colon did the bird calls heard on “Quiet Village,” a song written by Les Baxter but popularized by the group. About this same time the Martin Denny Group came to popular attention with its first long-playing record, Exotica released in 1957.
“The release of Exotica proved perfectly timed—as the 1950s drew to a close, tiki culture was all the rage in mainland America, with Hawaiian shirts a fashion trend and tiki torches a staple of backyard parties,” noted Jason Ankeny in All Music Guide. “Moreover, the evolution from mono to stereo recording and playback had taken root, and with its bird whistles, jungle calls and far-flung instruments, the many distinctive components of Denny’s sound were ideal for channel separation.”
Although the tiki craze was relatively short, Denny’s popularity continued, keeping him touring and recording almost constantly. The group made its first appearance on the mainland at a party for the 1957 Pebble Beach Crosby Open golf tournament. Ironically, Denny and Kaiser were at contractual odds at this point. When Denny chose not to return to the Shell Bar, Lyman left the group to form his own combo, and Julius Wechter, who would eventually enjoy a reputation as a West Coast session musician, was added to the group. Other members came and went, including Harvey Ragsdale (bass) and Harold Chang (percussion), but Denny remained constant, and the group bearing his name continued to tour and record.
“Quiet Village” was the number-two single on the top-40 charts in 1959, earning him a gold record, and Exotica, the number-one album on all the charts, earned him a silver record. That same year Billboard honored Denny’s combo as the Most Promising Group of the Year. Subsequent hit singles included “A Taste of Honey,” “The Enchanted Sea” and “Ebb Tide.”
Beginning with Spanish Village, the Liberty label started recording “Martin Denny” music without Denny, and often without his approval, “ghosting” recordings while he was touring. “I participated in some of them, but not all of them. I never divulged that, nor did the company,” he told Countryman. “But that wasn’t uncommon among many artists, you’ve got to remember, it wasn’t vocal—it was purely instrumental. What they did was use my name, and they used an approach that approximated my sound.”
“Some of the albums I am very unhappy about, and they should never have been recorded,” he said in the same interview. “I’m not really happy about that part of my career. But I can live with that fact that all of my earlier albums reflect my integrity and the true Martin Denny sound.”
That sound, according to Shuhei Hosokawa in Widening the Horizon: Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music, includes “piano, the vibraphone (or marimba), the upright bass, and percussion. Occasionally, instruments such as strings, drums, chorus, sitar and Moog synthesizer are added. More important is the use of Latin percussion instruments [maracas, bongos, and congas or other percussion instruments] which do not necessarily keep a Latin beat.”
Denny directed all the recording sessions for Exotic Moog—among the most collectable of his recordings—but did not play the electronic keyboard instrument. The project began after the popular success of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on Bach. It was also the last recording Denny would do for Liberty as popular attention shifted away from this form of music. Unfortunately, this meant that “[o]nly tourists visiting Honolulu had a chance to attend Denny’s live performances,” Hosokawa wrote, “and his name was soon forgotten by the mainstream music industry.”
Ultimately, more than four million copies of Denny’s 39 albums have been sold, with listeners attracted, more than likely, to the idea of paradise. According to Denny, as quoted by Hosokawa, his music was “a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like. It’s pure fantasy, though.”
Denny later recorded a promotional album for one of several hotels he opened in Maui. The result was From Maui with Love, released in 1980, on which Denny plays arrangements of his hit songs, including a lauded version of “Quiet Village.” As Ben Wener wrote in MusicHound Lounge, “what’s overlooked in Denny’s work is his accomplished playing and arranging. [H]is supple hands trip gently across the keys in a way that evokes jazz and classical foundations.”
Although retired since 1985, Denny continues to perform periodically; particularly with the resurgent interest in exotica and tiki culture that started around 1993. He gained a new following, which prompted record companies such as Rhino and Scamp to rerelease his recordings. Several club dates for which he reassembled the group—Lyman, Colon, and Chang, plus Archie Grant as bass player—were sold-out successes.
The popularity of tiki culture and sound in the 1990s led to a revival of interest in Denny’s music, and brought the musical icon to the attention of a new generation of music fans. During the 1990s, Denny recorded new music and went on tour in Japan. His music made its way into the cultural conscience through varied channels. His tune “Firecracker” was recorded by the Yellow Magic Orchestra and hit the top of the charts for four months in Japan. Several years later, singer Jennifer Lopez recorded one of Denny’s songs on her multi-platinum J.Lo album. Fourteen of Denny’s tunes were on the soundtrack to the Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte film Breakfast of Champions, and his songs have been featured in numerous other films.
“I didn’t invent lounge music; it had long existed in hotel bars and smoky dives,” he wrote in the introduction to musicHound Lounge. “[A]rtists such as Tony Bennett, Esquivel, and myself are enjoying a renewed popularity, now that they have been discovered by the children of the baby-boom generation. It has been exciting to be part of this resurgence. I’m pleased to know that after four decades of performing, I shared a part in the revival of lounge music.”
Denny lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he continues to perform, traveling to Los Angeles and Japan on rare occasions as he reaches his early nineties. Honolulu’s mayor declared July 21, 2000, to be “Martin Denny Day,” at which time he was honored by the city council and other political figures. He is considering a solo piano album and making a public television documentary. Perhaps most importantly, several contemporary musical groups claim Denny as inspiration, including Love Jones, Combustible Edison, and Don Tiki, who played a tribute concert to Denny at the Hawaii Theatre, the “Carnegie Hall” of Hawaii, in October of 2003.
Exotica, Liberty, 1957.
Exotica Volume II, Liberty, 1957.
Forbidden Island, Liberty, 1958.
Primitiva, Liberty, 1958.
Hypnotique, Liberty, 1958.
Quiet Village, Liberty, 1959.
Exotica Volume III, Liberty, 1959.
Afro-Desi, Liberty, 1959.
Exotic Sounds from the Silver Screen, Liberty, 1960.
The Enchanted Sea, Liberty, 1960.
Exotic Percussion, Liberty, 1960.
Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway, Liberty, 1961.
Romantica, Liberty, 1961.
A Taste of India, Liberty, 1968.
Exotic Moog, Liberty, 1969.
From Maul with Love, First American, 1980.
The Enchanted Isle, Liberty, 1982.
Paradise, Pair, 1988.
Exotica: The Best of Martin Denny, Rhino, 1990.
Best of Martin Denny, Rhino, 1995.
Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, Capitol, 1997.
American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, 4th ed., Jaques Cattell Press/R.R. Bowker Company, 1980.
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of American Music, Parker Publishing Company, 1973.
Hayward, Philip, editor, Widening the Horizon: Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music, John Libbey & Company Pty. Ltd., 2003.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Cool & Strange Music!, Issue 7, 1997.
Star Bulletin (Honolulu), April 25, 2003.
“June Denny, wife of entertainer, dead at 72,” Honolulu Advertiser, http:the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2001/Aug/17/1n/1n32a.html/ (September 19, 2003).
“Martin Denny,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (May 19, 2003).
Martin Denny Official Website, www.martindenny.com (September 4, 2003).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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