Sandy Denny (6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978), born Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny, was a British singer and songwriter who has been described as “the pre-eminent British folk rock singer”.
Sandy is considered a founder of the British folk rock movement and perhaps its most important female singer, songwriter and personality. Over a brief career spanning just thirteen years, she left an extensive legacy. She is remembered for her pivotal involvement with the British folk rock scene, where, as a member of Fairport Convention, she moved the band away from west coast American cover versions and into performing traditional material and original compositions.
Sandy is also remembered as a composer, most notably on her solo albums which represent her claim to be Britain’s finest female singer-songwriter. Her composition, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, is now regarded as a classic and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Judy Collins, Nina Simone and Cat Power. Famous also for her exceptional voice, it has been suggested that her effortless and smooth vocal delivery still sets the standard for many of today’s female folk-based singers. She is also noted for her duet with Robert Plant on the song “The Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album released in 1971. She remains to this day the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin album.
Sandy was born on the 6th of January 1947 at Nelson Hospital, Kingston Road, Merton Park, London. She went to Coombe Girls’ School in Kingston upon Thames and studied classical piano whilst at school. From an early age she showed an interest in singing, although her strict parents were reluctant to believe there was a living to be made from it.
On leaving school, she started training as a nurse at the Royal Brompton Hospital for only a short time before changing to a foundation course at Kingston College of Art in September 1965. There she became involved in the campus folk club. Her contemporaries at the college included guitarist and future member of Pentangle, John Renbourn.
After her first public appearance at The Barge folk venue in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Sandy gradually started working the folk club circuit. She made the first of many appearances for the BBC at Cecil Sharp House on 2 December 1966 on the Folk Song Cellar programme. Her earliest professional recordings were made a few months later for the Saga Records label 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). These songs were collected on the 1970 album It’s Sandy Denny where the tracks from Sandy and Johnny had been re-recorded. The complete Saga studio recordings were re-issued on the 2005 compilation Where The Time Goes.
By mid-1967 Sandy had abandoned her studies at art college and was devoting herself full-time to music. At this point a member of The Strawbs heard her performing at The Troubadour folk club in London and she was invited to join the band. She recorded one album with them in Denmark which belatedly came out in 1973 as Sandy Denny and the Strawbs All Our Own Work. The album includes an early solo version of her best-known composition, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. A tape of that version found its way into the hands of American singer, Judy Collins who not only decided to cover it but made it the title track of her next album, released in November 1968, thus giving Sandy international exposure as a songwriter before she had become widely known as a singer.
After making the Saga albums with Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo and working with The Strawbs, Sandy wanted to “do something more with my voice” and decided to look for a band that would provide the opportunity for her to stretch herself as a vocalist, reach the wider audiences of rock and showcase her songwriting all at the same time. This was early 1968 and fortuitously in May of that year, Fairport Convention were conducting auditions for a replacement singer for Judy Dyble and after her audition Sandy was the obvious choice. Or rather, as group member Simon Nicol has often told the story, they auditioned for her, since her strong personality and confident musicianship made her stand out from the other hopefuls “like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes”.
Beginning with What We Did On Our Holidays, the three albums she made with the band in the late sixties comprise the first peak of her career. Furthermore, her arrival had a significant effect on the band: Sandy 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. The Fairport she joined was playing mostly West Coast covers. The band she left eighteen months later had invented British folk rock. She brought with her the traditional repertoire honed in the clubs, including the important ‘A Sailor’s Life’ featured on their second album together Unhalfbricking.
Framing her performance with their own electric improvisations, her band mates discovered a direction which provided the inspiration for an entire album, the influential Liege & Lief (1969), and has continued to underpin Fairport’s style ever since. Prior to her arrival, Fairport Convention had never performed a traditional song and Richard Thompson had yet to emerge as a song-writer. Her arrival with some of her own compositions, an interest in traditional music and a voice that could handle absolutely anything had a huge and decisive effect on all concerned.
