Burdon, Eric (Contemporary Musicians)
Sometimes referred to as a "black singer trapped inside a white skin," Eric Burdon achieved international fame by belting out bluesy rock numbers with the Animals in the mid-1960s. His raw, hard-edged vocals were a key ingredient in a number of hits for the band in their native United Kingdom and abroad. After the original Animals disbanded, Burdon made his mark as a vocalist with the black band War.
While growing up in Newcastle upon Tyne, a port city just south of England's border with Scotland, Burdon had no burning desire to be a singer. His first exposure to the music that would hook him came at about age 12, when a merchant seaman who lived in his building let him listen to records he had brought home from the United States. Burdon became a lover of rhythm and blues after listening to recordings of Fats Domino, Bill Doggett, and other black artistsorks that couldn't be obtained in England at the time. Thinking he didn't have the skills to play an instrument, Burdon concentrated on developing his voice.
At the Newcastle College of Art, where he studied graphics and photography, Burdon further developed his interest in blues artists and formed a band. At the time, his only interest in music was as a diversion. After leaving school, however, he began performing for money because he couldn't find a job in television as a set designer or art director. In 1962 Burdon found work as a lead singer with the Alan Price Combo, which took in about 30 shillings (a little over $4) a week for each musician. The group changed its name to the Animals, began to develop a following as regulars at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle, and by 1963 were landing gigs in other English cities. Members of the Animals included Burdon on vocals, Chas Chandler on bass guitar, John Steel on drums (succeeded by Barry Jenkins), Price on organ (later replaced by Dave Rowberry), and Hilton Valentine on lead guitar.
Animals Became Worldwide Sensation
Soon the group recorded a demo for local fans; the tape was taken to London by their manager and found its way to producer Mickie Most, who then came up to watch them perform. Most saw the group's potential, brought them to London, and signed them to a recording contract. In London, the Animals performed regularly at the Scene Club and continued to build up their audience.
The Animals recorded a cover of Bob Dylan's "Baby Let Me Take You Home," which made it onto the charts in April of 1964, and earned the group a slot on a Chuck Berry Tour in the United Kingdom. They then hit Number One later in 1964 with their version of the traditional ballad "House of the Rising Sun"nd for the next two years were one of the hottest acts in the world. Vital to the group's success was Burdon's gift for vocals; his powerful, unrefined sound placed the Animals in a class with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for a time during the mid-1960s.
In 1965, after turning out hits such as "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," the Animals suffered a creative blow with the departure of keyboardist Price, whose subtle arrangements and organ playing helped give the group its distinctive sound. Meanwhile, Burdon was causing dissension in the band with his rowdiness, heavy drinking, and purported use of LSD. After greatly reducing their number of concert dates, the group disbanded in 1966. Burdon recorded a solo album in early 1967 with New York studio musicians, then took a sabbatical from music. He claimed to be working on a novel and pursuing film projects with a rock-music theme.
Saying that he preferred a warm climate, Burdon decided to move to California. He settled first in Los Angeles because it offered the latest recording technology and was the heart of the movie industry. In time, he moved on to San Francisco, where he formed the New Animals with Vic Briggs on guitar, John Wieder on guitar and violin, Danny McCullough on bass, and former Animals drummer Jenkins. The group later featured Andy Summers, who eventually became the guitarist for the Police.
In the late 1960s, living in the U.S. capital of "flower power," Burdon attempted to transform himself from streetwise tough-guy to hippie leader. His music shifted along with him, from an emphasis on tough R&B to the increasingly popular acid rock. He signed his new group to a contract with MGM and released four albums, including the double album Love Is. Burdon's New Animals placed singles on the charts with "Good Times" and "San Francisco Nights" in 1967, "Sky Pilot" in 1968, and "Ring of Fire" in 1969.
Revived Career with Soul-Funk Band War
After the demise of the New Animals, Burdon stationed himself in Los Angeles and was often seen with guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix on the rock circuit there. When Hendrix died of a drug overdose, rumors about Burdon's own drug problems proliferated. He stated he was retiring from music, but in 1969 producers Jerry Goldstein and Steve Gold urged him to get involved with another band.
They connected him with members of Nite Shift, which featured six black musicians and a highly regarded Danish harmonica player named Lee Oskar. Burdon first went into the studio with the group, then toured with them as Eric Burdon and War. Their first album together, Eric Burdon Declares "War, "was very successful and remained on the charts for much of 1970. Burdon's funky vocals on "Spill the Wine" brought the single to Number Three on the U.S. charts. The singer soon found himself back in the limelight, and the group was invited to make guest television appearances on the David Frost and Ed Sullivan shows. In August of 1970, Eric Burdon and War performed in Britain.
