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Incredibly Strange Music Vol. I Excerpt: Martin Denny

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Martin Denny at the piano R/S:What is your musical background?

MARTIN DENNY: Well, I have a classical background. At age ten in New York City, I studied piano–I was kind of a child prodigy. When I was quite young I went to South America with a six-piece band and spent over four years traveling down there. As a result you can detect a lot of Latin rythmic signatures in my music.

When I started my group I didn’t limit myself to Hawaiian songs; I used popular tunes as well as the ones I’d composed. My group included piano (I’m the pianist), vibes, bass, drums, and Latin percussion. Everybody doubled on their instruments; the vibes person played marimba and bells, and I leaned heavily on this interplay of percussion. Together we achieved the “Martin Denny” sound, which was a blend of all these instruments. And the hook was these exotic bird calls.

R/S:Who thought of that?

MD: Well I did—I put em in there! But it began quite accidentally. I opened at the Shell Bar in Henry J. Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village in 1956. The Hawaiian Village was a beautiful open-air tropical setting. There was a pond with some very large bullfrogs right next to the bandstand. One night we were playing a certain song and I could hear the frogs going [deep voice], “Rivet! Rivet! Rivet!” When we stopped playing, the frogs stopped croaking. I thought: “Hmm–is that a coincidence?” So a little while later I said, “Let’s repeat that tune,” and sure enough the frogs started croaking again. And as a gag, some of the guys spontaneously started doing these bird calls. Afterwards we all had a good laugh: “Hey! That was fun!” But the following day one of the guests came up and said, “Mr. Denny, you know that song you did with the birds and the frogs? Can you do that again?” I said, “What are you talking about?”—then it dawned on me he’d thought that was part of the arrangement.

At the next rehearsal I said, “Okay, fellas, how about if each one of you does a different bird call?” I’ll do the frog…” (I had this grooved cylindrical gourd called a guiro, and by holding it up to the microphone and rubbing a pencil in the grooves, it sounded like a frog). We played it the next night, and all evening people kept coming up and saying, “We want to hear the one with the frogs and the birds again!” We must have played that tune thirty times. It turned out to be “Quiet Village.”

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