For the second time in as many months, I’m sad to report the passing and honor the work of a critical member of the English hard-rock group Uriah Heep, as yesterday Ken Hensley followed Lee Kerslake into the great hereafter. Hensley was the Heep’s keyboardist, guitarist, occasional lead vocalist and primary songwriter from 1970 to 1980, arguably the era when they achieved their most balanced mix of commercial, critical and creative successes. No cause of death has been reported, though his brother noted in announcing Ken’s death that his passing was sudden, and that Hensley’s wife, Monica, was by his side as he flew away.
I’ve written several times here over the years about my love for a genre I call “Heavy Organ Music,” and when I look at the gems of that pantheon, Ken Hensley’s imprimatur is widespread and deeply influential. While he achieved his greatest fame and acclaim with the Heep, he had developed that particular sound and attack earlier in his career, most especially with The Gods and Toe Fat, bands whose members in the late 1960s included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull), Brian Glascock (The Motels), Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake (both Uriah Heep), Cliff Bennett (Rebel Rousers), Alan Kendall (The Bee Gees) and others. His connections with Newton led to Hensley’s invitation to join the group Spice just as it was morphing into Uriah Heep in time for their debut album …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble (1970). By the time of their sophomore album, Salisbury (1971), Hensley had emerged as the group’s primary songwriter, a role he would hold for a decade.
Lee Kerslake followed Hensley into the Heep for their 1972 album Demons and Wizards, often cited as their finest and most representative work, the first of four by the group’s “classic line-up.” The substance abuse-related illnesses of bassist Gary Thain (who left the band in 1974 and died in 1975) and singer David Byron (left 1976, died 1985) led to a period of constant membership churn and declining critical and commercial success, and Hensley finally threw in the towel and left the band himself in 1980. Many listeners and pundits wrote the Heep off with Hensley’s departure, but sole remaining founder Mick Box (guitar) retooled the group for 1982’s Abominog, which was a surprise hit, laying the groundwork for an ongoing Heep story that’s still producing stellar live shows and great studio albums; their most recent, Living The Dream (2018), is to these ears one of their most significant career highlights.
Hensley’s post-Heep career was productive and rewarding, if a bit more low-key than his earlier band days. He lived and worked in the United States for most of the ’80s and ’90s, appearing on albums by Blackfoot, W.A.S.P. and Cinderella, running a studio and working for an instrument manufacturer in St. Louis, and occasionally fronting his own solo bands. He relocated to Spain in the early 2000s, and remained active until his death, with a dozen live or studio solo albums to his credit across those years.
Hensley was an openly devout Christian for the final quarter-century of his life, citing his faith as a key tenet to re-establishing his life’s balance after he kicked a tenacious cocaine habit in the late ’80s. He has also long been effusive about the importance to his work and well-being of his partnership with his wife, Monica, who he first met around 2000, and married in 2004. I always appreciate artists who are honest and open about such matters.
If you’re not familiar with Ken Hensley’s sound and work, I offer ten samples below, personal favorites all, from his Gods, Toe Fat, and Heep days. I even offer a cut from the infamous and pseudonymous 1970 album Orgasm, credited to Head Machine, but really just The Gods in transition to Toe Fat. Hensley’s songwriting, singing, guitar work and keyboard textures shine in various ways throughout these cuts. He left a great body of work for a lot of saddened fans to appreciate in the days ahead. May he rest in peace, and may his loved ones have comfort at the time of his passing.