Sandy Denny, born Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny ( ??? ), was an English singer and songwriter who has been described by Allmusic's Richie Unterberger as "the pre-eminent British folk rock singer". She emerged in the mid 1960s while still a teenager, performing on the folk revival scene where she displayed her mastery of traditional singing and interpretation. Her song, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?", written during these early years, has been covered by numerous artists and is regarded as a classic of its type.
Over a ten year career Sandy Denny left an extensive legacy and remains influential. She is remembered for the crystal-clear purity but also the strength of her voice as well as her pivotal involvement with the British folk rock movement, where, as a member of Fairport Convention, she moved the band away from west coast American cover versions and into performing traditional material and original compositions. She is also noted for her duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin's fourth album in 1971, on the song "The Battle of Evermore", and to date she remains the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin album.
Denny was born at Nelson Hospital, Kingston Road, Merton Park, London and studied classical piano as a child. Her Scottish grandmother was a singer of traditional songs. At an early age Denny showed an interest in singing, despite the disapproval of her strict parents. Sandy Denny attended Coombe Girls' School in Kingston upon Thames. After leaving school, she started training as a nurse at the Royal Brompton Hospital.
In 1965, after graduating from the Kingston School of Art she enrolled at the Wimbledon College of Art (Night Class) in London, where she became involved in the folk club on campus. Contemporaries included John Renbourn, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. After her first public appearance at the Barge in Kingston-Upon-Thames Sandy started working the folk club circuit in the evenings with an American-influenced repertoire, including songs by Tom Paxton, together with folk songs. She travelled in to Earls Court to play at the Troubadour club, where a member of Strawbs heard her. In 1967, she was invited to join the band, and recorded one album with them in Denmark. The album includes an early version of her best-known (and widely covered) song, Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Judy Collins recorded the song, helping to bring attention to Sandy Denny.
Denny's earliest professional recordings were made in mid-1967 for the Saga Records label, featuring traditional songs and covers of folk contemporaries including a boyfriend of this period, Jackson C. Frank. They were released on the albums Alex Campbell and his Friends and Sandy and Johnny. These recordings were collected on the 1970 album It's Sandy Denny.
Following the departure of Judy Dyble after their debut album, Fairport Convention conducted auditions in 1968 for a replacement singer, and Denny became the obvious choice. Simon Nicol has said "it was a one horse race really...she stood out like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes". Initially recording three albums with them including the influential Liege & Lief, Denny is credited with encouraging Fairport Convention to explore the traditional British folk repertoire, and is thus regarded as a key figure in the development of British folk rock.
Denny left Fairport Convention in 1969, after recording and, very briefly, touring Liege & Lief. The other members of Fairport were interested in exploring folk rock, but Denny wanted to develop her own songwriting. She formed her own band, Fotheringay, which included her boyfriend, Australian born Trevor Lucas and dissolved the group after one album to record solo albums, with several members of Fairport Convention as guests. The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy remain her most popular solo albums and Melody Maker twice voted her the "Best Female Singer" in 1971 and 1972. In 1973, she married Lucas and returned to Fairport Convention in 1975 for a world tour and another album, Rising for the Moon, which featured several of her own compositions.
During her solo period, Denny appeared in a brief cameo on Lou Reizner's version of The Who's rock opera, Tommy, and duetted memorably with Robert Plant on "The Battle of Evermore" from Led Zeppelin's 1971 album (Led Zeppelin IV), becoming the only guest vocalist ever to appear on a Led Zeppelin album.
Together with contemporaries including Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings, she participated in a one-off project called The Bunch to record a collection of rock and roll era standards released under the title of "Rock On".
She gained a devoted cult following, but remained deprecating of her talent and unsure of her true direction. Some of her best-loved recordings are interpretations of British traditional songs. Denny herself was unsure as to whether she wanted to continue in that vein (in the manner of Steeleye Span and Maddy Prior) or that of a singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell. She yearned for success in the mass market, but her shy, unpredictable nature and insecurity about her appearance were an impediment. Her solo albums feature efforts in all three directions, gaining her a reputation for charming eclecticism rather than the stardom she and Lucas craved.
Her charisma and extraordinary alto voice were never in doubt. The stress of the Fairport Convention world tour in 1974 made it apparent that Denny's heavy drinking and smoking were damaging her voice, inclining her to put elaborate string arrangements on her last two solo albums, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous, which were not well received by the critics. Denny began to question her career goals and turned her attention to raising a family. Her substance abuse became critical and her behaviour began to worry and even alienate most of her fellow musicians, including Lucas and her erstwhile Fairport Convention colleagues.
In March 1978, while on holiday with her parents in Cornwall, Denny was injured in a fall down a staircase. A month after the fall she collapsed at a friend's home; four days later she died in Atkinson Morley Hospital. Her death was ruled to be the result of a traumatic mid-brain hemorrhage. It has been suggested that Denny's problems arose from substance abuse and uncertainty about her career path, but Jill Broun, a close friend, attributes the haemorrhage to a brain tumour. This would also explain the headaches and collapses which she suffered for some time prior to her death, the fall down stairs at her parents' home and her final fatal collapse. She is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery.
At the time of her death she was living apart from Trevor Lucas and her daughter Georgia, who had travelled to Lucas' native Australia. Lucas died in 1989 of heart failure.
Denny's renown grew after her death, and her songs have been covered by many other artists. She is considered a founder of the British folk rock movement and perhaps its most important female singer and personality. It has been suggested that her effortless and smooth vocal delivery still sets the standard for many of today's female folk-based singers.
Former Fairport bandmate Richard Thompson's tune "That's All, Amen, Close The Door" on 1999's Mock Tudor is about Sandy Denny.
Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention recorded the tribute "Song for Sandy" on his 1983 solo album The Cocktail Cowboy Goes It Alone.
In 1998, a variety of Daylily was named after her.
Mandy Morton and Spriguns changed the title of their 1978 album to Magic Lady after hearing of Denny's death while recording.
Dave Cousins of Strawbs wrote "Ringing Down the Years" in memory of Sandy Denny as early as 1978-1979, and the song was first published as a single in 1979. The song is the title track on the Strawbs 1991 album Ringing Down the Years, and is also found on the CD Georgia On Our Mind, published for the benefit of Sandy Denny's daughter.
The New Zealand-born singer-songwriter Paul Metsers wrote a tribute "Sandy's Song", which appears on his 1981 album "Caution to the Wind".
Mark Olson's (founding member of the Jayhawks) 2007 album The Salvation Blues has a song entitled "Sandy Denny".
The Ocean Colour Scene's song "She's Been Writing" (from the North Atlantic Drift album) is about Sandy Denny.
Kate Bush's song, "Blow Away (For Bill)" on her album Never for Ever, mentions Sandy Denny. In this song Kate Bush ponders the existence of an afterlife and recalls departed friends and musicians. Buddy Holly and Marc Bolan are among the others mentioned.
The song "Remember", on the Groove Armada album Lovebox (2003), is composed of Denny's vocals, sampled from her song "Autopsy" (from Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking album), backed by The London Community Gospel Choir.
Philip Lynott of Thin Lizzy recorded "A Tribute to Sandy Denny", the instrumental version of which was played at his funeral in January 1986 at Howth, Dublin by a local band Clann ??adair. The song was written by band member Pearse 'Snowy' McLaughlin and released by Irish indie label Crashed Records. It was one of Lynott's last recorded vocals
Tim Rogers mentions Sandy Denny in a song about turning twenty-eight on his 1999 album What Rhymes With Cars And Girls. The lyric is "you dreamt she sang like Sandy Denny and smoked like a malle tree."
In the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" was voted "Favourite Folk Track of All Time" by the audience.
Ex-Marillion frontman Fish covered "Solo" on his 1993 album Songs from the Mirror.
Paul Westerberg included the first few lines of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" at the end of the song "Folk Star" on his 2004 album Folker.
Linde Nijland recorded the album of cover versions, Linde Nijland sings Sandy Denny, in 2003.
In April 2008 a tribute concert was held at the Troubadour Club, London, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Denny's death. Those taking part included Martin Carthy, Linda Thompson and Joe Boyd.
A further tribute concert, ???The Lady: A Tribute to Sandy Denny???, took place at London???s Southbank Centre, in December 2008, earning a 4* review in The Guardian. Backed by members of Bellowhead, artists on that occasion included Marc Almond, Jim Moray, Dave Swarbrick, PP Arnold and Mary Epworth.
In 2008 Bob Harris made the BBC Radio 2 documentary portrait "The Sandy Denny Story: Who knows where the time goes", including Sandy Denny archive interview material and interviews with Robert Plant, Joe Boyd, Linde Nijland, Richard Thompson and others. The documentary was awarded silver at the Sony Radio Awards in 2009.