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Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny

Words by Elsa Hill
2 months ago

The British singer and songwriter Sandy Denny (born January 1947, died April 1978) is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable vocal talents to emerge from the British roots music scene of the late 1960s. First coming to broader attention when she replaced Judy Dyble as vocalist with Fairport Convention in the Spring of 1968, she cut three albums with the band before leaving their ranks and forming the short-lived Fotheringay. Despite a good first album, bad business decisions led to the band splitting up during sessions for their second long playing release. Her first solo album, released on the Island Records label, was entitled The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and was released in 1971.

The solo recordings featured on “Live & Solo at Ebbets Field, Denver April 29th 1973” came in the wake of the release of her second solo album, simply entitled ‘Sandy’, and from April 27th through to April 29th 1973, Denny played three solo concerts at the Ebbets Field venue in Denver, Colorado, a two hundred and fifty capacity coffee house style venue ideally suited to an intimate performance. 

Accompanied only by her acoustic twelve-string guitar and piano, she plays four songs from ‘Sandy’ – namely ‘The Music Weaver’, ‘It Suits Me Well’, ‘Bushes and Briars’, and ‘The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’.  From the ‘Grassman’ debut comes the songs ‘Late November’, ‘John The Gun’, and ‘The Sea Captain’, leaving ‘At the End of The Day’ which would feature on her next album, ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’. The recordings show how marvellously flexible her voice could be, ranging from the accapella rendition of Richard Farina’s ‘The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, which had been a favourite since her days performing it with Fairport Convention, and latterly with Fotheringay, through to the rarely-performed ‘At The End of The Day’, which is a fine showcase for her melismatic gifts. The album version of the ‘At The End of The Day’, was hamstrung by over-production; here, in its scaled down, almost skeletal state, the resonant beauty of the lyric, and power of her vocal truly shines. ‘John The Gun’ is intense, fierce, and all the more potent in its unvarnished state.

Supplementing this recording are highlights from a Fairport Convention show featuring Sandy Denny  from 1974; perhaps having the security of a band backing her made her loosen up a little, and it does sound like she was having fun with the audience appreciative, too. Denny was not best suited to the ardours of touring, and her rejoining with Fairport was a somewhat misguided move. The result was the disappointing ‘Rising For The Moon’ album, and its poor reception saw her and her husband Trevor Lucas (they had married in 1973) split from the band in December 1975. 

Sandy Denny made two more solo albums after these recordings – the aforementioned ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ (1974), and 1977’s ‘Rendezvous’. She gave birth to a daughter, Georgia, on 12th July 1977, but her life was unravelling alarmingly. 

During a visit to her parents’ home in Cornwall during March 1978 she tumbled down the stairs, allegedly drunk. Although it was a serious fall, cutting her head as she fell on a stone floor, she was not taken to hospital. Less than a month later she was found collapsed on the stairs of a friend's home. Four days later, at the age of thirty-one, she died in hospital from a cerebral haemorrhage. She was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

The influence of Sandy Denny on contemporary music is still palpable, four and a half decades after her death; successive generations of singers, songwriters and musicians have cited her as a musical touchstone, and reissues and rediscoveries of old recordings have added lustre to her legend. Indeed, the breadth and range of female voices occupying the present Folk / Roots music milieu is surely down in part to Denny’s musical trailblazing. 

With thanks to Alan Robinson.

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