Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, was born on 6 January 1947 in Worple Road, Wimbledon. She would forever be known as Sandy.
Her mother and father, Neil and Edna, were loving if traditional, parents who expected their children to do well at school and encouraged them to play instruments. Sandy was a natural at the piano, able to play set pieces from memory.
Yet she developed a deep mistrust of teachers, possibly, says her father after one of them punished her arbitrarily for being “so good”.
Fiercely loyal to friends, she irritated her headmistress by always taking the blame for errant classmates.
At home Neil Denny loved settling down by the gramophone, and had a large collection of classical music; Gilbert and Sullivan, the traditional songs of his Scottish heritage, Fats Waller and The Ink Spots.
When the ’60s arrived, the family kept abreast of pop, though the teenaged Sandy ignored her father’s protests about Bob Dylan‘s “horrible, grating voice”. She was fascinated by Dylan’s words and how he phrased them and she was moved to pick up her brother’s guitar.
Forced to drop music after a dispute with the teacher, she passed her art A-Level and won a scholarship to Kingston School Of Art. But her parents had more traditional ambitions for their daughter, so she left grammar school a term early and took some casual nursing work at the Brompton Chest Hospital in Fulham.
She hated it. She found caring for the sick too stressful and came to dread walking through the subterranean corridor that led past the mortuary. Working in a chest hospital didn’t stop her smoking, either. “I needed to smoke to steady my nerves,” she later recalled.
In the autumn of 1965, shortly after taking up her college place, Sandy visited The Barge, a floating folk club moored by the Thames in Kingston. She came away convinced she could sing better than anyone on the bill.
The next week, she plucked up courage and returned to the club with her guitar. “My mouth went dry and I could hardly sing,” she recalled some years later, “but when I came off and everybody applauded I knew I’d always want to do it.”
Stage fright never left her. Nevertheless, she started singing regularly at folk venues like Bunjie’s coffee bar, Les Cousins and the John Snow pub in Soho.
Fellow folk-scene debutante Philippa Clare recalls that back then “if you had three chords and long hair you were a folk singer.”
Although Sandy’s repertoire was limited – Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger songs and a few stand-bys concerning trains and hobos – her warm, sparkling voice set her apart from the ranks of Joan Baez and Julie Felix impersonators.
Soon an agent named Sandy Glennon was booking her for about £15 a night, and Sandy quit her foundation course to devote herself to singing.
American singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank lived in a South Kensington house with his compatriot Paul Simon and British singer Al Stewart. Frank had a reputation as the intense young beatnik about town. He and Sandy began dating.
It was a tough initiation in love. Sandy adored the truculent Frank and his songs – which she began including in her sets – but he was demanding and had aggressive moods (he was later treated for schizophrenia). When he started taking hard drugs, the relationship fizzled, but Sandy continued to sing his songs Blues Run The Game and – perhaps aware of the irony – You Never Wanted Me.
During a residency at the Deane Arms in South Ruislip, she met folk stalwarts Alex Campbell and John Renbourn. In November 1966, Campbell invited Sandy to join him on a session for the BBC World Service show A Cellarful Of Folk, where she sang Green Grow The Laurels.
The connection led, early the following year, to her first recordings, singing on a session divided between two albums: Alex Campbell & Friends and Sandy & Johnny with the Johnny Silvo Folk Group.
Her solo debut was the traditional song The False Bride, Campbell introducing her as “a new young singer who has something to say.” As she bonded with such road-hardened players, the new young singer discovered a taste for the folk scene’s other favourite pursuit. Sandy learned to drink.
“Sandy on the brandy” became a familiar sight in London’s nightspots – at the Speakeasy, Mario the maitre d’ kept a bottle behind the bar for her. She was a life-force, always dragging her friends out of bed to dance the night away, paying for cabs, sending them off for a good time.
Down the UFO Club Sandy got chatting with one of its prime movers, a handsome, 24-year-old Bostonian who’d developed a love for English music: Joe Boyd. She invited him to see her at Les Cousins.
Boyd recalls thinking her performance was too much in the modern singer-songwriter vein, “the cheesier end of folk.” But he couldn’t ignore that voice. A few days later in the street he ran into Sandy with a test-pressing of the album she’d recorded in Copenhagen with The Strawbs. Joe invited her to his Bayswater flat to hear it.
