A pale, diminutive Scottish lad, Donovan launched his career imitating American folk-rock hero Bob Dylan. While that brought him some notoriety, he didn’t fully come into his own until he shed the protest singer image. Blossoming into a mystical, flower-power singer—idol to hippies the world over—Donovan soon found a broad following for his folksy, psychedelic music. The second half of the 1960s found him at the height of his popularity, evidenced by international tours and sell-out crowds. He went into semi-seclusion during the following decade, lending his talents to film scores. The 1980s saw him involved primarily in political causes and protest marches. Although his star burned brightly only for a few years, Donovan’s songs have become classics and remain classic-radio staples.
Born Donovan Leitch in Glasgow, Scotland, the singer grew up in the working-class Gorbals section of Glasgow. “We left Glasgow when I was ten,” Donovan recalled in Look magazine, elaborating, “We were in the slums there. My father was afraid for his children. We moved to England where it was green and grassy.” The family relocated to Hertfordshire, in the country outside of London. In school Donovan discovered a talent for painting and writing. “My son always had that little pencil in his hand and that little paper,” his mother commented in Look.
Donovan continued writing throughout his adolescence, running the gamut from ghost stories to poems hinting at sexual frustrations. He became fascinated with the American beat movement and tried to imitate the freeform writing he found there. When faced with the possibility of taking a job as a tailor, he rebelled, quitting school and opting for a career as a singer. He made a living at odd jobs: working in a toothpaste factory, making cardboard boxes, manufacturing plastic soldiers. These spotty occupations afforded him the time to hitch-hike around England, where he found solace on the lonely, haunting Cornwall coast. During his travels he composed fragments of songs on his acoustic guitar and played in any pub or cafe that would let him. He was also active in the “Ban the Bomb” movement flowering in England at the time.
At 18 Donovan was discovered in a club in southeast England, after which he was enlisted to perform on the popular British television program Ready Steady Go. By then he had adopted a Dylan-inspired protest singer persona—complete with harmonica harness and a guitar bearing the slogan “This Machine Kills,” an expression Dylan had taken from Woody Guthrie, whose
For the Record…
Born Donovan Leitch, May 10, 1946, in Glasgow, Scotland; married a woman named Linda, c. 1970; children: three, including daughter lone Skye.
Worked at odd jobs, including in a toothpaste factory, making cardboard boxes, and manufacturing plastic soldiers, and performed in bars and clubs throughout England, c. 1963-65; discovered in British Club, c. 1965; performed on British television program Ready Steady Go, 1965; made U.S. debut at Newport Folk Festival, 1965; recording artist, 1966—; composer of film scores, 1969-79, including If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and The Pied Piper; appeared in films If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium and The Pied Piper, continued to write songs and perform at peace rallies in Europe, 1980—.
Addresses: Management —Great Northern Arts, Ltd., 114 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10016.
slogan had actually been “This machine kills fascists.” Television gained him widespread exposure in 1965 and despite his obvious influences, he had hits with two original songs: “Catch the Wind” and “Colours.” Also in 1965, Donovan made his U.S. performing debut at the famed Newport Folk Festival.
By 1966 Donovan’s image began to change; the activist folksinger role gave way to that of peace-loving “flower power” hippie. Denims fell by the wayside—replaced by love beads and the flowing white robes of a guru. Musically too, critics noted, Donovan had come into his own. Though his songs retained a folksy, soft-rock element, they were now laced with the ubiquitous psychedelia of the era, evinced on the Number Two hit “Mellow Yellow”—a ditty that engendered a brief fad of smoking banana peels. Perhaps his biggest hit, however, was the jaunty “Sunshine Superman,” which reached Number One in 1966.
The following year Donovan traveled to India to receive the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. There he continued to write songs, immersing himself in philosophies that would change his life. “I was in India,” Donovan related in press material from Great Northern Arts, Ltd., “with four Beatles, one Beach Boy and [actress] Mia Farrow. We were gathered together on the roofs of our bungalows, under the tropical Indian stars. We broke out the guitars and I started to write this song. George Harrison turned to me and said: ’I could write a verse for that song, Don.’ And he did—but I didn’t record it.” The song turned out to be the hit “Hurdy Gurdy Man”; the verse Harrison wrote was tucked away and recorded by Donovan over 20 years later on the album Donovan: The Classics Live.
