When I first heard the song "Mellow Yellow" on a good time oldies station, my reaction was, "Why haven't I ever heard this before?' It was a perfect blend of pop and cool, mixing folk and psychedelia After a little digging, I learned it was by Donovan. Perusing his catalog is a magical experience for anyone who has a positive slant on guitar-based music. It will also make you mad that the gatekeepers have kept his music away from younger ears.
As a singer/songwriter, Donovan was huge in the 1960s. Though his amazing guitar playing, imaginative lyrics, and passionate delivery were the missing link between Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Velvet Underground, Donovan isn't as renowned and overplayed as many of our beloved 1960s musical icons. Why not?
The obvious answer is the British troubadour kept finding himself in the same room as the most legendary figures in rock and roll history. Donovan was seen prominently in the documentary Don't Look Back, which chronicled Bob Dylan in 1965. With Dylan as the protagonist, it portrayed Donovan as an unworthy rival. On Donovan's 1968 song "Hurdy Gurdy Man," he employed three studio musicians by the names of Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. When that trio added Robert Plant, they became a little outfit known as Led Zeppelin.
Famously, Donovan went on a spiritual trip to India in 1968 with the Beatles. Between meditation sessions with the Maharashi, Donovan taught John Lennon and Paul McCartney finger-picking techniques that they used on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and "Blackbird." With all these supporting roles, it's no wonder music historians and popular culture aren't willing to give Donovan the leading-man status in rock history his music deserves.
His early songs like "Colours" and "Catch the Wind," recorded at the impossibly young age of 19, have a strong whiff of Bob Dylan impersonation but with far superior guitar playing. It didn't take long, though, for Donovan to find his own voice. The 1966 album Sunshine Superman threw in a sitar, electric guitar, and lyrics that could be interpreted 100,000 ways and could give the most sober listener a contact high. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that record, Donovan is taking those songs on the road — including a stop at Parker Playhouse on September 8. Now 70 years old, you can give the man the standing ovation he deserves. If his playing skills have aged as gracefully as his recordings, you too can find some space to put Donovan on the same pedestal as Dylan, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.
Donovan: The Sunshine Superman 50th Anniversary Tour. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 8, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; parkerplayhouse.com. Tickets cost $33-$43 at ticketmaster.com.