The buzz about Sandy was growing. She’d been headlining at The Troubadour since December 1966, covered several times in Melody Maker‘s folk pages by writer Karl Dallas, had appeared on Alex Campbell’s My Kinda Folk TV show and played a major anti-Vietnam benefit in Rotterdam.
Sandy joined Fairport Convention. One of the lads, Sandy was quite at home on the road, on the stage and in the pub afterwards. Indeed, Joe Boyd has said that when he heard she’d joined he was concerned she might be a corrupting influence on his young charges.
Sandy’s first Fairport album, What We Did On Our Holidays, opened with one of her own compositions, Fotheringay, its melody taken from an earlier song – possibly her first – Box Full Of Treasures, the new lyric inspired by a book about Mary Queen Of Scots.
With the lovely, hymnal Book Song, the blues-rocker Mr Lacey, covers of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, She Moves Through The Fair and Richard’s stirring song of friendship, Meet On The Ledge, What We Did On Our Holidays was a strong record, but clearly the work of a group pulling in several directions.
Singer Ian Matthews wasn’t as taken with folk as the others and left early in 1969. The new quintet with Sandy taking most of the leads was quickly accepted by the fans.
While rehearsing for the follow-up to Holidays, the Fairports would drop by Elektra Records and hang out with Eclection, a pioneering electric folk band featuring aristocratic Norwegian, George Kajanus (later of Sailor) and a tall, red-headed, deep-voiced Australian, Trevor Lucas. Sandy fell deeply in love with him.
Fairport Convention and Eclection shared a bill at Mothers in Birmingham on 12 May 1969. After the show, Sandy chose to return to London in Trevor’s Hillman Hunter. The decision probably saved her life. Fairport’s driver fell asleep at the wheel and their Transit van somersaulted off the M1, scattering the band and gear across the motorway.
After Martin’s funeral and Ashley’s discharge from hospital, a band meeting decided that the old Fairport was finished. They opted to work on a brand new repertoire. Joe Boyd compiled Unhalfbricking from the songs completed before the crash, among them Autopsy, one of Sandy’s most arcanely compelling songs, set by Richard to an arrangement in 5/8.
Liege & Lief was warmly welcomed. Even the godfather of English folk, A.L. Lloyd, gave the new sound his approval. It remains Fairport’s best-seller and has never been out of print. Critics hosannahed, America beckoned, a world tour was arranged.
At which point, Sandy left the band. She wanted to spend more time with Trevor.
The couple had set up home in Chipstead Street, Fulham. They were fervent nest-builders. He would make furniture and cook. She’d decorate and sew, and read P.G. Wodehouse aloud to him as they sat up at night in their waterbed.
Sandy and Trevor gathered former Eclection drummer Gerry Conway, bass player Pat Donaldson and guitarist Jerry Donahue from Poet And The One Man Band. For a few days, they were called Tiger’s Eye. Then they became Fotheringay.
“I’ll never go solo again,” Sandy told Disc gleefully in September 1970. “I’m too happy with bunches of people.”
In the 1970 Melody Maker Poll, Sandy took the rosette for Best Female Singer, and soon afterwards she recorded the performance most rock fans know her by, Battle Of Evermore, a duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin IV.
Fotheringay’s demise in New Year 1971 arose from a misunderstanding between Sandy and Joe Boyd. With Witchseason in financial difficulties and its artists changing and moving on, Boyd accepted an offer to sell the company and take up a new post in the US.
Sandy promptly broke up the group as a way to make him stay. Donaldson and Conway immediately got work with Cat Stevens, and by the time Boyd realised what had happened it was too late for Fotheringay to regroup.
This curious episode clouded Joe and Sandy’s relationship for the rest of her life. Sandy often expressed a wish that Fotheringay had continued.
The search for confidence may have been what moved Sandy briefly to join the Church Of Scientology. She secretly paid the London chapter hundreds of pounds and undertook their “personality tests”. Several sessions in, she became dismayed by ‘The Truth Machine’, a kind of lie-detector triggered by the pulse rate, realised she’d made a mistake and went home to confess what she’d been up to.
Faced with six-foot-three of enraged, red-headed Australian waving bank statements, the Church capitulated and returned all the cash to Trevor. “He may not be able to read or write very well, but he’s very good with numbers,” Sandy proudly told one friend.
