Some critics suggested that the early Donovan was just a poor imitation of Bob Dylan, but his second album, "Fairy-tale", saw him in transition to a more distinctive style. Alongside further Folk offerings were meditative pastoral songs like "Jersey Thursday" and the Jazz-influenced "Sunny Goodge Street". That was to be Donovan's last U.K. release for nearly fourteen months. Legal and managerial problems were to blame and the situation was exacerbated by his decision to work with Mickie Most, an independent producer whose work was generally licensed to EMI in Britain, not Donovan's label, Pye. But in the States the hassles were ironed out by the Spring of 1966 and the first collaboration with Most, "Sunshine Superman" shot to number one that Summer. At home, the negotiations dragged on and the single did not appear until the end of the year.
The period between 1966 and 1969 was to produce Donovan's most original and enduring body of work. For early sessions, he was sometimes assisted by John Cameron, whose tasteful arrangements avoided the excesses of many contemporary musical directors. Further input came from top session men like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, as well as seasoned Jazz and Folk players like flautist Harold McNair and bassist Danny Thompson. Drawing inspiration from Jazz, Blues and the traditional music of the British Isles, and generally featuring the guitar-dominated sound typical of the era, Donovan created music that put him at the forefront of the Rock scene for a heady couple of years.
"Sunshine Superman" was one of the earliest and finest examples of Psychedelic Pop, and there were plenty of songs of equal worth on the U.S. album of the same title. His next American L.P., "Mellow Yellow", (containing a Paul McCartney cameo), saw Donovan incorporating vaudeville and more overt Jazz elements, as well as simplifying his lyrical approach and reaffirming his enthusiasm for all things pastoral. But because of the delay in the release of the "Sunshine Superman" single in the U.K., these two albums were condensed into one set for the home market, and several U.S. singles went unreleased there. All the while Donovan was enjoying a huge following in America and reached the charts with a string of hit singles such as "Epistle To Dippy" (#19 in 1967), "There Is A Mountain" (#11 in 1967), "Wear Your Hair Like Heaven" (#23 in 1967) and "Jennifer Juniper" (#26 in 1968). Donovan had flung himself into the spirit of the times with such enthusiasm that he was disadvantaged when the competition moved towards a more progressive style of Rock at odds with the singles chart. Adopting a heavier approach, the "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (#5 in 1969), featuring Jeff Beck on guitar, found Donovan harking back temporarily to the psych sound of the "Sunshine Superman" album. Subsequent singles like "Lalena" (#33 in 1968), "Atlantis" (#7 in 1969) and "Goo Goo Barabajagal" (#36 in 1969) placed him in the Rock mainstream, rather than at its cutting edge. Donovan and Most parted company in 1969, and though the singer was able to sustain his albums success into the early Seventies, the hit singles had dried up. After a while his full-length efforts began to sound unduly repetitive and overly florid. By the end of the Sixties, Donovan had begun to fade and struggle for relevancy.
A reunion with Most on the 1973 album,"Cosmic Wheels" gave Donovan his last commercial success on an international scale. He had achieved everything he could have possibly dreamed of. There was nowhere else to go. He came home to his cottage in England, married Linda Lawrence, his great love and teenage muse, and walked away from fame, the Rolls Royce, and the mansion. They moved to Joshua Tree in the California desert for much of the '70s and brought up their children as an alternative family. In 1983 he stopped making records completely.
By 1990 Donovan returned to the studio and started recording ideas. Producer Rick Rubin had been working with Tom Petty, who was playing some of Donovan's songs in concert. Rick said, "I've always wanted to record Donovan." Petty said, "Why don't you phone him up?" So he did. The result was a new album released in 1996,called "Sutras" and a world wide tour.
January, 2004 saw the release of another album called "1964", which features recordings of Donovan from that year, made before his string of hit records. The collection shows his early guitar work and command of Folk-Blues traditions, including originals written and recorded by the age of eighteen. A new studio album called "Beat Cafe" was also in the works for mid-Summer of '04. Over the next half dozen years, he continued to perform throughout Europe and North America. On October 6th, 2009, Donovan was honored as a BMI Icon at the annual BMI London Awards. The designation is given to songwriters who have bestowed "A unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers." He joined an elite list of performers that includes The Bee Gees, Van Morrison, The Kinks, Ray Davies, Isaac Hayes, Dolly Parton, James Brown, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. In October 2010, Donovan's latest recording, "Ritual Groove" was made available exclusively through his official website. A January 2011 episode of the animated TV series The Simpsons featured his 1968 hit, "Jennifer Juniper".
As 2012 rolled around, news came that Donovan had been elected into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. A light touring schedule was also on tap in support of a new album entitled "Shadows of Blue". More live appearances in Europe and America were to follow in 2013. In June, 2014, Donovan was inducted into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame in New York, along with Ray Davies, Graham Gouldman, Mark James and Jim Weatherly. Taking the stage with Rosanne Cash, he delighted the crowd by performing "Sunshine Superman" and "Catch the Wind". Donovan headlined the acoustic stage at Glastonbury 2015 before completing an extensive thirty-two date city tour of the UK. In February, 2016, he announced that he would celebrate his 70th birthday with a May 6th performance at The London Palladium where he was slated to perform all of his legendary hits. A 50th Anniversary Tour brought him back to America in September and October, 2016.
In a way, Donovan embodied his era, his best work matches any British music of the mid-Sixties. Certainly he wasn't as deep as Dylan, but the acoustic tracks he recorded in the mid-'60s, were affecting, thoughtful and tuneful, especially considering he was still in his teens at the time.
For more, be sure to read Gary James interview with Donovan Leitch