As a teenager Ken Hensley, who has died aged 75, was determined to become a rock star. “Everything I did from the age of 16 onwards was focused entirely on that,” he said. “I didn’t recognise the sacrifices that would be involved, but I learned to live with them for the greater purpose of achieving my goal.”
Given this statement, which he made in 2016, Hensley might be thought to have been a shallow or arrogant individual. But the reality was that he was a good-natured intellectual whose prodigious musical talents helped to elevate the heavy rock band Uriah Heep, formed in 1970, to a level of great critical and commercial prominence, with global album sales in excess of 40 million.
In his decade with Uriah Heep Hensley was the primary songwriter on 13 studio albums, a live LP and several compilations. The group’s most acclaimed line-up comprised David Byron (vocals), Mick Box (guitar), Gary Thain (bass), Lee Kerslake (drums) and Hensley, mostly on the Hammond organ and sometimes on vocals. He sang on the 1971 single Lady In Black, one of Heep’s best-known songs, and composed the following year’s Easy Livin’, the group’s first American hit.
Hensley’s first taste of the stardom that he so desired came when Uriah Heep opened for the American band Three Dog Night in 1971. “It was quite comical,” he said, “because when we showed up for the first concert in Indianapolis, it was at the Fairgrounds, which holds 16,000 people. We felt like fish out of water: it was huge. Three Dog Night were showing up in long black Cadillac limousines, swooping into the backstage area with security all around them. We were sitting there with our mouths open, asking ‘What’s this all about?’ It was very exciting. We got a taste of the groupies, the limos and the big time, and we were all salivating.”
Hensley was born in Plumstead, south east London, but grew up in Stevenage in Hertfordshire. One of five children, his father was William Hensley, the general manager of an engineering company, and his mother was Evelyn, who ran an employment agency. He learned to play the guitar from a Bert Weedon book at 11 and later studied the Hammond organ, with which he was more closely associated.
His early bands included the Blue Notes, Ken & the Cousins and Kit & the Saracens, but it was not until 1965 that he came to greater public attention when he formed the Gods with the future Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. After appearing on two albums with the Gods and then playing with Toe Fat – a band led by Cliff Bennett, previously of the Rebel Rousers – he joined a group called Spice in 1969. The following year they changed their name to Uriah Heep, after the character in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.
The classic Uriah Heep lineup dissolved in 1975 when Thain was fired due to a heroin addiction, and the following year Byron was also asked to leave when his alcohol abuse became severe. Hensley was uncomfortable with the revised lineup, saying: “One of the reasons that Heep was so successful was the chemistry between the five of us. When David was asked to leave, that chemistry was basically destroyed, and even more so when Gary left.”
Meanwhile, pressure was mounting between Hensley and the other members due to his greater share of the songwriting and associated income. “I was making more money than anyone else because I was writing more songs,” he said. “I was never very subtle about the fact that I was making more money – I was buying big cars and big houses – so arguments about royalties and why we were using more of my songs began to surface.”
Despite his showy purchases, Hensley began to resent the trappings of Uriah Heep’s success (“the limos and the first-class flights started to take preference over everything else”) and, needing the space to conquer a cocaine addiction, left the band in 1980. He had recorded two solo albums, Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf (1973) and Eager to Please (1975) while still with Uriah Heep, and once he left the band he toured America with his own group before embarking on a three-year stint with an outfit called Blackfoot. Sessions for heavy metal bands such as W.A.S.P. and Cinderella followed, as well as a post in artist relations with a musical instrument company, St Louis Music.
In 2004 Hensley moved with his fourth wife, Monica, to a farm near Alicante in Spain, where the couple kept livestock and established a charity for abandoned animals. He released albums at a prolific rate and continued to play live, often in Russia and Eastern Europe, where he had a dedicated fanbase. He also released an autobiography in 2007 titled Blood on the Highway.
Eight years later he agreed to a one-off reunion concert with Uriah Heep, in which he joined Box on stage in Moscow. His final album, My Book of Answers, is due to be released in February 2021.
He is survived by Monica and by his siblings Trevor, Dawn and Mark.
• Ken Hensley, musician, born 14 August 1945; died 4 November 2020