George Ivan “Van” Morrison, OBE (born 31 August 1945) is a Northern Irish singer-songwriter and musician. His live performances at their best are described as mystical and transcendental, while some of his recordings, such as the studio albums Astral Weeks and Moondance and the live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, are critically acclaimed.
Known as “Van the Man” to his fans, Morrison started his professional career when, as a teenager in the late 1950s, he played a variety of instruments including guitar, harmonica, keyboards and saxophone for various Irish showbands covering the popular hits of the day. He rose to prominence in the mid-1960s as the lead singer of the Northern Irish R&B band Them, with whom he recorded the garage band classic “Gloria”. His solo career began under the pop-hit oriented guidance of Bert Berns with the release of the hit single “Brown Eyed Girl” in 1967. After Berns’ death, Warner Bros. Records bought out his contract and allowed him three sessions to record Astral Weeks in 1968. Even though this album would gradually garner high praise, it was initially a poor seller; however, the next one, Moondance, established Morrison as a major artist, and throughout the 1970s he built on his reputation with a series of critically acclaimed albums and live performances. Morrison continues to record and tour, producing albums and live performances that sell well and are generally warmly received, sometimes collaborating with other artists, such as Georgie Fame and The Chieftains. In 2008 he performed Astral Weeks live for the first time since 1968.
Much of Morrison’s music is structured around the conventions of soul music and R&B, such as the popular singles “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”, “Domino” and “Wild Night”. An equal part of his catalogue consists of lengthy, loosely connected, spiritually inspired musical journeys that show the influence of Celtic tradition, jazz, and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as Astral Weeks and lesser-known works such as Veedon Fleece and Common One. The two strains together are sometimes referred to as “Celtic Soul”.
Morrison has received six Grammy Awards, the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Life and Career
Early life and musical roots: 1945–64
George Ivan (Van) Morrison was born on 31 August 1945, at 125 Hynford Street, Bloomfield, Belfast, Northern Ireland, as the only child of George Morrison, a shipyard electrician, and Violet Stitt Morrison, a singer and tap dancer in her youth. Van Morrison’s family roots descend from the Ulster Scots population that settled in Belfast. From 1950 to 1956, Morrison, who began to be known as “Van” during this time, attended Elmgrove Primary School.Morrison’s father had what was at the time one of the largest record collections in Ulster (acquired during his sojourn in Detroit, Michigan in the early 1950s), and the young Morrison grew up listening to artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Lead Belly, and Solomon Burke; of whom Morrison later said, “If it weren’t for guys like Ray and Solomon, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn’t for that kind of music, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now.”His father’s record collection exposed him to various musical genres, such as the blues of Muddy Waters; the gospel of Mahalia Jackson; the jazz of Charlie Parker; the folk music of Woody Guthrie; and country music from Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, while the first record he ever bought was by blues musician Sonny Terry. When Lonnie Donegan had a hit with “Rock Island Line”, written by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Morrison felt he was familiar with and able to connect with skiffle music as he had been hearing Lead Belly before that.
Morrison’s father bought him his first acoustic guitar when he was eleven, and he learned to play rudimentary chords from the song book, The Carter Family Style, edited by Alan Lomax. A year later, when he was twelve years old, Morrison formed his first band, a skiffle group, “The Sputniks”, named after the recently launched Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1. In 1958, the band played at some of the local cinemas, and Morrison took the lead, contributing most of the singing and arranging. Other short-lived groups followed – at fourteen, he formed Midnight Special, another modified skiffle band and played at a school concert. Then, when he heard Jimmy Giuffre playing saxophone on “The Train and The River”, he talked his father into buying him a saxophone, and took lessons in tenor sax and music reading. Now playing the saxophone, Morrison joined with various local bands, including one called Deanie Sands and the Javelins, with whom he played guitar and shared singing. The line-up of the band was lead vocalist Deanie Sands, guitarist George Jones and drummer, vocalist Roy Kane. Later the four main musicians of the Javelins, with the addition of Wesley Black as pianist, became known as the Monarchs.
