Friday, March 4, 2005

MARTIN DENNY / 1911-2005

Martin Denny holds some of his records made in the late 1950s and '60s. In June 22, 1959, his "Exotica" album hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top 100 chart, beating out Frank Sinatra.

Pioneer of ‘exotica’
music captivated
audiences worldwide

Martin Denny, who created "exotica" music in the 1950s and lived to see it enjoy renewed worldwide popularity as "lounge music" and "tiki culture," died last night at his Hawaii Kai residence. He was 93.

Christina Denny, his daughter and primary caregiver, said that her father "passed peacefully at 9 p.m." and that he had been "ready to go."

"With the passing of Martin Denny, the world has lost one of its great popular musicians," said Michael Largarticha, Musicians Association of Hawaii president.

"He created a sound that remains unique to this day, an entire genre of music which Martin described as a fusion of Asian, South Pacific, American jazz, Latin American and classical."

Shari Lynn, singer, actress and dancer as well as music teacher at Hawaii School for Girls at La Pietra, said she was fortunate to have known Denny for more than 20 years.

"He was consistently a gentleman, of course a star, but accessible, generous, creative, inspiring -- Hawaii's music monarch," Lynn said.

She said Denny played at La Pietra Feb. 13 at a tsunami fund-raiser and at the school's annual "Sunset Jazz" fund-raiser Nov. 21.

He had been in declining health for the last two years, and had appeared to be near death several times in recent months, but was stoic about his increasingly limited diet and mobility.

Denny drew crowds of admirers and thrilled audiences when he performed. One of his final public performances was at Ward Warehouse, where he played a three-song set with bassist Byron Yasui on Jan. 21. Jimmy Buffett welcomed him as a special guest at a Waikiki Shell concert last year.

"I've probably attained more popularity in this part of my life than I ever have had in the past, and all I can say is that I'm very fortunate that this is happening to me. I got a royalty statement (recently) for six months, and it was over an inch thick," Denny said in a 2000 interview. "It just amazes me that (my music) is being played in such diverse places as Poland, Israel and South Africa -- not to mention Norway, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and France."

Largarticha, a 25-year friend, said Denny was a good union (Local 677) member. "Martin came to our last Christmas party and played 'Quiet Village,' 'Firecracker' and his other hits, and he absolutely captivated our younger members."

Although some writers described his music as "lightweight entertainment" or even "kitschy" over the years, the trademark "jungle noises" and birdcalls usually overshadowed substantial musical arrangements that reflected Denny's formal training as a pianist and decades of professional experience.

Born on April 12, 1911, in New York City, Denny took to the piano at an early age. He made his official debut as a professional musician in 1931 and spent 4 1/2 years working in South America. Denny played big-band dance music in the United States from the mid-1930s until World War II. He continued his musical career in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then attended college on the GI Bill, majoring in classical piano, composition and orchestration.

Denny first performed in Waikiki as a solo pianist in 1954, but in 1955 formed a trio with John Kramer (bass) and Arthur Lyman (vibraphone). Percussionist Augie Colon became the fourth member of the group after they opened at the Shell Bar in Kaiser's Hawaiian Village in 1956. It was there that the "exotica" sound was born.

The sound of frogs croaking in a nearby pool inspired ad-libbed responses by the band members. Denny got so many requests for "the song with the jungle noises" that he worked up arrangements that included birdcalls and other sounds, and then enhanced the fanciful tropical ambience by using "exotic" percussion instruments. It wasn't long before globe-trotting fans were bringing him souvenir drums, gongs and other items to experiment with.

"If I had attempted to do the same thing on the mainland and asked a bunch of guys (there) if they'd do birdcalls, they'd have laughed me out of the studio. We did it here and it worked, but even without the birdcalls the guys could swing. That's what intrigued people -- plus the showmanship," Denny said in 1997.

Denny's first recording of "exotica" was made for Liberty Records in 1956. He re-recorded it in 1958. When Liberty released "Quiet Village" as a single in 1959, it reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

He was -- and still is -- one of the few Hawaii recording artists to appear on any of the six major Billboard record charts.

Denny's visibility as a pop chart hit-maker had waned by the end of the 1960s, but his music remained popular in many parts of the world until it was rediscovered by a new generation of music fans in the 1990s. Much of his early catalog was reissued on CD, with Denny providing extensive additional annotation.

Hawaii residents Kit Ebersbach and Lloyd Kandell created Don Tiki, a "lounge music" show group, in his honor.

Kandell said, "Martin Denny not only brought beautiful, exotic and evocative music to the entire world, but was an inspirational example of how to live life."

He said Denny "was sharp to the very end" of his life: "I would say he was almost a surrogate father to me and a musical mentor to my partner, Kit Ebersbach, and he was always a very supportive and generous spirit, attending every one of our live performances of Don Tiki."

He also performed onstage and recorded with the group, Kandell said.

The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts gave Denny a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.

Funeral arrangements are pending, but the commemoration of his life will include a big memorial party at the Elks Club.

In another interview, Denny spoke of what he would like on his tombstone: "'I had many friends,'" he said. "I think that would be nice."

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