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Sandy Denny

Without question the greatest female folk singer of all time, SANDY DENNY evoked the power of song in each soothing syllable in a way only few have matched, or tried to match.
Born Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, 6th January 1947 in Wimbledon, London, she played guitar and piano from an early age. Sandy, as she would be known all her life, grew up listening to the sounds of her father’s collection of classical, jazz and traditional Scottish folk music, before finding her own taste in the sound of 60s pop/folk, especially BOB DYLAN.
After a brush with nursing and attending Kensington Art College, she started singing regularly in the folk clubs of London, where she met JOHN RENBOURN and ALEX CAMPBELL. An invitation in late ‘66 from the latter to join a folk session for the BBC World Service show, `A Cellarful Of Folk’, led to her first recordings on the LPs `Alex Campbell And Friends’ and SANDY & JOHNNY (1967) {*5}, the latter alongside Johnny Silvio.
With a regular spot at The Troubadour, she was heard by DAVE COUSINS (of STRAWBS), who invited her to join the band soon afterwards. They recorded `Sandy Denny And The Strawbs’ in ‘67, an album featuring her perennial classic `Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, one of DENNY’s most powerful songs. Meanwhile, through gigs around London’s folk scene, she had formulated friendships with DANNY THOMPSON of PENTANGLE and the founder of Witchseason Productions, Joe Boyd, as well as earning herself a strong reputation as one of the best folk singers in the country.
When JUDY DYBLE left FAIRPORT CONVENTION (a young RICHARD THOMPSON and IAN MATTHEWS were on board at the time), DENNY auditioned and made an immediate impact, her classy singing and mercurial personality bringing out the best in the musicians around her. `What We Did On Our Holidays’, Sandy’s first album with Fairport, was full of highlights, including DENNY’s beautiful song `Fotheringay’ and a crystal-clear rendition of `She Moves Through The Fair’.
While rehearsing for their second album, Sandy met Trevor Lucas, an Australian singer/songwriter and member of the band ECLECTION. After the two bands shared a bill in Birmingham, she left with the guitarist instead of returning to London with Fairport. It proved a fortuitous move, as Fairport’s journey ended in tragedy, a crash taking the life of drummer Martin Lamble. This event led to a rethink of the band’s repertoire, and in the meantime the songs recorded before the crash were compiled by Boyd to form the album `Unhalfbricking’, featuring a re-recording of `Who Knows Where…’.
After the inclusion of DAVE SWARBRICK, Fairport’s next album `Liege And Lief’ proved ground-breaking, although soon afterwards, Sandy upped sticks to form the short-lived/one-album FOTHERINGAY with ex-ECLECTION members including her aforementioned husband-to-be. After their split, she recording a duet with ROBERT PLANT, `The Battle Of Evermore’, one of the all-time classic songs and released on the untitled/Led Zeppelin IV set.
The first of four SANDY DENNY solo albums, the haphazard RICHARD THOMPSON-produced THE NORTH STAR GRASSMAN AND THE RAVENS (1971) {*5}, found her augmented by former FOTHERINGAY musos, while two of the tracks (opener `Late November’ and `John The Gun’) were part of DENNY and band’s repertoire before they disbanded. With only one trad ballad (`Blackwaterside’) and two ragged RnR covers (DYLAN’s `Down In The Flood’ – a duet with THOMPSON – and BRENDA LEE’s `Let’s Jump The Broomstick’), solo Sandy was found a little wanting, even with the classy title track `Wretched Wilbur’. Folk and FAIRPORT fans – no pun intended – were apparently unimpressed, and it showed when it only scraped to a lowly No.31 position, her only solo chart entry.
DENNY’s sophomore LP, the Trevor Lucas-produced SANDY (1972) {*8}, was a marked improvement, her stand-out collection by far, especially her timeless folk singing on `It’ll Take A Long Time’, `Sweet Rosemary’, `Listen, Listen’, `It Suits Me Well’ and `The Lady’. The brassy cod-reggae beat of `For Nobody To Hear’ (arranged by ALLEN TOUSSAINT) was a little derivative of the times rather than Sandy herself; much better was the majestic a cappella reading of `The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ (penned by RICHARD FARINA and featuring the violin maestro DAVE SWARBRICK) and her steely country version of DYLAN’s `Tomorrow Is A Long Time’.
Released around the same time was her trio of fresh cinematic contributions (`Here In Silence’ and the eerie `Man Of Iron’ among them) to the film, `Pass Of Arms’, while she was an integral part of FAIRPORT’s ill-advised, all-star folk’n’roll alumni, The BUNCH, who delivered the `Rock On’ LP.
After touring America in the spring of ’73, she completed her third solo set, LIKE AN OLD FASHIONED WALTZ (1974) {*6}, a fine example of her timeless singing, and her first album with hardly a trace of her folk roots. As the title suggested, the record was musically reflective and introspective, stretching her limits to the nth degree through orchestral-backed numbers `Solo’, `Friends’ and `Carnival’ and two nostalgic nuggets, `Whispering Grass’ (from the Ink Spots) and `Until The Real Thing Comes Along’ (from the pens of Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin & co).
By ’74, Sandy had returned to the Convention, the line-up having included her new husband Lucas since ’73. The atmosphere within the band was strained as FAIRPORT and DENNY attempted to gel their by now diversifying styles, yet the Glyn Johns-produced album, ‘Rising For The Moon’, turned out to be a triumph, Sandy’s ‘One More Chance’ bringing together exceptional instrumental work with singing unprecedented in DENNY’s recording career, her voice full of maturity yet also possessing a fragility that gave real urgency to the song, written as a plea for peace. Although her work kept improving, her career failed to fully take off, and after ‘Rising…’ failed to be the commercial success it should have been, FAIRPORT were dropped by Island Records, and the band splintered once again.
With LUCAS on board as producer (alongside Island session guys STEVE WINWOOD, John “Rabbit” Bundrick and JESS RODEN), 1977 saw her final solo offering, RENDEZVOUS {*6}, finally see light, having been touted nine months earlier as `Gold Dust’. Aside from two ill-advised covers (`Candle In The Wind’ from ELTON JOHN and `Silver Threads And Golden Needles’ from The SPRINGFIELDS catalogue), DENNY’s final album had its moments by way of `I’m A Dreamer’ and the haunting, seven-minute-plus `All Our Days’ – both accompanied by an orchestra as folk virtually took a back seat again. While the JONI MITCHELL-esque `Gold Dust’ and `Full Moon’ eased her into the mainstream, DENNY’s saving grace came via RICHARD THOMPSON’s `For Shame Of Doing Wrong’ (here as opener `I Wish I Was A Fool For You’) and the emotive `One Way Donkey Ride’. Unfortunately, sales were poor and DENNY’s contract expired at Island records.
It was to be her final recording. In April 1978, Sandy fell down a flight of stairs at a friend’s home, ultimately lapsing into a coma which led to her death from a brain haemorrhage on the 21st of that month. Needless to say, there have been a plethora of subsequent DENNY collections, boxed sets, etc., pick of the pack would be double disc, NO MORE SAD REFRAINS: THE ANTHOLOGY (2000) {*9}. Of recent times, a long-time admirer of Sandy, THEA GILMORE, credited and reinterpreted the folk star’s words on an album’s worth of material, `Don’t Stop Singing’ (2011).
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012

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