Sunday, 29 June 2014
ELDER MUSIC: Van the Man
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Today is the time for one of the most important artists of the last 50 years, the Belfast Cowboy himself, VAN MORRISON.
Van's father had a vast record collection and the young Van grew up listening to jazz and blues records, especially Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Leadbelly and Solomon Burke. He said that this was the music that got him started in the first place.
His father noted his interest in the music and bought him a guitar. He learned to play that instrument and was also attracted to saxophones. He acquired one of those too and it became his main instrument. He became proficient on piano and bass as well.
After he left school, Van played in various show bands and rhythm and blues combos. He even did a stint in Germany, possibly crossing paths with The Beatles (there's no evidence for that; I just threw it in as a possibility).
One day, back in Belfast, he answered an advertisement for a sax player for an R & B group. He was accepted and he soon took over the lead singing role as well. That group morphed into THEM.
They got a gig at some local place and the first week they had about 60 people along. The second maybe twice that. The third week you couldn't get in. Them made a number of recordings, including a song that's become a rock classic, Gloria.
Them fell apart due to personnel changes and poor management. After leaving Them, Van moved to California, went solo and recorded an album for a small record company that produced the song, Brown Eyed Girl and little else of consequence, although other Van-istas rather like the rest of the album.
After that rather ordinary effort, Warner Brothers bought the company to which Van was signed. Not a great deal was expected of him and he was allowed just three sessions to produce an album that became “Astral Weeks.”
Rather than go the usual route playing rock & roll or blues, Van got together a crack jazz band and came up with one of the most extraordinary albums ever. An album that took popular music where it had never been before (or since).
"Astral Weeks" should be a mandatory inclusion in the collection of any person who likes fine music. From that album I've selected Cyprus Avenue.
His next album, “Moondance,” is just as good as its predecessor, but quite different musically. He returned to his rhythm and blues roots for this one and it was a more cheerful and optimistic. Here is the first song on that album, And It Stoned Me.
Although I knew about Them when they were popular, I first discovered Van as a solo artist when I was living in San Francisco in 1970. He had already released the albums "Astral Weeks" and "Moondance" and "His Band and Street Choir" had just come out.
I bought all three of them at the same time and I still rather regard these three as parts 1, 2 and 3 of the same album. They are quite different in mood but that still doesn't disabuse me of the idea.
From the third of those comes the song, Street Choir, which resonated with me at the time and still does.
Van has always been supportive of other artists, even sharing his stage with them. This is particularly so of those he loved as a boy, particularly Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Wells and most especially, JOHN LEE HOOKER.
John Lee said that he'd be happy to perform with Van any time at all (and they did appear together quite often). Here they sing one of Van's songs that turned up on an album they recorded together imaginatively titled "Together.”
The song is The Healing Game.
In 1998, Van brought out a double CD, called “The Philosopher's Stone,” of outtakes from various albums and a few alternate takes as well. Most of the songs had not seen the light of day before. For just about anyone else, this would be an indulgence.
Some of the songs are so good it's hard to imagine why they were omitted from the earlier albums. Of course, when you check back on those you'd be hard put to think of any song that could be kicked off to make room for one of these.
So, this release was especially welcome rather than having the songs molder in some vault. The song I've selected is Not Supposed to Break Down.
The song Moondance, as those who are conversant with Van's oeuvre know, came from the album of the same name. However, it wasn't the only time he recorded it.
Van teamed with GEORGIE FAME and they performed it more in the style of bebop than the original rock/blues. It's such a good song that it works no matter how it's performed. Or by whom.
JAMES HUNTER is an English soul and R&B singer whose voice takes you back to the days of Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter. Van championed him in his early career and appeared on his first album, duetting on a couple of songs.
James deserves to be much more widely known, he's a terrific performer. From that initial album, he and Van sing Ain't Nothing You Can Do.
I'll end with a very long track indeed, so if you get bored with it you can go off and do something else, make a cup of tea or whatever. Of course, if you're like me you'll never get bored with Van.
This isn't his only long track, he was quite fond of them back in the mid-seventies. The song Listen to the Lion was the last tune of side one (remember when records had two sides?) of the album Saint Dominic's Preview. Side two ended with the equally lengthy, Almost Independence Day.