One of the greatest singers of all time, Van Morrison has been following his muse in an uncompromising way since the early Sixties.
His career has been a model of artistic consistency and workmanlike devotion. He has explored soul, jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, rock and roll, Celtic folk, pop balladry and more, forging a distinctive amalgam that has Morrison’s unvarnished passion at its core. He has referred to his music as “Caledonia soul,” reflecting his deep immersion in American roots music and Irish mysticism.
An obvious influence on fellow musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger to Sinead O’Connor and U2, Morrison has been a singular beacon of artistic integrity, soulful conviction and musical excellence. With a minimum of hype or fanfare, working with the discipline of a craftsman and the creativity of a driven artist, he has amassed one of the worthiest and most massive bodies of recorded work in modern times.
Heedless of trends and immune to fashion, Morrison has always created music with a defiant purity of intent. At one extreme, he has made raw, driving blues-rock with the British Invasion-era group Them. At the other, he has produced some of the most transcendent, inspirational music of the modern era as a solo artist. Like Bob Dylan, he was one of the first contemporary lyricists who aspired to emplace a serious, poetical sensibility in popular music.
Morrison’s discography numbers more than 40 albums. The most notable among them include the jazzy, mystical song cycle Astral Weeks; the swinging, soulful classics Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, and Tupelo Honey; the deeply personal and revelatory Saint Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece; and the visionary and spiritual-minded Common One, A Sense of Wonder, Avalon Sunset, Enlightenment and Hymns to the Silence. Over the decades he has also released some exceptional live albums, including 1974’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, while various later projects have found him delving into skiffle, country and jazz.
Elements of mysticism, earthiness, religiosity and Celtic roots can be found throughout Morrison work. His artistic outlook is broad and borderless, encompassing influences that include not only musicians but also poets and painters. On the musical side, many of his primary touchstones have been American blues, soul and jazz icons. Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mose Allison and Lead Belly rank prominently among them. On the literary side, Morrison has hailed such mystics and visionaries as William Blake, John Donne and William Butler Yeats. All of those figures and many more have been mentioned by Morrison in various songs.
George Ivan (“Van”) Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as World War II drew to a close. He grew up in a household filled with music. His shipyard-worker father collected records, and his mother sang. The Morrisons consorted with the local folk-music community, including the renowned McPeake Family of spirited Irish folksingers. Morrison claims to have listened to blues records “since I was two or three.” As a pre-teen, he got caught up in the skiffle craze, which swept the U.K. in 1956. Strongly drawn to music, Morrison dropped out of school when he was 15 to become a full-time musician. He joined the Monarchs, a hard-working local R&B band who played military bases around Europe. He already knew how to play guitar, and he taught himself to play saxophone and harmonica, too.
At 19, Morrison returned to Belfast, where he wound up in a band that took the unusual name Them. The quintet consisted of Morrison, guitarist Billy Harrison, keyboardist Eric Wrixon, bassist Alan Henderson and drummer Ronnie Milling. Initially building its repertoire around Morrison’s taste in music – much of that stemming from his father’s record collection - the group adopted a hard-driving R&B style. Them covered such artists as James Brown, Fats Domino, Bobby “Blue” Bland, T-Bone Walker, Slim Harpo and Ray Charles (whose use of horns would greatly influence Morrison). Them’s smoldering recording of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” was a standout.
The group found success in the mid-Sixties with “Here Comes the Night” and the Morrison-penned “Gloria.” The latter would become an often-covered garage-rock classic, with notable versions by the Shadows of Knight, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith. Morrison’s adventurous streak surfaced even at this early stage with his incisive cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and such penetrating originals as “The Story of Them, Parts 1 & 2” and “Mystic Eyes.” In Morrison’s estimation, Them was a great live band, and he has contended that their residency at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel in the band’s early days represented the group’s high-energy peak.
