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A minuscule Glaswegian, possessed of an awesome voice which took no prisoners whatsoever and defied either description or categorisation, Karl Denver was a genuine one-off. Musically, he occupied an area almost entirely of his own making, presenting something of an unlikely hybrid of Jimmie Rodgers, Frankie Laine and Lonnie Donegan, with a passing nod to Johnny Cash, meshed together to produce a challenging, ear-splitting, yet oddly irresistible cacophony. Indeed, had Mars Attacks! been a British film, it wouldn’t have been Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call’, with its polite, mellifluous yodeling that killed off the Martians, it would have been the blood-curdling, throat-shredding howls of Karl’s ‘Wimoweh’!
An unlikely Pop star, being skinny, lantern-jawed, exceptionally short (he even wore lifts in his cuban heels!) and clearly a few years older than his Press biogs would have had us believe, he cut a somewhat incongruous figure on package tours. And yet, night after night, The Karl Denver Trio would regularly upstage the younger, considerably hipper and more handsome bill-toppers, winning unconditional respect for their musicality and professionalism. Denver had no comparable peers in the British Hit Parade, and he appeared to draw on just about every known musical genre – Folk, Country, Blues, Jazz, mainstream Pop, World Music, show tunes, MOR ballads, Western Swing, you name it. However, as NME journalist Derek Johnson observed, at the time: “When there have been a spate of unimaginative performers and carbon-copy artists, it is refreshing to find an artist with a totally different and distinctive approach.”
Karl’s peak years were 1961-62, during which he kicked off his recording career with five consecutive Top 20 singles and a series of hugely-popular hit EPs and LPs. He even managed to survive the first onslaught of the Beat Boom before graduating to a career spent largely in the Northern clubs, cabaret, summer seasons and ultimately, the Folk circuit. This compilation comprises his first two LPs, an EP and four non-album singles, and includes most of his significant hits. It remains an entirely unique body of work.
Born Angus Murdo McKenzie in Springburn, Glasgow, on the 16th December, circa 1931, he grew up a tough kid due largely to his vertically-challenged status (NB: it should be noted that Karl’s actual year of birth has long been the subject of conjecture; he usually gave it as 1934, but would also occasionally give various other years in the 30s! Indeed, he was a notorious spinner of tall stories, and it is entirely possible that elements of his biographical details, most of which have been drawn from published interviews and/or Press/Publicity handouts, may have been exaggerated).
He left school at the age of fourteen and joined the Norwegian Merchant Marines, with whom he travelled the world. Karl began learning about international Folk music and what we would now call World music during the course of his jaunts, but around 1950-51 he joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, with whom he served in the Korean War, where he was wounded and subsequently hospitalised. It was around this time he became closely involved with music, as he later confirmed: “I had always been interested in music and I would listen to The Ink Spots, Burl Ives, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. It was while I was in hospital that I first took up guitar and taught myself to play. It wasn’t long before I realised I could carry a tune and when I was demobbed and rejoined the Merchant Navy, I began to sing. Once I realised that the others enjoyed listening to me sing I began doing it for money and it was around this time that I adopted the name ‘Karl Denver’…” (he would later contradict this version of events, although this chronology would seem to make the most sense).
Whilst in the Merchant Navy he spent a lot of time in Africa, which he grew to love, notably Rhodesia, where he connected readily with the locals. A tough, hard-living character, the Rhodesians called him ‘Boaty Maseteno’ – meaning “brother of Satan” – and were very much in awe of him. He also travelled to the United States, where he became obsessed with C&W music, eventually jumping ship to go and hang out in Nashville, where he claimed he stayed for some three-and-a-half years, working without a visa, befriending the likes of Faron Young, Hank Locklin and Lefty Frizell, even appearing on The Grand Ole Opry. He later summarised these years:
“When a ship I was working on docked in New York I decided it was about time I saw a bit more of the world. I jumped ship, bought myself a damned big Harley Davidson, and took off to explore the USA. I was always just one step ahead of the law as I cruised through every state which took my fancy. On some of my trips I would wind up in Nashville. Back then it was a friendly town and I loved it. One of my favourite haunts was Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where there were always guys with guitars and handfuls of songs. I would often busk in Nashville, and I remember one time Lefty Frizzell came by, stopped to listen to me, and then threw a couple of bucks in my guitar case. At the time I never fully appreciated what that meant but, looking back on it today, it seems incredible that I can say I once entertained Lefty Frizzell!”
