Donovan Philips Leitch was born May 10, 1946, in Glasgow, Scotland. Music was always part of his home life, with both traditional Scottish/Irish songs at family and local celebrations, and popular music through radio and live performances. When Donovan was ten his family moved south to England, resettling in Hatfield. Before starting college in his teens, the young man had run away from home more than once; on one outing at fourteen, he found an old guitar in a trash can, still good enough to learn the basics on.
Though interested in rock-n-roll through artists like Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers, Donovan embraced the folk-music boom that swept both England and America in the early 1960s, and also the Beat Generation writers and poets. Donovan settled into the St. Albans music scene, north of London, but traveled to different parts of the country, frequently with long-time friend “Gypsy Dave”, who played kazoo and passed the hat while Donovan played guitar and harmonica and sang, for their keep. Their songs included traditional and recent folk music, songs by their friends (like Mick Softley) and the beginnings of Donovan’s own writing, about what he’d seen and experienced away from home.
On a beach trip to South end with members of the St. Albans circle, Donovan played and sang between performances by an R&B group called the Cops and Robbers, and so impressed the group’s managers that they expressed interest in signing him up as a performer. Beginning with taping some publishers’ demos for other songwriters, Donovan was soon demoing his own material, and the tapes found their way to the ears of Elkan Allan, producer of Britain’s popular rock show Ready, Steady, Go! (1963). Donovan’s first appearance (in cap and denim) led to a short residency on the show, which in turn led to a recording contract with England’s Pye Records. His first singles were respectable UK hits in 1965, and made a minor impact on the American market that year.
Promoted first as mainly a folk performer and a kind of British rival to Bob Dylan, evidence of Donovan’s own blossoming style as writer and musician was undeniable as early as his second album, with its hints at jazz and a different kind of pop sense from Dylan’s. When Dylan toured England in 1965, the two met for a well-publicized “summit” at his hotel suite; after an hour’s private talk, they emerged smiling arm-in-arm to a waiting press conference. Press headlines announced “DYLAN DIGS DONOVAN!” and he joined Dylan and Joan Baez on the road, though he didn’t perform with them onstage. (Donovan can be seen keeping Dylan and Baez company in Dylan’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)). Donovan went on to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he was welcomed.
After his first two mostly-folk albums in England (distributed in the US by Hickory Records), produced by his managers, Donovan immersed himself in the pop sounds of the “British Invasion” bands, and both his writing and choices in the studio reflected this. In 1966 Mickie Most became Donovan’s new producer, and his sidemen began to include future Led Zeppelin members John Paul Jones (who arranged several Donovan tunes, augmenting the sound they were aiming for) and Jimmy Page. (John Carr usually played drums at Donovan’s sessions, although John Bonham was also sometimes around.) Epic Records in the US expressed an interest in picking Donovan up for the American market, with Clive Davis offering a contract, and Allen Klein was also interested in taking over Donovan’s management. New and bigger deals offered led to lawsuits, and Donovan vanished from the record market for a few months while matters were being settled.
Emerging with new management and production teams, Donovan followed up his first US #1 single, “Sunshine Superman” (dedicated to John Lennon and Paul McCartney), with his signature hit “Mellow Yellow”, which reached #2 on the US charts late in 1966. Working with Most, Donovan enjoyed hits on both sides of the Atlantic through the end of the decade. As a pop performer, he made frequent guest appearances on television in the UK and US; most notably in America on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967). He also contributed to the stage and film worlds, writing the title song for the movie Poor Cow (1967) and adapting William Shakespeare‘s “Under The Greenwood Tree” for Britain’s National Theatre. Later he would contribute the title song for the 1969 comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) (also appearing onstage in the movie), and star in The Pied Piper (1972). Donovan brought his parents along on tour, with his father Donald introducing him to the audience.
Offstage, Donovan was a frequent guest collaborator and companion to other celebrities of the time; he contributed lyrics to The Beatles‘s song “Yellow Submarine” and dated George Harrison‘s sister-in-law Jenny Boyd (later to marry Mick Fleetwood). In turn, Donovan’s recording sessions sometimes included members of The Beatles, Paul Samwell-Smith and The Rolling Stones and their circle of musician friends, as guest performers. When former Stones member Brian Jones died in 1969, Donovan married his widow Linda Lawrence, raising Jones’ son Julian and having two daughters of their own. (Donovan also fathered son Donovan Leitch Jr. and Ione Skye by Enid Karl; family information is sparse at best.)
An arrest for drug possession late in 1966 was a moving experience for him, as was his noticing that the flirtation his generation had had with marijuana and LSD was getting ugly, and many young people were turning to harder drugs and destroying themselves. In the notes for his 1967 album “A Gift From A Flower To A Garden”, he called for all drug use to stop and for young people to find other ways to expand their consciousness, and peace from within, as they became the parents of the next generation. He set an example by studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and later embraced many Eastern lifestyle changes, including a vegetarian diet and studies in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.
Though not a major player in popular music since the end of the 1960s, Donovan continues to tour and perform, and recall the experiences and friendships of his heyday for the media. His music (recorded and live) appears frequently in programs about the Sixties era, and has reached the newer generations through its use in TV commercials. In late 2005, he published an autobiography, “The Hurdy Gurdy Man.”