Born George Ivan Morrison, 31 August 1945, Belfast, Northern Ireland. The son of a noted collector of jazz and blues records, Morrison quickly developed an interest in music. At the age of 12 he joined Deannie Sands And The Javelins, an aspiring skiffle band, but within two years was an integral part of the Monarchs, a showband which, by 1963, was embracing R&B and soul. Tours of Scotland and England were undertaken before the band travelled to Germany where they completed a lone single for CBS Records, “Bozoo Hully Gully”/”Twingy Baby”, before disbanding. The experience Morrison garnered – he took up vocals, saxophone and harmonica – proved invaluable upon his return to Belfast and a subsequent merger with members of local attraction the Gamblers in a new act, Them. This exciting band scored two notable UK Top 10 hit singles with “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Here Comes The Night” (both 1965), while the former’s b-side “Gloria”, a snarling Morrison original, is revered as a classic of the garage-band genre. The band’s progress was hampered by instability and Morrison’s reluctance to court the pop marketplace – a feature continued throughout his career – but their albums showed the early blossoming of an original stylist. His reading of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Them Again) is rightly regarded as one of the finest interpretations in a much-covered catalogue.
Them disbanded in 1966 following an arduous US tour, but within months the singer had returned to New York at the prompting of producer Bert Berns. Their partnership resulted in “Brown Eyed Girl’, an ebullient celebration of love in a style redolent of classic black harmony groups. The single deservedly reached the US Top 10 in 1967, in turn inspiring the hurriedly issued Blowin” Your Mind. Morrison later claimed the set was culled from sessions for projected singles and, although inconsistent, contained the cathartic “T.B. Sheets’, on which Morrison first introduced the stream-of-consciousness imagery recurring in later work. Berns” premature death brought this period to a sudden end, and for the ensuing 12 months Morrison punctuated live performances by preparing his next release. Astral Weeks showed the benefit of such seclusion, as here an ambition to create without pop’s constraints was fully realized. Drawing support from a stellar backing band which included Miles Davis’ bass player Richard Davis and Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, Morrison created an ever-shifting musical tapestry, inspired by blues, soul and gospel, yet without ever imitating their sound. His vocal performance was both assured and highly emotional and the resultant collection is justifiably lauded as one of rock’s landmark releases. On Moondance the artist returned to a more conventional sense of discipline, on which tighter, punchier, jazzier arrangements formed the platform for the singer’s still-soaring inflections. “Caravan”, “Into The Mystic” and the title track itself (with an intro highly reminiscent of Kenny Burrell’s “Midnight Blue”), became a staple part of Morrison’s subsequent career, offering an optimistic spirit prevalent in the artist’s immediate recordings.
Both His Band And The Street Choir and Tupelo Honey suggested a new-found peace of mind, as a recently married Morrison celebrated the idyll of his sylvan surroundings. “Domino” and “Wild Night” were the album’s respective US hit singles, both of which invoked the punch of classic Stax Records-era soul, and if the former set offered a greater debt to R&B, its counterpart showed an infatuation with country styles. Both preoccupations were maintained on Saint Dominic’s Preview, one of Morrison’s most enigmatic releases. Having opened the set with “Jackie Wilson Said”, an effervescent tribute to the great soul singer later covered by Dexys Midnight Runners, Morrison wove a path through rock and late-night jazz which culminated in two lengthy compositions. Laced with chiming acoustic 12-string guitar, “Listen To The Lion” and “Almost Independence Day” resumed the singer’s vocal improvisation; by alternately whispering, pleading, shouting and extolling, Morrison created two intoxicating and hypnotic performances.
