One of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters in modern rock history, Van Morrison bridged the earthly and the spiritual in a musical career that spanned over four decades and included such iconic songs as "Gloria," "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Moondance," "Tupelo Honey," "Have I Told You Lately," "Real Real Gone," and countless other tunes. He began his career in his native Ireland with the gritty garage band Them, with which he waxed the original version of the rock staple "Gloria." Morrison struck out on his own in 1968, shifting gears dramatically with the poetic Astral Weeks, which minted him as a visionary artist influenced by American music and Celtic poetry. A slew of highly influential records followed, including Moondance (1970) and Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), which showed Morrison's skill at interpolating elements of soul, country and jazz into his work, but his muse appeared to run dry in the mid-1970s. He addressed issues of spirituality and redemption throughout the 1980s before returning to form at the end of the decade with "Have I Told You Lately," which became a standard for pop crooners. The 1990s found him revisiting his R&B roots, which drew enthusiastic response from listeners and critics alike, while experimenting with jazz and country music. One of popular music's great iconoclasts, Van Morrison was also one of its most gifted writers, penning songs of faith, love, redemption and joy that served as anthems for several generations.
Born George Ivan Morrison on Aug. 31, 1945 in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, he was the only child of singer-dancer Violet Stitt Morrison and her husband, electrician George Morrison, who installed in his son an abiding passion for American blues, jazz, country and R&B with a massive record collection purchased during a trip to Detroit, MI in the early 1950s. Morrison also received his first guitar from his father when he was 11 years old, and by the following year, was proficient enough on the instrument to form his first band, a skiffle group called the Sputniks. He soon added saxophone to his growing list of musical talents, which he exercised with a variety of bands throughout his teenaged years. Morrison left high school in 1960, working briefly as a window cleaner before joining the Monarchs on a tour of clubs and U.S. Army bases throughout Europe. While in Germany, the group cut a single, "Boozoo Hully Gully/Twingy Baby," which marked Morrison's first performance on record. The Monarchs called it quits upon their return to Belfast in 1963, after which Morrison worked as a journeyman singer-guitarist-saxophonist for a number of local bands.
The following year, Morrison assembled a band to perform at a new R&B club at the Maritime Hotel. The new group, Them, which took its name from the classic 1954 science fiction thriller of the same name, soon attracted a loyal following on the strength of their extended, electrified workouts on R&B and blues standards, anchored by Morrison's formidable growl. Them signed a contract with Decca Records in 1964, which produced the band's three chart hits, a cover of Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go" that cracked the Top 10 on the British pop charts the following year. The ballad "Here Comes the Night" (1965) marked their debut on the Billboard singles chart, but their most enduring song, a lusty, snarling rocker penned by Morrison called "Gloria" (1965), was actually the B-side for "Baby Please Don't Go." It would achieve its lasting fame through countless covers by the likes of The Doors, Patti Smith, AC/DC, the Shadows of Knight and others. Them briefly toured the United States in 1966, but mounting financial difficulties and Morrison's frustration with the music business as a whole caused the band to combust upon their return to Ireland in 1967.
Morrison had given up on singing in the wake of Them's demise, but the group's producer, Bert Berns, convinced him to fly to New York to record for his new label, Bang Records. A two-day recording session produced eight songs, intended for release as four singles. The first of these was "Brown-Eyed Girl," an upbeat, R&B-flecked paean to lost love that reached the Top 10 on the U.S. charts in 1967. It would become Morrison's first classic solo number, and would remain so nearly five decades after its release. The success of the single was quickly soured by the release of all eight songs as an LP called Blowin' Your Mind (1967), which Berns had completed against Morrison's wishes. Its failure sent Morrison back into exile in Ireland, emerging only after Berns' death that same year. After convincing Warner Bros. to buy out his contract with Bang Records, he began work on his first album for the label, 1968's Astral Weeks. A hauntingly beautiful collection of songs that drew from soul, jazz, folk balladry and Celtic poetry, the record was initially disregarded by the listening public, though critics would proclaim it a masterpiece and in later years, one of the best albums ever recorded.
After relocating to Woodstock, NY, Morrison released his third album, Moondance (1970), which stood in direct contrast to the melancholia of Astral Weeks with such passionate, upbeat R&B/jazz numbers as the title track and "Into the Mystic," both of which would become staples of FM radio airplay. Morrison would continue to mine the axis of American roots music and worldly mysticism in his subsequent albums, which yielded a Top 10 hit in "Domino," from 1970's His Band and Street Choir, and a Top 30 hit with the country-tinged "Wild Night" from 1971's Tupelo Honey. The following year, he scored his second highest-charting album with Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), which marked a return to the stream-of-consciousness soul poetry of Astral Weeks in extended meditative singles like "Almost Independence Day." The record also produced one of his most perfect pop singles in "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)," an ebullient tribute to the R&B singers that influenced him. Dominic would peak at No. 15 on the Billboard charts, his highest position there until 2008.
