Thursday 27 October 2016

Music Profile: KARL DENVER


His “Wimoweh” is jaw-dropping. Maybe Karl Denver 
 was not exactly a hero of early British Rock ‘n’ Roll, 
 but at a time when heroes were scarce, he 
provided a hugely entertaining distraction… 

Try it this way. Early 1960s studio technology was fairly limited. There were novelty effects that included speeded-up vocals, dual-tracking to add voice depth, and the kind of electronic distortion favoured by mavericks such as Joe Meek. But largely making a record came down to a live studio performance into a couple of strategically positioned pick-up microphones. The producer’s role was primarily down to reproducing the sound as accurately and cleanly as possible. So – my theory goes like this, to stand out in the tacky Pop shallowness, a certain vocal extremism provides the edge.

Karl Denver was more extreme than most. His “Wimoweh” straddles a switchback of multi-octave contortions, a foreign nonsense-language of throat-shredding clicks, brrrrr’s and death-defying yodels. Watch the blurry black-and-white TV-clip, see his mouth working scat-wise around the gymnastics of sound, shaping and modulating a sheer cacophony of noise, remoulding it into new configurations. Other singers had falsetto swoops into stratospheric highs. But no-one was quite like Karl Denver.

Born 16 December 1931, as Angus Murdo McKenzie in Springburn, Glasgow, by the time of “Wimoweh” he’d already tipped over the generationally-sensitive thirty watershed, in a realm of photogenic teenage poster-boys. And in truth, he never quite fits easily. He had history, he’d enlisted in the Argyll & Sutherland regiment and seen action in Korea, and sailed as a deckhand with the Merchant Navy. Those years were written into the rugged lines of his face. Onstage he wore built-up Cuban heels to compensate for his unprepossessing pint-size stature. Portly bespectacled Gerry (Gerard) Cottrell – who stands to one side, plays lead guitar, but Kevin Neill – standing on the left, has a big stand-up double-bass. At a time when Rock ‘n’ Rollers were up-switching to solid-body bass guitars, the stand-up has a special organic jazz-resonance, but it’s not quite cool.

Yet Karl had wild tales and authentic country credentials, having jumped ship and lived in Nashville for a space, without a work permit. He had a hard-drinking storyteller’s gift of invention, retaining the raw Glasgow burr to knock years off his official biog-age, so his claims of playing the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ broadcasts while hanging out with Faron Young and Lefty Frizzell, should be treated warily, but then again, who knows? It was here he adopted his stage-alias, taking ‘Karl’ to commemorate a dead son, and the surname from the American city, before he was deported by the US Aliens Department as an illegal immigrant in 1959.

It was on his return to the north of England that he formed a trio with Brian Horton and Gerry Cottrell (born 18 December 1933 in Manchester), who provided long-term musical and logistical support. Gigging at the ‘Yew Tree’ in Wythenshawe, Brian was soon replaced by Mancunian Kevin Neill (born 25 July 1931) who had previous big-band experience working with both Joe Loss and Geraldo, as well as backing Anthony Newley’s 1960 tour! And it was here they were talent-scouted, and invited onto Jack Good’s ‘Wham!’ TV-show, leading to a tour with Jess Conrad and Billy Fury. Then a major forty-three date Larry Parnes ‘Star Spangled Nights’ package-tour from October through to December with Mike Sarne, Joe Brown, Jimmy Justice, Marty Wilde, Mark Wynter, plus Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, all compéred by Al Paige. For British 1961 Pop, this was the big time.

The startling “Wimoweh” – issued on the deep-blue Decca label in its orange-striped bag, was masterminded by Jack Good as Karl’s third single. The song has obvious root-connections to the Tokens big American hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – a ‘Cashbox’ no.1 in November 1961, and it’s that Brooklyn version that’s later revived by ludicrous studio concoction Tight Fit (UK no.1 in January 1982) and referenced on REM’s “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”. But Karl’s reading is significantly different. He told several versions of the story. He claims to have picked up the song – in its original Swahili-language form, during a stop-over in South Africa, where the Zulu Folk-song “Wimba Way” or “Awimbawe” had been adapted and originally recorded as “Mbube” by Solomon Linda & the Evening Birds for Gallo Records in 1939. There had also been subsequent interpretations by the Weavers (with Pete Seeger), Miriam Makeba, and the Kingston Trio. But although misleadingly credited to ‘Paul Campbell’ on the label, Karl takes his reading, complete with Swahili lyrics, from its earliest form.