Harbouring ambitions towards production, Trevor saw the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon selling millions and reasoned that Sandy could too. David Denny, who’d been living with the couple in Chipstead Street, gave up his job in civil engineering and became Sandy’s manager, striking a deal with Island that enabled Trevor to produce her next solo album.
Right from the opening track, It’ll Take A Long Time, the result – accessibly titled Sandy – was clearly more focused than its predecessor. Though still broadly in a folk mode, Trevor had modernised the sound and the playing was steadier.
Listen Listen and The Lady were among Sandy’s strongest works, her acapella setting of Richard Farina’s poem The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood was spellbinding, her voice at its most effulgent and other-worldly.
For many fans, Sandy was her best work ever. With a glamorous sleeve portrait by David Bailey, it had all the potential of a hit. But, despite favourable reviews, reasonable promotion and Tony Blackburn improbably making Listen Listen his single of the week on Radio 1, Sandy struggled to sell.
She began to despair to friends of ever finding her niche. Yet her work was attracting some influential fans. Dylan had enjoyed the Fairport versions of his songs. Frank Zappa was an unlikely champion (Frank and Sandy apparently had a fling during one of his London visits), Mama Cass loved her, Lowell George wanted to work with her. The Eagles, particularly Don Henley, were great enthusiasts. Lou Reisner and Pete Townshend cast her as the nurse in their lavish reworking of Tommy (her only gold record) . . .
While she was finishing Sandy, Fairport Convention was falling apart. Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg asked Trevor to join them. He took along Jerry Donahue and Fairport embarked on a world tour.
Forced to go it alone while her husband went off with her old band, Sandy wrote the best songs of her career and unveiled them in America in the spring of 1973.
She took an entourage of two: her brother David in his role as manager, and her chum Miranda Ward (formerly the first female presenter on Radio 1), invited along as assistant, moral support and social lubricant.
In New York, she opened for Genesis at the enormous Philharmonic Hall. In Boston and Denver, she supported Randy Newman. Rumours of her rejoining Fairport began to filter back to the UK when they appeared together at LA’s Troubadour club.
Work on her finest album also began in LA, at A&M studios. Like An Old Fashioned Waltz manages to conjure not only images of nostalgia but its sensations too. In the stirring opener, Solo, Sandy bemoans the lot of the lone performer – using it as a metaphor for the isolation of every human – but also mocking the singer’s self-delusion.
Dark The Night, Carnival and At The End Of The Day summon the dull ache of solitude, the extruded pang of departure, and a yearning to be reunited with a lover at home. Friends gently tells a lapsed friend to get lost. The title song simply lays out nostalgia’s clichés: flowers, long-ago summers and ghostly music.
The finest moment, however, is No End, the final song, in which a man pays a mid-winter visit to an old friend, a painter who has given up his vocation.
The snowy setting, the way the story gradually unfurls and the conversational lyrics make it as rich and resonant as a good one-act play. Sandy sings throughout with breathtaking poise. Like Sinatra’s, her phrasing is inimitable.
The album was cautiously received. It was her first without any folk content yet it was barely a rock album. Though the tastefully judged production by Trevor and John Wood was applauded, the two jaunty covers – The Ink Spots’ Whispering Grass and Fats Waller’s Until The Real Thing Comes Along – threatened the mood set down in her own songs and bemused some critics.
Nevertheless, Sandy was justly proud of it, and in anticipation of its October release, played the shows of her life, most notably an appearance at the Howff, a tiny venue in Primrose Hill, on 4 September 1973. The performance was ecstatically received, and not just by the music press.
The Daily Telegraph, a publication not known for hyperbole, declared: “It was one of those happenings that critics dream of but rarely experience, when a good but hitherto erratic singer suddenly takes off, carrying her audience with her on the kind of trip that singing is really all about. It was, in fact, Sandy Denny’s moment of truth . . . In some of her songs tonight, particularly Solo and No End, talent became genius and there were glimpses of depths which few other singers have revealed to us.”
Just a few days beforehand, Sandy and Trevor impulsively set their wedding for Thursday 20 September 1973. Sandy had bought the wedding dress in a flea market and Miranda Ward dyed it green. Trevor went to find a ring, only to be foiled by Wednesday half-day closing, so Miranda lent him one she’d been given by Ginger Baker. Meanwhile, Sandy called her old beau Danny Thompson and asked him to improvise as best man.
