Van Morrison is an enigma shrouded in Celtic garb. An often cranky introvert who rarely gives interviews, he's also an incredibly passionate and distinct vocalist whose concerts can generate serious heat. However his brilliance can be undercut by whim or temper, and he has upon occasion alienated audiences by rushing through songs and remaining aloof between them. He's an Irish poet in love with all sorts of bedrock American music — particularly jazz, blues, and country — and artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bono have cited him as a huge influence. Whether swaggering and flamboyant or quiet and elliptical, there's always an emotional candor in Van Morrison's singing.
Born in Belfast in 1945, Morrison grew up in a musical home. His mother sang at social gatherings, and his father collected classic blues and jazz records. He learned guitar, saxophone, and harmonica while in school, and was playing with blues, jazz, and rock bands by his mid-teens. At 15, he quit school, joined an R&B outfit called the Monarchs, and toured Europe with them as saxophonist. While in Germany, a film director offered Morrison a role in a movie as a jazz saxophonist. The project was dropped, and Morrison returned to Belfast and opened an R&B club in the Maritime Hotel. He recruited some friends to form Them, which became an immediate local sensation as the club's house band.
Them recorded two singles in late 1964: "Don't Start Crying Now" (a local hit) and Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go" (which made the British Top 10 in early 1965). After the latter's success, the band moved to London and connected with producer Bert Berns. They recorded Berns' "Here Comes the Night," which went to Number Two in the U.K. and made the Top 30 in the U.S. Them's next two singles, "Gloria" (by Morrison) and "Mystic Eyes," were minor U.S. hits; "Gloria" was later covered by the Shadows of Knight (who took the song to Number 10 in 1966) and Patti Smith. Them's lineup underwent constant changes, and Berns brought in session players, including guitarist Jimmy Page, to bolster their albums. After a 1966 U.S. tour, the group returned to England where Morrison initiated its demise; not long after the breakup, they reformed with Ken McDowell as vocalist.
Meanwhile Morrison grew frustrated by the manipulations of the music business. (Them had wrongly been given a tough guy image by their company), stopped performing, and moved back to Belfast. Meanwhile, Berns (a.k.a. B. Russell) formed Bang Records in New York, and sent Morrison a plane ticket and an invitation to record four singles. Van accepted, and one of the tunes, "Brown Eyed Girl," reached Number 10 in the U.S. in 1967. He toured America but was again disgruntled when Berns released the remaining tracks, which Morrison considered demos, as an album entitled Blowin' Your Mind.
Berns died of a sudden heart attack in December 1967, and Morrison continued to tour and write material for his next album. Warner Bros. president Joe Smith signed him in early 1968, and that summer Morrison went into a New York studio with a handful of respected jazz musicians. In a two-day session he created Astral Weeks, one of rock's least classifiable, most enduring albums, and the first manifestation of Morrison's Irish-romantic mysticism. Though most of its cuts were improvised and impressionistic, the music boasted a palpable intensity. Softly strummed guitars made their way through jazzy rhythms topped by flute, vibraphone, strings, a pulsing bass, and Morrison's wailing vocals. The song cycle was mercurial, spreading out in some sections, folding in on itself in others. The critics raved; the album, which Morrison explains as a string of "poetic stories," is considered one of his richest, most powerful efforts.
Morrison took up residence in the rural burgh of Woodstock, New York, and his next album, Moondance (Number 29, 1970), traded the jazz-and-strings sound of Astral Weeks for a horn-section R&B bounce that resounded with a mellow attitude. The swinging title tune and "Come Running" were chart singles, the latter in 1970 (Number 39), the former not until late 1977. The fittingly titled "Into the Mystic" became a minor hit for Johnny Rivers, while "Caravan" became an FM radio favorite. It was the first Morrison album to chart in the Top 100, and it eventually went platinum. His Band and the Street Choir (Number 32, 1970) yielded two uptempo R&B-flavored Top 40 hits in "Domino" (Number 9, 1970) and "Blue Money" (Number 23, 1971). By this time, Morrison had moved to Marin County, California, and married a woman who called herself Janet Planet.
Tupelo Honey (Number 27, 1971) reflected his new domestic contentment. It yielded a hit in "Wild Night" (Number 28) and went gold, thanks to progressive FM radio, which latched on to the lyrical title tune (featuring Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, who also helped shape Astral Weeks). It's follow-up, St. Dominic's Preview (Number 15, 1972), included the minor hit single "Jackie Wilson Said" (Number 61) and contained two extended pieces that have become Morrison staples: "Listen to the Lion" and "Almost Independence Day." Taken together Moondance, Street Choir, Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic's Preview mark an incredibly fertile time in Morrison's career. Their collective impact set the stage for all his following records.
By the time of Hard Nose the Highway (Number 27, 1973), Morrison had formed the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which was featured on the live LP It's Too Late to Stop Now. In 1973, though, Morrison divorced Janet Planet, disbanded the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, and returned to Belfast for the first time since 1966. There he began writing material for the provocative Veedon Fleece (Number 53, 1974), a record that harkened to Astral Weeks' improvisatory approach, and a disc that some fans believe to be his best.