Kevin Neill explained to journalist Fred Dellar about performing the song in Africa. ‘When we worked in Zimbabwe, Karl and I found it a bit strange because we crack jokes onstage. But there, we had to do everything through an interpreter. One thing though, we’d be doing these shows in front of about two-thousand people and we’d get to “Wimoweh” which – being an African song, they all knew. And they’d join in, banging tin cans and everything. In some ways, it was a bit eerie’ (‘New Musical Express’, 5 August 1989).

The track was recorded during their first Decca sessions – with Andy White or Bobby Graham providing drums, and although it titled Karl’s debut album, it was initially considered too freaky for ‘A’-side status. Yet, in a sense, it is all you really need to hear. In an era of polite sugar-coated Pop, “Wimoweh” is jaw-dropping. Karl recorded a lot of ho-hum material of varying quality, but “Wimoweh” provides the gravity around which everything else orbits. It provides the context and relevance to everything else he did. Karl Denver didn’t need studio effects, he provides his own nerve-shredding box of tricks. And it’s all here, on this one 45rpm single. You never need to apologise for the schmaltz of his balladry when you have “Wimoweh” in your collection.

There was a brief yodeling fad from which the trio arguably benefits. Frank Ifield scored three consecutive yodeling no.1’s starting with “I Remember You” in July 1962, the ‘B’-side of the second – “Wayward Wind”, is even a humorous spoof relating how “She Taught Me To Yodel”. Ifield’s third chart-topped – “Lovesick Blues” in November, even pips Del Shannon’s yodeling “Swiss Maid” into second place. And after all, yodeling has genuine Singing Cowboy Country-roots. But in truth, Karl Denver’s song-bending sound defies category. There’s something of Lonnie Donegan’s eclectic oddness, delving into the Folk and World Music repertoire, and an early champion of Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie long before we’d heard of Bob Dylan, but also drawing on Country sources and old turn-of-the-century balladry, as often sentimentally embarrassing as he could be startling. As a ‘NME’ headline points out, he has ‘Songs From The Four Corners Of The World’ (Derek Johnson, 11 August 1961).

Karl premiered the follow-up single, “Never Goodbye”, on BBC-TVs 11 February 1962 ‘A Song For Europe’ – David Jacob’s pre-selection show for the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’, his ear-splittingly piercing lead losing out to Ronnie Caroll’s wretched “Ring-A-Ding Girl”. He played a Summer Season variety-show at Great Yarmouth – interrupted by an auto-accident that jolted him out of action. Then, by Easter 1963, he could be glimpsed in Milton Sobotsky’s opportunistic movie ‘Just For Fun’ (Amicus Films, 1963) in a cast crammed with Bobby Vee, Joe Brown, Mark Wynter, the Vernons Girls, and various other suitably marketable Pop acts. Based in Stockport at his peak, Karl could be seen driving a big flash red American Chevrolet Impala, enjoying his unlikely celebrity, but although the trio might only have made the back cover of the glossy ‘Pop Weekly’ (no.10), the smartly-suited threesome were never going to be anyone’s Pin-up cover-stars.

The arrival of the Beat Boom found him engaged in a curious chart battle with tattyfilarious comedian Ken Dodd (KD vs KD) over Bill Anderson’s lush Nashville ballad “Still”. With the Beatles “She Loves You” at no.1, he climbed to no.13 with his biggest hit in eighteen months, the sickly-sweetness of its sing-along harmony-choir perhaps legitimized by the song’s country origins. Yet the trio had actually played the ‘Cavern’ (27 March 1963) alongside the Hollies and the Big Three, as well as opening Manchester’s legendary ‘Twisted Wheel’ club. Then the Beatles were the first guests to appear on Karl’s BBC Light Programme show ‘Side By Side’, the Fab Four returning the favour by including him as their special guest on US TV show ‘Shindig’ (7 October 1964), performing “Wimoweh” alongside annoying GoGo dancers.