Trevor acted as a buffer zone between Sandy and the outside world, but their relationship became increasingly “open’. While not publicly acknowledging tolerance of extramarital affairs, Trevor and Sandy each turned a blind but disapproving eye towards dalliances, which they both indulged in.
Even on tour, one of them might pick up a companion for a few days. Trevor once flew back from Europe with another woman while Sandy returned on the ferry with the rest of the band. They remained devoted, but damage was being done – insidious, corrosive damage that would eventually prove disastrous.
Working with such a couple put a strain on the band. Apart from the politics, there was the problem of assimilating Sandy’s new, post-folk style into their traditional sound.
In the midst of this turmoil, Fairport started work on an album. It felt like make or break. The harder they’d been working, the slimmer the returns; they needed a record that would lift them out of the mire. At Chris Blackwell’s suggestion, they hired Glyn Johns, acclaimed producer of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Eagles, well-known for his discipline in the studio.
Rising For The Moon was cut in two sessions sandwiching another American tour. When they returned, Dave Mattacks left the band, dismayed at their eternal financial struggle. When the LP was not the hit that Fairport needed, Island finally dropped them.
Jerry Donahue decided to leave the band and Trevor and Sandy followed.
In the winter of ’75/’76 she wrote the material for another solo album, Rendezvous, which was recorded the following Spring. In interviews a year later when it was finally released, Sandy insisted that the enforced break had been very useful.
When Rendezvous finally emerged in the summer of 1977, it was the usual mixed bag, stunning tracks like I Wish I Was A Fool For You (a Richard Thompson song), One Way Donkey Ride and I’m A Dreamer (a superb, one-take performance), offset by cheesy covers like Candle In The Wind.
Rendezvous sounded rather fusty in the summer of the Sex Pistols and Chic. It was a worrying time for established musicians as many traditional channels began closing up. Sandy and Trevor discussed relocating to America. But their baby arrived two months early.
Georgia Rose Lucas weighed barely two pounds. Thankfully, the John Radcliffe Hospital in nearby Oxford was a renowned centre for premature baby care. Georgia remained there for some weeks. But Sandy wasn’t about to slow down. The album was out and there were shows booked. As usual, Trevor appeared the more adept domestically. His tiny daughter fitted snugly in one of his huge hands.
Sandy’s manic energy didn’t wane. Her contract with Island finally expired two months after Georgia’s birth and was not renewed. In November 1977, she played a short string of dates.
The final show, at The Sound Circus in the Royalty Theatre, London, was recorded. The voice is huskier than before, but the performance is excellent. It would prove to be her last gig.
Some of the other shows had been poorly attended; Rendezvous and a single of Candle In The Wind both sold dismally.
Career doldrums, Trevor’s infidelities and Sandy’s unchecked drinking put a strain on the marriage, and the couple’s fights began to escalate, which in turn made Sandy more prone to drinking her troubles away. It was a cruel spiral.
Trevor tidied his affairs, sold his VW Beetle and bought a one-way ticket to Australia. He intended to return to his parents, whom he could trust to look after Georgia (who was still only nine months old) while he prepared a new life for himself. He told nobody of his plan or destination except Fairport’s drummer Bruce Rowland, whom he swore to secrecy.
On the morning of Thursday 13 April 1978, he put Georgia in her carry-cot and told Sandy he was going to visit his sister in London. At 5 pm that evening, Sandy called Miranda to see if he’d shown up in Barnes, as they’d often visit when they were in town. Miranda said no, but asked if there was any message if he did appear. “I’ve got his supper in the oven,” said Sandy breezily. “I’ll see him when I see him.”
At around 9 pm, Miranda’s phone rang again. It was Trevor in a call box. He told her he was leaving Sandy, taking Georgia with him, but didn’t say where he was going.
Sandy rang again before midnight. She’d noticed that some of Trevor’s clothes were missing. Miranda broke the news to her and said she’d come and fetch her. Sandy took it surprisingly well.
The following morning Sandy began to complain of headaches. She thought she may have sustained a hairline fracture in a fall at her home the previous week. She hadn’t seen a doctor so Miranda made an appointment for Monday afternoon with her GP.
