Chasing Donovan - a fan's tribute

Image caption Donovan's songs Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow were international hits

Next month Glasgow-born musician Donovan Leitch will receive a lifetime achievement honour at the Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Highlands-based BBC Scotland reporter Iain MacDonald pays tribute to a music legend whose career he has followed from boy to man.

It's 1966 and here I go down the mean streets Stornoway.

On my head was a black leather cap. On my back, a canvas jacket and scrawled across the shoulders, in felt tip pen, the simple, but heart felt slogan: Donovan.

The youth of today might feel fab wearing brand labels, but I was seriously trendy in my day with, hard to believe I know, Donovan.

Hailed as the new Dylan he came out of nowhere, singing songs like Colours and Catch The Wind.

The genius of Donovan is probably best summed up in the possibly apocryphal story of how he met Dylan.

It's claimed that Donovan played some of his songs for The Bobster in the latter's suite at the Savoy Hotel, a meeting immortalised in the movie Don't Look Back.

One of them was allegedly called My Darling Tangerine Eyes. It was, unquestionably, the same tune as Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man, only with very weird words.

Dylan pointed out that, actually, that was his tune and the song was never heard of again - but you have to admire the brass neck involved.

On 7 February, Donovan will be presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Radio Two Folk Awards, possibly the biggest prize giving in UK folk.

He will be honoured with the same prize won last year by a very much grittier Scottish music giant, Dick Gaughan. But, in his own way, Donovan's probably just as deserving.

Image caption Donovan continues to work on music projects today

Donovan Philips Leitch was born in May 1946 in Maryhill, Glasgow. He contracted polio as a kid and still walks with a limp.

When he was 10 his family moved south of the border. Then, at 14, he dropped out of school and set off to Cornwall to live in various hippy communes.

He learned cross pick guitar, played folk clubs and hooked up with a called Gypsy Dave, who became a lifelong buddy and was immortalised in songs.

Donovan was initially signed up to a publishing deal with Pye Records, recorded a 10-track demo and met Brian Jones, then still the leader of the Rolling Stones.

The hits followed. Not just Colours and Catch The Wind, but protest songs like Buffy St Marie's Universal Soldier.

International star

He was the perfect Sixties creation - or possibly copy - though he was later to point out that even the Beatles and the Stones at that stage were copying "note for note, lick for lick" American pop and blues.

Somewhere around this time, there was a BBC TV documentary detailing his extremely hippy lifestyle.

I remember it featured Donovan and Gypsy Dave smoking cannabis with women not necessarily wearing anything above their waists.

I think my parents switched the telly off about then, so I have no idea how it all turned out, though I suspect it wouldn't have been in any way my ancestors approved of.

But maybe that was the inspiration for the black leather cap and the canvas jacket with the DIY Donovan branding.

In 1965, Donovan got involved with Alan Klein, who was subsequently to manage both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Klein, in turn, led Donovan to producer Mickie Most who was already producing hits for The Animals, Lulu and Herman's Hermits.

Donovan and Most went on to produce a string of huge international hits.

It began with Sunshine Superman, a hit single and then an album which made the Scots musician an international star.

Mellow Yellow followed and he featured on the Beatles' A Day In The Life. He also wrote the soundtrack for the Ken Loach movie Poor Cow and, I seem to recall, briefly acquired an uninhabited island off Skye.

Later, Donovan's Atlantis, with its spoken intro, featured as the backdrop to an exceedingly violent scene in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas movie. Gerry Rafferty, whose Stuck in the Middle with You was used in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, would know how that felt.


These days Donovan lives in Ireland and is still producing music.

At the moment, the main project is something called Ritual Groove, which he describes as the soundtrack to a movie yet to be made.

He's inviting fans to submit videos to go with the 36 songs he's produced.

If you pop onto the Radio 2 website and marvel at the strange shaman-like figure portrayed there, looking like the sole remaining representative of the tribe that was finally wiped out by the Last of the Mohicans, don't laugh.

This man is - and always was - a serious player, sustained by his own self belief and a serious amount of talent.

And you can bet your life he never wore a jacket with somebody else's name on the back.

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