Martin Denny (April 10, 1911 – March 2, 2005) was an American pianist and composer best known as the “father of exotica.” In a long career that saw him performing up to 3 weeks prior to his death, he toured the world popularizing his brand of lounge music which included exotic percussion, imaginative rearrangements of popular songs, and original songs that celebrated Tiki culture.
Denny was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. He studied classical piano and toured South America for four and a half years in the 1930s with the Don Dean Orchestra. This tour began Denny’s fascination with Latin rhythms. Denny collected a large number of ethnic instruments from all over the world, which he used to spice up his stage performances.
After serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Denny returned to Los Angeles, in 1945 where he studied piano and composition under Dr. Wesley La Violette and orchestration under Arthur Lange at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. He later studied at the University of Southern California.
In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought Denny to Honolulu, for a two-week engagement. He stayed to form his own combo in 1955, performing under contract at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village on Oahu and soon signing to Liberty Records. The original combo consisted of Augie Colon on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on string bass, and Denny on piano. Lyman soon left to form his own group and future Herb Alpert sideman and Baja Marimba Band founder Julius Wechter replaced him. Harvey Ragsdale later replaced Kramer.
“We traveled a lot on the Mainland, but we came back every 12 weeks because the guys had their families here [in Hawaii],” recalled Denny. In 1955, the musician met his future wife, June, and married her the following year. His daughter, Christina was born a few years later. “I loved the lifestyle and my career was built here,” said Denny.
Denny described the music his combo played as “window dressing, a background”. He built a collection of strange and exotic instruments with the help of several airline friends. They would bring Denny back these instruments and he would build arrangements around them. His music was a combination of ethnic styles: South Pacific, the Orient and Latin rhythms.
During an engagement at the Shell Bar, Denny discovered what would become his trademark and the birth of “exotica”. The bar had a very exotic setting: a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, rocks and palm trees growing around, very quiet and relaxed. As the group played at night, Denny became aware of bullfrogs croaking. The croaking blended with the music and when the band stopped, so did the frogs. He thought it was a coincidence at first, but when he tried the tune again later, the same thing happened. This time, his bandmates began doing all sorts of tropical bird calls as a gag. The band thought it nothing more than a joke. The next day, someone approached Denny and asked if he would do the arrangement with the birds and frogs. He agreed. At rehearsal, he had the band do “Quiet Village” with each doing a bird call spaced apart. Denny did the frog part on a grooved cylinder and the whole thing became incorporated into the arrangement of “Quiet Village”. It sold more than one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
The album jacket was an influential factor guiding the fantasy of Denny’s music. Denny’s first dozen albums featured model Sandy Warner on the cover.
Art designers always changed her looks to fit the mood of the package. For instance, we called one album with an African sound Afro-desia and Sandy dyed her hair blond for the photo session; she’s seen against a background of colorful African masks. When we did Hypnotique, which is surrealistic, she had dark hair. For Primitiva, she was photographed standing waist-deep in water.
The Exotica album was recorded in December 1956 and released in 1957. In 1958, Dick Clark hosted Denny on American Bandstand. “Quiet Village” reached #2 on Billboard’s charts in 1959 with the Exotica album reaching #1. He rode the charts of Cashbox and Variety also. Denny had as many as three or four albums on the charts simultaneously during his career. He had national hits with “A Taste of Honey”, “The Enchanted Sea”, and “Ebb Tide”.
Denny died in Honolulu on March 2, 2005, aged 93. Following a private memorial service, his ashes were scattered at sea.
His combo spawned two successful offshoots: Julius Wechter (of Tijuana Brass and Baja Marimba Band fame) and exotica vibist Arthur Lyman.
Denny’s “Firecracker” is well known in Japan as the number which inspired Haruomi Hosono to establish Yellow Magic Orchestra; a “subversive” version of the song, according to Hosono, appears on the band’s eponymous debut album and was released as a single to promote it, charting at No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 18 on the Billboard R&B Singles charts. The song was later adapted into Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real”.
Former Psychic TV member Fred Giannelli released an album in 1991 entitled Fred; the second track on that album is “Mr. Denny”, an instrumental tribute to Martin Denny that features excerpts of an interview with him.
Denny’s recordings are prominently featured in the 1999 film Breakfast of Champions, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel. This is primarily because the car dealership featured in the film is having a Hawaiian-based promotion.
Denny’s music is a recurring theme in the Sandman Slim series of fantasy novels by Richard Kadrey, where his music is always playing on the jukebox in the Bamboo House of Dolls, “LA’s only punk tiki bar”.(wikipedia)
Originally released in 1958, Primitiva is a rhythmically rich and inimitably exotic Martin Denny experience. Reissued by Jackpot Records on limited edition lagoon blue color vinyl, Primitiva highlights the burgeoning sound of ’50s exotica music, with Denny’s diverse soundscape ranging from vibraphones and marimbas, to Burmese gongs and Buddhist prayer bowls. This third outing from the father of exotica shines in style with stand-out tracks like “Burma Train”, “M’Gambo Mambo”, and “Jamaica Farewell” spanning from the Caribbean coast, to the South Pacific islands, and beyond. Pairing perfectly with beachside Mai Tais and ornamental umbrellas, Primitiva is a hallmark of the mid-century’s lounge music fascination, and is replete with animal cries, pulsing percussion, and enough groovy goodness to keep it a mainstay of your rotation.
Really great exotica, and really hard to find in the wild! What a cover! Image and letting are insane. (goner-records.com)
August Colon (percussion voice: bird calls)
Martin Denny (piano, celeste)
Harvey Ragsdale (bass, marimbula)
Julius Wechter (vibraphone marimba, percussion)
Roy Hart (percussion)
Harold V. Johnson (use of authentic collection of instruments)
Jerry Williams (percusion)
01. Burma Train (Johnson/Denny) 2.56
02. Kalua (Darby) 2.40
03. M’Gambo Mambo (Williams) 2.06
04. Buddhist Bells (Johnson/Denny) 2.56
05. M’Bira (Johnson/Denny) 2.50
06. Flamingo (Anderson/Grouya) 2.45
07. Llama Serenade (Peruvian Llama Song) (Wolcott) 2.12
08. Akaka Falls (Parker) 2.50
09. Bangkok Cockfight (Baxter) 2.19
10. Mau Mau (Wechter) 2.35
11. Dites Moi (Rodgers/Hammerstein, II) 2.39
12. Jamaica Farewell (Burgess) 2.17