Tumultuous Path Of A Journeyman And Survivor

For more than 50 years, Eric Burdon has been one of rock’s most distinctive vocalists

Oftentimes, I feel the best blog ideas are inspired by a previous post. In this case, it was my writing about great covers performed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which included I’m Crying by The Animals. The tune reminded me of Eric Burdon and a voice I’ve always felt was made for singing the blues. Just like many other blues artists or more generally those who started out during the ’60s and ’70s, Burdon has experienced it all, from the highest high to the deepest low and everything else in-between. Unlike many fellow artists, he’s still there, which I think makes him one of the ultimate survivors.

Eric Victor Burdon was born on May 11, 1941 in the northeastern English industrial town of Newcastle upon Tyne. His upbringing in a lower class working family was rough. Burdon started smoking at the age of 10 and skipping school with friends to drink beer. He described his early school years as a Dickens novel-like “dark nightmare,” which included bullying, sexual molestation and sadistic teachers hitting kids with a leather strap. While his father Matt Burdon struggled as an electric repairman, this allowed the family to have a TV by the time Eric was 10. Yet again the TV sparking it all!

Seeing Louis Armstrong on the tube triggered Burdon’s initial interest in music, first in the trombone, then in singing. The next decisive stage in his life was secondary school and a teacher named Bertie Brown who helped him get into the local art college. There he met John Steele, the original drummer of The Animals. They ended up playing in a band called The Pagan Jazzmen. By early 1959, keyboardist Alan Price had joined. After a few iterations and name changes, the band evolved into The Animals in 1962.

The Animals
The Animals (from left): John Steele, Eric Burdon, Hilton Valentine, Alan Price and Chas Chandler

The initial lineup featured Burdon (lead vocals), Steele (drums), Price (keyboards), Hilton Valentine (guitar) and Chas Chandler (bass), who later became the manager of Jimi Hendrix. Between September and December 1963, The Animals developed a following in Newcastle by playing local clubs there. During that period, Burdon met some of his blues heroes, including John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy WilliamsonThe Animals also backed Williamson during a local gig.

In December 1963, The Animals recorded their first single Baby Let Me Take You Home. It climbed to a respectable no. 22 on the UK singles chart. But it was the second single, The House Of The Rising Sun from June 1964, which brought the big breakthrough, topping the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada and Sweden. It also started the beginning of the band’s demise when the arrangement of the traditional was only credited to Price who collected all the songwriting royalties.

The band’s first studio album The Animals appeared in the U.S. in September 1964. Their British debut record followed two months later. As was quite common at the time, the track listing between the two versions differed. Altogether, the original incarnation of The Animals released five U.S. and three U.K. studio albums. Here’s the above mentioned I’m Crying, which was included on the second U.S. record The Animals On Tour, a peculiar title for a studio album. Co-written by Burden and Price, it’s one of only a few original tracks by the band that was mostly known for fiery renditions of blues and R&B staples by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles.

In May 1966, The Animals released Don’t Bring Me Down. Co-written by songwriter duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the tune became Burdon’s favorite single, he told Louder/The Blues during a long interview in April 2013. The song also became the opening track to the band’s fourth U.S. album Animalization released in July 1966. The great tune is characterized by a distinct Hammond B3 sound played by Dave Rowberry, who had replaced Alan Price  following his departure in late 1965, and Hilton Valentine’s fuzz guitar.  Burdon recalled the song’s recording in a hotel in the Bahamas. “There was an old record player in the room where we were recording and it had this strange, thin electrostatic speaker. Dave Rowberry connected it to his Hammond B3 and that’s where the sound comes from on that track.”

By September 1966, The Animals had dissipated and Burdon started work on his first solo album Eric Is Here, which wouldn’t appear until the following year. Meanwhile, in December 1966, he formed Eric Burdon & The Animals. In addition to him, the band included Barry Jenkins, who had replaced John Steel on drums during the first incarnation of The Animals, John Weider (guitar, violin, bass), Vic Briggs (guitar, piano) and Danny McCulloch (bass). The band subsequently relocated from the U.K. to San Francisco. By that time, Burdon had become a heavy user of LSD.

In October 1967, Eric Burdon & The Animals released their debut. Appropriately titled Winds Of Change, it featured mostly original tracks and psychedelic-oriented rock, a major departure from the past. But, as Louder/The Blues noted, except for San Franciscan Nights, “the British public were reluctant to accept Eric’s transformation from hard-drinking Geordie bluesman to LSD-endorsing, peace and love hippy.” Three more albums followed before this second incarnation of The Animals dissolved in late 1968. Here’s Monterey, the opener to their second record The Twain Shall Meet from May 1968. Reflecting the band’s drug-infused experiences at the Monterey Pop Festival, where they also had performed, the tune is credited to all five members.

