- Written by Lori M. Myers Lori M. Myers
Back in the 1960s, the Beatles stepped onto our shores and thus began the British musical invasion of America. Other groups followed, such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Animals.
But while the early melodic tones of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were considered nonthreatening to those concerned moms and dads back then, Animals lead vocalist Eric Burdon projected a very different image.
In hits such as “House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “It’s My Life,” and others, Burdon’s voice had power and soul with an undercurrent of grittiness, even a bit of danger.
His penchant was more rhythm and blues than rock ’n’ roll, and America was the perfect place for him to be.
“The highlight for me of those early years was getting out of England and being able to shout out the music that I love in the land where the blues were born,” he says from his current home in Ojai, California, a community he describes as “quiet” and “artistic.”
Burdon’s residence is surrounded by trees and flowers, he adds, with a jukebox filled with his favorite records and shelves loaded with books and films.
But the comfort zone Burdon now enjoys doesn’t mean he has abandoned music. On the contrary, he still performs to crowds who recall their past boomer years as well as to youngsters who’ve recently discovered this one-of-a-kind talent that Rolling Stone magazine ranked 57th on their list of 100 Greatest Voices of All Time.
“I earn my living as a traveling blues musician,” Burdon says. “I think the fans expect to hear familiar songs, and I don’t mind giving them what they want. On the other hand, I always like to experiment with those songs and add new ones into the set. That keeps it interesting for everyone, I think.”
Burdon immersed himself in American blues and jazz while growing up in Newcastle, England, but had no burning desire to be a singer.
Nevertheless, he can’t remember a time when he didn’t love music. It was in the folk clubs in his hometown and then the Newcastle City Hall where he caught some great blues musicians visiting from the United States.
“That’s when I first heard Muddy Waters (an American blues musician often cited as the “father of modern Chicago blues”),” Burdon recalls. “It was jazz and rhythm and blues on the jukeboxes at Spanish City (a former funfair in England), but before that, it was British Music Hall music playing on the radio in our family home.”
Burdon met drummer John Steel while attending art school in Newcastle, and the two friends discovered that they had a mutual love of jazz and blues.
They began performing as the Kansas City 5, 6 & 7 and eventually formed their own band, the Pagan Jazzmen, which became, simply, the Pagans.
In 1962, they named themselves the Animals after a local street gang leader called Animal Hogg.
The Animals, originally composed of Burdon, Steel, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Chas Chandler on bass, and Alan Price on keyboards, recorded their signature tune “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964, which was released that summer in the United Kingdom and the United States.
While some think the song originated with the group, it is, in fact, a traditional folk song of uncertain authorship. Many notable musicians covered the song prior to the Animals’ version, including Woody Guthrie, Glenn Yarbrough, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan.
Burdon first heard “House of the Rising Sun” in the folk clubs around Newcastle, and the song always intrigued him.
“Then, when I heard Dylan’s first record, there it was,” he recalls. “When the Animals went on tour in the United Kingdom, opening for Chuck Berry, I remembered the song. I wanted something that would really stand apart, not just from Chuck Berry’s material, but from our own usual set list of rhythm and blues songs.
“On our day off, we took the train into London with all of our gear, went into the studio, and recorded it in one take. The rest is history.”
Indeed. The group’s breakthrough hit soared to the top of the United Kingdom’s pop singles chart soon after its release and several months later in the United States.
It’s considered a classic; it’s ranked No. 122 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is also one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In 1999, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
But Burdon didn’t rest on his laurels. The Animals recorded other well-known hits, disbanded in 1966, and thereafter went through several incarnations as other musicians took the place of those who left.
Burdon went solo in between the changes, and then took a respite from the music industry. He made fortunes and lost them, transformed his music style, and took up other interests.
In 1969, Burdon decided to pursue acting and was attending the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio in Los Angeles when he was approached by record producers Jerry Goldstein and Steve Gold.
“They told me I was wasting my time studying acting,” Burdon says. “We began to search for a suitable band for me when we discovered one called Nightshift in Long Beach. It was a really big band, too big for taking on the road, so we had to trim it down—and that became the band War.”
Burdon and War began playing live shows throughout Southern California and soon recorded their debut album Eric Burdon Declares “War,” which included the album’s best-known track, “Spill the Wine.”
Along with still calling California home, Burdon has put a new band together and is having a great time working up new material and new approaches, he says.
He’s also working on a book, a memoir, not necessarily about the making of the music but more to do with the people he’s met along the way.
“Awards have never been my thing,” he says. “Not my reason for doing what I do. I’ve always enjoyed introducing my audience to the work of my heroes. I suppose I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve kept a career going for over 50 years now doing what I love.”