Morrison’s next release, Hard Nose The Highway, proved disappointing as the artist enhanced an ever-widening palette with contributions by the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus and such disparate inclusions as “Green”, culled from the educational children’s show, Sesame Street, and the folk standard “Wild Mountain Thyme”, herein retitled “Purple Heather”. Despite the presence of “Warm Love” and “The Great Deception”, the album is generally regarded as inconsistent. However, Morrison reclaimed his iconoclastic position with the enthralling It’s Too Late To Stop Now, an in-concert selection on which he was backed by the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Morrison not only re-stated his own impressive catalogue, but acknowledged his mentors with a series of tight and outstanding recreations, notably of Sonny Boy “Rice Miller” Williamson (“Take Your Hand Out Of Your Pocket”), Ray Charles (“I Believe To My Soul”) and Bobby Bland (“Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”). The result was a seamless tribute to R&B and one of rock’s definitive live albums. It was succeeded by the pastoral Veedon Fleece, a set inspired by a sabbatical in Ireland during 1973. Its sense of spirituality – a keynote of Morrison’s later work – was best captured on “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River”, but “Streets Of Arklow” and “Country Fair” were equally evocative. The judicious use of uillean pipes and woodwind enhanced the rural atmosphere of a collection which, although received with mixed reviews, was, in retrospect, a linchpin in the artist’s subsequent development.
A three-year hiatus was ended with the release of A Period Of Transition, a largely undistinguished set on which the singer collaborated actively with Dr. John. Wavelength, which featured former Them organist Peter Bardens, was welcomed as a marked improvement and if lacking the triumphs of earlier work, contained none of its pitfalls and instead offered a mature musical consistency. Similar qualities abounded on Into The Music which included the noticeably buoyant “Bright Side Of The Road”, Morrison’s first solo, albeit minor, UK chart entry. It also featured “And The Healing Has Begun”, wherein Morrison celebrated his past in order to address his future, and the shamelessly nostalgic “It’s All In The Game”, a cover version of Tommy Edwards’ 1957 hit single. Although a general penchant for punchy soul suggested part of a continuing affinity, it instead marked the end of a stylistic era. On Common One Morrison resumed his introspective path and, on the expansive “Summertime In England”, referred to the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge and T.S. Eliot in a piece whose gruff, improvisatory nature polarized critics proclaiming it either mesmerizing or self-indulgent.
A greater sense of discipline on Beautiful Vision resulted in another much-lauded classic. Although noted for “Cleaning Windows”, a joyous celebration of the singer’s formative Belfast years, the album contained several rich, meditative compositions, notably “Dweller On The Threshold” and “Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell”. Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart and A Sense Of Wonder continued in a similar vein, the former boasting the compulsive “Rave On, John Donne”, wherein Morrison again placed his work on a strictly literary pantheon, while the latter opened with the equally evocative “Tore Down A La Rimbaud”. The title track of the latter set the style for many of the beautifully wandering and spiritually uplifting songs of the next fertile period. Live At The Grand Opera House, Belfast was an insubstantial resum‚, failing to capture the sense of occasion demonstrably apparent in person, but Morrison confirmed his artistic rebirth with No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Here he openly acknowledged his musical past – the set included the punningly titled “Here Comes The Knight” – as well as offering a searing riposte to those perceived as imitators on “A Town Called Paradise”. “T¡r Na Nog” and “One Irish Rover” continued his long-running affair with Celtic themes, a feature equally prevalent on Poetic Champions Compose. The wedding of love and religion, another integral part of the artist’s 80s work, was enhanced by the sumptuous “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”, on which the singer’s contemplative delivery was truly inspirational.
Morrison, many years into his career, was now producing an astonishingly high standard of work. His albums during this period were events, not mere releases. Irish Heartbeat, a festive collaboration with traditional act the Chieftains, offered a joyous but less intensive perspective. Although the title track and “Celtic Ray” were exhumed from Morrison’s own catalogue, its highlights included moving renditions of “She Moved Through The Fair” and “Carrickfergus”. By this time Morrison was resettled in London and had invited R&B vocalist/organist Georgie Fame to join his touring revue. Avalon Sunset enhanced the singer’s commercial ascendancy when “Whenever God Shines His Light”, a duet with Cliff Richard, became a UK Top 20 single in July 1989, Morrison’s first since Them’s halcyon days. The album had once again a strong spiritual feel combined with childhood memories. Morrison, however, was also able to compose and deliver quite immaculate love songs, including the stunning “Have I Told You Lately”. Enlightenment thus engendered considerable interest although Morrison, as oblivious to pop’s trappings as ever, simply maintained his peerless progress. The mixture was as before, from the pulsating opening track, “Real Real Gone”, itself once considered for Common One, through gospel and the biographical, where “Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll” recalls the singer’s discovery, by radio, of Ray Charles and Little Richard.
