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Ken Hensley, ex-Uriah Heep, dead at 75

Ken H
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Ken Hensley, best known as Uriah Heep’s keyboard player and chief songwriter from 1970 to 1980, has died, following a short illness. He was 75. The sad news was delivered today (November 5) by his brother Trevor in a post on Facebook.

“I am writing this with a heavy heart to let you know that my brother Ken Hensley passed away peacefully on Wednesday evening,” Trevor Hensley wrote. “His beautiful wife Monica was at his side and comforted Ken in his last few minutes with us.

"We are all devastated by this tragic and incredibly unexpected loss and ask that you please give us some space and time to come to terms with it.

"Ken will be cremated in a private ceremony in Spain so please don’t ask for information about a funeral.

"Ken has gone but he will never be forgotten and will always be in our hearts.

"Stay safe out there.”

Born Kenneth William David Hensley on August 24, 1945, the keyboard player first attracted the national spotlight as a member of The Gods, who featured future Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and recorded two albums, 1968’s Genesis and 1969’s To Samuel A Son, for Columbia Records. The group also released the album Orgasm under the pseudonym Head Machine. 

Hensley joined guitarist Mick Box and vocalist David Byron in the band Spice in February 1970: shortly afterwards, the Londoners changed the group’s name to Uriah Heep.

“We'd actually recorded half the first album [1970’s classic …Very ‘Eavy… Very ‘Umble] when we decided that keyboards would be good for our sound,” Mick Box recalled. “I was a big Vanilla Fudge fan, with their Hammond organ and searing guitar on top, and we had David's high vibrato vocals anyway, so that's how we decided to shape it.”

“I saw a lot of potential in the group to do something very different,” remembered Hensley

Hensley wrote or co-wrote the majority of Uriah Heep's songs until his departure from the band in 1980, including the hit singles Easy Livin’, Stealin’, Lady In Black and Free Me.

He wrote the band’s biggest hit, Easy Livin’ from 1972’s Demons And Wizards album, in just 15 minutes. Though it failed to chart in the UK, the song, a tongue-in-cheek reflection upon outsider perceptions of the band’s lifestyle, became a top 20 hit across mainland Europe, and peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 39. A huge radio hit in America, it pushed the Demons and Wizards album to number 23 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

“It had excitement written all over it,” recalled Mick Box. “I thought the guitar sound was fantastic, it was so up-front, and aggressive and pumping like mad. The title came from a conversation we had in the van. We were in the north of England, driving down to London to listen to some recordings in the studio before going to the airport to fly to America and someone said, ‘This is easy living, isn’t it?’ as a joke, a piss-take. But it resonated with Ken. It wasn’t a song that we over-thought.”

“Hearing the song on US radio was immense,” Box remembered. “Then things started moving very, very fast. A hit single is like a small boulder rolling down a hill, gathering moss, and by the time it gets to the bottom, it’s huge. It wasn’t long before we were doing 10,000 seaters right across America, and had Lear jets and limos at every airport. It was an absolutely amazing time.”

“Our strength at the time was that we could make anything sound great,” said the guitarist. “Ken could bring in a bareboned idea on acoustic guitar, we’d give it the Heep treatment and it’d take on a life of its own. We felt indestructible.” 

“There was a magic in that combination of people that created so much energy and enthusiasm,” Ken Hensley later noted. “We all wanted the same thing, were all willing to make the same sacrifices to achieve it and we were all very committed.”

“There was nothing between us and the music,” he told Classic Rock Revisited in 2016. “This liberated my creativity, and the fact that FM radio in America was pioneering the musical freedom trend made it even more inspiring.”

Hensley recorded 13 studio albums with Uriah Heep before exiting the band in September 1980 following the release of their Conquest album. That same year he released his third solo album, Free Spirit, having released 1973’s Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf and 1975’s Eager To Please while still a member of Heep.

Hensley moved to America in 1980, and later joined Rickey Medlocke in southern rockers Blackfoot, recording two albums, 1983’s Siogo and 1984’s Vertical Smiles. Following a break from music, he returned in 1989 to play on W.A.S.P.’s The Headless Children album, and contributed to Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station album the following year. Hensley continued to release solo music after relocating to Spain at the start of the new millennium. He had recently finished work on a new project My Book of Answers, a follow-up to 2012’s Love & Other Mysteries, which is due for release at the end of February 2021.

Admitting to “deep shock” about Hensley’s passing, Mick Box has today paid tribute to his late bandmate with his own Facebook post:

“I received devastating news this morning from Ken’s manager Steve Weltman that Ken Hensley has passed away. I had just finished watching his video of the unboxing of the 50th Anniversary Box Set last night, where he seemed absolutely fine and justifiably proud of his time in Uriah Heep, which has just added to the shock.

"We may not have always been the best of friends, but there were some wonderful times we shared too, which are the ones I will always remember. Ken wrote some amazing songs in his tenure with the band, and they will remain a musical legacy that will be in people’s hearts forever.

"His communication through lyrics and melody have stood the test of time, and with the power and chemistry of the band bringing those songs to life, we achieved success we could only have dreamed of.

"My sincere condolences go to his family and wife Monica and may he rest in peace.

"Mick”

All at Classic Rock extend our sympathies to Hensley’s wife Monica, his siblings Trevor, Mark and Dawn, and his extended family and friends.