Obituary: Karl Denver

Spencer Leigh
Wednesday 20 January 1999 01:02 GMT

TO MANY people, Karl Denver was a novelty performer, known for his octave-spanning acrobatics on the 1962 hit "Wimoweh".

But he was also a versatile singer and acoustic guitarist and he chose good songs irrespective of their sources - turn-of-the-century ballads, music-hall favourites and contemporary pop songs as well as folk, country and rock'n'roll material. With the exception of Lonnie Donegan, no other artist in the early 1960s worked from such a broad base. And, like Donegan, Denver had such a distinctive voice that whatever he sang automatically became his own. For a start, how many other pop singers of the day could yodel?

He was born Angus Murdo Mckenzie, in Glasgow, in 1932. He left school at 14 and embarked on a decade of wanderlust and adventure. First he joined the Scandinavian Mercantile Marine as a deckhand and was soon travelling the world. He practised the guitar and entertained his shipmates. Next he went into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was wounded during the Korean War. Then he returned to the sea. He was such a tough, hard-living character that the Rhodesians gave him the nickname "Boaty Maseteno", meaning "brother of Satan".

Still only 21, he jumped ship in America and played in clubs in Tennessee and Denver. He befriended the country singers Faron Young and Lefty Frizzell and became the first British performer to play on the Grand Ole Opry radio show. In 1956, he was offered a management and recording contract, but, as he said, "I was asked to sign up, but I had to do the bump as I shouldn't have been there in the first place."

He returned to the UK and settled in Blackburn, Lancashire, where he renamed himself Karl Denver. He said, "I had a son called Karl who was killed and I thought I would keep his name. For a time I lived in Fort Collins in Colorado and I thought Denver was a good place, so I became Karl Denver."

Soon he was established around the Lancashire clubs and pubs, notably the Yew Tree in Manchester, and the television producer Jack Good offered him work on a new ITV series, Wham! Good also produced Denver's records for Decca; with two excellent musicians, the guitarist Kevin Neill from the Joe Loss Orchestra and the bassist Jerry Cottrell, the Karl Denver Trio was formed.

The highlight of Denver's act was a fiery version of a Zulu chant, "Wimoweh", which he claimed to have learnt in Africa. However, it had been recorded in 1952 by the Weavers featuring Pete Seeger and Denver's version is clearly based on this. Decca recorded "Wimoweh" at the end of Denver's first session but decided that it was too bizarre to release as his first single.

Instead they selected "Marcheta", a revival of a 1912 ballad. Denver didn't mind. "The lyrics were beautiful, but it was my range that grabbed the people. It was a hell of a range that I did it in." The press release from June 1961 says, "A pint-sized Scot with a king-sized yodel and a siren voice that packs the power of a hurricane blows onto the disc world this week." Denver, conscious of his size, was one of the first performers to wear Cuban heels.

"Marcheta" made No 8 on the charts, as did his second single, a revival of an old-time country song, "Mexicali Rose". Around this time, quite independently, an American doo-wop group called the Tokens had alighted on "Wimoweh" and added some lyrics, calling it "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". It made the US charts and started to gain popularity in Britain. Denver's fans in Manchester organised a petition for Decca to release "Wimoweh" as a single. Although "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was already in the charts, Denver's version was so electrifying that it stormed past the Tokens to reach No 4 in March 1962.

Denver's first album, also called Wimoweh, reached the Top Ten. The songs on his LPs display the wide ranges of his voice and repertoire. There was the knockabout "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes", 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 Lasses From Bannion".

Denver, an experienced man in his late twenties, found himself touring on package shows with the teen idols of the day. He would supplement his income by playing roulette with the adolescent stars. He admitted later, "They thought I was a boozer and a ne'er-do-well. I was always in the pub across the road when the bus was about to go." Once, when the musicians could not afford a meal, he went into a field and brought them back some turnips.

Another musician, Clinton Ford, recalls, "He could be a pest at times, but I really liked the guy. We were playing together at the Yew Tree pub in Manchester and there was a girl magician on the bill. She produced a chihuahua out of a doll's house, and Karl was always annoying the dog, trying to disrupt the act. I was so pleased when the dog bit his finger that I went and bought the dog a drink."

In 1962, Denver hoped to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, but he felt a little intimidated - "Everybody else had big orchestras and I was just a wee Glaswegian standing in the middle of a big stage." Although Ronnie Carroll won the UK nomination with the ludicrous "Ring A Ding Girl", Denver had a Top Ten hit with "Never Goodbye", a fine ballad by the veteran composer Jimmy Kennedy.

Denver can be seen in the pop film Just For Fun (1963) and he hosted the BBC Light Programme's series, Side By Side, working in three programmes with the Beatles. Sadly, he found hit records hard to come by once the Mersey Beat boom had started. However, the Beatles viewed him kindly and had him as their special guest on the US television show Shindig.

In 1963 Denver and Ken Dodd both covered the same US country song, Bill Anderson's "Still". Denver recalled, "I was at Manchester Airport flying out, and Ken Dodd was in front of me. I went up behind him and started sing-ing `Still' in a silly voice. He said, `Bloody hell, it's you. You've not done it very well, have you?' "

In 1964 Denver returned to his roots for a live album, Karl Denver at the Yew Tree, which many see as his best work. It was recorded during the day while he was in pantomime at night at the Palace Theatre, Manchester.

He saw no reason to pay his tax demands and was declared bankrupt in 1966 and then again in 1973. The courts took a dim view of his third bankruptcy, in 1978, and he was told, "You must be shown that court orders have teeth. Otherwise, you will cock a snook at authority ad infinitum." A few years later he told me, "I've had three wives, God bless 'em and keep 'em, because I certainly can't."

Retaining Kevin Neill in his Trio, Denver returned to performing in cabaret and in the back rooms of pubs. He played summer seasons and had some success in Jersey. In 1982 Tight Fit topped the charts with a revival of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" but Denver failed to grasp this opportunity to re- establish his career. In 1989 he was teamed with one of Manchester's leading groups, Happy Mondays, for "Lazyitis", a curious record which rewrote the Beatles' "Ticket To Ride", and although the single made the Top Fifty, Denver contracted pneumonia whilst filming the video.

In 1993 he released what was to be his final album, Just Loving You, aimed at the country music market. He missed almost as many notes as he hit and although he burnt up musical energy on stage, he was a frail man whose condition was made no better through heavy drinking. The final song he recorded was Burt Bacharach's "The Story of My Life".

Angus Murdo Mckenzie (Karl Denver), singer: born Glasgow 16 December 1932; three times married (two sons, and one son deceased); died Manchester 21 December 1998.

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