Martin Denny And The Evolution Of Exotica

denny2On at least two earlier posts on the GMC we featured a type of music known as Exotica. It seems only right to take some time to explore the genre a little, first by trying to define it and then by showcasing the guy who was sometimes called the ‘Father of Exotica’.

You could say that Exotica actually got its start in 1957 when Martin Denny and his combo filled an album with music that he described as “a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient…what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like…it’s pure fantasy though”. He called the album Exotica, and both it and the hit single “Quiet Village” struck gold with a generation of listeners who liked to imagine they were being transported to alluring tropical locales.

A multi-talented instrumentalist, Denny started as a classically trained pianist, but as he began his career in the 1930’s he was exposed to a different kind of music when he spent several years working clubs in South America with a small touring group led by Don Dean. He was intrigued by the Latin music and its mesmerizing rhythms, and he began to collect exotic instruments, often using them on stage with the band. After returning to the states and finding work in various musical ensembles, he didn’t forget what he’d discovered.

After spending time in the Army Air Force during World War II, Denny moved to Los Angeles in the post-war years and split his time between playing in several different bands while also continuing to study music. By the early 1950’s he was ready for something new, and it came in the form of an dennyinvitation from the colorful Don the Beachcomber to lead a group and perform onstage at his famous tiki bar in Honolulu. It was the perfect setting for Denny to veer toward exotic musical sounds, and when he moved on to a gig at the Hawaiian Village Beach Resort he continued to refine his sound.

Denny’s group varied in personnel, at times featuring artists like vibraphonist Arthur Lyman, who would later move on to a solo career. Denny’s combo occasionally worked back on the mainland, but it was in Hawaii that the final inspiration for Exotica occurred. So the story goes, the club they were playing had a tropical setting, complete with nearby water, rocks, and plants. . .and a few frogs. One night Denny noticed that the frogs croaked when the music played and stopped when the musicians did. They began having fun with it and band members even added other tropical sounds, like exotic birds. Denny realized he had something, and when he added the sound effects to “Quiet Village”, a Les Baxter song they’d been performing, Exotica was born. (Baxter’s original was comparatively tame, but he was experimenting on other songs, using electronic synthesizers to mimic futuristic sounds.)

Martin Denny would go on to have a long career, spending more than three decades as a successful recording artist and bandleader before retiring in the 1990’s. Among his most memorable hits were “Ebb Tide” in the Exotica style, and “A Taste of Honey”, on which he showcased his keyboarding skills with a more conventional approach. He was 93 when he died in 2005.

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