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Endless Summer

Martin Denny

Daniel Krall
Martin Denny

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/28/2005

An eerie whistle announces a lumbering left-hand piano ostinato, soon joined by echoing bird and monkey calls and plummy right-hand chords right out of Rachmaninoff. As the monkeys hoot and hand percussion percolates discreetly in the background, you are transported to a balmy tropical beach, palms rustling in the ocean breeze as flickers from the first torches of the evening replace the golden light of the sinking sun. You are a long way from Formica-topped suburban Eisenhower America, and you’re OK with that. Martin Denny’s instrumental “Quiet Village” has done its job.

Denny didn’t originate his biggest hit; composer/bandleader Les Baxter penned “Quiet Village” and more than a dozen other numbers that Denny adopted as his own. It’s what Denny did with the tunes he tackled that made his name beyond the clubs of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach. Denny emphasized ethereal melodies, beefed up the rhythms, highlighted little-known and weird-sounding percussion instruments from around the world, and added the occasional bird or monkey call. Denny titled his 1957 debut album Exotica, an apt description of an atmospheric sound that fertilized the then-blossoming tiki craze and generally helped loosen post-war Middle America’s ties, girdles, and other inhibitions.

Born in 1911 in New York, the classically trained Denny was such a musical prodigy that he spent several years as a youth touring Latin American with a six-piece band, picking up a yen for Latin grooves. In 1954, he moved from Los Angeles to Honolulu to lead a small combo at Waikiki nightclubs such as Don the Beachcomber’s and the Shell Bar. His group was tiny, highlighted by Denny on piano, Augie Colon on percussion, and Arthur Lyman on vibraphone. With no horns or singer, plenty of open space in the arrangements, and an audience of sozzled vacationers who proved indulgent of experiments, Denny tinkered with the standard lounge fare by perking up soporific Polynesian dreaminess with his beloved Latin rhythms and percussion.

One night in 1956, as Denny often recounted, the band noticed that frogs from a pond near the open-air Shell Bar bandstand croaked along when they played a certain number and stopped when they stopped. The band played the tune again and, goofing on their amphibious accompanists, the musicians started making mock bird calls. No one thought anything more about it until the next day a fan asked, “Mr. Denny, you know that song you did with the birds and the frogs? Could you do that again?” Within three years, Denny had a Billboard Top 10 pop single with “Quiet Village,” Exotica had reached No. 1 on the charts, and his music had soundtracked thousands of baby-boomer egg-and-sperm rendezvous.

The titles of follow-ups such as Forbidden Island, Hypnotique, and Afro-desia continued to evoke quasi-primitive passions; the sultry cover photos featuring Sandy “the Exotica Girl” Warner didn’t hurt sales either. But Denny varied his literal bells-and-whistles musical formula enough to avoid total gimmickry. He incorporated more Latin, Polynesian, East Asian, and even African instruments and flavors into his easygoing instrumental pop, and the burgeoning craze for the then-new technology of stereo offered him more ways to tweak his exotic sounds. And just as Baxter inspired Denny, Denny’s group spun off bandleaders Lyman (who briefly rivaled his old boss for the tiki make-out music championship belt) and Julius Wechter, not to mention the Hawaiian-shirted host of unrelated imitators who followed.

The tiki trend eventually faded, as did Denny’s hit-making career, but the sun never really set on the exotica concept. Denny’s naive experiments with nonmusical sounds made him an unlikely touchstone for industrial act Throbbing Gristle, and it’s not tough to hear Denny’s bird calls, evocative soundscapes, and smooth grooves in the early work of electronic artists such as Future Sound of London and Mouse on Mars. And, of course, a whole new generation of musicians and listeners discovered the kitschy pleasures of Denny’s music for themselves during a full-on tiki-culture/lounge revival in the ’90s—a re-appreciation a still-performing Denny was around to enjoy from his home on Oahu. He sailed off into the sunset March 3 at age 93.

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