Ken Hensley – Defining Songs

As a huge fan of Ken Hensley’s recordings, I [like everyone] was shocked and saddened by his sudden passing, at the age of 75. Ken left behind a humongous catalogue of classic rock music. Ken was best known as the keyboard player / slide guitarist / backing vocalist in Uriah Heep during the ’70s, who also wrote the majority of the band’s classics – especially during the period of 1972-’75 when they were a huge concert draw with a string of big selling albums. It would be easy to simply put down a list of Ken Hensley’s Best Heep songs, or biggest hits with Heep, but Ken did more before And after Heep in a career that spanned about 55+ years! I kept it to a dozen songs that I think were major moments in his career. thanks for the music, RIP.

Garage Man [The Gods] – This is where it all started, really. Though Ken had a few semi-pro bands prior to The Gods, this single, and this B-side was his first composition released. A 1967 single from The Gods [the A side being “Come On Down To My Boat”, penned by 2 American record producers / writers, and also recorded by Every Mother’s Son in ’67, as well]. The Gods originally also included Mick Taylor [later of The Rolling Stones], and Brian & John Glasscock [John, later of Jethro Tull, RIP]. Ken sings lead and organ, alongside Taylor’s bluesy guitar, a lengthy organ solo. Even then Ken could pen a tale, this one about a guy getting ripped of by a ‘Garage Man’ by buying a broken down vehicle – “I never had a chauffeur, but I sure was took for a ride”.

Real Love Guaranteed [The Gods] – This band went through a number of personnel changes [with Joe Konas replacing Taylor, and bass players Paul Newton and Greg Lake both being in the band at different times, and Lee Kerslake joining as well. By that time the band was signed to a record deal, and would release 2 albums, but they also released a number of singles, with the times a hit single would be needed to break big, so the band [w/ producer David Paramor] recorded a cover of The Beatles “Hey Bulldog”; but it was the B-side to that single that is probably my favorite and most ‘Heep-like’ song the band produced. Co-written by Konas & Hensley, this one features all those early Heep elements – heavy guitar, organ, backing vocals, and solid drumming. Just a great production, even featured harmonica. I get that a lot of bands got a break back then by covering Beatles’ songs, but to me “Real Love Guaranteed” was the best thing the band ever recorded, including any covers.

Lady In Black [UH] – Recorded for the Salisbury album, “Lady In Black” was a simple acoustic number, but poetic, and it featured a chorus with no words! Not a hit upon it’s release in 1971, but it would become a huge hit single in Germany in 1977, upon it’s release as a single then [while Heep had a few songs in the charts in various Euro countries during the time]. It would seem to become far more popular as a highlight of both Heep’s and Ken’s live shows, with an opportunity to lighten things up and for the crowds to sing along.

July Morning [UH] – Ken had said before [and I’m generalizing] that part of Heep’s magic in the early days was that he could bring in a song simply done on the acoustic guitar and by the end of the day it would become something great, once the band got involved. This is probably the best example of that ‘band’ magic. A song that would become [possibly] Heep’s greatest epic track, it was a ballad, it was heavy, and it lasted for 10 minutes. A song that [like a few here] would go on to be permanent in the band’s live show. For Heep fans, it was their answer to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” or Deep Purple’s “Child In Time”.

Easy Livin‘ [UH] – Ken & Heep’s biggest hit. The song that opened many doors, being the band’s first big single and big radio hit, especially in North America. It was from the first album featuring what became known as the ‘classic’ line-up of Hensley, Byron, Box, as well as Gary Thain & Lee Kerslake – who both joined on this album. The song, and the album Demons And Wizards, took the band to bigger audiences, as headliners. It was a heavy Hammond and guitar fuzz driven rocker, that Ken apparently wrote in 15 minutes as a reaction to the perception that people had about rock stars having an easy time. Another permanent classic in the band’s live set.