After exiting Them (which continued with a revamped lineup), Morrison struck out on his own in 1967. He quickly made his mark as a solo artist with “Brown Eyed Girl.” It was cut in New York with producer Bert Berns, who’d previously written and produced “Here Comes the Night” for Them. Berns also owned Bang Records, the American label to which Morrison signed. “Brown Eyed Girl” became a Top 10 hit and has enjoyed sustained popularity over the decades. It is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and appears on BMI’s list of most-played radio songs. Jimmy Buffett has recorded a popular version of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Some of the recordings Morrison made with Berns were released on the album Blowin’ Your Mind!, his solo debut. It included “T.B. Sheets,” a protracted, stream-of-consciousness track about watching a lover die of tuberculosis. One can hear stirrings of the approach Morrison would take a year later on Astral Weeks in “T.B. Sheets” and other Berns-produced songs, such as “Who Drove the Red Sports Car” and an early version of “Madame George.” The material he recorded for the Bang label, including much that went unreleased at the time, has been licensed and reissued by myriad labels, the definitive edition being Epic/Legacy’s Bang Masters.
Berns died of a heart attack on New Years Eve 1967, and Morrison moved to Boston. It was a down period for him that resulted in the soul-searching, genre-defying Astral Weeks. It was his first album for Warner Bros., where he’d remain for the next 15 years. Morrison would cut much of his most popular and best-selling work at Warner Bros. However, Astral Weeks was initially not a strong seller, as it was too unconventional for the mainstream pop market. Working with jazz musicians, Morrison married impressionistic, free-flowing words with dreamlike folk-jazz music on Astral Weeks. It was an astonishing piece of work based largely around Morrison’s Belfast remembrances. Two of its lengthier tracks, “Madame George” and “Cyprus Avenue,” are especially memorable. The album reached a limited audience, selling only 15,000 copies in its first year of release. Yet Astral Weeks acquired a lasting reputation as a classic work and went gold (500,000 copies sold) in 2001, more than 30 years after its release.
Morrison followed the introverted, idiosyncratic Astral Weeks with the extroverted, accessible Moondance, released in early 1970. It boasted tight arrangements that nodded toward soul, R&B and jazz. While its songs still possessed considerable depth, they were more easily appreciated by the average listener. Reflecting on that change in a 1986 interview, Morrison acknowledged that Astral Weeks “was a success, musically and creatively, but at the same time I was starving. So, the next album, I realized, I’d have to do something that is sort of like rock, because otherwise I’m gonna starve.” Moondance contained some of Morrison’s most popular songs, including “And It Stoned Me,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic” and the jazzy, autumnal title track.
The albums that followed - His Band and the Street Choir (1970) and Tupelo Honey (1971) – were Morrison’s most upbeat and outgoing, capturing him in a time of familial bliss and musical contentment. This was also Morrison’s greatest period of commercial success, with strong album sales and Top 40 success for “Domino” (Number Nine), “Blue Money” (Number 23) and “Wild Night” (Number 28). In fact, those three singles, from 1970 and 1971, are the last times Morrison has made the U.S. Top 40. (Other artists have had bigger hits with Morrison’s material: Rod Stewart took “Have I Told You Lately” to Number Five in 1993 and John Mellencamp’s version of “Wild Night” reached Number 3 in 1994.) However, Morrison’s relative lack of Top 40 success gives a misleading sense of his true popularity, as many of his songs - including Tupelo Honey’s mellow, lovestruck title track – received considerable airplay on album-oriented FM rock stations, whose playlists were not chart-based.
Saint Dominic’s Preview, released in 1972, contained punchy short songs (“Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” “Gypsy”) and exploratory long tracks (“Listen to the Lion,” “Almost Independence Day”). It reached Number 15 – the highest position, to date, of any of Morrison’s more than 40 albums. Next came Hard Nose the Highway (1973), a more even-toned, jazz-tinged album that contained the popular tracks “Warm Love” and “Green.” Morrison toured with his 10-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra after its release. Selected dates were taped, and the resulting live double album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974), is generally regarded as one of rock’s greatest concert recordings. That same year, he also released Veedon Fleece, an uncompromisingly artistic work that has been likened to Astral Weeks for its brooding, memory-driven depth and emotionality.