Burdon's assumption of a black persona with War incited some race-related controversy, especially with the release of the less-than-tactfully-titled Black Man's Burdon in December of 1970. Despite his musical success with the group, Burdon and War parted ways in less than a year.
The vocalist revealed that his interest in the blues was as strong as ever when he teamed up with blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon on Guilty! in 1971. Burdon went back to perform in Britain in 1973, then shifted gears away from black music in 1974 to record two heavy rock albums with his Eric Burdon Band. He released a reunion album with the original Animals in 1977, then put together the band Fire Dept. with German musicians for one album, Last Drive, released in 1980. Burdon further cashed in on his enduring popularity with German audiences by appearing in the German film Comeback in 1982, which also featured his original soundtrack. Comparisons could not be avoided of Burdon's own life to the movie, which was about the downfall of an aging rock star.
Reflected on Career
When a re-release of "House of the Rising Sun" became a hit in 1982, Burdon and the original Animals went on a six-week tour of the United States. By this time more than 40 years old, Burdon still managed to capture all the raw power of the hit songs that had sealed the group's fame in the mid-1960s.
Despite his frenzied stage performances over the years, Burdon wrote in his 1986 autobiography I Used to Be an Animal, but I'm All Right Now that he had always hated touring and being in the public eye. The memoir traces Burdon's life from his working-class origins, through the development of his musical interests in the blues, and recounts the ultimate turmoil of touring: Burdon reveals that he was repulsed by the invasions of privacy he suffered in the United States during his first visit thereut enthralled by seeing his heroes James Brown and B. B. King at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also laments that his manager had lost the Animals millions of dollars in shady tax deals. In her review of the book for the New York Times Book Review, Andrea Barnet commented: "Taken as social history, [Burdon's] autobiography stands as a vivid record of what has now become pop mythology."
Various contractual and personal problems made Burdon's output erratic during the 1970s and 1980s, but the staying power of Animals material was confirmed by the 1991 Roadrunners CD, a collection of live recordings from Burdon's music files. In a Rolling Stone review, David Fricke noted that the collection "vividly captures the punky stage intensity of the band's mongrel acidR&B sound."
Considered by some observers to be music's greatest white blues vocalist, Eric Burdon also revealed an ability during his career to achieve success in a variety of genres ranging from blues-tinged rock to psychedelia to funk. The multifaceted singer's erratic career shifts and often self-defeating lifestyle caused his popularity to wax and wane over the years. However, he is unequivocally credited with providing the penetrating energy that propelled the Animals to superstardom in the 1960s.
Singles; with the Animals
"House of the Rising Sun," 1964.
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," 1965.
"We Gotta Get Out of This Place," 1965.
"It's My Life," 1965.
Singles; with the New Animals
"San Francisco Nights," 1967.
"Sky Pilot," 1968.
"Ring of Fire," 1969.
Singles; with War
"Spill the Wine," 1970.
Albums; with the Animals
The Animals (with Eric Burdon), MGM, 1964.
Animal Tracks, MGM, 1965.
Animalism, MGM, 1966.
The Best of Eric Burdon and the Animals, MGM, 1967.
Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, Jet, 1977.
Albums; with the New Animals
Winds of Change, MGM, 1967.
Every One of Us, MGM, 1968.
Love Is, MGM, 1968.
Roadrunners (a compilation of live recordings from the late 1960s), Raven, 1991.
Eric Is Here, MGM, 1967.
Survivor, Polydor, 1978.
Black and White Blues, MCA, 1979.
I Used to Be an Animal, Striped Horse, 1988.
Albums; with War
Eric Burdon Declares "War," MGM, 1970.
Black Man's Burdon, MGM, 1970.
Love Is All Around (recorded 1970), ABC, 1976.
Albums; with the Eric Burdon Band
Sun Secrets, Capitol, 1974.
Stop!, Capitol, 1975.
(With Jimmy Witherspoon) Guilty!, MGM, 1971.
(With Fire Dept.) Last Drive, 1980.
Comeback (soundtrack), 1982.
Burdon, Eric, I Used to Be an Animal, but I'm All Right Now, originally published in 1986, Faber, 1987.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 3, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony Books, 1988.
Helander, Brock, The Rock Who's Who: A Complete Guide to the Great Artists and Albums of 30 Years from Rockabilly to New Wave, Schirmer Books, 1982.
Kent, Jeff, The Last Poet: The Story of Eric Burdon, Witan Books, 1989.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Páreles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1987.
Rolling Stone, October 27, 1983; March 21, 1991.
Stereo Review, December 1988.