Circle of Hands [UH] – My own favorite Heep song, also from Demons And Wizards. When I first heard this, I had to play it a few more times. Ken not only wrote this, but he started it with that amazing Hammond organ intro, and he closed it out with his soaring slide solo. A fan favorite not only for the music, but for the lyrics that many UH fans quote regularly. “Today is only yesterday’s tomorrow.”

Stealin’ [UH] – This should’ve been Heep’s next biggest single in North America, but a line “I done the rancher’s daughter” had this song pulled from many radio stations at the time. It was 1973’s Sweet Freedom, the band’s first for Warner Brothers. Ironically, it would go on to be a huge fan favorite, and one of the few Heep songs that still gets radio play on classic rock stations in North America. The song tells a story about a guy running away from a guy who’s daughter he just had his fun with; it was purely a tale from Ken’s imagination, and David Byron delivered a vocal like he was living the story himself, as he did with many of Ken’s songs.

The Easy Road [UH] – Ken wrote so many great ballads over the years – either for Heep or on his solo albums. I love this one, from Wonderworld, an album I’m not crazy about. But such a soft ballad, sweet lyrics, David’s vocals, and orchestra added by Michael Gibbs. I always thought it was strange that this never became a hit [at all], while a year later Kiss recorded a short piano ballad with orchestra and had a huge hit single – “Beth”. Again, Ken wrote so many great ballads, but this one really stood out.

Free Me [UH] – Well after the end of the ‘classic’ line up, the band continued with John Lawton at the mic. John was [is] an incredible singer, but Heep was far from the epic pieces and heaviness of their classic era albums. This is from 1977’s Innocent Victim, not an album I’m a big fan of, but it did include this song Ken brought in at the last minute. It’s a straight forward pop song, but features a great chorus, acoustic guitars, nice harmonies…. and it became a hit in various parts of Europe and Australia. Sadly, it didn’t catch on in North America. So well written. The band would try to recapture that acoustic guitar / singalong – pop thing on Fallen Angel with songs like “Love Or Nothing”, but it really only divided the band musically. Free Me was a one-off pop gem!

Send Me An Angel [Blackfoot] – Well after Ken had left Heep, had put out a solo album [that, like his album with Heep – never got a North American release], he then joined US Southern Rock band Blackfoot. The band – fronted by early Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Rickey Medlocke, wanted to add Ken on keyboards to bring their sound in to the ’80s. Well, it worked for 1 album – 1983’s Siogo. This track was co-written with Ken’s American friend [and songwriter] Jack Williams, who also wrote & co-wrote a few Heep tunes during the Lawton era. It kicked off the album with a cool and modern keyboard intro from Ken; a great rocker that was also issued as a single. Siogo was a great album that Ken made quite an impact on. Unfortunately, the follow up album was a massive pile of slop, and Ken would leave after that [citing David Byron’s passing as a reason to quit touring]. The song was later rerecorded from a whole new fresh angle for Ken’s 2005 album Cold Autumn Sunday.

The Last Dance [KH] – When Ken resumed recording solo albums and touring it took a few albums to work out a few bugs, such as using material he’d written years prior. The Last Dance was released in 2003, and was almost all new material, and more so it was well produced, with a solid set of songs. But, it is the album’s title track that is the most epic thing Ken did during his comeback years. It has a story [and I often wondered if or how much of this Ken wrote about himself] that sits nicely alongside Heep classic like “The Wizard” and “Wiseman”. Features acoustic guitar, piano, organ, Ken’s distinctive guitar sound during the solo… And although this got recorded a few times, the best [IMO} is Ken’s first version – with his vocals and no added strings.

Trouble [KH & Live Fire] – From Ken’s 2013 album of he same name, with his band ‘Live Fire’ [Roberto Tiranti, Ken Ingwerson, Tom Arne Fossheim]. This album was Ken’s heaviest in his post Heep years. This song is a reminder of how good Ken was with just everyday words, and creating something poetic or an image or a story with them. This song, just simply based around that one word, and delivered as a kick-ass rock track.

Drop me some feedback on essential songs from Ken that really defined his legacy.

KJJ. 11/20

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