Morrison then went on an apparent hiatus, as three years passed before his next release. Some recordings were attempted during this spell, but Morrison was largely preoccupied with personal issues, including a divorce, and reassessing his life. He remerged in 1977 with the frankly titled A Period of Transition. Produced by Dr. John and containing the popular tracks “Joyous Sound” and “Flamingos Fly,” it was a more straightforward, lighthearted work that returned Morrison to his rhythm & blues roots. Appearing a year later, Wavelength continued in much the same vein. From its infectious title cut on down, Wavelength furthered Morrison’s sense of reentry with a confident, breezy sound. He supported it with his first major tour in four years. Wavelength reached Number 28 on Billboard’s album chart, which would remain his best showing until 2002’s Down the Road, which reached Number 25.
He turned to soul-searching spirituality on 1979’s Into the Music, which was highlighted by the exhilarating “Full Force Gale” and his poignant remake of the oldie “It’s All in the Game.” Morrison and band delivered this music with graceful expertise, signaling his arrival at a new phase of spiritual inquisition and artistic renewal. Indeed, Morrison’s work throughout the Eighties and beyond would largely develop and explore this blueprint. With saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis – a veteran of James Brown’s band – setting the tone, Morrison’s music became more spontaneous and expansive, as elements of jazz and New Age provided contemplative backdrops for Morrison’s musings.
Consistency of tone and uniformity of mood became the hallmark of Morrison’s work during the Eighties, as he documented his spiritual quest by drawing on literary-poetic influences set against a backdrop of serene, ethereal musical soundscapes. On Common One (1980), Beautiful Vision (1982), Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983), he aspired to achieving states of transcendence in words and music. Common One comprised six lengthy, meditative tracks, two of which – “Summertime in England” and “When Heart Is Open” – ran for 15 minutes.Beautiful Vision included the buoyant “Cleaning Windows” (a job that Morrison actually held for a spell in Belfast), the mystical “Vanlose Stairway” and the blissful title track. Inarticulate Speech of the Heart included the radiant “Higher Than the World,” as well as four instrumentals – unique for a Van Morrison album.
At this point, Morrison’s relationship with Warner Bros. ended. He next signed to PolyGram, debuting on its Mercury label with Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast, issued in Europe in 1984 and in the U.S. a year later. A Sense of Wonder (1985) exhibited the same devotional mysticism and pastoral beauty as its predecessors, though Morrison sounded somewhat more energized by his association with a new label. It was followed by No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, which Morrison biographer Clinton Heylin hailed as “consistently inventive... a richly textured album... his most rounded portrait to date, wrapped in some of the most gorgeous melodies the man could muster.” It culminated with “In the Garden,” among his most breathtaking pieces.
Each of his succeeding albums – Poetic Champions Compose (1987), Avalon Sunset (1989), Enlightenment (1990) and Hymns to the Silence (1991) – evinced a similarly ruminative, mellow and atmospheric tone. Poetic Champions Compose was highlighted by “I Forgot That Love Existed” and “Did Ye Get Healed?” Avalon Sunset, which included “Have I Told You Lately,” would have the longest run on the charts (39 weeks) of any of his albums except The Best of Van Morrison. Enlightenment featured the lively “Real Real Gone” and the frank, philosophical title track. Hymns to the Silence was a double CD whose panoramic, 21-song bounty affirmed that Morrison’s well of inspiration still ran deep as he entered his fourth decade in music. He also collaborated with the Chieftains on 1988’s Irish Heartbeat, a spirited set of traditional Irish songs.
Morrison’s best-selling album would turn out to be a compilation released in 1990. The Best of Van Morrison collected 20 tracks from the previous quarter century, dating to back his days with Them. It would ultimately sell more than 4 million copies in the U.S. Morrison’s commercial viability is further evidenced by the fact that Moondance has been certified triple platinum (3 million sold) and six other albums – Astral Weeks, Avalon Sunset, Tupelo Honey, Days Like This, Hymns to the Silence and Back On Top - have gone gold (500,000 in sales) to date. These are impressive numbers for an artist who has shown little concern for the marketplace.
