Martin Denny


Martin Denny (April 10, 1911 – March 2, 2005) was an American pianist and composer best known as the "father of exotica."[1] In a long career that saw him performing well into the 1980s, he toured the world popularizing his brand of lounge music which included exotic percussion, imaginative rearrangements of popular songs, and original songs that celebrated Tiki culture.

Denny was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles. He studied classical piano[2] and toured South America for four and a half years in the 1930s with the Don Dean Orchestra.[3] This tour began Denny's fascination with Latin rhythms. Denny collected a large number of ethnic instruments from all over the world, which he used to spice up his stage performances.[4]

After serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Denny returned to Los Angeles, in 1945 where he studied piano and composition under Dr. Wesley La Violette[5] and orchestration under Arthur Lange at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. He later studied at the University of Southern California.[4]

In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought Denny to Honolulu, for a two-week engagement. He stayed to form his own combo in 1955, performing under contract at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village on Oahu and soon signing to Liberty Records.[6] The original combo consisted of Augie Colon on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on string bass, and Denny on piano.[7] Lyman soon left to form his own group and future Herb Alpert sideman and Baja Marimba Band founder Julius Wechter replaced him. Harvey Ragsdale later replaced Kramer.

His combo spawned two successful offshoots: Julius Wechter (of Tijuana Brass and Baja Marimba Band fame) and exotica vibist Arthur Lyman.

Denny's "Firecracker" is well known in Japan as the number which inspired Haruomi Hosono to establish Yellow Magic Orchestra;[14][15] a cover of the song appears on the band's eponymous debut album and was released as a single to promote it, charting at No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 18 on the Billboard R&B Singles charts.[16]

Former Psychic TV member Fred Gianelli released an album in 1991 entitled Fred;[17] the second track on that album is "Mr. Denny", an instrumental tribute to Martin Denny that features excerpts of an interview with him.

Denny's recordings are prominently featured in the 1999 film Breakfast of Champions, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel. This is primarily because the car dealership featured in the film is having a Hawaiian-based promotion.

Denny's music is a recurring theme in the Sandman Slim series of fantasy novels by Richard Kadrey, where his music is always playing on the jukebox in the Bamboo House of Dolls, "LA's only punk tiki bar".