It’s interesting that we tend to associate a band’s sound, look, even, with its lead vocalist. Sure, the “frontman” is right in front. They are the band member the eye is drawn to. Above the percussion, playing with the guitar, trading off with synth, their pipes are glue filling in the holes. Creating them. It is in their voice we remember the songs. It’s in their words we understand.
Some voices are as much inspired by, as they are an influence on, the times; here, the great Eric Burdon comes to mind. With his breakout outfit The Animals, this “most physically imposing voice” turned a decades-old folk song into a rock hit with “House Of The Rising Sun,” reworked to befit an opening slot for the rock ‘n’ roll laureate Chuck Berry. Their version would become the version, the first #1 British song on the U.S. pop charts apart from the Beatles, the one that made Bob Dylan’s turn sound like a cover. Fearless, jaded, intimidating and empowering, Eric Burdon: the voice of an Invasion, of youths stepping into their own shoes.
From the explosive vocal energy taking to sexy, psychedelic funk when Eric Burdon went to War in ’69 to the solo bands to the most recent record ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, his first major release in over a decade, for more than half a century, the British recording artist and modern Renaissance man has turned the world’s ear to the U.K. with his rebellious spirit and deep steep in American blues and jazz. Eric Burdon doesn’t sound like anyone; other people sound like him.
The local concerts this tour coming up are The Community Theatre at Mayo Center For The Performing Arts in Morristown, NJ and Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ. What have your experiences been like in the Tri-State Area?
I always have a good experience playing on the East Coast. I have a special affinity for New York since it’s where I first set foot on U.S. soil. Recently I performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall for a tribute to Lead Belly and I received a standing ovation. That was very moving. The audiences there either love you or hate you and they’ll let you know.
What musical and performing acts do you listen to on your own time?
I recently bought a new turntable so I’ve been enjoying going through my record collection and rediscovering a lot of the greats that I’ve always loved, from Ray Charles to Nina Simone, Little Richard to James Brown. I still have my favorites who have been with me my entire life, but I enjoy Calexico, Eric Bibb, Ben Harper, Amy Winehouse, Alabama Shakes, to name a few.
You’ve played every sort of venue, from big rooms to festivals to small clubs to arenas. What would you say are the positives for each, and what is your preference?
It is a thrill to hear a festival full of people sing along with you but I prefer an intimate setting, where people are rubbing up against each other and you can feel their sweat.
What was the first rock show you ever attended in the U.K.? What can you tell us about that night?
I met Louis Armstrong when I was 11 years old at Newcastle City Hall. I couldn’t afford a ticket so I was hanging around the back door and listening from outside. All of a sudden the door opened during a pause in the music and there was Louis Armstrong. I’ll never forget the smell of marijuana drifting out from the room.
Other than that, I went to many jazz, folk and blues concerts and of course, the Animals opened for Chuck Berry on tour and jammed with Sonny Boy Williamson. We were busy just being in the rock ‘n’ roll scene, traveling from town to town, so the only rock concerts I really saw were the people we were touring with.
You’re gearing up for a tour kicking off in the U.S., moving into Europe and leading up to a homecoming birthday concert celebration in Newcastle. What’s that venue like? What do you most look forward to?
The venue is the place where I first heard many of the great American artists who inspired me. In particular, I will never forget walking past there as a kid and hearing the voice of Muddy Waters bellowing forth from inside. It was probably the single moment when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Returning home to perform in Newcastle is a great thrill. After so many years away, I am sure I will be flooded with memories just from being there. I’m very excited to be returning with a great new band, including a horn section, for the first time in many years. I started out in Newcastle in a band which included horns so it’s all come full circle for me.
I really like that your website features a bit of a profile on each member of the new Animals band, down to their favorite food, book and all! How’d the team put that outfit together?
I’m really excited about the new band. They’re young, energetic and opening to trying anything. My wife, who is also my manager, designed the new website. To her credit, she is wonderful at knowing what the fans want to see and she always provides a little bit extra information for them.
Any plans for an album featuring the new Animals?
I first met the new band in a recording studio and we had recorded a couple of songs together before we were even properly introduced. I knew right away that there was a chemistry that needed to be captured. I have several different ideas in mind for a new record but we’ve been recording everything, from rehearsals to shows, and I expect we’ll have a record to show for all the work before too long.
The Animals are one of the five original bands pegged with bringing on the British Invasion. Do you have an opinion on that phenomenon?
I always thought that the term, “British Invasion,” was dreamed up by some PR person, to sell a package to the U.S., so I never paid it much thought—but I recently discovered that the phrase was coined by none other than the esteemed Walter Cronkite. Somehow that makes it seem more like an actual invasion. In truth, none of us thought about it at the time but all of us were thrilled to be visiting the land where the blues, jazz and rock and roll were born. We would have been happy to go see Memphis or Chicago, whether we were having success as musicians or not.
I am able to watch War’s live recordings on YouTube for hours if I want to, and I have. How cool is that? What will you say about how technology has grown with music production, and influenced music consumption?
It is pretty cool that all music is available to everybody all the time. It makes it possible for us to experience sounds from every corner of the world without much effort at all. But there was something great about spending hours in a record store, discovering music because you liked an album cover or because the clerk recommended it. I’m all for the democratization. Anyone can make a record at home now, but the trick is whether one can find an audience. With YouTube and all the streaming services, it is possible that your music will find its audience far from one’s home base. The future is definitely in finding new ways to engage your audience and give them access to the process in real time.
You turned 75 this year. With your life experience, what would you say is a key to maintaining your health and endurance as a performer, and as a person?
I wish I could tell you some secret regimen that was a key to longevity. I’m afraid I’ve indulged in everything I wanted throughout my life without any idea of getting older and needing to take care of myself. I don’t have a special diet or exercise routine. I like a relaxing walk outdoors, the company of my wife and a few close friends for a good meal or a nice glass of red wine. If there is any one factor, it may be that I’ve spent my life doing the thing that I love. Nothing will keep you going better than that.
Eric Burdon and the Animals will be performing at The Community Theatre at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown July 17, Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank July 20, and City Winery in Manhattan Aug. 8 and 9. For more information, please visit ericburdon.com.