Complicated by a similar tax-aversion tendency to Doddy, Karl was declared banckrupt in 1966, in 1973 and then again in 1978. And after the mid-1960s, he worked mainly on the cabaret circuit, with guest slots on popular TV show ‘Stars & Garters’ and ‘Wheeltappers & Shunters Club’. Although Kevin Neill was a constant, Gerry Cottrell left the trio towards the end of the 1970s and died 24 November 2006, at Manchester’s Trafford General Hospital. He was replaced by Keith Elliott – who was later drafted into a reformed Bachelors.

Oddly, as the Pet Shop Boys revive Dusty Springfield’s fortunes, Marc Almond was dueting with Gene Pitney, and Sandie Shaw was recording with the Smiths, Karl enjoyed a renewed ripple of celebrity. ‘New Musical Express’ (6 May 1989) reports that Happy Mondays have made him part of their own cult retro. ‘Karlos’ guests on their Factory single, “Lazyitis (One-Armed Boxer)” which samples the original “Wimoweh” and quotes “Ticket To Ride”, he cavorts with Shaun Ryder and Bez live on the ‘G-Mex’ stage (25 March 1990) and in the Mondays’ video for the song, even though he contracts pneumonia during the filming process! And there were two further unique collaborations issued by the iconic Manchester label, “Wimoweh ‘89” and “Indambinigi”, credited to Karl Denver and producer Steve ‘DJ Futuro’ Lima.

He’d journeyed from the primitive Jack Good studio productions at the very dawn of the sixties, through into the realm of Acid-House sequencers and samplers, but low or hi-tech, his power-vocal extremism provides just as distinctive an edge. Now, leaving Madchester behind he returned to country music fare for what was to be his final album, ‘Just Loving You’ (1993), largely made up of affectionate covers glazed in sighing steel guitar. Karl died from a brain tumour, 21 December 1998, a few days after his sixty-seventh birthday, and in the midst of sessions for a further album. The finished tracks were added to an extended re-release of ‘Just Loving You’ titled ‘Movin’ On’ in 1999. Among the final songs he recorded were “I Can’t Go On This Way”, and Burt Bacharach’s “The Story Of My Life”.

His ashes are buried in Stockport Borough cemetery, with a plain wooden marker. Three times married, he had eight children. Karl (who tragically died early) and Jean from his first marriage. Dolian Murdo, Fiona and Victoria from his second marriage to Alma. Justin and Richard from his third marriage to Andrea, and Melanie.

Maybe Karl Denver was not exactly a hero of early British Rock ‘n’ Roll, but at a time when heroes were scarce, he provided a hugely entertaining distraction…


 22 June 1961 – ‘Marcheta’ c/w ‘Joe Sweeney’ (Decca F 11360), no.8, revival of Victor Schertzinger’s 1912 ballad. Gerry Cottrell explains how the record was flipped when they couldn’t get the banjo-sound right on ‘Joe Sweeney’

19 October 1961 – ‘Mexicali Rose’ c/w ‘Bonny Scotland’ (Decca F 11395), no.8, old-time country song

23 December 1961 – ‘WIMOWEH’ LP (Decca LK 4428, Ace Of Clubs ACL 1098), no.7, with side one: ‘Wimoweh’, ‘China Doll’ (a Slim Whitman song), ‘Open Up Dem Pearly Gates’, ‘Shin Gan Goo’ (what Karl describes as a Chinese song), ‘Mexicali Rose’, ‘Vella Langa’. Side two: ‘Zimba’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘Blue Yodel (T For Texas)’, ‘If I Had My Way’, ‘Marcheta’ and ‘The Peanut Vendor’

25 January 1962 – ‘Wimoweh’ c/w ‘Gypsy Davy’ (Decca F 11420), no.4 (no.3 in ‘NME’), lifted from the LP as Tokens ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ reaches no.11 18 January 1962, and then overtakes it!