Around 1958 he was busted by the local authorities and deported back to the UK, following which he found his way to Blackburn, in Lancashire, where he finally settled – having been ‘on the road’ since the mid-40s – and began trying to make his way as a professional musician. He formed the first Karl Denver Trio around 1959, which comprised himself on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Brian Horton (lead guitar) and Gerry (sometimes written as Jerry) Cottrell (double-bass). They assembled an eclectic, exotic repertoire of C&W, Folk, Blues and International-flavoured songs and began playing pubs and clubs, gradually building a local reputation.
Denver made his first TV appearance on Granada TV’s Band Stand circa 1960, around which time the Trio recorded a 10” demo acetate which featured six songs from their live repertoire, viz: early versions of ‘Wimoweh’, ‘Vella Langa’, ‘She Moved Thro’ The Fair’ and ‘Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion’, plus a couple songs which Karl would never get around to recording again, ‘Wonderful Mother O’ Mine’ and ‘Black Girl’. By all accounts, ‘Wimoweh’ was already the anchor-piece of their live sets and Karl would often perform long, improvised, extended versions of the song (which had been a US Top 20 hit back in 1952, by The Weavers, fronted by Pete Seeger).
Meanwhile, Karl’s agent, Harry Gunn, had sent copies of the acetate to various management and booking agents in London, one of which was the agency owned by Eamonn Andrews. Among their clients was the legendary Jack Good, the entrepreneurial visionary who’d almost single-handedly dragged British Rock & Roll out of the music halls, variety clubs and dancebands, via dynamic TV shows like Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Boy Meets Girls. He also worked for Decca Records as a freelance A&R guru/producer, and it was in this role that he was given Karl’s demo to appraise.
Jack was sufficiently impressed to trek up to Lancashire to check the lads out – at their ‘home base’, The Yew Tree pub in Wythenshawe, Manchester – a journey which proved to be well worth while. The Eamonn Andrews Agency subsequently purchased their management contract, and Harry Gunn was duly paid off with a suitable finder’s fee. At that time, a (much) younger Peter Summerfield was the office junior at Andrews’ agency, and he recalls: “Jack Good loved the demos…so then we took Karl to Decca and made more demos, and it was easy from there. We played the demos to a BBC radio producer, we got Saturday Club, Easy Beat, Pop Inn, and all those programmes, and so we knew that Karl Denver would have hits…”
The Trio had recently undergone a personnel change when Kevin Neill – who’d played in Geraldo’s and Joe Loss’s Orchestras – came in on lead guitar in place of Horton. The most experienced and musically-gifted of the Trio, he shared a lot of the vocals with Karl onstage, as well as supplying a steady stream of melodic, jazzy guitar runs and arranging much of their material. Indeed, he became the unsung hero of the group, as Summerfield recalls: “It was Kevin who kept The Karl Denver Trio ticking over… he was the glue that held it all together. Kevin organised more or less everything… he drove the van, made sure the others knew where to be and turned up on time, booked the hotels, looked after their equipment, ensured that the others remembered their passports on overseas trips… he made my job a hell of a lot easier!”
Meanwhile, the new line-up had made its TV debut on Good’s latest TV show, Wham!, following which they were sent out on a Billy Fury/Jess Conrad package tour as a precursor to their first record release.