Morrison attended Orangefield Boys Secondary School, leaving in July 1960 with no qualifications. As a member of a working-class community, it was expected that he would get a regular full-time job, so after several short apprenticeship positions, he settled into a job as a window cleaner—later alluded to in his songs “Cleaning Windows” and “Saint Dominic’s Preview”. However, he had been developing his musical interests from an early age and continued playing with the Monarchs part-time. Young Morrison also played with the Harry Mack Showband, the Great Eight, with his older workplace friend, Geordie (G. D.) Sproule, whom he later named as one of his biggest influences.
At age 17, he toured Europe for the first time with the Monarchs, now calling themselves the International Monarchs. This Irish showband, with Morrison playing saxophone, guitar and harp, in addition to back-up duty on bass and drums, toured steamy clubs and US Army bases in Scotland, England, and Germany, often playing five sets a night. While in Germany, the band recorded a single, “Boozoo Hully Gully”/”Twingy Baby”, under the name Georgie and The Monarchs. This was Morrison’s first recording, taking place in November 1963 at Ariola Studios in Cologne with Morrison on saxophone; it made the lower reaches of the German charts.
Upon returning to Belfast in November 1963, the group disbanded, so Morrison connected with Geordie Sproule again and played with him in the Manhattan Showband along with guitarist Herbie Armstrong. When Armstrong auditioned to play with Brian Rossi and the Golden Eagles, Morrison went along and was hired as a blues singer.
Main article: Them (band)
The roots of Them, the band that first broke Morrison on the international scene, came in April 1964 when Morrison responded to an advert for musicians to play at a new R&B club at the Maritime Hotel – an old dance hall frequented by sailors.The new R&B club needed a band for its opening night; however, Morrison had left the Golden Eagles (the group with which he had been performing at the time), so he created a new band out of The Gamblers, an East Belfast group formed by Ronnie Millings, Billy Harrison, and Alan Henderson in 1962. Eric Wrixon, still a schoolboy, was the piano player and keyboardist. Morrison played saxophone and harmonica and shared vocals with Billy Harrison. They followed Eric Wrixon’s suggestion for a new name, and The Gamblers morphed into Them, their name taken from the Fifties horror movie Them!
The band’s strong R&B performances at the Maritime attracted attention. Them performed without a routine and Morrison ad libbed, creating his songs live as he performed. While the band did covers, they also played some of Morrison’s early songs, such as “Could You Would You”, which he had written in Camden Town while touring with The Manhattan Showband. The debut of Morrison’s “Gloria” took place on stage here. Sometimes, depending on his mood, the song could last up to twenty minutes. Morrison has stated that “Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel,” believing that the band did not manage to capture the spontaneity and energy of their live performances on their records. The statement also reflected the instability of the Them line-up, with numerous members passing through the ranks after the definitive Maritime period. Morrison and Henderson would remain the only constants, and a less successful version of Them even soldiered on after Morrison’s departure.
Dick Rowe of Decca Records became aware of the band’s performances, and signed Them to a standard two-year contract. In that period, they released two albums and ten singles, with two more singles released after Morrison departed the band. They had three chart hits, “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (1964), “Here Comes the Night” (1965), and “Mystic Eyes” (1965), though it was the b-side of “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, the garage band classic, “Gloria”, that went on to become a rock standard covered by Patti Smith, The Doors, Shadows of Knight, Jimi Hendrix and many others.
Building on the success of their singles in the United States, and riding on the back of the British Invasion, Them undertook a two-month tour of America in May and June 1966 that included a residency from 30 May to 18 June at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. The Doors were the supporting act on the last week, and Morrison’s influence on The Doors singer, Jim Morrison, was noted by John Densmore in his book Riders On The Storm.
Van Morrison – Wild Night (1971):