22 February 1962 – ‘Never Goodbye’ c/w ‘Highland Fling’ (Decca F 11431), no.9, ballad written by Jimmy Kennedy

1962 – ‘KARL DENVER’ LP (Ace Of Clubs ACL 1131) ‘The songs on his LPs display the wide ranges of his voice and repertoire… a mysterious version of ‘She Moved Thro’ the Fair’, the standard ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ and an invigorating treatment of the Irish folk song ‘Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion’ (Spencer Leigh’s ‘Independent’ obit) plus ‘Canoe Song’ (sung by Paul Robeson in ‘Sanders Of The River’), ‘Careless Love’, ‘Silver And Gold’, ‘O’Brian The Brave Engineer’, ‘Walk On Boy’, ‘Sierra Sue’, ‘Weary Blues’, ‘Far Away’, ‘Highland Fling’. Although he preferred the Karl Denver Trio billing, the label always insist on separate credits as Karl Denver, Kevin Neill and Jerry Cottrell

7 June 1962 – ‘A Little Love A Little Kiss’ c/w ‘Lonely Sailor’ (Decca F 11470), no.19, a French song popularized in 1914 by Irish tenor John McCormack

1962 – ‘BY A SLEEPY LAGOON’ EP (Decca DFE8501) with ‘Sleepy Lagoon’, ‘Lonesome Traveller, ‘Snow Shoes Thompson’ and ‘Just For A While’, EP chart no.2 

20 September 1962 – ‘Blue Weekend’ c/w ‘My Mother’s Eyes’ (Decca F 11505), no.33, another Jimmy Kennedy song 

1962 – ‘KARL DENVER HITS’ EP (Decca DFE8504) with ‘Marcheta’, ‘Mexicali Rose’, ‘Never Goodbye’ and ‘A Little Love A Little Kiss’, EP chart no.7 

1962 – ‘Pastures of Plenty’ c/w ‘Dry Tears’ (Decca F 11553), Woody Guthrie’s song

21 March 1963 – ‘Can You Forgive Me’ c/w ‘Love From A Heart Of Gold’ (Decca F 11608), no.32 

13 June 1963 – ‘Indian Love Call’ c/w ‘My Melancholy Baby’ (Decca F 11674), no.32, a song taken from 1936 film-musical ‘Rose Marie’, revived by Slim Whitman as a 1952 hit famous for its inclusion in 1996 ‘Mars Attacks’ movie 

22 August 1963 – ‘Still’ c/w ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes’ (Decca F 11720), no.13, cover of Bill Anderson’s Country hit. Oddly, both Karl and Ken Dodd also record Anderson’s ‘Eight By Ten’ 

1963 – ‘KARL DENVER AT THE YEW TREE’ LP (Decca LK 4540), a return to his roots recorded live in the Manchester hostelry while performing in Pantomime at the nearby ‘Palace Theatre’, with ‘Blue Yodel (T For Texas)’, ‘The Long Black Veil’, ‘Kaw-Liga’, ‘Silver And Gold’, ‘Little Dutch Girl’. ‘You Don’t Need Me Anymore’, ‘Going Going Gone’, ‘Can You Forgive Me’, ‘Indian Love Call’, ‘You Win Again’ (Hank Williams), ‘I’m Satisfied With My Girl’, ‘My Melancholy Baby’, ‘Bless You’, ‘Only The Heartaches’ (prospecting song based on ‘The Streets Of Laredo’, also recorded by Houston Wells with Joe Meek), ‘Love From A Heart Of Gold’, ‘Wimoweh’ 

5 March 1964 – ‘My World of Blue’ c/w ‘The Green Grass Grows All Round’ (Decca F 11828), no.29, written by Ivor Raymonde and Mike Hawker

4 June 1964 – ‘Love Me With All Your Heart’ c/w ‘Am I That Easy To Forget?’ (Decca F 11905), no.37, ‘B’-side will later be a hit for Engelbert Humperdinck 