Donovan returned to the West with a new agenda—to preach of the wonders of life without drugs. “I’ve done all drugs,” the singer told Allan Parachini of the Detroit News, “and what it’s led me to believe is that there’s no high like a natural high.... Meditation is the only way to find what you’re looking for when you get stoned.” The newly sober singer reached the peak of his popularity in 1968 and 1969, the period during which he released the albums Hurdy Gurdy Man and A Gift From a Flower to a Garden. The singles “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and “Jennifer Juniper” became huge hits and Donovan was lauded for the melodic, upbeat direction of his songcraft. Christian Science Monitor contributor David Sterriti wrote that Donovan’s “current music returns to the time of the troubadour, the wandering musician whose songs were poetically influenced by the trees and green fields on his way from town to town.” He added that the artist’s approach to his work was “unique ... in its total lack of pessimism and its childlike delight in subject matter as basic and unpretentious as the composer’s own singing style.”
During the 1970s Donovan briefly retired to Ireland. When he returned, he found that he had faded somewhat from the public eye. He released a few records and toured sporadically but never again reached the popularity he had enjoyed during the late 1960s. He wrote musical scores for several films, including If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and The Pied Piper, in which he also took the lead role. He also wrote a much-loved children’s double album entitled H.M.S. Donovan. 1974’s 7-Tease, a concept album, was accompanied by a theatrical tour that made its way to the U.S. featuring Donovan and a company of dancers.
Donovan’s career became even more low-key during the 1980s; not ready to retire, however, he spent the decade recording and marching in support of Europe’s peace movement, singing at rallies in Britain, Holland, and Germany. In the 1990s three alternative rock bands-No Man, Happy Mondays, and the Butthole Surfers—each released cover versions of popular Donovan compositions. In 1991 the singer even launched a tour of the U.K. with Happy Mondays. That year he also released the album Donovan: The Classics Live.
Although his heyday was relatively short-lived, Donovan’s impact on popular music has been significant. Many of his songs have stood the test of time, sounding fresh decades later—testimony to their irresistible hooks, unusual orchestration, and lyrical creativity. Furthermore, as a spokesperson for various concerns the singer has done much to promote world peace over the many years since the 1960s golden era of activism. Despite the uncertainty of renewed commercial success, Donovan’s voice has remained in the mix of popular music, influencing a new generation of songwriters and performers.
Catch the Wind, Hickory, 1965.
Sunshine Superman, Epic, 1966.
In Concert, Epic, 1968.
Hurdy Gurdy Man, Epic, 1968.
A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, Epic, 1968.
(With Jeff Beck) Barabajagal, Epic, 1968.
Greatest Hits, Epic, 1969.
Open Road, Epic, 1970.
Colours, Hallmark, 1972.
Cosmic Wheels, Epic, 1973.
7-Tease, Epic, 1974.
Donovan, Rak, 1977.
The Donovan File, Pye, 1977.
Greatest Hits, Embassy, 1979.
Donovan: The Classics Live, Great Northern Arts, 1991.
Troubadour: The Definitive Collection/1964-76, Epic/Legacy, 1992.
Island of Circles (tribute album), Nettwerk, 1992.
Also released albums H.M.S. Donovan, Love Is Only Feeling, Lady of the Stars, and Neutronica.
Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Schirmer Books, 1987.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1968.
Detroit Free Press, November 23, 1974.
Detroit News, November 30, 1969; November 15, 1971.
Look, April2, 1968.
New York Times, November 7, 1971.
Playboy, May 1967.
Rolling Stone, December 10, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Great Northern Arts, Ltd., press material, 1992.
"Donovan." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/donovan
"Donovan." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/donovan
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"Donovan." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/donovan
"Donovan." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/donovan