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

Great Covers Tom Petty Style

American Girl, Refugee, You Got Lucky, Runnin’ Down A Dream, BreakdownFree Fallin’, Southern AccentsMary Jane’s Last Dance, The Last DJ – there are countless great songs written by Tom Petty. In addition to that, Petty has also performed many fantastic covers, especially during his concerts. With The Heartbreakers, he had one hell of a backing band. I was reminded of that earlier today, when I came across and listened to an EP titled Bad Girl Boogie, which apparently was exclusively released on Amazon.com in June 2010 as a bonus CD to the DVD Live At The Olympic: The Last DJ. This triggered the idea of putting together a post focused on covers played by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I’d like to start things off with what I believe was the first cover I ever heard from Tom Petty: Needles And Pins, a song I’ve always dug. It was included on Pack Up The Plantation: Live!, the first official live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,  which appeared in November 1985. Written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, the tune was first released by Jackie DeShannon in April 1963. In January 1964, The Searchers turned it into a no. 1 hit single in the U.K. In the U.S., it performed strongly as well, peaking at no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Petty’s great rendition features Stevie Nicks on backing vocals.

Next up: Green Onions, simply one of the coolest instrumentals I know. It appears on The Live Anothology, a live box set and true treasure trove released in November 2009. The tune was initially written by Booker T. Jones and recorded by Booker T. & The M.G.’s in 1962 in a largely improvised fashion while waiting to back another artist in the studio. It became the title track of the Stax house band’s debut album from October 1962 and their signature tune. According to the liner notes, the Heartbreakers’ killer take was recorded during a February 6, 1997 gig at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

Here’s I’m Crying from the above mentioned bonus CD to the Live At The Olympic DVD. The concert was recorded on October 16, 2002 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Written by Eric Burden and Alan Price, this great tune by The Animals first appeared as the B-side to the Australian version of their 1964 single Boom Boom, a cover of the John Lee Hooker tune. I’m Crying was also included on their second U.S. studio album The Animals On Tour.

Another intriguing cover appearing on The Live Anthology is Goldfinger – yep, that would be the title track of the classic 1964 James Bond motion picture! Composed by John Barry, with lyrics co-written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, it’s one of the greatest movie songs I know. Presumably because it would have been hard to capture the amazing vocal by Shirley Bassey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the track as a cool Shadows-style instrumental. Mike Campbell is doing an outstanding job that I assume made Hank Marvin proud, if he heard it. Like Green Onions, Goldfinger was captured at The Fillmore in San Francisco, except it was a different date: January 31, 1997.

The last cover I’d like to highlight in this post also appears on the above Bad Girl Boogie EP/bonus CD: The Chuck Berry classic Carol, first released as a single in August 1958. It also appeared on Berry’s first compilation album Chuck Berry Is On Top from July 1959. This take features more awesome guitar work by Campbell and some kickass honky piano by Benmont Tench – great gosh a’ mighty, to borrow from another talented gentleman and piano player called Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments. Here’s a TV clip from 1966, which looks like the guys know how to play for real; if they’re faking, it’s certainly done well!

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube