Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny — aka Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny (Jan. 6, 1947 — April 21, 1978) — was an English singer–songwriter who first recorded in 1967 for Saga Records, appearing on split-albums with folkies Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo. In 1968, she passed through a formative lineup of the Strawbs before joining Fairport Convention, which she co-fronted on three 1969 albums: What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief. At year’s end, Denny teamed with guitarist and future-husband Trevor Lucas, formerly of Eclection, in the folk-rock quintet Fotheringay, which produced a 1970 self-titled album and recorded a followup that surfaced nearly four decades after the fact.

In 1971, Denny began her solo career on Island Records with The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, followed by three albums between 1972 and 1977. During this time, she guested on albums by fellow Fairport alumni Richard Thompson and Ian Matthews. Most famously, she dueted with Robert Plant on the Jimmy Page composition “The Battle of Evermore,” which appeared on Led Zeppelin‘s untitled 1971 fourth album, colloquially known as Zoso. Her brief time in the Strawbs was documented on the 1973 Hallmark Records release All Our Own Work.

Sandy Denny died from a cerebral hemorrhage, incurred from a fall down the staircase in her Byfield home on April 21, 1978.


Early Activity

Sandy Denny was born in Merton Park, London, and studied classical piano as a child. She first studied to be a nurse, then entered Kingston College of Art, where she frequented the campus folk clubs along with fellow pupil, future Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn. 

Denny made her debut performance at the Barge in Kingston upon Thames and gigged the local folk circuit with a set comprised of Tom Paxton covers and trad folk tunes. On December 2, 1966, she appeared at the Cecil Sharp House for the BBC’s Folk Song Cellar program, which featured her solo performances of two trad numbers: “Fir a Bhata” and “Green Grow the Laurels.”


The North Star Grassman and the Ravens

Sandy Denny released her debut solo album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, in September 1971 on Island.


Sandy

Sandy Denny released her second solo album, Sandy, in September 1972 on Island.


Like an Old Fashioned Waltz

Sandy Denny released her third solo album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, in June 1974 on Island. 


Rendezvous

Sandy Denny released her fourth solo album, Rendezvous, in May 1977 on Island.


Discography:

  • The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971)
  • Sandy (1972)
  • All Our Own Work (1973 • Sandy Denny & The Strawbs)
  • Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (1973)
  • Rendezvous (1977)

Sources:

  • Discogs: Sandy Denny
  • 45cat: Sandy Denny
  • John Peel Wiki: Sandy Denny
  • TVRDb.com: Top of the Pops

Her earliest professional recordings were made a few months later in mid-1967 for the Saga label,[8] 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.[9] 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.[9] The complete Saga studio recordings were issued on the 2005 compilation Where The Time Goes.[10]

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 was released belatedly in 1973, credited to 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?“[7] A demo of that song 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.[11]

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.”[12] After working briefly with the Strawbs, Denny remained unconvinced that they could provide that opportunity, and so she ended her relationship with the band.[13]

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 personality and musicianship made her stand out from the other auditionees “like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes”.[14]

Beginning with What We Did on Our Holidays, the first of three albums she made with the band in the late 1960s, 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.[2] 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).[15]She had been voted Britain’s number 1 singer for two consecutive years in Melody Maker’s readers poll.[1] 

Denny left Fairport Convention in December 1969 to develop her own songwriting more fully.[7] To this end, she formed her own band, Fotheringay, which included her future husband, Australian Trevor Lucas, formerly of the group Eclection.[16]

They created one self-titled album, 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. Fotheringay started to record a second album in late 1970, but it remained unfinished after Denny announced that she was leaving the group and producer Joe Boyd left to take up a job at Warner Brothers in California. Denny would later blame Boyd’s hostility towards the group for its demise.[17]

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