by Randal Hill
Like Bob Dylan, Donovan Philips Leitch rose to fame as a Woody Guthrie clone. Decked out in a denim jacket and cap and blowing on a harmonica that hung around his neck, Donovan’s career began with the hauntingly beautiful “Catch the Wind,” a 1965 worldwide sensation.
Within a year, though, the Scottish-born singer underwent a major transition. Now the world beheld the “new’ Donovan, with long, curly tresses and flowing white robes as he performed while sitting yoga-style onstage, banks of flowers adorning the stage. Donovan’s lyric messages became part of the “far out” psychedelic music era, and his Epic Records release of “Sunshine Superman” (supposedly about orange sunshine LSD) brought him a new audience and set the stage for his next million-seller.
Like his rival Dylan, Donovan often created lyrics that left his followers scratching their heads in wonder, especially when it came to “Mellow Yellow.” First he said he was “mad about saffron,” saffron being a yellow spice, then he claimed to be “mad about fontine,” a pale yellow cheese. Some problems arose when some listeners thought he was saying he was “mad about fourteen,” as in lusting after a fourteen-year-old girl, but those rumors were quickly dismissed.
To complete his “yellow theme,” Donovan declared that “electrical banana is gonna be a sudden craze.” This led certain people to believe he was encouraging folks to get high by smoking “bananadine,” a fictional psychoactive substance. Supposedly bananadine was extracted from toasted flakes scraped from the inside of a banana peel, which were then dried, toasted, rolled into a cigarette and smoked. Of course, no hallucinogenic effects were ever reported.
Shortly before “Mellow Yellow” appeared, Donovan had written the line “sky of blue and sea of green” for the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Paul McCartney returned the favor by adding to the background party noise in “Mellow Yellow.” Contrary to popular belief, it is Donovan, not Paul, who whispers “quite rightly” throughout the song.
Trumpets became part of the song’s musical bridge. This had been suggested by arranger John Cameron, who, like Donovan, was a mere twenty years old. Cameron wanted a loping beat and blaring horns, much akin to David Rose’s instrumental 1962 hit “The Stripper.” Donovan felt the horns were too blaring, though. As he said in I Want to Take You Higher, “It wasn’t mellow. So all the musicians…put the little hats on the end of their horns, and it went ‘wah wah wah.’ And there it was. Once they put the mutes on, it worked perfectly.”
So what was the song really about? In Songwriters on Songwriting, Donovan explained, “It was interpreted by many people as many different things. But essentially, over all, it was the sense of being mellow and laid back, which had something to do with smoking pot or being cool.”
Donovan’s long run of “trippy” hits would wind down by the end of the 1960s. As his star dimmed, though, John Cameron’s brightened considerably when he created the stage name John Paul Jones and became the bassist/keyboardist for heavy-metal heroes Led Zeppelin.