Martin Denny (April 10, 1911 ‒ March 2, 2005) was an American piano-player and composer best known as the "father of exotica." In a long career that saw him performing well into the 1980s, he toured the world popularizing his brand of lounge music which included exotic percussion, imaginative rearrangements of popular songs, and original songs that celebrated Tiki culture.
Denny was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. He studied classical piano and toured South America for four and a half years in the 1930s with the Don Dean Orchestra. This tour began Denny's fascination with Latin rhythms. Denny collected a large number of ethnic instruments from all over the world, which he used to spice up his stage performances.
After serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Denny returned to Los Angeles, in 1945 where he studied piano and composition under Dr. Wesley La Violette and orchestration under Arthur Lange at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. He later studied at the University of Southern California.
In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought Denny to Honolulu, for a two-week engagement. He stayed to form his own combo in 1955, performing under contract at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village on Oahu and soon signing to Liberty Records. The original combo consisted of Augie Colon on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on string bass, and Denny on piano. Lyman soon left to form his own group and future Herb Alpert sideman and Baja Marimba Band founder Julius Wechter replaced him. Harvey Ragsdale later replaced Kramer.
"We traveled a lot on the Mainland, but we came back every 12 weeks because the guys had their families here [in Hawaii]," recalled Denny. In 1955, the musician met his future wife, June, and married her the following year. His daughter, Christina was born a few years later. "I loved the lifestyle and my career was built here," said Denny.
Denny described the music his combo played as "window dressing, a background". He built a collection of strange and exotic instruments with the help of several airline friends. They would bring Denny back these instruments and he would build arrangements around them. His music was a combination of ethnic styles: South Pacific, the Orient and Latin rhythms.
During an engagement at the Shell Bar, Denny discovered what would become his trademark and the birth of "exotica". The bar had a very exotic setting: a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, rocks and palm trees growing around, very quiet and relaxed. As the group played at night, Denny became aware of bullfrogs croaking. The croaking blended with the music and when the band stopped, so did the frogs. He thought it was a coincidence at first, but when he tried the tune again later, the same thing happened. This time, his bandmates began doing all sorts of tropical bird calls as a gag. The band thought it nothing more than a joke. The next day, someone approached Denny and asked if he would do the arrangement with the birds and frogs. He agreed. At rehearsal, he had the band do "Quiet Village" with each doing a bird call spaced apart. Denny did the frog part on a grooved cylinder and the whole thing became incorporated into the arrangement of "Quiet Village". It sold more than one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Art designers always changed her looks to fit the mood of the package. For instance, we called one album with an African sound Afro-desia and Sandy dyed her hair blond for the photo session; she's seen against a background of colorful African masks. When we did Hypnotique, which is surrealistic, she had dark hair. For Primitiva, she was photographed standing waist-deep in water.
The Exotica album was recorded in December 1956 and released in 1957. In 1958, Dick Clark hosted Denny on American Bandstand. "Quiet Village" reached #2 on Billboard's charts in 1959 with the Exotica album reaching #1. He rode the charts of Cashbox and Variety also. Denny had as many as three or four albums on the charts simultaneously during his career. He had national hits with "A Taste of Honey", "The Enchanted Sea", and "Ebb Tide".
Denny died in Honolulu on March 2, 2005, aged 93. Following a private memorial service, his ashes were scattered at sea.
Former Psychic TV member Fred Gianelli released an album in 1991 entitled Fred; the second track on that album is entitled "Mr. Denny". The song is an instrumental tribute to Martin Denny and features excerpts of an interview with him. The interview appears to have been recorded sometime in 1990 or '91, because he mentions the release of Exotica 90, which was released in 1990.
Martin Denny's recordings are prominently featured in the 1999 film Breakfast of Champions, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel. This is primarily because the car dealership featured in the film is having a Hawaiian-based promotion.
Denny's music is a recurring theme in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, where his music is always playing on the jukebox in the Bamboo House of Dolls, "LA's only punk tiki bar" and the favorite bar of main character James Stark aka Sandman Slim.
