In this black & white solo performance, Donovan tells us that “Celeste” is just a “pretty girl’s name” — but I respectfully disagree. I find Donovan’s original 1966 studio recording “Celeste” to be a particularly effective one in capturing a certain incipient sound (and let’s be honest, I think much of it has to do with the mellotron):
Sure enough, as one would hope, an actual celeste – per the song’s title – makes its appearance around the 2:06 mark. Unlike a piano, the celeste (also known as celesta) employs its hammers to strike metal keys, not strings.
Celeste by Mustel of Paris
Discogs provides some historical context –
Sunshine Superman is Donovan’s third album. It was released outside the UK in autumn 1966, but not in the United Kingdom because of a contractual dispute.
These recordings mark a distinct change in Donovan’s music, representing some of the first psychedelia released. A full rock band [including Jimmy Page] backs up Donovan on many of the songs, and the instrumentation has been expanded to include sitar [played by Shawn Phillips] and other unique musical instruments. This change is partially the result of working with producer Mickie Most, whose pop sensibilities led to chart hits for many other artists at the time.
Despite the song’s strong commercial potential (in my humble opinion), I have to say I am a little surprised to see “Celeste” remain primarily an album track (though it did enjoy release on a Sunshine Superman EP distributed in Germany and Portugal).
Also worth noting: Scott (“Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair”) McKenzie released his own version of “Celeste” as the flip-side of the uplifting and affirmative, “No, No, No, No, No” (i.e., an English-language version of Michel Polnareff’s “La Poupée Qui Fait Non“).
The Celeste in Rock, Pop & Soul:
Not Just for Symphonies
When I read Ray Charles’ memoir (his collaboration with David Ritz), I remember my brain being tickled by the fact that Charles played a celeste – a “serious” instrument more commonly associated with an orchestra – on one of his earlier jazz-inflected blues from 1949, “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” This blog piece about Donovan’s psych pop classic, “Celeste” got me to thinking: what other rock, pop, jazz and soul tunes have also utilized the services of a celeste? Here’s a short, though by no mean definitive, list –
“Basin Street Blues” by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (1928)
“I’ll Never Smile Again” by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey (1940)
“Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” by Ray Charles (1951)
“Everyday” by Buddy Holly (1957)
“Wurlitzer and Celeste” by Sun Ra (1964)
“Baby It’s You” by The Beatles (1964)
“Girl Don’t Tell Me” by The Beach Boys (1965)
“Celeste” by Donovan (1966)
“Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground (1966)
“The Gnome” by Pink Floyd (1967)
“Cadence and Cascade” by King Crimson (1970)
“Penetration” by The Stooges (1973)
EMI recording group, Pink Floyd, issued in the US on Capitol imprint, Tower