Morrison's recorded output took a downward turn with his next album, Hard Nose the Highway (1973), which received mostly negative reviews for what critics perceived as uninspired lyrics and music. He followed this with a commanding live album, It's Too Late to Stop Now (1974), which surprised many due to his long-standing case of stage fright. But the record also marked the end of Morrison's lengthy fertile period of the early '70s; by 1973, he had divorced his first wife, singer Janet (Planet) Rigsbee, broken up his band, and returned to Belfast for the first time since 1966. There, he recorded Veedon Fleece (1974), another poetic excursion influenced by the music and culture of his native country. It received a chilly reception from critics upon its release, which prompted a three-year absence from the music industry, due in part to a crippling case of writer's block. New albums with the jazz-soul group the Crusaders were commenced and cancelled repeatedly, and Morrison himself remained out of the public eye save for his performance with the Band at their final concert, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese as "The Last Waltz" (1977). That same year, he returned to recording with A Period of Transition, which was produced with New Orleans music legend Dr. John. It too earned mixed reviews, but its follow-up, 1978's Wavelength, reached gold sales status on the strength of its title track, a pop-friendly remembrance of a childhood spent listening to American music through the Voice of America radio broadcasts. He mounted his first tour in years to support the record, but the live dates were marked by erratic performances, most notably at a 1979 New York show where Morrison simply left the stage in mid-set and refused to return.
Morrison recorded regularly throughout the end of the 1970s and early '80s, focusing on spiritual and redemptive themes on albums like Into the Music (1979) and the experimental Common One (1980). He rebounded with 1982's Beautiful Vision, which contained a minor U.K. hit with the bopping "Cleaning Windows," about his early pre-music career, but soon returned to more serene soundscapes on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983), A Sense of Wonder (1985) and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986), most of which hovered at the lower end of the Billboard albums chart. Morrison explored his Irish roots with Poetic Champions Compose (1987) and in a joint effort with the long-running traditional Celtic band the Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat (1988) before settling into an adult contemporary vein for Avalon Sunset (1989). The record brought Morrison his first U.K. Top 20 single since his days with Them on the wistful "Whenever God Shines His Light," a duet with pop idol Cliff Richard, as well as the stately and elegant "Have I Told You Lately," a Top 40 U.S. single that became something of a contemporary standard, with a Top Five cover version by Rod Stewart, among many other artists.
The success of Avalon Sunset marked the beginning of an exceptionally prolific period for Morrison, who struck gold with 1990's The Best of Van Morrison, which became the best-selling album of his career, reaching multi-platinum status after a year and a half on the charts. It was soon followed by a studio album, Enlightenment (1990), which generated a Top 20 hit with the single "Real Real Gone," and an ambitious double album, Hymns to the Silence (1991), which rose to No. 5 on the U.K. albums chart on the strength of its nostalgic yearning for his Belfast childhood. He returned to his R&B roots with 1993's Too Long in Exile, which found him revisiting "Gloria" with the venerable bluesman John Lee Hooker. That renewed sense of purpose also informed his live performances, as evidenced by the Grammy-nominated A Night in San Francisco (1994), which found him delving deeply into American soul and R&B covers. The year was rounded out by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though Morrison himself did not attend the ceremony.
Morrison duetted with his daughter, Shana, on two tracks from his 1995 album Days Like This, which continued his streak of Top Five U.K. and Top 40 U.S. chart placement. The title track was also adopted as an anthem by the peace movement in Ireland. He soon settled into a consistent schedule of new studio albums like 1997's The Healing Game and Back on Top (1999), which reached No. 28 on the Billboard albums chart. Morrison balanced the new work with side projects like How Long Has This Been Going On (1996), a live jazz album recorded at Ronnie Scott's club in London, and The Philosopher's Stone (1999), a collection of previously unreleased studio recordings. During this period, he was also made an Officer of the British Empire in 1996 and an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France the following year. More side projects, including collaborations with skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan and Linda Gail Lewis, sister of Jerry Lee Lewis, preceded his return to the studio in 2002 with Down The Road, a substantial hit that marked his highest album chart placement since 1972. Its follow-up, Magic Time (2005), performed even better, as did an album of country music called Pay the Devil (2006).
Morrison entered the DVD market that same year with Live at Montreux 1980 and 1974, his first official commercial home video release. In 2008, he reached the Top 10 on the American album charts for the first time with Keep It Simple, but its success was quickly overshadowed by his decision to perform Astral Weeks in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008. The historic performances soon followed by similar concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Royal Albert Hall in 2009. This high point in his artistic achievements was slightly tempered by a scandal that erupted that same year when an alleged employee, Gigi Lee, announced on Morrison's website that he had fathered her son. Morrison denied the charges, which became the subject of considerable debate in the media prior to the deaths of both Lee and the child in 2011. The following year, Morrison released his 34th studio album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, on Blue Note Records.
By Paul Gaita