Hall of Fame - Van Morrison
Listen to a podcast dedicated to Astral Weeks and read Stuart Bailie's profile of Van the Man
One of Belfast's most famous sons, Van Morrison’s recording career now reaches back over 40 years – a formidable body of work that few artists can even come close to. His style incorporates rhythm and blues, soul and traditional, jazz and gospel, and if you look deep enough, you can even find him experimenting with ambient and electronica long before those terms were even applied to music.
They play his records in supermarkets while university academics debate the finer points of his lyrics. His music crosses cultures and international boundaries but importantly, Van Morrison is a product of Northern Ireland. You can hear it in his intonation and in the lilt of his lines.
Many of his songs deal directly with the backstreets of Belfast and the working class world that has imprinted on his character. He has played his saxophone before an adoring President Clinton and his songs feature in over 70 film soundtracks. Van is emphatically, The Man.
He was born August 31, 1945 on Hyndford Street, east Belfast. His parents succoured him with a discerning record collection, including Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Jimmie Rodgers.
He played in skiffle bands and then learnt his trade in Germany with The Monarchs showband. By 1963 he was participating in the rhythm and blues boom with Them, a band that energised the local scene at the Maritime Hotel. The band signed to Decca, and charted in 1965 with ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. They upped their success with ‘Here Comes The Night’ and raised a rumpus on America’s west coast, while a B-side called ‘Gloria’ would become a rock and roll standard.
By 1967, he was a solo artist, signed to the Bang label and reaching the American top ten with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Once again he felt constrained by business pressures, and so he cut loose, finding a truly individual place on the Astral Weeks album, released in the UK in 1969.
This time, he was working with world class jazz players, and he was free to improvise, to transcend the pop format. He was finding the mystical aspect of his art, using repetition, bending the syllables, scatting and roaring through the scales, destination unknown. In contrast, Moondance (1970) was accessible and well rounded.
Thereafter, Morrison, now based in America, would embark on contrary moods, from the domesticity of Tupelo Honey (1971) to the wanderlust of St Dominic’s Preview (1972), from the in-concert thrill of It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1974) to the introspection of Veedon Fleece (1974).
After a relatively quiet period, he met with fresh, popular acclaim with Into The Music (1979) featuring Celtic-tinged strings. His body of work in the ’80s was full of meditations on the big questions. Common One (1980) and Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983) are just two worthy examples. In 1989 he joined with The Chieftains for a remarkable collection of street songs and Irish airs, Celtic Heartbeat. His reputation was rising again, as Avalon Sunset (1989) included a duet with Cliff Richard, a top twenty single in the same year.
Two ‘Best Of’ compilations sold consistently, and the artist was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993. He won an Outstanding Contribution To British Music Award at the Brits in 1994, and an Ivor Novello for Lifetime Achievement the following year.
In more recent years, Van has often returned to the source of his inspiration, playing with Lonnie Donegan on The Skiffle Sessions (2000), singing country on You Win Again (2000) and appearing to the esteemed jazz label, Blue Note for What’s Wrong With This Picture (2003), where jump blues and jazz nuggets frequently sparkled.