NEW YORK -- When Ken Hensley, the onetime guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter for the British rock band Uriah Heep, picked up his guitar to kill time on a bus in July 1971, he never imagined that what would happen next would change his whole life.
The song that emerged from his impromptu bus session has not only endured the test of time but has turned into an anthem for millions of rock music aficionados behind the Iron Curtain.
" 'July Morning' I remember very clearly," Hensley says. "I just remember I got my acoustic guitar out, so I was kind of bumbling around. And it was a July morning, so I just wrote down, 'There I was on a July morning...'
"And I was playing the guitar and writing this thing, but I didn't want to say, 'There I was on a July morning, sitting on a bus.' That's not very romantic. So the rest of the song is my imagination. You know, 'Looking for love...sound of the first bird singing,' and all that stuff."
After that, Hensley says, it took just one day in the studio for him and his bandmates to record the song. The band recorded several takes. But in the end, it was the first try that made it onto the album. Creative High Point
The release of "July Morning" and the 1971 album "Look At Yourself" marked a creative high point for Uriah Heep. The band was already well-known in the U.K. and Europe, but "Look At Yourself" put them on the map in the United States. Even more surprisingly, it won them fame behind the Iron Curtain, a market that until then had been considered largely closed to Western musicians.
Artemy Troitsky, a prominent Russian rock critic, compares Uriah Heep to Deep Purple, another English band whose most famous anthem, "Smoke on the Water," enjoys cultlike popularity in the countries of the Soviet bloc.
Both bands, he says, sounded new and exciting in the 1970s and '80s, when people in Russia and elsewhere had limited exposure to Western music.
"They had this impressive, flashy sound, all those virtuoso guitar solos, all those keyboards and synthesizers, all those vocal harmonies, all of that," Troitsky says. "It all sounded very glamorous at that time."
It was a kind of music, Troitsky says, that resonated well with the natural Slavic inclination toward sentimentality.
Sunrise at Kamen Bryag on Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast on July 1, 2007
"As strange as it sounds, Uriah Heep played a very melodic kind of hard rock. Like that song -- it was called 'July Morning,' right? They had this sentimental, dramatic sound, emphasized by the vocals," he says. "It was that kind of cheesy harmony which is very close to the heart of all Russian and Slavic listeners."Forgot To Check The Playlist
Local Russian bands quickly began mimicking Uriah Heep's style.
Sergei Skachkov, frontman of the veteran rock group Zemlyane (Earthlings), said his band was playing "July Morning" and other Uriah Heep covers during mid-1970s performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg -- something that was possible only when Komsomol authorities neglected to check the playlist.
"There were these clubs where it wasn't mandatory to ask for [Komsomol] program approval," Skachkov says. "It was funny to watch people struggle as they tried to dance to this music, with its jagged guitar riffs. All the same, these songs were very popular as dance music at gatherings like that."
Skachkov and Zemlyane had the special distinction of performing as the opening act when Uriah Heep made its first trip to Russia, in 1987. (Most of the members of Uriah Heep from that historic Russia trip continue to tour today.)
It was one of the first Western bands to perform in Russia, and its concerts -- 10 straight days of sold-out concerts at Moscow's massive Olympiisky hall -- paved the way for other bands, like Metallica and Black Sabbath, to perform in the country. Zemlyane continues to play with Hensley, usually covering Uriah Heep classics like "Easy Livin'."
'July Morning' On The Coast
Russia isn't the only country to worship at the altar of Uriah Heep. In Bulgaria, fan worship could be said to be even greater.
There, for nearly four solid decades, Bulgarian music fans have gathered on the Black Sea coast to greet the sunrise on July 1 with "July Morning" singalongs. An estimated 5,000 people gathered this morning at the village of Kamen Bryag for the celebration.
The tradition, known in Bulgarian as "Julaya," was once seen as a subtle protest against the country's communist regime. Now, it's a simpler celebration of the summer holidays and good times with friends.
Georgi Marholev heads the Bulgarian rock band Sunrize, a band that got its name from another popular Uriah Heep song. Sunrize regularly performs Uriah Heep covers and in the last two years has worked with Hensley on the July 1 concerts on the coast.
"I find it amazing that for over 35 years so many people in Bulgaria have greeted the sunrise on July 1st at the seashore, singing along to precisely this song -- 'July Morning'," Marholev says. "There are many songs devoted to the sunrise, including Uriah Heep's 'Sunrise.' But it's 'July Morning' that's being sung. Its melody, and most Heep songs, are very close to the natural musical tastes of the Bulgarians, but also to those of the Czechs, Poles, and Russians."
Marholev says he and other musicians have even initiated a campaign to declare July 1 a "Free Spirit" day in Bulgaria -- with "July Morning" as its official anthem -- and are encouraging fellow Uriah Heep fans to do the same elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe. 'Quite An Amazing Experience'
Hensley, the man who started it all, says he was flabbergasted when he first learned of the Julaya seashore ritual.
"I go there every July 1st for the 'July Morning' celebration. It's one of the most incredible things," Hensley says. "And so I go there for that, play a concert there, and then get together with all the Bulgarian people and just watch and listen as they sing 'July Morning' when the sun comes up. It's quite an amazing experience, actually."
The event is shown live on Bulgarian national TV. Other Uriah Heep members, including former singer John Lawton, have also traveled to Bulgaria to participate in the Julaya celebrations.WATCH: John Lawton singing "July Morning" on Kamen Bryag beach in 2007:
It's a satisfying conclusion to a journey that began in the early days of perestroika, when Hensley was first able to visit Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and witness firsthand the enormous popularity of "July Morning."
In his wildest dreams, Hensley never imagined that a song he crafted while waiting on a bus would ultimately endure through multiple generations behind the former Iron Curtain.
"Here I am, 40-odd years later and still playing those songs and still seeing joy in people's faces," he says. "It's kind of ironic that I can go to a place like Russia or Bulgaria and play for 10,000 people who don't speak English but can sing every word of 'July Morning.'
"It's all a phenomenon to me. I don't understand it and I don't try to understand it. It's just a wonderful thing that something which I wrote so many years ago is still alive and still so meaningful."