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Eric Burdon: Singing Strong Until the End

Eric Burdon: Singing Strong Until the End

By Dave Price

At age 75, he may need some assistance from a cane and the strong left arm of a loving wife to get from the dressing room to the backstage area. But once he hears the music and strides onto that stage he prowls. He growls. He moans and he howls.

He becomes the iconic, irascible Eric Burdon.

The Hall of Fame rock and roll blues belter, who for more than four decades has been the voice of the much-beloved British Invasion band The Animals.

Recently, Burdon and the latest members of the Animals (all of whom were still more than two decades from being born when Burdon started his series of hits with “The House of the Rising Sun” in 1964), headlined the Flower Power music cruise, a five-day floating Summer of Love music festival sailing around the Caribbean.

As he has been doing nightly on this most recent tour, Burdon lets his amazingly-tight, four-piece band augmented with two stellar horn players, perform a segment of the opening song before he joins them, often wearing a simple black T-shirt and his ever-present shades.

Some nights this song is “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” a huge hit for Three-Dog Night which was originally written by Randy Newman for Burdon to perform on his first solo album. This night the opener is “Spill the Wine,” the early 1970s Top Ten single Burdon recorded during his brief tenure with the all-black band War.

Obviously, with more than 40 years in the business, Burdon has a massive catalog of hits, misses, originals, and covers to draw from when making up any given night’s set list. Some favorites like “I’m Crying” and the John Lee Hooker’s cover of “Boom Boom” aren’t being played on this tour. Others, like the Animals’ 1966 version of “See See Rider” or a moving mashup of Burdon’s “Sky Pilot” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” sporadically make an appearance. Keyboardist Davey Allen told me others like “Help Me Girl” have been rehearsed, but not yet performed.

But you can be sure of one thing – if you see Eric Burdon in concert – you will hear “House of the Rising Sun,” the first #1 hit for the Animals, a song heralded as one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

“I can’t leave the stage unless I sing that song,” Burdon said during an on-board interview. “That song changed my world. I sing that song because I love it. It has become me. It also put me in touch with my love for New Orleans and southern culture”.

Burdon maintains there is also a spiritual aspect to what is definitely the most well-known song ever written about a southern house of whores. “(The House of the Rising Son) is really a song about redemption. Those houses employed girls from Africa. They weren’t just there to provide sexual pleasure. They helped heal people. These houses were a place for men to talk and meet friends. It was a totally different kettle of fish. Of course, nothing is what it seems in New Orleans,” Burdon explained.

Ironically despite its popularity, Burdon has never received any royalties for “House of the Rising Sun”, in large part apparently due too some financial shenanigans on the part of the band’s management and then-keyboardist Alan Price.

“Over the years, I’ve seen just millions of dollars disappear. We were paid $200 a week back then when we recorded House of the Rising Sun (in just one take),” he says.

But “The House of the Rising Sun” isn’t the only song inextricably identified with Burdon. There is also “We Got to Get Out of This Place,” a Top-Ten hit written for the Animals by the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

The song became identified as the most popular tune favored by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, a status not surprising given the song’s clear message of being trapped in unfavorable circumstances and wanting to leave.

“Look, I desperately wanted to get the hell out of my hometown. Everybody has a place that they want to get out of,” Burdon said.

Initially, he said he was uncomfortable with all the reports of how much the Animals’ track meant to Vietnam veterans.

“Then I started running into a lot of guys from over there and they said ‘that song literally saved my life’. At first, I was embarrassed, but then I began to realize they were serious. That threw a whole different edge to me singing that song,” Burdon said.

Whether you see Eric Burdon in concert, read about him, or are fortunate enough to get a chance to hear him speak, one attribute stands out – Burdon is an authentic adherent to the famous William Shakespeare line “to thine own self be true.”

And that rare attribute in a business known for phoniness is directly linked to a third Animals song you are assured of hearing Burdon perform in every show – “It’s My Life,” with its repeated chorus lines of “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want. It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want.”

Without asking, Burdon will tell you what he thinks of our new American president. (Hint: It’s not positive). He talks of his great disdain for record companies and music management. (“Whatever you wanted was not what they wanted). He calls Ed Sullivan, whose iron grip of Sunday night TV in the 60s could make or break careers “a bitter old man.” And when asked if he ever has contact with any of the still living three original members of The Animals he answers succinctly, “in the words of our president – none”.

But that authenticity isn’t just negative, it is also at the core of Burdon’s positivity.

If he says or does something, you can be sure it is genuine.

For example, if he flashes a peace sign, it isn’t some attempt to capitalize on a faded hippie ideal. For Burdon, it is a symbol for something that is real and still achievable today, even in these turbulent times.

Over the years, Burdon has attracted a huge fan base in Germany, a country where he plays regularly. In fact, he says his favorite place to perform in the world is a club in Hamburg that once was a site where the Nazis manufactured munitions.

“Something like that gives me the power to say things can change,” Burdon says.

He claims the most meaningful compliment he has ever been paid for his music came from a German official who once told him, “You helped put a stop to Nazism. Instead of picking up guns, our young men began picking up guitars.”

So after 40-plus years, what comes next for Eric Burdon?

Of course, that can’t be definitely answered, but you can be sure it will involve singing.

“Put me in a jail that’s 5 feet underground and with chains around my ankles and I’ll still be singing. I don’t know anything else. For me it’s my art. For me, It’s spiritual. It’s really my religion.”

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.