However, whilst The Karl Denver Trio had signed with the agency – and were always, without exception, billed thus on live appearances (indeed, they also regularly appeared on TV and radio as ‘The Karl Denver Trio’) – it transpired that Decca’s head of A&R, Dick Rowe, was only interested in presenting and promoting Karl as a solo artist. And so, although Kevin and Gerry played most of the sessions – on which they were invariably augmented by either Andy White or Bobby Graham, on drums – to their eternal chagrin, the label credit on the records read simply ‘Karl Denver’, as did all Decca’s press and promotional material. Indeed, the record company’s acknowledgment of ‘The Karl Denver Trio’ was restricted to the occasional brief, grudging namecheck on the back of the odd EP or LP sleeve.
Although Karl recorded ‘Wimoweh’ at his first session (which was produced by Jack Good, with Charles Blackwell as arranger/musical director – indeed, Jack and Charles supervised all the recordings on this compilation), Decca decided it was too off-the-wall to be a single and insisted that he go with a ‘proper’ song. Subsequently, the first week of June 1961 saw the following Press Release from Decca’s Publicity department: “A pint-sized Scot with a king-sized yodel and a siren voice that packs the power of a hurricane, blows onto the disc world this week. His name is Karl Denver and his debut disc is ‘Marcheta’, a hit melody from 1913…”
‘Marcheta’ was, indeed, a forty-eight year-old song, although the original version had sounded nothing like Karl’s powerful revival. Indeed, it was very much a case of “Once heard, never forgotten.” Opening with a manic, lung-lacerating, window-shattering, octave-spanning yowl, following which Karl proceeded to demonstrate the full range of his vocal gymnastics, it proved to be surprisingly radio-friendly and within just a couple of weeks was climbing the charts. It peaked at #8 and hung around the Top 50 for five months, toward the end of which it was joined in the Top 30 by its follow-up, ‘Mexicali Rose’, another old song which also, coincidentally, reached #8.
The Press Release for this one, in early October, had trumpeted: “Accompanied by his group (The Karl Denver Trio, with whom he plays rhythm guitar), siren-voiced yodeller Karl Denver delivers a spirited rendition of the 1925 old ‘Mexicali Rose’ which, we predict, will have an even more shattering effect on the Hit Parade than his chart-busting ‘Marcheta’ did, during the Summer…” Ironically, it had been panned on Juke Box Jury, by Howard Keel: “…the worst exhibition of singing I have ever heard!” to which Karl countered: “I think Howard Keel’s trouble is that he’s out of step with modern trends.”
Karl was already beginning to enjoy his newfound success – as Summerfield recalls: “Karl’s house was in Moss Side, Manchester, which in those days was not a very desirable area. He lived in an end-of-terrace… most of the other houses in the terrace were derelict! With his first royalty cheque, the first thing he bought was a Chevrolet Impala. It was huge, the size of an aircraft carrier, and there was little Karl, about five foot five, driving this great big American thing. He could barely see over the steering wheel, but he had to have it!”
That Autumn he appeared as the ‘Special Guest Star’ on a massive Larry Parnes package tour, Star Spangled Nights, with Billy Fury, Eden Kane, Joe Brown, Tommy Bruce, The Allisons, The Viscounts and Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, and his popularity was now approaching its peak. In December, his first LP, Wimoweh – which included Karl’s first two hits, alongside staples of their live set, like ‘Shin Gan Goo’, ‘China Doll’, ‘Vella Langa’ and ‘Blue Yodel’ – entered the UK album charts (it would peak at #7 in a six-month Top 20 chart run), leading for his fans to demand that the title track be released as a single. Thus far Decca had resisted all such pleas…but then, in an extraordinary turn of events, they found themselves more or less obliged to capitulate.
The Tokens had registered a massive hit in the United States with a Doo Wop adaptation of ‘Wimoweh’, with a new set of lyrics. Titled ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, it had topped the US charts in early December and was well on its way to selling a couple of million copies. It had also made the UK Top 20 and so, finally – following further pressure from Karl’s increasingly vociferous fans – Decca belatedly issued his version as a single, in January ’62. Ironically, it went on to become by far the bigger UK hit, reaching #3 or #4, depending on which weekly Pop mag’s Hit Parade you preferred (NB: in a further ironic twist, Decca actually had both versions in the UK, as The Tokens’ disc was on RCA-Victor).
Karl went to great lengths to describe the genesis of ‘Wimoweh’ in subsequent interviews, although once again he seemed to tell a slightly different version of the story to virtually everyone he talked to. In the NME he recalled: “About ten years ago, when I’d just turned sixteen, the ship I was serving on docked at a South African port. That evening, I went out on one big binge with some pals. On the way back to my cabin, I fell down a gangway and broke my leg. I found I had plenty of time for convalescence, so I toured the local beauty spots, and came across an African tribe in the middle of a ceremonial dance. They were singing ‘Wimoweh’, in Swahili…” A romantic vision, which more or less tied in with another, heavily-syndicated interview: “I first heard ‘Wimoweh’ at a kraal near Johannesburg, back in 1952, even before The Weavers introduced it to US and UK audiences. My first hearing was the real thing, sung in Swahili…the whole kraal turned out to watch it, chanting and swaying with the dancers, all dressed in warpaint and feathers – what a sight!” Again, an extremely romantic picture – although upon close scrutiny, Karl’s arrangement of the song sounded suspiciously similar to The Weavers’ 1952 version!
A simply massive hit, it was still in the Top 5 when the follow-up, ‘Never Goodbye’ was rush-released in February; by the end of March both sides were installed in the Top 10 together, the latter eventually peaking at #9. Another song with an unusual ‘history’, it had been written by Jimmy Kennedy (famous for ‘Isle Of Capri’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘Love Is Like A Violin’) and submitted as a British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. Regrettably, it had been beaten in the heats by Ronnie Carroll’s execrable ‘Ring A Ding Girl’, but Denver strongly believed in the song and had persuaded Decca to release it as a single.
The Karl Denver Trio were now headlining package tours, on which other acts on the bill were sometimes only half their age, but their polished, professional sets always went down a storm and they enjoyed a surprisingly young fanbase (i.e. it wasn’t merely the Mums and Dads, as some contemporaneous reviews had suggested). They also enjoyed considerable popularity among the various British armed forces posted overseas, and were forever flying off to exotic destinations to entertain homesick troops.
However, life on the road sometimes weighed heavy. Karl had little in common, socially, with the younger singers and musicians and, occasionally, their age differences rose to the surface. He regularly supplemented his ‘income’ on these packages by setting up card schools and roulette tables on the tour bus, and winning money from his hapless co-stars (as an old salt he could cheat at cards like a professional!) Also, like any self-respecting Scottish ex-seaman, Denver was a prodigious drinker: “They all thought I was a boozer and a ne’er do well – I was always in the pub across the road when the bus was about to go!”
His next A-side, ‘A Little Love, A Little Kiss’ – originally a French song, but popularised in 1914 by Irish tenor John McCormack – appeared in June, and just missed the Top 10, reaching #11. But then in August 1962 it was widely reported that Karl had been killed in a road accident, although – to quote Mark Twain – fortuitously, it transpired that rumours of his death had been greatly exaggerated. He’d been hurt in the collision – which occurred in Great Yarmouth, where he was playing a summer season (and involved a borrowed sports car and a young lady passenger, whose name had to be kept out of the newspapers) – but not badly. However, he was involved in a second, rather more serious motoring incident shortly afterwards, in which he suffered multiple injuries, including a badly broken jaw. It was duly wired up, which prevented him working for several months (NB: in a sad coda to this story, his youngest son, also named Karl, would die after being hit by a car, in Glasgow, several months hence).
The following month saw the release of his next single, ‘Blue Weekend’ (another Jimmy Kennedy song), which reached #25 – a fairly good result bearing in mind he was unable to promote it as he was convalescing. An EP, By A Sleepy Lagoon, was also issued around the same time and sold exceedingly well, going on to spend 20-weeks in the EP Top 20, peaking at #2. Both the title track and ‘Snow Shoes Thompson’ were popular in terms of radio airplay.
