Van Morrison (illustration by Andy Friedman)
[March 2019 update: "The Music of Van Morrison," an all-star tribute concert at Carnegie Hall on March 21, has lined up an impressive caravan of musicians honoring the irascible Irishman, including Glen Hansard, Todd Rundgren, Patti Smith, Valerie June, Shawn Colvin, Bettye Lavette, Robert Earl Keen, Brian Fallon, Josh Ritter, Anderson East, and the Secret Sisters. The event, produced by Michael Dorf, benefits music education programs for underprivileged children. The concert takes place on the eve of Legacy Recordings' rerelease of Morrison's 1997 album The Healing Game, now expanded to a hefty, deluxe, three-CD edition which includes previously unreleased sessions and collaborations (with folks like John Lee Hooker and Carl Perkins) and a live concert, recorded in July 1997 in Montreux, Switzerland. It's a bonanza for dedicated Van fans, especially those who consider The Healing Game as a kind of comeback for Morrison when it came out, over twenty years ago.
The man himself is also on tour this year — he played Forest Hills Stadium in September 2018 —with a three-night stand slated in Chicago at the end of April and a sojourn to New Orleans to play the Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 28. And since we first covered him as one of our early FUV Essentials in 2016, Morrison has released four more albums: Roll with the Punches (2017), Versatile (2017), You're Driving Me Crazy (2018) and The Prophet Speaks (2018).
Van Morrison’s Keep Me Singing, his 36th studio release, marks another chapter in the five-decade career of this Northern Irish singer, songwriter, and soul man. In addition, the 71-year-old musician's 1974 live album, ... It’s Too Late To Stop Now ..., has been reissued, expanding on the original album with previously unreleased live material and a DVD.
George Ivan Morrison was born in Belfast on August 31, 1945. An only child, he was introduced to music through his father’s sizable record collection of folk, blues, country, gospel and jazz. Artists like Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Mahalia Jackson resonated with the young Morrison. As he told Rolling Stone's David Fricke in a recent interview, he was especially taken with American blues. "It was working-class music," Morrison told Fricke. "Working-class would be different here. In America, working-class was more like middle class [for us]. Here it was getting by on nothing. I related to the lyrics in Chicago blues and the stuff I heard by John Lee Hooker, not from their point of view – it was from my point of view."
In the '50s, Morrison was bitten by the skiffle bug, which led him to form his own group. He went on to be part of many local bands and his versatility helped; he played guitar, saxophone, harmonica and sang. He could even switch to bass and drums if needed.
Them, the band that would break Morrison internationally, came together by 1964. As one of two constant members in a frequently changing lineup, Morrison and Them had strong live shows which solidified their reputation, leading to a recording contract.
Them went on to record many singles and two albums: 1965's The Angry Young Them (released as Them in the United States) and 1966's Them Again. Their best known song was the Morrison-penned “Gloria.” Despite their increasing success, Them splintered apart in 1966 (and later resurrected without Morrison).
In the wake of Them, Morrison was persuaded to sign with Bang Records, a new label run by producer and composer, Bert Berns. Berns was eager to record Morrison as a solo artist. Unfortunately, the musician had signed a contract that he failed to closely inspect, resulting in the release of an album that Morrison never intended to be issued. That controversial album, 1967's Blowin’ Your Mind!, featured Morrison’s first hit single, “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Following the Bang fiasco, Morrison signed a new deal with Warner Bros. Records and his solo career found its footing with the release of 1968's Astral Weeks — his first genuine artistic statement as a solo artist. Although it was a commercial disappointment, the album was praised by music critics; it's one of Morrison’s finest albums and one of the great classic recordings of all time.
For the next five years, Morrison was a singer and songwriter with few peers. Astral Weeks was followed by a string of brilliant albums. They included 1970's Moondance, which sold a million copies and featured signature songs like the title track and “Into The Mystic." There was also 1970's His Band And The Street Choir (1970), with “Domino” and “Blue Money,” and 1971's Tupelo Honey with the singles “Wild Night” and the title track, and 1972's Saint Dominic’s Preview.
For the next forty-four years, Morrison has maintained an often prolific, acclaimed career, creating intensely soulful works of unparalleled beauty, unbridled passion, and spiritual awakening. He has collaborated on albums with artists like the Chieftains, Georgie Fame, Mose Allison, and Linda Gail Lewis. And from his own eclectic catalog, from spiritual albums like 1991's Hymns to the Silence to 2006's country-flavored Pay the Devil, Morrison has always been an explorer of the nuances of genre, always looking back to those albums that influenced him as a child.
Van Morrison has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, winning twice. He's had four recordings — including the albums Astral Weeks and Moondance — inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He has been nominated for eight Brit Awards, winning once, and his 1995 album Days Like This was nominated for the Mercury Prize. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Irish Music Hall of Fame. Three of Morrison’s songs were even included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2004 list of "Five Hundred Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll": “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Madame George” and “Moondance."
But for Morrison, one of the greatest honors bestowed upon him was receiving a knighthood — yes, he's now Sir Van Morrison. Van the Man was knighted earlier in February by Prince Charles. “For fifty-three years I’ve been in the business," Morrison told the BBC. "That’s not bad for a blue eyed soul singer from east Belfast.”
Morrison, that Northern Irish soulman and spiritual ambassador, might have a pretty impressive title now, but we'll give him one more. He's absolutely one of our FUV Essentials.
#FUVEssentials: Van Morrison (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Rita Houston)