Another unlikely collaboration occurred in 1991 when Morrison composed several songs for Tom Jones, one of which, “Carrying A Torch”, was remade for Hymns To The Silence. This expansive double set confirmed the artist’s prolific nature, yet reviews lauding its sense of grandeur also queried its self-obsession. Too Long In Exile revisited his R&B roots and included a duet with John Lee Hooker on a reworked “Gloria”. In February 1994 he was honoured at the BRIT Awards for his outstanding contribution to music. The following year’s Days Like This was highly accessible, easy on the ear and probably the most “contented” Morrison album since Tupelo Honey 24 years previously. The same year a lacklustre tribute album, No Prima Donna, was issued by Morrison’s Exile productions. Featuring contributions from diverse names including Shana Morrison (his daughter), Lisa Stansfield, Elvis Costello and the Phil Coulter Orchestra, the album was a grave disappointment for Morrison’s fans. How Long Has This Been Going On, recorded with Georgie Fame at Ronnie Scott’s club, was a comfortable jazz album which revisited the artist’s roots. He continued in this vein with Fame, Ben Sidran and one of his idols, Mose Allison, recording a tribute album to the latter in 1996. The same year, Morrison was awarded the OBE for his services to music.
Morrison’s 1997 offering was The Healing Game. Breaking no new ground, this album featured more original songs using the familiar glorious chord changes which the converted love. Morrison, whose disdain for the press is legendary, doubtless remained unmoved by his critics, yet the paradox of a man capable of sumptuous music and a barking temper is indeed intriguing. It is a tribute that such aberrations can be set aside in order to enjoy his enthralling catalogue. The following year’s The Philosopher’s Stone was a compilation of unreleased material.
Morrison guested on albums by B.B. King and Lonnie Donegan before releasing his first album for the Virgin Records subsidiary PointBlank in 1999. Back On Top was yet another highly satisfying album, and together with the enthusiastic backing of a new record company it became his most commercially successful release in many years. Morrison was probably wryly amused to find he had a hit single on his hands when “Precious Time” hit the UK Top 40 in March. Nothing on this record was that much different to the beautiful vision he has followed for over 30 years. Three distinctive tracks, however, restated Morrison’s towering presence. “Philosopher’s Stone” showed his continuing ability to write a profound song with lush dynamics. “When The Leaves Come Falling Down” proved that he has retained his touch as a writer of great romanticism. Lastly, “New Biography” abruptly silenced so-called friends, critics and journalists who continue to dig and probe into his personal life. This lyric alone should warn off would be “cut-and-paste” biographers who have little or no understanding of what makes Morrison tick. Later in the year he collaborated with Donegan on an engaging collection of skiffle classics. The following year he teamed up with Linda Gail Lewis on You Win Again. The album proved to be Morrison’s last for the PointBlank label. He returned to Polydor and released the lethargic Down The Road in May 2002.
Although the themes, chords and moods are often similar, taken as a whole, Morrison’s body of work is one the most necessary, complete and important collections in rock music, and it is still steadily growing.
- Blowin’ Your Mind! (1967)
- Astral Weeks (1968)
- Moondance (1970)
- His Band and the Street Choir (1970)
- Tupelo Honey (1971)
- Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
- Hard Nose the Highway (1973)
- It’s Too Late to Stop Now (Live) (1974)
- Veedon Fleece (1974)
- A Period of Transition (1977)
- Wavelength (1978)
- Into the Music (1979)
- Common One (1980)
- Beautiful Vision (1982)
- Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983)
- Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
- A Sense of Wonder (1985)
- No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
- Poetic Champions Compose (1987)
- Irish Heartbeat (1988)
- Avalon Sunset (1989)
- Enlightenment (1990)
- Hymns to the Silence (1991)
- Too Long in Exile (1993)
- A Night in San Francisco (Live) (1994)
- Days Like This (1995)
- How Long Has This Been Going On (1996)
- Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996)
- The Healing Game (1997)
- The Philosopher’s Stone (1998)
- Back on Top (1999)
- The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998 (2000)
- You Win Again (2000)
- Down the Road (2002)
- What’s Wrong with This Picture? (2003)
- Magic Time (2005)
- Pay the Devil (2006)
- Live at Austin City Limits Festival (Limited edition) (2006)
- Keep It Simple (2008)
- Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)