A second LP, titled simply Karl Denver, appeared a couple of months later, followed shortly afterwards by another single, a revival of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures Of Plenty’. The album featured several more live favourites, including songs like ‘She Moved Thro’ The Fair’, ‘O’Brian The Brave Engineer’, ‘Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion’ and ‘Walk On Boy’, and was critically well-reviewed. However, he was still unavailable to make promotional appearances and so – somewhat surprisingly, as it was a strong release – ‘Pastures’ became his first single not to make the charts.
Once he was fit enough to get back to work Karl’s career picked up again, quite significantly, and during 1963/64 he charted with ‘Can You Forgive Me’, ‘Indian Love Call’, ‘Still’, ‘My World Of Blue’ and ‘Love Me With All Your Heart’. Moreover, his 1963 live LP, Karl Denver At The Yew Tree, is regarded by many fans as his finest recorded work although his fourth album, With Love (1964), presented an uncomfortable juxtaposing of C&W and mainstream MOR. Elsewhere, his appearance in the 1963 Pop movie Just For Fun was well-received, and the same year he hosted the BBC Light Programme’s Side By Side series, working with The Beatles – striking up an unlikely rapport with John Lennon – on a number of the shows (they later invited him onto Jack Good’s US TV show Shindig as their special guest).
But during the mid-60s, things noticeably began to slow down. Dropped by Decca following the failure of a truly excruciating, ill-judged revival of Gracie Fields’ ‘Sally’ (which Gerry Monroe would copy, five years hence, and inconceivably take into the Top 5) Karl later recorded for Mercury, Page One, Emerald and Narvis, without any real success. He nonetheless remained an extremely popular, in-demand live performer, in variety, cabaret, the northern clubs’ ‘chicken-in-a-basket’ circuit, and on TV programmes like Stars & Garters and Wheeltappers And Shunters. He also continued to play summer seasons and enjoyed particular popularity in Jersey, where he based himself for a number of years.
With a vastly reduced income, his oft-complex personal life became increasingly messy and problematic. Denver was bankrupted on a number of occasions, due to unpaid income tax bills, and repeatedly found himself summonsed to appear in court. Moreover, like any self-respecting Pop star he had a discerning eye (not to mention an insatiable appetite) for the ladies, which inflicted further damage on his unsteady financial equilibrium. He was perpetually behind on maintenance payments to his various ex-wives and, as a result, was frequently arrested and subjected to temporary incarceration (Peter Summerfield recalls having to travel to Liverpool one afternoon in the 60s, to bail him out of the cells in order to play a gig that evening). On the plus side, he finally confronted his alcoholism in the 80s, stopped drinking, and to his credit, he managed to stay dry; however, a lifetime’s alcohol abuse had already taken its toll and his health never fully recovered.
In 1989 he was suddenly returned to the public’s cognisance in perhaps the least likely of circumstances, namely a collaboration with alternative Indie/Acid House pioneers Happy Mondays. After a re-recording of ‘Wimoweh’ picked up significant radio airplay, notably in the North-West, a second release, ‘Lazyitis (One Armed Boxer)’ – featuring a surreal duet between Karl and Happy Monday Shaun Ryder – returned him to the Top 50 after a gap of twenty-six years.
But Karl’s health at this time was poor; he was quite frail, and contracted pneumonia whilst filming the promo video for ‘Lazyitis’ in Manchester – as he later recounted: “I was under the rain machine for four hours…it was February, too! But I loved doing it…when you’re enjoying yourself, time passes very quickly, you know.”
He was flown to the South of Spain to recuperate, an area he already knew well, having been performing in Benidorm sporadically for a number of years. He made a spirited recovery and even recorded a final album, Just Loving You, in 1993; but he never quite recovered full health and sadly died on December 21st 1998, of a brain tumour, which had only been diagnosed a few months earlier.
Acknowledgements: Big Thanks to Peter Summerfield, Charles Blackwell, Spencer Leigh, Norman Jopling, Dave McAleer and Al Moir.
Dedicated to Prodnose, Lucky Parker and Bernie Keith.