Donovan on Teaching the Beatles the Fingerstyle That Became the White Album

Donovan has been on a first-name basis with folk-music lovers for fifty years.EXPAND
Donovan has been on a first-name basis with folk-music lovers for fifty years.
Michael Collopy: Donovan Discs 2016

Donovan Leitch, who’s gone by his first name only for more than five decades, wrote and recorded hit songs like “Mellow Yellow” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” yet his influence as a songwriter and musician reaches beyond his own music. He inspired David Bowie, Marc Bolan and a number of other artists, and he brought together Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones two years before they formed Led Zeppelin. What’s more, as George Harrison noted in the 1995 documentary The Beatles Anthology, “Donovan was all over the ‘White Album.’”

Leitch first met the Beatles in 1965, in Bob Dylan’s suite at London’s Savoy Hotel. He says they became fast friends “in the world of music, and also in the world of experimental meditation and what to do with lyrics and all that.”

Three years after that meeting, Leitch joined the lads on a six-week trip to India to study transcendental meditation with the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. One day after meditation, John Lennon noticed Leitch fingerpicking and asked him to show him the clawhammer fingerstyle pattern, which Leitch says he learned from Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family when he was in the United States.

“But what was I teaching?” Leitch asks of the encounter with Lennon. “It wasn’t just fingerstyle. It was chord structures that maybe they hadn’t learned. They hadn’t learned the A minor descending to the D minor 9 — all the stuff Bert Jansch was doing and the flamenco guitar players were doing. And all they had were their acoustic guitars.”

As Leitch and Lennon talked, Paul McCartney was listening in.

“Paul was walking around while John was doing his lessons with me, and out of the picking came ‘Dear Prudence,’” Leitch says. “And that was wonderful. But Paul was doing this other thing and wrote ‘Blackbird.’ George didn’t really want to learn the fingerstyle of Maybelle Carter. No, he said he really had a Chet Atkins picking style, when he held the flat pick between the thumb and forefinger and then picked the strings with the other fingers. And that was fine. But what George was fascinated with was these descending chord patterns that I was playing. And out of it came the most heartrending song I’ve ever heard him write, but also that anybody had written: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’”

Leitch continues, “The most touching...was when John said to me, ‘I want to write a song about my mother.’ But he never knew his mother. ‘I want to write a song about she and me walking along the beach. I think I have a memory of it, and her name is Julia.’ Then I realized what he was doing five days after the picking. He was taking the picking, like the genius he is, like the genius that visits him. He was doing extraordinary things, so it was marvelous to watch this. And I think I might have helped him.”

Those picking techniques that Leitch showed the three Beatles were borrowed from genres that he had incorporated into his own music, including folk, country, jazz and flamenco. His first two albums, Catch the Wind and Fairytale — both released in 1965, when he was nineteen years old— were more immersed in folk, while 1966’s Sunshine Superman was one of the first psychedelic-rock albums released; the title track includes a guitar solo by Page and went on to be a hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

That album also included the trippy “Season of the Witch,” which Leitch says he wrote on an acoustic guitar in Jansch’s kitchen in late 1965.

“His house was the crossroads of enormous amounts of folk, blues and jazz players all over Europe coming through, and America,” Leitch says. “It was extraordinary. I was learning these chord structures, so it looked like a big jump from what’s called folk into power music with jazz, blues and folk, Caribbean and Arabic and even Indian. The fusions were extraordinary. But I was already listening and thinking about them in late ’65.”

Some of Leitch’s guitar rhythms were inspired by his time playing the drums, which he started when he was fourteen and into jazz greats like Gene Krupa and Art Blakey.

“My father was a part of that generation, and my mother, too — the late-’30s, early-’40s big-band generation,” he says. “Frank Sinatra, Art Blakey, Gene Krupa, Billie Holiday — all that stuff was in my background. But I’d learned all these rhythms, and I was picking my guitar, my acoustic guitar, to try to make it more powerful, more bass lines.”

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In the mid-’60s, Allen Klein, who managed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for a time and founded ABKCO Music & Records Incorporated, also managed Leitch and introduced him to famed producer Mickie Most, whom Leitch calls “the Phil Spector of Britain.” Most ended up producing Sunshine Superman.

“When Mickie and I met, it was extraordinary,” Leitch recalls. “Mickie said, ‘What have you got?’ And I played him two or three songs, and then I played him ‘Sunshine Superman’ and he said, ‘That’s it. The single.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘I can hear in your guitar the bass, the rhythm and the top line. Not only that, I can hear the drum pattern. How the hell do you do that?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know, Mickie, it’s all in the guitar.’”

When Leitch told Most, who’d been working with Herman’s Hermits and the Animals, that he wanted “harpsichord, Latin American congas, jazz drums, jazz guitar and two basses — but mainly the harpsichord,” Most introduced him to John Cameron.

“This guy has come out of all the best places of jazz, blues, folk,” Leitch says. “He knew everything. Mainly, he knew classical. And he knew about Ellington and he knew about Django Reinhardt and he knew about Billie Holiday and he knew about Miles Davis. He knew all about that.”

The fusion of styles on Sunshine Superman stems from the bohemian culture in which Leitch and longtime tour manager Gypsy Dave [David John Mills] immersed themselves when they were sixteen. Leitch says they invaded popular culture with bohemian ideas.

“‘Bohemia’ is every little and large town in Britain,” Leitch says. “Not London, not Glasgow, not Liverpool, really, but all the little towns had what was called a scene — a bohemian community centered around art schools, record stores, poetry groups and, soon, jazz clubs playing Dixieland jazz, and every Wednesday a new thing was happening called rhythm-and-blues night. And that’s where it was all going to explode out of Britain and into the world. Really, all this stuff was going on, and the idea of actually taking all these ideas…. Gypsy Dave and I thought jazz, blues, folk, Arabic, Indian music — they could all actually be fused together. And I just love all the sounds. And so that’s how it happened.”

Leitch is currently on a retrospective tour, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Sunshine Superman and spreading the word about transcendental meditation. A percentage of the proceeds from this tour will go to support Donovan’s Children’s Fund, a division of the David Lynch Foundation, which helps bring TM to tens of thousands of at-risk students in schools throughout the United States. He’ll perform material he’s written over the past five decades.

“I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame,” he says. “Jimmy Page gave me the MOJO Maverick award. I got an Ivor Novella Award for my very first song. I’m coming on tour to play for not millions of people — quite small audiences, really — but that’s not the point. The point is to reaffirm in my fiftieth anniversary a body of work that Donovan created with his wife, Linda, as the muse and Gypsy Dave as my aide-de-camp. To create an atmosphere in the public and the press that what happened in the ’60s is not history, but it was a great door opening and a great renaissance. And I’m someone to actually come and hear.”

Donovan
8 p.m. Sunday, September 25, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, 303-785-7030, $35-$45/VIP $450.


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