Donovan is a sometimes forgotten figure in today’s music world, but during the 1960s many ranked him second only to Bob Dylan in the pantheon of folk poets. His series of hit singles and successful albums made him a superstar during the second half of the decade
His mystical prose, for want of a better definition, and quiet music explored the gentle side of the violent sixties. His place in the upper echelon of folk artists and troubadours made him a 60s icon.
He released his Greatest Hits album during 1969 at the height of his popularity. It was the most successful album release of his career in the United States, reaching number four on the Billboard’s Pop Album Chart.
The original album gathered together 11 of his best known tracks including the number one hit “Sunshine Superman” and the number two “Mellow Yellow.” The CD reissue included such extra hits as “Atlantis,” “Barabajagal,” and “Riki Tiki Tavi.” The problem with some of the CDs was “Colours” and “Catch The Wind” were re-recorde; “Sunshine Superman” was a different length; and the sound was spotty in places, so beware. Despite these problems, the album remains the best short overview of his music and career.
His early, pre-superstar days are represented by “Colours,” “Josie,” and “Catch The Wind,” but for some unknown reason there was no “Universal Soldier.” These simple folk songs were part of his early career and have held up well down through the years.
The meat of the album was his psychedelic folk hits. “Sunshine Superman” was the perfect song for a summer day back in 1966, and Jimmy Page’s guitar work is often overlooked. Many have guessed at the meaning of “Mellow Yellow’s” lyrics, including the use of vibrators and smoking bananas, which added to the song’s charm. It had an addictive percussion, Paul McCartney’s backing vocal, and Donovan’s whispers, which made it memorable. “Epistle To Dippy” was actually a peace song if you sift through the psychedelic imagery. There really was a “Dippy” to whom the song was dedicated, and he survived his time in the service. “Jennifer Juniper” made use of such instruments as a flute, oboe, and bassoon. It was written for Jenny Boyd, sister of Patti, who married and divorced Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
One of the treats was the inclusion of “Season Of The Witch.” It was an album track on an album of singles and was one of the few true rock songs of his career. Al Kooper and Stephen Stills released a definitive 11-minute version on their Super Session album. Donovan’s original was simpler but it contains one of the best vocal performances of his career.
Some of the material may have aged a bit, but that’s OK. At its worst Greatest Hits was whimsical fun. At its best, it was well-produced, and contained creative music from a bygone era that is still worth a listen now and then.