They also decided Sandy should talk to him about her problems with drink. Over the weekend, the two friends had several long conversations reminiscing and talking about the future, who Sandy might work with, and so on.
Miranda attempted to track Trevor down. Sandy was adamant that she wouldn’t beg him to return. On Sunday she had a long phone conversation with her brother. She went to bed in the early hours in an optimistic mood.
At 6 am she awoke with a terrible headache. She went to Miranda’s room and asked her for a painkiller.
When Miranda left for work on Monday morning, Sandy was asleep so she left her a long note with the school’s phone numbers, contacts for friends if she needed to talk to anyone and household details (“Toaster doesn’t stop on its own!”) and assuring Sandy she’d be back in time for the doctor’s appointment.
At 1.30pm Steven Walker, a friend who was taking care of Sandy’s dogs in Byfield, called the house and spoke to her. He said later that she sounded less upbeat than usual but otherwise seemed fine.
That afternoon, a young London-based musician named Jon Cole left his flat in Barnes, climbed into his Datsun Cherry and set off for Hammersmith where his band, The Movies, were rehearsing.
The previous evening, Miranda had given him a spare key to her flat and asked if, while she was working, he would look in on Sandy as the woman’s husband had just run off, taking their baby daughter with him. Miranda thought it would be nice if someone kept an eye on her and checked to see if she needed anything.
When Cole opened the door to Miranda’s flat, Sandy was upstairs on the landing. She was dressed in bell-bottomed jeans and a pink mohair sweater. She was stretched out on her side, feet touching the bottom of the steep set of stairs which curved up to the next floor. She was motionless.
Jon checked her breathing. She was alive. He called for an ambulance and was told it would be there in five minutes.
At around 3pm Miranda was telephoned at school and told that Sandy had been found unconscious by Cole and taken to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. She was in a coma.
A brain haemorrhage was diagnosed. Sandy was put onto a life support machine. The prognosis was not good. Miranda broke the news to Neil and Edna in Cornwall before the police contacted them and they came to stay with her.
Sandy’s friends began to visit and Miranda finally got a number for Trevor’s parents and called him, but it took a call from a consultant at the hospital to persuade him to fly back immediately.
He left Georgia with his parents. It’s a mystery why Trevor wanted his whereabouts concealed. He told the inquest that the trip was just a visit to show Georgia to his parents.
On Wednesday, Sandy was transferred to the Atkinson Morley hospital, specialists in brain injury, for an operation. It wasn’t a success. Linda Thompson visited and was shocked to see Sandy wrapped in foil to prevent hypothermia.
Sandy Denny passed away just before 8.00 pm that evening.
The death certificate cited “mid-brain trauma”. The verdict at the inquest was accidental death; most likely the untreated injury from her previous fall had suddenly flared.
Naturally, over the years, there have been murmurings of other circumstances. Miranda Ward has pieced together a complex scenario of Sandy’s last conscious hours, but in the end, it amounts to much the same thing: the coroner’s verdict seems the most plausible explanation.
There were no reports of significant levels of drugs or alcohol in her body. It was a tragically mundane end to a special life.
Sandy was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery. A lone piper played Flowers Of The Forest as she was lowered into the ground.
Trevor Lucas was ostracised when he returned to Byfield to clear the house. The Dennys could not forgive him for abandoning Sandy. The Fairports were torn: they’d loved both Sandy and Trevor and understood that it wasn’t a black and white story.
The fall-out was strange. Fairport Convention fell apart. Dave Swarbrick was particularly affected by Sandy’s death and exiled himself to Scotland for a while.
Miranda suffered a nervous breakdown and moved to the West Country where she still lives and teaches.
Trevor married Elizabeth Hurtt, a former tenant of Philippa Clare’s (Hurtt had had an affair with Swarbrick while he was living with Phillipa and Sandy had been appalled), and moved back to Australia to bring up Georgia (and their own son Clancy, who was born some years later).
He died of heart failure in 1989.
David Denny died in a road accident in Denver, Colorado in 1980. Having lost both her children, Edna Denny died broken-hearted a few months later. In 1997, Georgia gave birth to non-identical twin girls, Ariel and Jahmira. Neil Denny died in 2000, unreconciled with his granddaughter and her family.