George Ivan Morrison has one of the most privileged voices of late 20th century popular music and, more importantly, enough talent to create songs at the same level of such a privileged instrument. From his beginnings as a fierce R&B singer fronting Them to his forays into folk and soul, his career is replete with great songs from which we have chosen our 10 favourites.
Brown Eyed Girl (1967)
In mid-1966 Them ceased to exist and lead singer Van Morrison returned to Belfast to pursue a solo career. When producer Bert Berns, with whom he had already collaborated with on Here Comes The Night, called him to sign him to his Bang Records label, he didn't hesitate for a moment and crossed the Atlantic to New York to sign the first thing they put in front of him. It was not a particularly wise decision, and that contract was going to come back to haunt him. In particular this included Brown Eyed Girl, which he recorded on March 28, 1967, as it is possibly the best known, and best, song of his career; but the musician never saw a dime from one of the most listened-to songs in history. It's understandable that he doesn't have much appreciation for it and thinks he has recorded 300 better tunes; even though that is obviously false. This song is a marvel, with its infectious calypso rhythm, the immortal throat of the Belfast lion full of youthful lust and some absolutely colossal session musicians, among them the Sweet Inspirations on backing vocals, and Eric Gale and Hugh McCracken on guitar; the latter being possibly in charge of performing that wonderful lead part, from the intro to the colour in the rest of the song.
Into The Mystic (1970)
There are two absolutely masterful albums in Van Morrison's career, Astral Weeks and Moondance, and this list is full of songs from both. Astral Weeks may be the most mysterious and special but Moondance is my favorite. Among their 10 wonderful songs this is my top choice. Drummer Gary Mallaber says that when Morrison took his Guild D-50 and began to sing Into The Mystic his hair stood up on end - and he had already heard the song! And this tune is at the heart of the album, as it has an emotional mix of Celtic folk and soul, acoustic guitars; while the fundamental John Platania accompanies him providing wonderful counterpoints with his Ovation Balladeer, and horns, which mimic the foghorn of which the lyrics speak. An ethereal song over which flies the best white voice of rock, beyond Elvis.
Before going solo Van Morrison was the lead singer of the Irish answer to the Rolling Stones- the unstoppable Them, who scribed a good collection of classics that might also appear here, including Baby Please Don't Go, Here Comes The Night, Could You Would You and their cover of Dylan's It's All Over Now Baby Blue. But if there is one song that stands out above all others, it is the immortal Gloria, the song that all the garage bands include in their repertoire. It contains three chords and a Van Morrison unleashed by the debauchery that his girl provokes in him, with which he achieves what the name promises: glory. This is basically what rock & roll is all about. Of course, in the first recordings of Them the only irreplaceable thing was Morrison's inimitable voice and several session musicians appeared, among them a certain Jimmy Page who surely played his 60's Les Paul Custom on Baby Please Don't Go but whom the legend also places in this song, and we, like John Ford, when in doubt, always print the legend...
Madame George (1968)
If Into The Mystic is my favourite song from Moondance, Madame George is the one from Astral Weeks - one of the top albums in rock history. Van Morrison was scalded by his experience with Bang Records and had just signed with Warner, and he had a collection of really poetic song sketches that he sang on his acoustic guitar, possibly his Guild. When he arrived at the studio the producer had brought a group of musicians with jazz roots, among them the leader, bassist Richard Davis, who had played with Eric Dolphy, the drummer of the Modern Jazz Quartet and guitarist Jay Berliner - who had participated in the outstanding The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus. Morrison gave them total freedom to play what they felt and the result is one of the most beautiful records in history. These nine minutes of magic and enchantment are enough to prove it.
This is another of Moondance's best songs and one of the favorites of Van Morrison himself - who did not hesitate to use it in his mythical appearance in The Band's Last Waltz. Perhaps the best version of this explosive song is the one that appears on the first live album of his career, the remarkable It's Too Late To Stop Now. This was recorded in 1973 and released in 1974 with the Caledonia Soul Orquestra, a band that excels in the arrangement of this song.The moment in which the strings follow the horns section is one of the best of Morrison's career, who gives his best vocally after the string arrangement and the band's presentation.
Cyprus Avenue (1968)
Another of the peaks of Astral Weeks, the song that would become the mythical closing song of his concerts in the early '70s and possibly another of the most beautiful moments of his career, with his voice accompanied by his acoustic guitar, Richard Davis' incredible bass, a harpsichord, a flute and strings; although the latter were added later. Morrison bares his soul as he speaks of his childhood in Belfast, totally possessed, as if the words he sings were coming to his brain at that moment, transmitted by the most beautiful of muses.
Astral Weeks (1968)
The title track, which opened the most legendary album of his career, is perfect proof of the relaxed atmosphere that was achieved in the studio, with Morrison interacting perfectly with the group of jazz musicians at his disposal. As guitarist Jay Berliner would later state, "We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt. I played a lot of classical guitar on those sessions and it was very unusual to play classical guitar in that context".
Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile) (1972)
His tribute to soul singer Jackie Wilson is her most hummable song after Brown Eyed Girl. Released on his remarkable sixth album, Saint Dominic's Preview, the song takes off from one of Wilson's most famous songs, Reet Petite, and was recorded, miraculously, in a first take on January 29, 1972.
The title track of my favourite album by the artist is a perfect combination of jazzy chords and perfect chorus, a song that could pass for a lost gem by Cole Porter or another of the greats of the American Songbook - and one that Frank Sinatra could have put in his repertoire with no problem. It is also another favourite song of Van The Man himself, who has made it the most regularly played song in his live repertoire.
Bright Side Of The Road (1979)
The second most perfect chorus of his career, after Gloria, came when the singer had been performing for over 15 years. Specifically this was from 1979, on his eleventh solo album, Into The Music. The song was an upbeat response to James Carr's soul classic, The Dark End Of The Street, composed by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Once again the caustic singer is able to convey as much joie de vivre as possible in a luminous song.
The Rebels (2021)
Van Morrison has long been bitter and bad-tempered, but with old age it's getting to unbearable levels. Not content with his diatribes and (rather regular, to be kind) songs against confinement during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he now teams up with Eric Clapton, who has become furiously anti-vaccine, to declare that they are the only rebels loose in the world. Two billionaires demonstrating their disconnect with the world and with reality - and, for once, making good the saying that "any time past was better"...