- Exotica, Liberty LRP-3034 (mono) (1957)
- Exotica, Liberty LST-7034 (stereo) (1958) - re-recorded for stereo with Julius Wechter replacing Arthur Lyman
- Exotica Vol.2, Liberty LRP-3077/LST-7006 (1958)
- Forbidden Island, Liberty LRP-3081/LST-7001 (1958)
- Primitiva, Liberty LRP-3087/LST-7023 (1958)
- Hypnotique, Liberty LRP-3102/LST-7102 (1959)
- Afro-Desia, Liberty LRP-3111/LST-7111 (1959)
- Exotica Volume III, Liberty LRP-3116/LST-7116 (1959)
- Quiet Village: The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, Liberty LRP-3122/LST-7122 (1959)
- The Enchanted Sea, Liberty LRP-3141/LST-7141 (1960)
- Exotic Sounds from the Silver Screen, Liberty LRP-3158/LST-7158 (1960)
- Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway, Liberty LRP-3163/LST-7163 (1960)
- Exotic Percussion, Liberty LRP-3168/LST-7168 (1961)
- Romantica, Liberty LRP-3207/LST-7207 (1961)
- Martin Denny in Person, Liberty LRP-3224/LST-7224 (1962)
- A Taste of Honey, Liberty LRP-3237/LST-7237 (1962)
- Exotica Suite, Liberty LSS-14020 (1962)
- Maryland Club's Golden Moments, MC-2 (1962)
- Another Taste of Honey, Liberty LRP-3277/LST-7277 (1963)
- The Versatile Martin Denny, Liberty LRP-3307/LST-7307 (1963)
- A Taste of Hits, Liberty LRP-3328/LST-7328 (1964)
- Latin Village, Liberty LRP-3378/LST-7378 (1964)
- Hawaii Tattoo, Liberty LRP-3394/LST-7394 (1964)
- Spanish Village, Liberty LRP-3409/LST-7409 (1965)
- 20 Golden Hawaiian Hits, Liberty LRP-3415/LST-7415 (1965)
- Martin Denny!, Liberty LRP-3438/LST-7438 (1966)
- Hawaii Goes A Go-Go, Liberty LRP-3445/LST-7445 (1966)
- Exotica Today, Liberty LRP-3465/LST-7465 (1966)
- Golden Greats, Liberty LRP-3467/LST-7467 (1966)
- Hawaii, Liberty LRP-3488/LST-7488 (1966)
- Paradise Moods, Liberty/Sunset SUM-1102/SUS-5102 (1966)
- Exotica Classica, Liberty LRP-3513/LST-7513 (1967)
- A Taste of India, Liberty LRP-3550/LST-7550 (1968)
- Exotic Love, Liberty LRP-3585/LST-7585 (1968)
- Exotic Moog, Liberty LRP-3621/LST-7621 (1969)
- Sayonara, Liberty/Sunset SUM-5169/SUS-5169 (1970)
- Exotic Night, Liberty/Sunset SUM-5199/SUS-5199 (1970)
- From Maui with Love, First American FA-7743 (1980)
- The Enchanted Isle, Liberty LN-10195 (1982)
- Exotica '90, Toshiba EMI/Insideout TOCP-6160 (1990)
Compilations & Reissues
- The Best of Martin Denny, Liberty LX-5502 (1961) (compilation)
- The Very Best of Martin Denny, United Artists UA-LA383-E (1975) (compilation)
- The Exotic Sounds: The Very Best of Martin Denny, EMI Manhattan (Japan) CP32-5657 (1989) (compilation)
- Paradise, Pair PCD-2-1267 (1990) (compilation)
- Exotica!: The Best of Martin Denny, Rhino R2-70774 (1990) (compilation)
- The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, Capitol (1990) (compilation)
- Enchanted Islands, CEMA Special Products S21-56638 (1993) (compilation)
- Quiet Village: The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, Curb D2-77685 (1994) (compilation)
- Exotic Moog (Martin Denny) / Moog Rock (Les Baxter), Electronic Vanguard EV-906-2 (1995) (bootleg reissue)
- Afro-Desia, Scamp 9702 (1995) (reissue)
- Bachelor in Paradise: The Best of Martin Denny, Pair (1996) (compilation)
- Exotica/Exotica Vol. II, Scamp 9712 (1996) (reissue)
- Forbidden Island/Primitiva, Scamp 9713 (1996) (reissue)
- Hypnotique/Exotica III, Scamp 9714 (1997) (reissue)
- Quiet Village/Enchanted Sea, Scamp 9715 (1997) (reissue)
- Baked Alaska, Collector's Choice Music CCM-393-2 (2003) (live in 1964)
- The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, Rev-Ola (2004) (compilation)
- Exotica, Rev-Ola (2005) (reissue)
- Exotica Vol. 2, Rev-Ola (2005) (reissue)
- Hypnotique, Rev-Ola (2005) (reissue)
- Primitiva, Rev-Ola (2005) (reissue)
- Forbidden Island, Rev-Ola (2006) (reissue)
- Quiet Village, Rev-Ola (2006) (reissue)
- Exotica III, Rev-Ola (2006) (reissue)
- Afro-Desia, Rev-Ola (2006) (reissue)
- Latin Village, Toshiba EMI (Japan) (2006) (reissue)
- The Best of Martin Denny's Exotica, Capitol (2006) (compilation)
- Hypnotique, Vivid Sound (Japan) (2007) (reissue)
- Hypnotique, Hallmark (2015) (reissue, non-Sandy Warner cover)
- Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (2001). All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide To Popular Music, 4th Edition. Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-87930-627-4.
- Lee III, William F. (2006). American Big Bands. Hal Leonard. ISBN 978-0-634-08054-8.
- Hayward, Philip (1999). Widening the Horizon: Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music. John Libbey Publishing. p. 174. ISBN 978-1-86462-047-4.
- Griffith, Lesa (2003-10-01). "Passing the Tiki Torch: Local collective Don Tiki bows to big kahuna Martin Denny". Honolulu Weekly. Archived from the original on 2003-10-12. Retrieved 2010-04-12.
- "Studies with LaViolette". DownBeat. DownBeat (1958 Vol 25).
- Rosen, Craig (1996). The Billboard Book of Number One Albums: The Inside Story Behind Pop Music's Blockbuster Records. Billboard Books. p. 1955. ISBN 978-0-8230-7586-7.
- Lanza, Joseph (2004). Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong. University of Michigan Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-472-08942-0.
- Exotica! The Best of Martin Denny (CD). Rhino Records. R2 70774.
- Harada, Wayne (March 4, 2005). "Martin Denny — The Sound of Exotica". Honolulu Advertiser.
- Wadey, Paul (March 7, 2005). "Father of Exotica". The Independent-UK.
- "Martin Denny-Quiet Village on Hawaii Calls". YouTube. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
- Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London, UK: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 112. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
- "Memorial, Martin Denny". Find A Grave. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
- Lewis, John (3 July 2008). "John Lewis meets the trio that is Yellow Magic Orchestra". Theguardian.com. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
- "The Essential... Yellow Magic Orchestra". Factmag.com. 22 January 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
- "Fred Giannelli - Fred". Discogs. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
- The Temple of Martin Denny
- Martin Denny at Weirdomusic.com
- 1997 interview with Denny
- Martin Denny Interview - NAMM Oral History Library (2003)