Beginning in the mid Nineties, Morrison delved into a series of fascinating collaborations, compilations, live albums and genre explorations. A Night in San Francisco, an enthralling double live CD featuring his sprawling onstage revue, appeared in 1994. That same year, he co-produced No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison, a tribute album that included contributions from Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor and Marianne Faithfull. Morrison teamed up with organist Georgie Fame - a jazz and blues aficionado and longtime friend with roots in the same mid-Sixties scene - for How Long Has This Been Going On?, recorded live in 1995 at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London. Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996) was a Morrison-led tribute to the jazz singer-pianist.
Morrison revisited the skiffle sound of the late Fifties with British legends Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber on The Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast 1998. In 2000, he joined forces with Linda Gail Lewis (sister of rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis) for the country-tinged You Win Again (2000). In 2006, he recorded his first bonafide country album, Pay the Devil, paying tribute to the genre with a dozen covers (including songs made famous by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, George Jones and Webb Pierce) and three originals. Morrison veered into jazz on 2003’s What’s Wrong With This Picture?, his one and only album for the Blue Note label. He personally assembled The Philosopher’s Stone (1998), a double disc of unreleased material (much of it from the early Seventies), as well as the second and third volumes of The Best of Van Morrison, released in 1993 and 2007, respectively.
Amid this flurry, Morrison continued to issue standard solo albums at regular intervals: Too Long in Exile (1993) returned Morrison to his roots in blues and R&B, and Days Like This (1995), The Healing Game (1997), Back On Top (1999) and Down the Road (2002) were all solid additions to his catalog. Their thoughtful, frank and yearning songs affirmed writer Greil Marcus’s impression of Van Morrison as “a man on a quest.”
Appearing in 2005, Magic Time was the 38th album of a solo career that had begun 38 years earlier. Its title track referred to the late Fifties and his infatuation with the music of that period. By this point, Morrison had made a lot of musical magic himself. With amazing consistency, he had produced an album a year for nearly four decades. This was an almost unrivaled achievement, all the more remarkable because of the consistent high quality. In 2008, he released Keep It Simple, which brought together various strands in his work – from blues and country to Celtic soul - in one place, culminating with the lengthy, soul-searching “Behind the Ritual.”
It’s worth noting that on a personal level, Morrison has maintained a wary distance from the music industry and trappings of celebrity. He is a public artist and a complex, insistently private individual. His relationship with the press has been chilly and combative. In 1994, Van Morrison became the first living inductee not to attend his own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Morrison has steadfastly rejected the mantle of rock star. As he succinctly stated in a letter to an Irish newspaper, “What I am is a singer and songwriter who does blues, soul, jazz, etc.”
His antipathy toward the music business and the media has been the subject of numerous songs. In one of them, the title track from Keep It Simple, he wrote: They mocked me 'cause I told it like it was/Wrote about disappointment and greed/Wrote about what we really didn't need in our lives. What it all comes down to is his longstanding contention is that it’s ultimately only the music that matters. “If you want, it’s my religion,” Morrison said in 2005. “I feel I’m part of a lineage that goes back to John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly, and it’s my duty in a way to carry the lineage on.”
In a sense, Morrison brought his career full circle by revisiting Astral Week on its 40th anniversary. He performed the album from start to finish on back-to-back nights in 2008. These historic shows resulted in the CD Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl – the first release on Morrison’s own Listen to the Lion label - as well as more concerts devoted to it.
It seemed appropriate that he returned to Astral Weeks, since that early album provided a microcosm of the far-ranging musical career that would follow. As the artist himself noted of Astral Weeks, with an observation that holds true for the entirety of his vast catalog, “It’s got it all: jazz, blues, folk, classic. You name it.”