Sandy left Fairport Convention in 1969 to develop her own song writing more fully. To this end, she formed her own band, Fotheringay, which included her boyfriend, Trevor Lucas formerly of the group Eclection. (The other members being: Gerry Conway – drums, Jerry Donahue – guitar and Pat Donaldson – bass). They created one well regarded, eponymous album (a second left unfinished in 1970 was finally released to acclaim in 2008) which included arguably her greatest traditional recording ‘Banks of the Nile’, and some of her most beautiful compositions including ‘The Sea’ and ‘Nothing More’. The latter marked her first composition on the piano which, from now on was to take over as her primary instrument. Whilst recording the second Fotheringay album Sandy was faced with her own conflicting thoughts and advice from others over the issue of continuing with a band or taking on being a solo artist: as she pondered this the band lost impetus and dissolved – and so the decision to some extent was made for her.
She now launched into the sequence of solo albums which define her as one of Britain’s finest singer-songwriters. Built mostly around her own compositions, they chart the development and diversity of her writing. Throughout her solo album sessions she was supported by a wide range of distinguished musicians, many of them friends and former colleagues including Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, Jerry Donahue, Sneaky Pete Kleinow (of Flying Burrito Brothers fame) Robin and Barry Dransfield, John (Rabbit) Bundrick, Allen Toussaint, Diz Disley, Steve Winwood and Acker Bilk. The first solo album The North Star Grassman and the Ravens was released in 1971 and is distinguished by its elusive lyrics and unexpected harmonies. Highlights included ‘Late November’, inspired by a dream and the death of Fairport band member Martin Lamble, and ‘Next Time Around’ a cryptogram about Jackson C. Frank, one of her many portraits in song.
For two years running, 1970 and 1971, readers of Melody Maker voted her the “Best British Female Singer” and during this period, together with several contemporaries including Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings, she participated in a one-off project called The Bunch to record a collection of rock and roll era standards released under the title of Rock On which further demonstrated her versatility as a vocalist. During this period, Sandy also appeared in a brief cameo on Lou Reizner’s version of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, and duetted memorably with Robert Plant on The Battle of Evermore from Led Zeppelin’s 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV.
The second solo album, Sandy (with a cover photograph by David Bailey) followed in 1972 and remains her most cohesive musical statement as a singer and songwriter. Sure-footed and sympathetically produced by Trevor Lucas, its songs range from glorious, powerful melodies like Listen, Listen and The Lady to beguiling narrative songs like Bushes and Briars and It Suits Me Well. The album also marked her last recording of a traditional tune, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood (words by Richard Farina), with Sandy’s ambitious multi-tracked vocal arrangement inspired by the folk-choir, the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic.
In 1973, Sandy married long term boyfriend and producer, Trevor Lucas and recorded a third solo album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz – a nostalgic panoramic song-cycle and including covers of two classic songs of the 30s and 40s: ‘Whispering Grass’ and ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’. The album contains one of her best loved compositions, ‘Solo’, and features a cover photograph by Gered Mankowitz.
In 1972 Trevor Lucas and Jerry Donahue had joined Fairport Convention and in 1974 Sandy too rejoined Fairport Convention for a world tour (captured on the 1974 album Fairport Live Convention) and a studio album, Rising for the Moon in 1975. Integration back into a band was not without problems. Nonetheless, seven of the eleven tracks on Rising for the Moon were either written or co-written by her including two of her most admired songs ‘Stranger to Himself’ and ‘One More Chance’. Her charisma and extraordinary voice were never in doubt, but the punishing touring with Fairport Convention throughout 1974 and 1975 coupled with her heavy drinking and smoking inevitably took a toll on her voice; some of its bell-like purity had gone, but the control and power remained along with her subtle phrasing and characteristic grace notes.
Sandy and Trevor left Fairport Convention at the end of 1975 and she embarked on what was to become her final album Rendezvous. The record shows her continuing to widen and deepen her song writing craft, and responsive to new influences. Possibly most ambitious of all was an eight minute orchestral tribute to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams called ‘All Our Days’. Released in 1977, the album is now generally thought to be overproduced despite containing some of her finest compositions notably ‘I’m A Dreamer’ and the strange and beautiful ‘One Way Donkey Ride’.
On the domestic side Sandy and Trevor, along with Airedale Terrier, Watson had moved to the village of Byfield in Northamptonshire in the mid-70s, close to the villages of Cropredy and Barford St. Michael where old Fairport friends lived. In July 1977 Sandy gave birth to her much-wanted, only child, a daughter named Georgia.
