Martin Denny, who created “exotica” music in the 1950s and lived to see it enjoy renewed world-wide popularity as “lounge music” and “tiki culture,” died March 2 in Honolulu. He was 93.
“With the passing of Martin Denny, the world has lost one of its great popular musicians,” said Michael J. Largarticha, Musicians Association of Hawaii president. “He created a sound that remains unique to this day; an entire genre of music which Martin described as a fusion of Asian, South Pacific, American Jazz, Latin American and Classical.”
Denny, who last performed Feb. 13 at a tsunami fundraiser in Honolulu, had been in declining health. He drew large audiences whenever he appeared and last year played two songs with fan Jimmy Buffett at the Waikiki Shell.
Denny’s trademark “jungle noises” and bird calls made popular in his tune “Quiet Village” sometimes overshadowed substantial musical arrangements that reflected Denny’s formal training as a pianist.
Born in New York, Denny made his debut in 1931 and spent 4 1/2 years working in South America. He played big band dance music in the United States from the mid-’30s through World War II. He continued his musical career in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then attended college on the G.I. Bill majoring in classical piano, composition and orchestration.
Denny first performed in Waikiki as a solo pianist in 1954, then the following year formed a trio with John Kramer (bass) and Arthur Lyman (vibraphone). Percussionist Augie Colon became the fourth member of the group after they opened at the Shell Bar in Henry Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village in 1956. It was there that the “exotica” sound was born.
The sound of frogs croaking in a nearby pool inspired ad libbed responses by the band members. Denny got so many requests for “the song with the jungle noises” that he created more arrangements that included bird calls and other sounds, and then enhanced the fanciful tropical ambiance by using “exotic” percussion instruments. It wasn’t long before globe-trotting fans were bringing him souvenir drums, gongs and other items to experiment with.
Denny’s first recording of “exotica” was on Liberty Records in 1956. He re-recorded it in 1958. When Liberty released “Quiet Village” as a single in 1959 it reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a new genre of music was launched.
Denny is one of the very few Hawaii recording artists to appear on any of the six major Billboard record charts. His visibility as a pop chart hit maker waned by the late ’60s but his music remained popular in many parts of the world. It was rediscovered by a new generation of music fans in the ’90s.
Much of his early catalog was re-issued on CD with Denny providing extensive additional annotation, and web sites.
Hawaii producers Kit Ebersbach and Lloyd Kandell created Don Tiki, a “lounge music” show group in his honor. The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA) gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
— Tim Ryan