1964 – ‘Sally’ c/w ‘Swanee River’ (Decca F 12025), ill-judged revival of Gracie Fields song, which Gerry Munroe would replicate into the charts soon after 

1964 – ‘WITH LOVE’ LP (Decca LK 4596) with ‘Love Walked In’, ‘A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening/ Try A Little Tenderness’, ‘Harbour Lights’ (Hank Williams), ‘I Forgot What It Was Like (Bacharach), ‘My World Of Blue’, ‘Can I Forget You’, ‘Mistakes’, ‘Have I Told You Lately’, ‘Eight By Ten’, ‘I Can’t Get Over What You Got Over Me’, ‘Still’, ‘I Can’t Help It’ (Hank Williams), ‘Am I That Easy To Forget’. ‘Jealous’, ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ 

May 1965 – ‘Cry A Little Sometimes’ c/w ‘Today Will Be Yesterday Tomorrow’ (Mercury MF878), ‘NME’ reviews is as ‘a sob-in-the-throat treatment of a wistful rockaballad’ 

1965 – ‘Marta’ c/w ‘I’ll Never Forget To Remember’ (Mercury MF904), with Tijuana-style horns 

1965 – ‘The Tips Of My Fingers’ c/w ‘I’m Alone Because I Love You’ (Mercury MF926) 

1966 – ‘Big Show 1966’ summer-season at Great Yarmouth with Gerry & the Pacemakers, Silkie, and Karl Denver Trio

April 1968 – ‘You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart’ c/w ‘I Still Miss Someone’ (Page One POF063) 

May 1969 – ‘Wimoweh’ c/w ‘Never Goodbye’ (Decca F 12928) 

1989 – ‘Wimoweh 89’ c/w ‘Wimoweh Instrumental’ (Factory FAC 228), in 7” and 12” format 

9 June 1990 – ‘Lazyitis: One Armed Boxer’ (Factory FAC 222), no.46, as Happy Mondays & Karl Denver. 7” and 12” formats c/w Mondays only ‘Mad Cyril’ and ‘Hello Girls’ 

August 1990 – ‘Indambinigi’ (Factory FAC 278) one-off Karl Denver 12” collaboration with Steve Lima made up of ‘Zimba’ and ‘Shengali’ 

October 1999 – ‘MOVIN’ ON’ LP (Plaza), posthumously reissued and expanded version of his 1993 ‘Just Loving You’ LP, with ‘Just Loving You’, ‘Song For Maria’, ‘Won`t Give Up’, ‘From A Jack To A King’ (Ned Miller’s lyrics amended), ‘Garden Party’, ‘I Can`t Stop Loving You’, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ (Johnny Duncan’s Skiffle hit), ‘King Of The Road’, ‘Walk On By’, ‘Runaway’ (Del Shannon song), ‘A Little Bitty Tear’, ‘Traveling Light’ (Cliff Richard hit), ‘The Answer To Everything’ (Del Shannon song), ‘The Story Of My Life’ plus a November 1990 Plaza single ‘Voices Of The Highlands’ (martial drumming and pipes on Roberto Danova’s paean to Scotland c/w Karl’s own song ‘Kaya’, PZA 064) 

A nostalgic grab-bag of rare Karl Denver images: 


Gerald (SK14) said...

Not sure if memory is right or not but wasn't the B-side of Wimoweh a song with lyrics that went "Son don't go near the Indians, please do what I say?" or was that "Indian Love Call"?

Dave Robinson said...

I saw Karl at a "Wheeltappers and Shunters" kind of venue in Benidorm in the early 90's as I was curious after reading about his Happy Mondays connection.
Playing to a small crowd in a smoke filled room, Karl entertained the audience of mainly "70 something's" with a repertoire that had probably hardly changed in the past 30 years.
Despite being well in his 60's, Karl hit all the high notes,and introduced each song with a little story and a couple of jokes. There's some footage of his Benidorm shows on You Tube and he looks older than his years, but I suppose it can't have helped, having had 2 bankruptcies, 3 failed marriages, and 8 children!

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Victoria said...

Happy birthday dad. We miss you so much xx