Martin Denny (April 10, 1911–March 2, 2005) was an American piano-player and composer best known as the "father of exotica." In a long career that saw him performing well into his 80s, 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, and raised in Los Angeles, California. He studied classical piano and at a young age toured South America for four-and-a-half years with the Don Dean Orchestra. 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.
After serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Denny returned to Los Angeles where he studied piano and composition under Dr. Wesley La Violette and orchestration under Arthur Lange at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. He also studied at the University of Southern California.
In January 1954, Don the Beachcomber brought Denny to Honolulu, Hawaii 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. The original combo consisted of Augie Colon on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on string bass, and Denny on piano. 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.
Denny described the music his combo plays as "window dressing, a background". It is the perfect complement to the exotic setting of Hawaii. "A lot of what I'm doing", he stated in Incredibly Strange Music Volume 1, "is just window dressing familiar tunes. I can take a tune like "Flamingo" and give it a tropical feel, in my style. In my arrangement of a Japanese farewell song, "Sayonara", I include a Japanese three-stringed instrument, the shamisen. We distinguished each song by a different ethnic instrument, usually on top of a semi-jazz or Latin beat."
Denny built a collection of strange and exotic instruments with the help of several airline friends. They would bring Denny back these instruments and he would build arrangements around them. His music was a combination of ethnic styles: South Pacific, the Orient and Latin rhythms.
During an engagement at the Shell Bar, Denny discovered what would become his trademark and the birth of "exotica." The bar had a very exotic setting: a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, rocks and palm trees growing around, very quiet and relaxed. As the group played at night, Denny became aware of bullfrogs croaking. The croaking blended with the music and when the band stopped, so did the frogs. Denny thought this to be a coincidence, but when he tried the tune again later, the same thing happened. This time, his bandmates began doing all sorts of tropical bird calls as a gag. The band thought it nothing more than a joke. The next day, though, someone approached Denny and asked if he would do the arrangement with the birds and frogs. The more Denny thought about it, the more it made sense. At rehearsal, he had the band do "Quiet Village" with each doing a bird call spaced apart. Denny did the frog part on a grooved cylinder and the whole thing became incorporated into the arrangement of "Quiet Village".
The Exotica album was recorded in December 1956 and released in 1957. In 1958, Dick Clark hosted Denny on American Bandstand. "Quiet Village" reached #2 on Billboard's charts in 1959 with the Exotica album reaching #1. He rode the charts of Cashbox and Variety also. Denny had as many as three or four albums on the charts simultaneously during his career. He also had national hits with "A Taste of Honey," "The Enchanted Sea," and "Ebb Tide."
Denny's Firecracker is well known in Japan as the number which inspired Haruomi Hosono to establish Yellow Magic Orchestra. According to Hosono, one day in 1978, after a recording, he invited Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi to his house and showed a memo which said "Cover and arrange Martin Denny's Firecracker into a chunky-electric disco, featuring synthesizers, to sell out four million copies around the world".
In 1988, 808 State,a pioneering Acid House electronic group from Manchester, England cited Denny as an influence on their hit song "Pacific State". 808 State is of course a reference to Hawaii with its 808 telephone area code. In November 2008, Graham Massey from 808 State held a tribute night to Martin Denny amongst other acts in London under the banner of 'Manchester Mondo'.