A UK tour to promote Rendezvous in late 1977 marked her final public appearances. The closing night at the Royalty Theatre in London on 27 November 1977 was recorded for a live album, Gold Dust, which due to technical problems in the recording of the electric guitar, was belatedly released in 1998 after most of the guitars had been re-recorded by Jerry Donahue.
In April 1978, while on staying with a friend in London, Sandy appears to have fallen down a flight of steep stairs. She was found some hours later in a coma from which she never recovered. She died on April 21, 1978 in the Atkinson Morley Hospital without regaining consciousness. The cause of death was given as mid-brain trauma. There is some speculation that a previous fall, again down stairs, at her parents’ home in Cornwall may have caused a contributing brain injury but this has never been confirmed. The funeral took place on 27 April 1978 at Putney Vale Cemetery. After the vicar had read Denny’s favourite psalm – Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) – a piper played ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ a traditional song commemorating the fallen of Flodden Field. The inscription on her headstone reads: ‘The Lady’ Alexandra Elene MacLean Lucas (Sandy Denny) 6.1.47 – 21.4.78.
Although Sandy Denny had a devoted cult following in her lifetime, she never achieved the mass market success she yearned for. In the years since her death, however, her reputation has continued to grow, aided by the gradual re-issue of all her recordings. Additionally, a number of important posthumous releases have appeared that have further enhanced her legacy.
First was a four album boxset entitled Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (1985) produced by her husband Trevor Lucas and Joe Boyd, which included many rare and previously unreleased tracks. This was the first inkling her fans had that a large cache of unreleased material existed. Of particular interest were several acoustic demo performances of well-known songs that were held to be superior to their studio counterparts. The success of the collection was the beginning of a renewed interest in Sandy’s career that resulted in Island re-issuing her albums on the then newly available CD format.
In 1991 Joe Boyd issued a new version of the All Our Own Work album with The Strawbs called Sandy Denny and the Strawbs on the Hannibal Records label. The album had strings added to some tracks including ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ and further tracks with Sandy on lead vocal. The Australian label Raven Records issued a CD in 1995 called Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas and Friends: The Attic Tracks 1972-1984 that included 12 previously unreleased songs including the original piano version of ‘No End’; demos recorded at home in Byfield; Rendezvous album session outakes (including her final studio recording, a cover of Bryn Haworth’s ‘Moments’) and three songs from her final concert at the Royalty Theatre.
A one disc compilation of Sandy’s solo BBC recordings was released on Strange Fruit Records as The BBC Sessions 1971-1973 in 1997 that due to rights issues was withdrawn on the day of release thereby creating a highly collectable disc (up until the release of the comprehensive Live at the BBC Boxset in 2007). This release was quickly followed in 1998 when her final concert at the Royalty Theatre entitled Gold Dust was issued on CD.
In 2005 re-mastered versions of all her solo albums came out with bonus tracks. Prior to their release, in 2004 a comprehensive five CD boxset was released on the Fledg’ling record label called A Boxful of Treasures. This included many unreleased recordings: in particular a whole disc of acoustic demos, mostly recorded at her home in Byfield, that were highly prized amongst fans and critics alike, who had long asserted that her solo performances showed her work in its best light. When the Live at the BBC boxset came out in September 2007 it was rapturously praised wherever it was reviewed. This favorable critical response did much to continue the resurgence of interest in Sandy’s work.
In 2008, Jerry Donahue completed the unfinished second Fotheringay album begun in the autumn of 1970. It was released to general acclaim as Fotheringay 2 and contained some notable performances: in particular earlier versions of two of Sandy’s compositions, ‘Late November’ and ‘John the Gun’, and superb performances of traditional songs ‘Gypsy Davey’ and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’.
At the end of 2010 a 19-CD complete retrospective simply titled Sandy Denny was released by Universal/Island Records. It contained her entire studio recordings, outtakes, demos, live recordings, unissued radio sessions and interviews. The set contained over 100 previously unreleased recordings, and a 72 page hard back book that provided the most comprehensive visual record of Sandy’s career to date; plus a wealth of other memorabilia. The box set was released to universally good reviews, including a 5-star review in Uncut and a 4-star review in The Guardian.