It was exactly 21 years ago that I published my first interview with Ken Hensley, having contacted him much earlier, so it looks like our friendship lasted for about a quarter of a century – more than a half of my life and a third of his. A third – because Ken has passed away yesterday, on November 4th, at the age of 75. It’s hard to believe Hensley’s not out there anymore, because he’s always been quick to answer – no matter what my emails to him were about. I remember sending him a Christmas card from, of all places, Internet cafe in Bethlehem (that Bethlehem!) and receiving his reply before I left the place. This is the Ken I knew and loved: a humble person who admitted, “I have never learned to read or write music so I am not a virtuoso musician. I just developed my own crazy style!” And that was a highly influential style – as were Hensley’s melodies and lyrics, covered among us by contemporaries like Ritchie Blackmore.
Or rather, lyrics and melodies. Ken always maintained he’d learned to play only for his poems to be heard – that’s why Hensley gave them a tune, most prominently during his decade-long stint with URIAH HEEP for whom he became a primary songwriter, penning such classics as “Easy Livin'” and “Lady In Black” the later of which he also lent a voice to. “URIAH HEEP would’ve never been successful without Ken Hensley,” the band’s former manager Gerry Bron once told me. A keyboard player and a guitarist, the flamboyant Ken often outshone the group’s singers on-stage, so no wonder he found stardom appealing – but Hensley’s solo albums used to deal with much deeper issues and revealed the artist’s vulnerability. Of course, I heard a lot of stories about Ken’s hubris; however, there was no sign of his erstwhile arrogance when we met in London in 2004 and sat down for an hour of conversation which wasn’t really planned – Ken simply agreed to the late-evening chat.
Hensley was in good spirits recently, despite having to cancel all the concerts for the foreseeable future, and enjoyed domestic life in Spain with wife Monica, but he was profoundly affected by the death of former HEEP colleague Lee Kerslake. And Ken was writing new songs that may never see the light of day now. “In the end I have to be completely happy with myself and completely sure that I’m the best person I could be,” he said to me all those years ago. God knows he tried. Sleep well, my friend.