Disillusioned with the music business, Burdon went to LA to try acting. But after one year, he returned to music, fronting a Californian funk rock band that would be called War. Together they recorded two original albums in 1970. Here’s Spill The Wine from the first, Eric Burden Declares “War”, which appeared in April 1970. Credited to the members of War, the tune became the band’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also marked Burdon’s last major chart success.

Burdon’s relationship with War abruptly unraveled after the band had decided to record their next album without him. It was around the same time his friend Jimi Hendrix passed away. Burden was devastated. “That became the end of the parade because it affected us so much,” he stated during the above Louder/The Blues interview. “It was tough for me. It was tough for everybody.” Unfortunately, one of Burdon’s answers was drugs and more drugs.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Burdon had numerous drug excesses. In 1983, this lead to an arrest in Germany where he had lived since 1977. Subsequently, he returned to the U.S. Yet despite all the upheaval, Burdon still managed to continue recording albums and touring. In 1971, he teamed up with American jump blues artist Jimmy Witherspoon for a record titled Guilty! Here’s Home Dream, a great slow blues tune written by Burdon.

In August 1977, the first incarnation of The Animals released the first of two reunion albums, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, billed as The Original Animals. Despite positive reviews, the record only reached no. 70 on the Billboard 200. Lack of promotion, no supporting tour and most importantly appearing at a time when punk and disco ruled were all factors. Here’s the great opener Brother Bill (The Last Clean Shirt), a tune co-written by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Clyde Otis.

Next up: Going Back To Memphis, a song co-written by Burdon and Steve Grant. It appeared on Burdon’s 1988 album I Used To Be An Animal. Released in the wake of his autobiography I Used To Be An Animal, But I’m Alright Now,  it was Burdon’s first new album in almost four years.

In April 2004, My Secret Life appeared, Burdon’s first new solo record in almost 16 years. Here’s the opener Once Upon A Time, a nice soulful tune co-written by Burdon and Robert Bradley.

‘Til Your River Runs Dry is Burdon’s most recent studio release, which came out in January 2013. His website calls it his “most personal album to date.” Here’s Old Habits Die Hard, co-written by Burdon and Tom Hambridge. “This song is dedicated to the people in Egypt and Libya trying to throw off the shackles of all those centuries of brutality,” Burdon told Rolling Stone a few days prior to the record’s release. “It reminds me of Paris in 1968 when I saw the kids going up against the brutal police force or the L.A. uprising. I went through these experiences and they’re still with me today. The struggle carries on. I wrote this song so I won’t forget and to say, even though I’m older now, I am still out there with you.”

Burdon’s most recent recording is a nice cover of For What It’s Worth, written by Stephen Stills and originally released by Buffalo Springfield in December 1966. He commented on his website: The whole idea of recording this song came as a result of a conversation I had with a young fan backstage, when she asked me, “Where are the protest songs today?” Right then and there, I wanted to write something about the brutality that’s going on in the world today but I couldn’t find any better way to say it than Buffalo Springfield did in “For What It’s Worth.

In 1994, Eric Burdon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame as part of The Animals, along with the other original members of the band. He did not attend the induction ceremony. Burdon remains active to this day and uses the name The Animals for his backing band, which includes Evan Mackey (trombone), Davey Allen (piano), Dustin Koester (drums), Johnzo West (guitar), Justin Andres (bass) and Ruben Salinas (saxophone).

While Burdon’s website currently does not list any upcoming gigs for this year, according to Consequence of SoundEric Burdon & The Animals are part of the lineup for the KAABOO Festival in Arlington, Texas, May 10-12. The band is also scheduled to perform on May 26 at Avila Beach Blues Festival in California.

Asked by Louder/The Blues during the above interview how he would sum up the past 50 years, Burdon said, “I’d been screwed by [War], I’d been screwed by The Animals. All use Burdon because he’s a great front guy and then come payday where’s the money? A lot of people had a great ride off me being on stage and I didn’t get much of it.” With a little chuckle he added, “I’m not bitter. I’m bittersweet.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Louder/The Blues, Deutsche Welle, Eric Burdon website, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound, Eventbrite, YouTube

3 thoughts on “Tumultuous Path Of A Journeyman And Survivor”

  1. Good idea for a post. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to do an Animals/Burdon post but certainly important in rock history. “The Animals on Tour” for a studio album? What idiot record executive’s idea was that? “Spill the Wine” was a good tune but so different from the Animals output it’s almost like there was no connection. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is another great one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I pop into Eric’s music periodically. That early Animal stuff is so good. ‘Misunderstood’ ‘It’s my Life’, ‘Boom Boom Boom’. Mostly covers but all those bands were doing it back then and doing it good. I also like his War period. I’ll link you one of my favorites. Good take and you nailed it.

    Liked by 1 person

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