Equal parts blue-eyed soul shouter and wild-eyed poet-sorcerer, Van Morrison is among popular music’s true innovators, a restless seeker whose incantatory vocals and alchemical fusion of R&B, jazz, blues, and Celtic folk produced perhaps the most spiritually transcendent body of work in the rock & roll canon. While a notoriously difficult and eccentric figure whose steadfast rejection of commercial trends and industry fashions kept him absent from the pop charts for decades at a stretch,
Morrison nevertheless enjoyed a massive cult following that grew exponentially throughout the course of his lengthy and prolific career. Subject only to the whims of his own muse, his recordings cover extraordinary stylistic ground yet retain a consistency and purity virtually unmatched among his contemporaries, connected by the mythic power of his singular musical vision and his incendiary vocal delivery: spiralling repetitions of wails and whispers that bypassed the confines of language to articulate emotional truths far beyond the scope of literal meaning.
George Ivan Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on August 31, 1945; his mother was a singer, while his father ardently collected classic American jazz and blues recordings. At 15, he quit school to join the local R&B band the Monarchs, touring military bases throughout Europe before returning home to form his own group, Them. Boasting a fiery, gritty sound heavily influenced by Morrison heroes like Ray Charles and Little Richard, Them quickly earned a devout local following and in late 1964 recorded their debut single “Don’t Start Crying Now.” The follow-up, an electrifying reading of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go,” cracked the U.K. Top Ten in early 1965. Though not a major hit upon its original release, Them’s Morrison-penned “Gloria” endures among the true classics of the rock pantheon, covered by everyone from the Doors to Patti Smith. Lineup changes plagued the band throughout its lifespan, however, and at the insistence of producer Bert Berns, over time session musicians increasingly assumed the lion’s share of recording duties. A frustrated Morrison finally left Them following a 1966 tour of the U.S., quitting the music business and returning to Belfast.
After Berns relocated to New York City to form Bang Records, he convinced Morrison to travel stateside and record as a solo artist; the sessions produced arguably his most familiar hit, the jubilant “Brown-Eyed Girl” (originally titled “Brown-Skinned Girl”), a Top Ten smash in the summer of 1967. By contrast, however, the resulting album, Blowin’ Your Mind, was a bleak, bluesy effort highlighted by the harrowing “T.B. Sheets”; when Berns released the LP against Morrison’s wishes, he again retreated home to Ireland. After Berns suffered a fatal heart attack in late 1967, the singer was freed of his contractual obligations and began working on new material.
His first album for new label Warner Bros., 1968’s Astral Weeks, remains not only Morrison’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest records ever made. A haunting, deeply personal collection of impressionistic folk-styled epics recorded by an all-star jazz backing unit including bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay, its poetic complexity earned critical raves but made only a minimal commercial impact. The follow-up, 1970’s Moondance, was every bit as brilliant; buoyant and optimistic where Astral Weeks had been dark and anguished, it cracked the Top 40, generating the perennials “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic.”
The first half of the 1970s was the most fertile creative period of Morrison’s career. From Moondance onward, his records reflected an increasingly celebratory and profoundly mystical outlook spurred on in large part by his marriage to wife Janet Planet and the couple’s relocation to California. After His Band and the Street Choir yielded his biggest chart hit, “Domino,” Morrison released 1971’s Tupelo Honey, a lovely, pastoral meditation on wedded bliss highlighted by the single “Wild Night.” In the wake of the following year’s stirring St. Dominic’s Preview, he formed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, featured both on the studio effort Hard Nose the Highway and on the excellent live set It’s Too Late to Stop Now. However, in 1973 he not only dissolved the group but also divorced Planet and moved back to Belfast. The stunning 1974 LP Veedon Fleece chronicled Morrison’s emotional turmoil; he then remained silent for three years, reportedly working on a number of aborted projects but releasing nothing until 1977’s aptly titled A Period of Transition.
Plagued for some time by chronic stage fright, Morrison mounted his first tour in close to five years in support of 1978’s Wavelength; his performances became more and more erratic, however, and during a 1979 date at New York’s Palladium, he even stalked off-stage in mid-set and did not return. Into the Music, released later that year, evoked a more conventionally spiritual perspective than before, a pattern continued on successive outings for years to come. Albums like 1983’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, 1985’s A Sense of Wonder, and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher are all largely cut from the same cloth, employing serenely beautiful musical backdrops to explore themes of faith and healing. For 1988’s Irish Heartbeat, however, Morrison teamed with another of his homeland’s musical institutions, the famed Chieftains, for a collection of traditional folk songs. Meanwhile, Avalon Sunset heralded a commercial rebirth of sorts in 1989. While “Whenever God Shines His Light,” a duet with Cliff Richard, became Morrison’s first U.K. Top 20 hit in over two decades, the gorgeous “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” emerged as something of a contemporary standard, with a Rod Stewart cover cracking the U.S. Top Five in 1993.
Further proof of Morrison’s renewed popularity arrived with the 1990 release of Mercury’s best-of package; far and away the best-selling album of his career, it introduced the singer to a new generation of fans. A new studio record, Enlightenment, appeared that same year, followed in 1991 by the ambitious double set Hymns to the Silence, widely hailed as his most impressive outing in years.
Following the uniformity of his 1980s work, the remainder of the decade proved impressively eclectic: 1993’s Too Long in Exile returned Morrison to his musical roots with covers of blues and R&B classics, while on 1995’s Days Like This he teamed with daughter Shana for a duet on “You Don’t Know Me.” For the Verve label, he cut 1996’s How Long Has This Been Going On, a traditional jazz record co-credited to longtime pianist Georgie Fame, while for the follow-up Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, he worked with guest of honor Allison himself. Morrison continued balancing the past and the future in the years to follow, alternating between new studio albums (1997’s The Healing Game, 1999’s Back on Top) and collections of rare and live material (1998’s The Philosopher’s Stone and 2000’s The Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again). It wasn’t until 2002 that an album of new material survaced, but in May his long-anticipated Down the Road was released.
Written by Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide
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Author: Art Siegel