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

From Bonehead To Deadhead

My late discovery of the Grateful Dead

For a guy who has listened to music for now more than 40 years, I have to make a somewhat embarrassing admission: Until a few days ago, essentially, I hadn’t known anything about the Grateful Dead. Then, fellow blogger Intogroove, who had done a two-part series on the Dead, was kind enough to give me a few recommendations to start my long overdue exploration of the band. While after two days of fairly intense listening to some of their albums I certainly haven’t become a Dead expert, I’m ready to boldly declare myself a Deadhead – even if all the music I’ve yet to hear (and there is plenty left!) should turn out to be horrible, which I highly doubt!

So why the hell did it take me so long to realize how grate, I mean great, these guys are? For some reason, I always thought that with their marathon concerts and endless instrumental jams, the Dead would be a hard-to-acquire taste. Sure, some may find a 15-minute-plus jam of Fire On The Mountain on their Cornell 5/8/77 live album a bit heavy, and I know there are even longer tunes, but I don’t find anything terrible about it – on the contrary, I actually love that song! And then, of course one needs to realize there’s a significant difference between the studio Dead and the live Dead.

Grateful Dead Press Kit for 1967 Debut Album
Press kit for Grateful Dead eponymous 1967 studio album. From left to right: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Ron McKernan and Phil Lesh

At least I had been aware of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), who together with Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron McKernan (keyboards, harmonica), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) founded Grateful Dead in the San Francisco area in 1965. I’m not going to recap their history here. I had first heard of Garcia in connection with the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, one of my all-time favorite records, for which he played pedal steel guitar on Teach Your Children Well. According to Wikipedia, in exchange CSNY helped the Dead with their harmony singing on their albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Both are among the Dead records I’ve listened to and come to dig immediately.

Following is a playlist of Dead songs I like, based on what I’ve heard thus far. Obviously, this is by no means meant to be complete. Considering the band’s prolific output, I don’t think it’s even possible to come up with a playlist that’s completely representative, unless perhaps one does the equivalent to some of their live jams! So here we go.

One thing I noticed is that in addition to original tunes, the Dead had some great covers. One I like in particular is Good Morning, Little School Girl from their debut The Grateful Dead released in March 1967. The tune, which has been covered by many artists, was written and first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson in 1937.

Casey Jones is from Dead’s forth studio album, the above mentioned Workingman’s Dead, which appeared in June 1970. The track was co-written by Garcia (music) and Robert Hunter (lyrics), who frequently worked with the band. I was also happy to realize that I had heard the tune before.

The follow-on album to Workingman’s Dead was American Beauty from November 1970. Two records released with barely six months in-between is pretty amazing, especially by today’s standards! Anyway, here’s the seductive, groovy Truckin’, which is credited to Gracia, Lesh, Weir and Hunter.

Now, I’m going to make a big jump to July 1987, when Dead released what became their most commercially successful studio album In The Dark. Among others, it includes the catchy Touch Of Grey, another song I had heard before, which made it into the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 9 – the Dead’s only top 40 single. I also had known Throwing Stones. The tune I like to highlight here is Black Muddy River, which was co-written by Garcia and Hunter. Gregg Allman covered this beautiful song on his final studio album, which is where I had heard it initially.

Since I realize no Dead playlist could be called as such without any live material, I’d like to include two tracks. The first is from Europe ’72, a triple album released in November 1972: Jack Straw, a co-write by Hunter and Weir.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the epic Fire On The Mountain. This is the version from Cornell 5/8/77, which appeared in May 2017. Initially, the song was included on Shakedown Street, Dead’s 10th studio album from November 1978. It is credited to Mickey Hart, who became a member of the band in September 1967 as an additional drummer, and Hunter.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Buddy Guy/Left My Blues in San Francisco

Guy’s fantastic debut could have been called ‘Left My Blues In Memphis’

When it comes to Buddy Guy, I’ve yet to hear a bad song, so I feel you pretty much can’t go wrong. After Apple Music served up Left My Blues In San Francisco as a suggestion, I said to myself, ‘sure, why not.’ Other than I Suffer With The Blues and Leave My Girl Alone, which I had previously included in my iTunes Guy playlist, I don’t recall having listened to his debut in its entirely. When I did so this morning, my first spontaneous thought was, ‘boy, not only do I dig his guitar playing, but I also like his soulful voice.’ In fact, this whole album has a Wilson Pickett/Stax feel to it. As it turns out, this wasn’t accidental.

Remarkably, by the time Guy released Left My Blues In San Francisco, he already had been a professional guitarist for more than 15 years. According to Wikipedia, Guy, who was born and raised in Louisiana, had been performing with different bands in Baton Rouge since the early 1950s. In 1957, he moved to Chicago and met Muddy Waters. Soon thereafter, he became a session guitarist for Waters and other local blues artists, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were all under contract with Chess or that label’s subsidiary Checker.

Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters & Buddy Guy
Willie Dixon (l), Muddy Water (m) and Buddy Guy (r) at Chess Records, 1964

Apparently, company founder Leonard Chess felt Guy’s blues guitar playing sounded like “noise.” So Chess told Guy to play R&B ballads, jazz instrumentals and soul tunes and recorded him, but none of this material was released. In fact, Left My Blues In San Francisco became the only Guy record that appeared on the Chess label. I suppose, Leonard’s attitude explains the soulful sound of the record. While it pains me to think the album probably wasn’t the one Guy would have cut had Chess given him full artistic freedom, it’s a true gem, in my opinion.

As for Leonard Chess, according to an interview Guy gave to Rolling Stone in November 2015, he eventually realized how wrong he had been about Guy. “The first thing he said was, ‘I want you to kick me in my ass.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Because you’ve been trying to show us this shit ever since you came here and we was too goddamn dumb to listen. So now this shit is selling and I want you to come in here — you can have your way in the studio.’ But by then I was gone.” Well, Chess had their chance and they blew it – tough luck! Time for some music.

The album kicks off with Keep It To Myself, a terrific opener that sets the soul mood for the record. The tune was written by Williamson who recorded it in 1956.

Next up: Crazy Love, another excellent song, which was written by Dixon. Guy’s take was the first recorded version of the track.

I Suffer With The Blues is one of three tunes on the album, which are credited to Guy.

Buddy’s Groove is another gem on the record. The song is credited to Gene Barge, who also produced the album and played the tenor saxophone on various songs, though not this one.

She Suits Me To A Tee is another original Guy tune. I really dig the groove and Guy’s vocal on this track.

The last song I’d like to call out is Every Girl I See, the album’s closer. The tune was co-written by Dixon and Michael M.P. Murphy.

To date, Guy has recorded sixteen additional solo albums. His most recent studio release is Born To Play Guitar, another fantastic record that appeared in July 2015. It won Guy the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album in 2016, his seventh. While Guy has been admired by many other guitar greats like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana early on, it took until the early 1990s until those Grammy awards started coming.

Today, Guy can rightly be called the last man standing from the great Chicago blues artists. I’m thrilled I’m going to see him on April 18 at B.B. King Blues Club in New York City, which will be my second time after July 2016. Given ticket prices these days, there aren’t many artists I see more than once. When I learned Guy was coming to New York, it didn’t take long to convince me.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube