Q&A with Eric Burdon

Animals Singer Talks Past Successes and Psychedelic Rock

Marianna Burdon

Eric Burdon is a living legend, consummate artist, and one of the finest high-energy, full-throated rock and blues singers of all time. First leaving his mark on the world as the charismatic frontman of sensational 1960s British Invasion rhythm and blues/rock band The Animals, known for their definitive version of the folk-blues standard "The House of the Rising Sun," as well as other hits, including an epic cover of Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," the class-consciousness imbued rocker "We Gotta Get out of This Place," and the resoundingly anti-conformist anthem "It's My Life." 

After the original incarnation of The Animals disbanded in the mid 1960s, Burdon relocated to California and moved his music into a psychedelic and hard rock direction with a talented new group of young musicians (including John Weider, Vic Briggs, Danny McCulloch, Barry Jenkins, and Zoot Money). They billed themselves as Eric Burdon and the Animals — a band that, at one point, even had Andy Summers as a member, years before he achieved fame with The Police.

During this phase of Burdon's career, hits such as "When I Was Young," "San Franciscan Nights," "Monterey," and "Sky Pilot" were written and recorded, Burdon also performed at the original Monterey International Pop Festival during the Summer of Love in 1967, one of the first major rock festivals that arguably served as the inspiration for everything since, from Woodstock to Coachella.

Burdon next worked with phenomenal Long Beach, California, funk group War (best known for the classic tune "Low Rider") for several years, beginning in 1969, before forming the Eric Burdon Band in 1971. Since then, he has performed and released albums with various artists through the years, including Jimmy Witherspoon, Brian Auger, The Doors' guitarist Robby Krieger, and even the original Animals — who reunited several times during the late '70s and early '80s — prior to bassist Chas Chandler's passing. Burdon also recorded many solo albums from 1977 through the early 2000s. Then, the 2010s found Burden resurgent, releasing an old-school, all-analog recorded EP with the hip garage band The Greenhornes in 2012. In 2013 Burdon came out with his latest solo album, ’Til Your River Runs Dry

After performing to raise funds for the Libbey Bowl a few years ago, Burdon and his wife Marianna moved to the idyllic community of Ojai. He returned to the Libbey Bowl three years ago to celebrate his birthday with an outstanding evening of magnificent music and community spirit. Now the artist is set to take the stage once again, with a new lineup of Ojai musicians, featuring Ojai native son Ruben Salinas on saxophone, as well as Evan Mackey on trombone, Johnzo West on guitar, Justin Andres on bass, Davey Allen on keyboards, and Dustin Koester on drums. 

Burdon will be celebrating his birthday, as well as the first anniversary of this red-hot iteration of the Animals — which he feels is the finest version of his band yet — while raising funds for CADA (Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse).

Although he's a busy man, I posed 10 questions to Eric Burdon via email, which he responded to kindly. Here are the questions and his answers:

Who were your first musical influences and/or blues singers you admired when you were first starting out? John Lee Hooker? Also, what was it like for you when your signature song "House of the Rising Sun" topped the charts in the U.K. and U.S. back in ’64. I read that Dylan liked your version so much that he shelved his version, and that it was the first British Invasion number one hit by a band other than The Beatles — so you beat The Stones!

My first love was jazz, but once I discovered the blues, I found my calling. I got to see Louis Armstrong face-to-face at a very early age. Then, one day as I was walking past Newcastle City Hall, I could hear Muddy Waters doing a soundcheck inside. A lot of the greats passed through my hometown. The Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Williams, Big Bill Broonzy. I listened to everything from Ray Charles to Bo Diddley and I still do to this day. Of course, the recently departed Chuck Berry was and continues to be one of my greatest heroes and influences. When “House of the Rising Sun” hit the charts, we saw it as a way to get to the place where all of our favorite music was born, the U.S. That single was the first one by a British band to top the charts after the Beatles. Dave Von Ronk liked to say that Dylan copied his version and Van Ronk was very pleased when we made the song our own and had a success with it.

Are you still in contact with original Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine and keyboardist Alan Price?  What about drummer John Steel — do you both have the right to the Animals' name at this point, or is it a situation where you have it in the States and he has it in the U.K.?

Hilton and I have remained friends throughout all the years. The others, not so much. Legal issues made our lives unnecessarily miserable. It’s a messy, ongoing process that drains my energy and my pocketbook. It’s pointless and hurtful for me to have to prove who I am after all these years. Since 1964 I have been the voice of the Animals and the one to keep the music and name alive for half-a-century, and nothing will stop me from singing those songs to the people.

You are going to be playing at the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival. I love your song "Monterey" and was curious to know how much the first festival transformed you, and your thoughts on returning? (I kind of think of you as having been the young Marlon Brando of rock 'n' roll before Monterey and as having become the Aldous Huxley of rock 'n' roll after Monterey — if that makes any sense...)

Brando and Huxley? Thank you. That is very kind. Monterey Pop was the very first gig of the new Animals that I had. We went onstage without a rehearsal. Coming to sunny California from Newcastle, spending time with the Flower Power generation in San Francisco, before moving to Laurel Canyon in L.A., all had a transformative effect on me. Hopefully, that song — and “San Franciscan Nights,” later that year — captures some of the magic that was in the air that weekend and throughout the Summer of Love. Joni Mitchell told me she wrote the song about Woodstock after she saw how successful “Monterey” was! We were all in it together, musicians and fans alike, with the intention of changing the world around us. It may have been more than we could expect to accomplish, but the music remains and stands as some of the most liberating sounds I’ve ever heard. It will be interesting to return to Monterey to see how much of our collective dream is still alive.

Also, speaking of Monterey, are there any anecdotes of Jimi Hendrix or some of your other friends and fellow artists from the Sixties — John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones — that you feel like mentioning? And did you introduce Jimi to Chas Chandler (the original Animals bassist who went on to become Hendrix's producer and manager) or did Chas know him before you did?

Chas was introduced to Jimi by a mutual girlfriend in New York. She dragged him down to this club, the Cafe Wha?, saying, “You’ve got to hear this guy.” And that was that. Chas immediately jumped in and brought Jimi to the U.K. That’s where I met him. He brought him to Zoot Money’s house and left him with me. When Jimi crossed the Atlantic and performed at Monterey, he created the first World Music. It was the music pioneered by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, resurrected by a bunch of us Brits and then dipped in psychedelia and returned back home. Besides the psychedelic experience, he also had been to Vietnam, so he took it all to a new level.

There are so many powerful and moving original songs you have realized —"I'm Crying," "Sky Pilot," "When I Was Young," "A Girl Named Sandoz," "San Franciscan Nights," "Letter From the County Farm," and "Spill the Wine,” to name but a few. How easily does songwriting come to you? Also, how do you achieve that perfect Eric Burdon phrasing that touches the soul? And I really love your ability to take a tune like Donovan's "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)" or The Stones' "Paint It Black" and make it your own — does that come easy?  When it comes down to it, do you have a favorite original song and a favorite cover song to sing?

Thank you. Songwriting — and writing, in general — is natural for me but I have always thought of myself as a singer, first. An interpreter of songs. “Don’t Bring Me Down” has always been my favorite of the early Animals songs to sing, but I can sing any song that touches my soul, whether it’s the Stones, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, or Lead Belly. I’ve been doing a somewhat rare Chuck Berry song for the past year or so, called “Downbound Train,” with my new band. But I’ve sung David Bowie, even Talking Heads. A great song is a great song and it feels good to sing a wide variety of them.

Have you considered the possibility of having a psychedelic music festival at the Libbey Bowl down the road? It seems to me that if you got together with some of the other classic British and U.S. cats that have been making the California tour scene the last few years — Donovan, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Robby Krieger Band — and maybe added some up-and-coming psychedelic bands like Temples and The Black Angels you could have a perfect little psych fest in Ojai.

Anything is possible and the time may be about right for a Psychedelic Renaissance. Robby Krieger just came through town and I had the pleasure of joining him on stage. As for Donovan, we have remained in touch over the years, having both lived for many years in the beautiful, artistic desert community of Joshua Tree.

What was it like working with The Greenhornes several years ago, and are you and the latest incarnation of The Animals working on any new tunes or an album?

Working with Brendan Benson started a chain reaction of events that led to where we are today, with the new band and a renewed energy. My wife and manager had dragged me, practically against my will, to SXSW in 2012. She had plans to join Brendan on stage with his band, which led to doing some recording with the Greenhornes in Nashville. At the same time, Bruce Springsteen decided to make the Animals the subject of his keynote address, which resulted in my joining him on stage that evening.  Springsteen’s generous comments and working with the Greenhornes reminded me of the early days, when we would go into a studio and make a record, without spending time which we couldn’t afford on doing lots of overdubs. It was the punk spirit of do-it-yourself rock and roll and everything since then is done in that spirit. My new band is recording the same way, all done in one take. We just completed half a dozen tracks at the studio here in Ojai, which we are in the process of mixing and mastering.

Happy upcoming birthday! You will be 76 on May 11 and you seem to have held true to the Sixties ideals — what motivates you to stay positive and be a force for change? And how do you like living in Ojai? Also, if you still paint, what do you like to paint?

I haven’t spent as much time painting recently as I would like to. One day, I plan to spend my days with a canvas in front of me and a paintbrush in my hand, but for now, I’m still on the road, “heading for another joint.” The '60s ideals you speak of came from a love of great music. Most of the music I love was originally created by the grandsons and granddaughters of slaves. It’s important to remember what your roots are. I can’t say it’s easy to always stay positive, but I still believe in love and peace and equality, and all of those concepts will outlast any setbacks put in place by the current political climate. Ojai, I love. It has everything I need. Great weather, shady avenues with lots of trees and flowers. Great restaurants. An artistic community where people are cool and let you be.

I know you're a Geordie, originally from Walker, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, but when it comes to a pint, do you prefer Newcastle or Guinness?

Once a Geordie, always a Geordie. But let’s be realistic, Guinness is far superior.

Thank you for your time and your timeless music!

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to bring the music to the people and feel their love in return.

411: Eric Burden and the Animals play Saturday, May 6, 6:30-10 p.m., at the Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For tickets, see brownpapertickets.com/event/2934126.

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