Morrison took three years to produce a follow up. He reportedly began sessions for an album four different times (one with jazz-funk band the Crusaders), but completed none. By 1976, he was living in California again. Late that year he appeared at the Band's farewell concert and in Martin Scorsese's film of the event, The Last Waltz. Finally, in 1977 came A Period of Transition (Number 43, 1977), which featured short jazz and R&B-oriented tunes and backup by pianist Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack. For Wavelength (Number 28, 1978), he took on concert promoter Bill Graham as manager (they split in 1981); the album sold fairly well. Still, Morrison continued to be plagued by chronic stage fright. At a 1979 show at New York's Palladium, he stormed off the stage during the middle of the show without a word and didn't return.
The more serene Into the Music (Number 43, 1979) implied that Morrison had become a born-again Christian, and Common One (Number 73, 1980) delved even further into extended mysticism. Beautiful Vision (Number 44, 1982) was more varied and concise, and it generated, as usual, sizable critical acclaim and respectable sales. It also included "Cleaning Windows," which contained references to such Morrison inspirations as Lead Belly, bluesmen Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Muddy Waters, as well as Beat author Jack Kerouac and country singer Jimmie Rodgers. (Morrison has always revered the greatest blues and R&B singers; in 1972 he guested on the John Lee Hooker—Charlie Musselwhite album Never Get Out of These Blues Alive.) Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (Number 116, 1983) offered "special thanks" to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.
With A Sense of Wonder (Number 61, 1985), Morrison continued on his spiritual journey and drew further on literary influences, and on a piece entitled "Let the Slave," incorporated the work of a favorite poet, William Blake. Meanwhile, he was also rediscovering his ethnic roots and wanderlust, leaving his California home to travel through Dublin, Belfast, and London. On No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Number 70, 1986), he shared this sense of rebirth, while the album's title sneered at critics who had tried to pigeonhole his religious beliefs.
Morrison continued to delve deeper into Celtic imagery with Poetic Champions Compose (Number 90, 1987) and collaborated with Ireland's best-loved traditional band, the Chieftains, on Irish Heartbeat (Number 102, 1988). Avalon Sunset (Number 91, 1989) contained "Whenever God Shines His Light on Me," a duet with Cliff Richard that became Morrison's first British Top 20 single since his days with Them, and "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You," which in 1993 became a Number Five U.S. hit for Rod Stewart.
Entering the 1990s with the nostalgia-drenched Enlightenment (Number 62, 1990), he sang of his initial flirtations with rock & roll and explored the links between spiritual and romantic love. These themes carried over onto the similarly acclaimed double album Hymns to the Silence (Number 99, 1991), while on Too Long in Exile (Number 29, 1993), the singer brought things full circle, covering songs by some of his heroes &Number 8212; including Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson. He also sang with John Lee Hooker on "Gloria" with enough ardor to dispel any suspicions that age had mellowed him. Hooker, in fact, turned up as a surprise guest at some of Morrison's concerts in the early 1990s, and Morrison would produce two of the blues master's late 1990s titles.
Morrison's spirited 1993 performances at two northern California venues, documented on A Night in San Francisco (recorded December 18), were indicative of his renewed onstage vigor. That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A couple of years later, How Long Has This Been Going On (1996), a live jazz show recorded with Georgie Fame and Friends at Ronnie Scott's Club in London also attested to his vigor. Nevertheless, Days Like This (Number 33, 1995) and The Healing Game (Number 32, 1997) were railed by critics as predictable, lackluster performances; some focused on Morrison's wan vocals; the former disc included two duets with his daughter, Shana.
Morrison took on an elder-statesman role when the song "Days Like This" was adopted as a peace anthem in Northern Ireland, and he received an Order of the British Empire title in 1996. A prolific artist, he continued his extraordinary output of an album nearly every year, and released The Philosopher's Stone, a two-disc set of previously unreleased material, in 1998. Back on Top, an album of new material, followed the next year.
In 2000 he was inspired by the process of collaboration, releasing a concert recording of skiffle tunes performed with Lonnie Donegan, The Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast, 1998, and You Win Again, an album of country, rockabilly, and blues covers performed with singer/pianist Linda Gail Lewis, the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis.
On 2002's Down the Road, Morrison took a spin through Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind."
Increasingly Morrison seemed to be a man discontent with the modern world, cranky about its shortcomings, wistful regarding the kind of artistry that marked rock & roll's earliest days. What's Wrong With This Picture (2003) found him covering the beloved New Orleans staple, "St. James Infirmary." On 2005's Magic Time one track was called "Keep Mediocrity At Bay." He chose to do so by opting for more classic tunes on the country-slanted Pay The Devil, where Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, and Leon Payne all had their hits updated. Morrison played at the Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, country music's most famous venue, to support the disc.
2008's Keep It Simple seemed slight compared with the bombshell that followed it. Morrison announced that he'd be interpreting Astral Weeks in its entirety for the first time ever in November. It was an event fans and critics had been waiting for, and the performances on the Los Angeles stage managed to capture some of 1968's original magic. The results were released in 2009 as Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this story.
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