Sandy Denny: Mercurial Queen Of British Folk Rock Sandy Denny became the queen of British folk rock when she joined the band Fairport Convention in 1968. Her fans included Robert Plant and Nina Simone. Denny was a skilled songwriter with a powerful and expressive voice, yet today many people don't recognize her name.
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Sandy Denny: Mercurial Queen Of British Folk Rock

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Sandy Denny: Mercurial Queen Of British Folk Rock

Sandy Denny: Mercurial Queen Of British Folk Rock

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Robert Plant once called Sandy Denny his favorite singer out of all the British girls that ever were. Denny became the queen of British folk rock when she joined the band Fairport Convention in 1968. Nina Simone was also a fan. Yet today, many people have no idea who Sandy Denny was. That's one of the reasons she's one of our 50 Great Voices.

NPR's Tom Cole offers a few more.

TOM COLE: She could play piano.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: She could play guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: She could write songs.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SANDY DENNY (Musician): (Singing) Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving.

COLE: But it was her strong, clear voice that really grabbed your attention.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DENNY: (Singing) But how can they know it's time for them to go?

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Musician): I think Sandy really went somewhere else. She took singing to a different place.

COLE: Richard Thompson was her collaborator in Fairport Convention.

Mr. THOMPSON: Her voice would go from a whisper to full throttle in the space of a line or two. That was a great gift that she had. Her style was original. Her phrasing was original. There's nothing quite like Sandy.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DENNY: (Singing) For who knows where the time goes? Who knows where the time goes?

COLE: The woman behind the voice was complex and contradictory, a remarkably gifted musician from an early age who was painfully insecure and paralyzed by career decisions. At the same time, she could walk into a room and dominate it. You can hear that confidence in a 1972 BBC interview, as she remembered her first foray into public performance while at art college.

Ms. DENNY: Just down the road, there was a little barge on the river, called the Barge Folk Club. And I used to go down there. And I thought, well, I can sing as well as these - you know, when I heard these people singing.

COLE: She made her BBC debut when she was 19.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DENNY: (Singing) How often haunting the highest hilltop. I scanned the ocean. I sailed to sea.

COLE: Denny spent the next two years as a successful solo folk singer. Then, Fairport Convention announced it was auditioning for a new lead vocalist. The band had already released its first album, and built a reputation for vaguely American-sounding psychedelic folk rock.

Mr. THOMPSON: I think we'd listened to a couple of really average singers before Sandy came in. This was, you know, like a Boy Scout hall somewhere in south London. And she just stood out immediately as being an absolutely extraordinary performer. And we were very happy to have her in the band. But she said: Well, you know, I'd like to audition you now.

COLE: Denny turned Fairport Convention around. She introduced the band to the traditional ballads she'd learned as a child. They dropped their American aspirations and dove wholeheartedly into their Englishness. Denny also wrote songs for Fairport like "Fotheringay," about Mary, Queen of Scots.

(Soundbite of song, "Fotheringay")

Ms. DENNY: (Singing) How often she has gazed from castle windows on and watched the daylight passing within her captive walls with no one to heed her call.

COLE: Richard Thompson says Denny became the characters in her songs.

Mr. THOMPSON: Sandy had a way of really living a song. And I think she was able to do it because she had a very acute imagination. You could almost describe Sandy as someone who didn't have any skin. She was so hypersensitive to every little thing in the world, it was as if she lived more vividly than the rest of us. And I think that ability to get right inside a song, inside the persona of a song, was really quite extraordinary.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DENNY: (Singing) They hang up sail long (unintelligible). When a queen ship lay charge to meet your sailors all, praise and true. Does my sweet William stay among your crew? Oh, no, fair maiden. He is not here. For he's been drowned, we greatly fear.

COLE: Sandy Denny could take an old story song and make it live without the benefit of any pop song hooks to hang onto, says Denny's friend, singer Linda Thompson, Richard's ex.

Ms. LINDA THOMPSON (Singer): For me, really, Frank Sinatra and Sandy Denny are the best phrasers I've ever heard. She phrased so beautifully. She just could put the emphasis on a word where you would least expect it. And I do remember seeing her after a gig, and she could never speak after a gig because her voice would be, it would be shot.

COLE: It wasn't just singing hard that strained Sandy Denny's voice. By all accounts, she was a drinker and a smoker. After leaving Fairport Convention and embarking on a bumpy solo career, she apparently sought other avenues to numb her insecurities.

Ms. THOMPSON: Substances were taking over. Cocaine was taking over. And you know, it just all fell apart a little bit in, you know, time-honored musical fashion.

COLE: Nevertheless, by 1978, Denny had won the Melody Maker poll as Best Female Vocalist twice, and reached a new audience with her duet with Robert Plant on "Led Zeppelin IV."

(Soundbite of song, "The Battle of Evermore")

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Singer) and Ms. DENNY: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

COLE: Yet, Linda Thompson says Denny struggled financially.

Ms. THOMPSON: She would liked to have been more commercially viable or, you know, made more money. But, you know, she just was what she was, a supreme artist. You know, and she just wasn't, she just wasn't a pop star.

COLE: Despite the setbacks and dubious career choices, in interviews, Denny always seemed to look to the future, to what might be.

Ms. DENNY: I want to be happy. I want to be happy in my work, and one day I might reach something a little bit closer to the way I want it to go, you know, but it's all happening in a very slow way. And if we've got time left in this world, you know, perhaps I'll get there one day.

COLE: Sandy Denny had been performing professionally just a little more than a decade when she died of a brain hemorrhage, on April 21st, 1978.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

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