Ken Hensley : A Life to Celebrate

The following comes from a lifelong fan from England, Mark Simnett. Many years ago, in the days of the Uriah Heep Appreciation Society Mark was also a member, who contributed a few articles, whom I corresponded with, and loved the music.

“I first heard the Wonderworld album in about 1975 when I was 13. The first lines of the first lyric still sends shivers down my spine!” – MS

Ken Hensley’s time with us ended on Wednesday November the 4th 2020 at the age of 75. He was best known for his work in the last century with the multi-million selling (albums) band Uriah Heep. He also worked musically with Blackfoot, Wasp and Glenn Hughes; whilst maintaining a solo career throughout and, more latterly, his own band Live Fire. A musical warrior if ever there was one! And with a physical presence that made him more Alpha than Beta …..an early school photo shows a big lad in the centre of the cricket team….. Ken the Captain.  A talented footballer too; although Luton Town FC passed on their opportunity; the world of popular music could, should, or must deliver? Driven he was and larger than life in so many ways. There is evidence of his playing in teenage bands; but that aside, we can say that his professional music career spanned some 55 years with a  new completed album to be released next February.

And what a life to celebrate – if anyone of us could have created a body of work that has brought so much joy and happiness (and possibly ‘reason’) into people’s lives we would surely be grateful? He had so much talent and skill, it must have been hard to work out exactly what to do with it all. Apart from his physical presence/looks/vocal/instrumental and compositional skills there are also some contextual things to mention. 1945 is a good year to be born from a historical point of view…. certainly if you want to be big in 20th century popular music…. as your creative youth crosses perfectly with the economic boom years of the ’60’s and ’70’s; developments in the media and the ability of affluent youth to spend and define themselves (on you and with you!). He also had exposure to his mother’s classical piano playing and a father who had served in the Royal Navy.  A humble start in South East London – but an early move to Stevenage – more aspirational? On the money? He was certainly destined to travel.

When you reflect on the the big three bands of those times (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple) we marvel at their greatness and yet wonder if any of them had a ‘Ken Hensley’ type in them? He could do it all in from one seat: lyrics, chords, vocals and multi instrumental skills which extended from guitar to keyboards – for which he is best known. Describing himself firstly – as a poet, he suggested on more than one occasion that he used ‘thought’ first to compose;  and then to color those thoughts with sound textures/instruments.  And whether we like the idea or not; Ken was prolific. He did write, arguably, the best (and most of) Uriah Heep’s songs. He was the secret weapon; the engine that worked  so well in the UH vehicle; bringing them immense worldwide success, and in some territories outplaying their bigger name counterparts.

Although heralded as one of the masters of rock Hammond keyboards, he was a musical softy, loving the melodic side of music. As early as 1971 he declared that the ‘rock thing’ was at times too heavy; and so as the ’70’s progressed  he veered more and more towards ballad wizardry as a preference to hard rock composition. And it was in this form that he could sell….. millions! The sales of  ‘Free Me’ and ‘Lady in Black’ littered the charts across Europe…. including No.1’s in Germany. In 1976 the High and Mighty album was in musical form a Ken Hensley solo album packaged as a Uriah Heep album; showing more clearly where his musical heart was…. with lighter arrangements given to shorter songs with ‘hooks’? As an album this failed to inspire the traditional fanbase and problems within the band intensified with Ken flying home during an American tour. Four years later he would leave for good.

We should be happy for Ken that his life seemed to work out so well for him. And happy for ourselves as we have all benefitted from his musical journey in life. His legacy and music will surely live forever. …. with the classic album Demons and Wizards and the singles success of  Lady in Black and Free Me –  which in Germany were taught in school music lessons. Folk songs from the 20th Century?

In one of his songs on ‘Rare and timeless’ [“Mine”], his lyric  states that he ‘will find his way to paradise’; on a material level he also seemed to have a happy and fulfilled life (more than most?); and we are also left with loads of music and musical memories to treasure. Yes, there were elements of shock and sadness; and yet I am sure he has arrived safely to where he was  aiming to be. Our thoughts and sadness should surely be with his family and those who have experienced a direct loss.

Mark Simnett, Derby, England.

Nov. 16, ’20

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