The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer describes the personal nature of his new disc, “‘Til Your River Runs Dry!”
Singer Eric Burdon
Tavis: This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the great groups of the British music invasion, The Animals, which gave the world a slew of memorable music hits including “The House of the Rising Sun.” Eric Burdon’s career has continued to this day both as a solo artist and with the group, War.
His latest project is called “‘Til Your River Runs Dry!” which we’ll get into in just a moment. But first, let’s take a look back at some of the video for that classic Animals song, “House of the Rising Sun.”
Tavis: Does it feel like five decades?
Eric Burdon: If I look at something like that, it does [laugh].
Tavis: What? You didn’t like those suits? I love those suits.
Burdon: No, I didn’t like those suits at all [laugh].
Tavis: Oh, nice. I like that.
Burdon: Okay, you know. It was the day, you know. “Carnaby Street” and “London Swings Like a Pendulum Do” and all of that.
Burdon: That was the time, that was the period. But it’s sort of rough doing stuff like that. I mean, it was shot at 9:00 in the morning after a night before and it was shot in Panavision, wide lens, you know. You’re not ready for that kind of stuff at that time of the morning, but it’s too late. We’re rolling. And I’m the worst lip-syncher in the world, believe me.
Tavis: Got to see Beyoncé and get some pointers. Ouch, did I say that [laugh]?
Burdon: You know, I was happy with that song and what that period allowed me to do, you know. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it didn’t work for me.
Tavis: When you said a moment ago that you weren’t ready for that, you were referring, of course, to being ready to record something like that at 9:00 in the morning. But I want to pick up on that phrase, “I wasn’t ready for it.” Were you ready for all the success when it came?
I mean, you talk to one artist versus another artist. Some handled it pretty well, some were ready for it, many were not. So as you look back on it 50 years now in the rear view mirror, were you ready for all that at that time, all that success?
Burdon: Yeah. I was ready for the performance and the reaction, but I wasn’t ready for what was in between that, you know. Like managers, agents, publicity, you know. And then after being iconized, if there’s such a word, people remember you as you were then. They want you to be that all the time.
So that’s a kind of constriction on the individual, you know. I can only compare it with movies and actors. They get to play different roles, but I’m stuck in that role forever trying to break out of it.
Tavis: So every artist who becomes iconic has to walk that same journey. As you look back on these five decades, how do you think you have navigated being able to find a way to move beyond what people expect of you? I mean, I get that. I’ve talked to enough artists over the years and I’m a music lover myself, all kinds of music.
And I’m guilty of this myself, going to a concert and wanting to hear what you want to hear and not allowing the audience to stretch and to expand. So there is some discomfort that fans oftentimes feel when they don’t get a chance again to hear what they want to hear. They see you a certain way. But how do you think you’ve navigated that journey?
Burdon: Well, I have, yeah. Like you say, I have navigated. But one thing that I have to keep in mind – and I hope that people can understand this. I’m sure you can, but I don’t know about a general audience. I grew up listening to people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk who, when he walked on stage, there was no plot, there was no plan and you never know which way the guy was gonna go. That was his genius and that stayed with me.
I met Jimmy Witherspoon and Joe Turner and all those guys that used to tell me never sing the same song twice. Always put a different thumbprint on the performance and that way, you know, at least you, if not the audience and if not the band behind you and the machinery behind you, you’re moving ahead and you’re dealing with keeping that era alive by putting improvisation into the conundrum. If I can improvise within the restrictions of those songs, then I’m a happy guy, but you can take that too far as well.
So I’ve sung that song, “The House of the Rising Sun,” so many times that I can make it into like a mini play. I can veer off and launch into New Orleans songs that I grew up with and then come back. As long as you start out at a point and you come at the same point in between as an artist anyway, you should be able to do what you want to do.
Tavis: I want to come back in a moment, Eric, to your influences then and now. I’ve heard you make a couple references already. I’m gonna come back and pick up on those influences in a moment, I promise you.
But another question, if I can, though, about this particular era when you and The Animals jumped off, you know, 50 years ago. What to your mind is the greatest gift to us musically from that era? I don’t mean in terms of a band or a song per se. I mean something deeper, something…
Burdon: You mean the 60s era?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. What’s the greatest gift to us, to the world, musically from that era when you were a part of?
Burdon: I would say The Beatles, collection of writings of The Beatles. Their scope of writing was so vast and it’s still around today and it’s still fresh today. So that would be one thing. I’d have to say that Jimi Hendrix’s approach to the new world as it was at the time. He was the first guy that actually didn’t shy away from stereo. He took stereo, whack-a-whack-a-whack, and went all over the place. So it was exciting. It was new. Your head hurt to follow the journey he was on.
But on another hand, stereo kind of ruined rock and roll because rock and roll was originally engineered for jukebox performances. So in the old way of recording, you had a group of like four or five guys. Each guy had his own microphone. Each guy went into the board and had his own way of mixing and then that was put onto a 45 record which had big wide grooves, lots of space for lots of volume, and then onto a jukebox. Boy, it hit you right between the eyes.
Then stereo came along and everything got really thin and spread out, you know, like Cinemascope movies, you know, and it died for a while until the Brits put their hands into the bottom of the collective cultural garbage bin in America and pulled it out. Black music, rhythm and blues, blues, and, wow! They’d forgotten what they are. They’d forgotten what the real art form of this country is. It’s jazz music. You know, it’s what I grew up on.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there. Thanks for the segue. I appreciate it, so I’m gonna follow you right on in. That was a strong indictment of U.S. culture and I agree with you. It was a strong indictment, though, on what we had forgotten and, quite frankly, still don’t appreciate in the ways that we should.
But what was happening over there across the pond during that era when all you white guys were so influenced, The Beatles on down, influenced by rhythm and blues, by jazz? Take me back to that era and how you guys all got so turned on by, to your point, what we had heaped on the garbage bin of American culture.
Burdon: Well, I know in talking to people like Big Bill Broonzy who I met early on, he was telling me that, “Apart from myself, who do you find yourself drawn to?” I said, “Ray Charles.” He went, “Ray Charles? Oh, man, his singing sanctified music and turned it into rock and roll.” I was like, “Okay, Bill, well, I appreciate you saying that and I love your music, but I have my own opinion about what Ray’s doing.”
But Ray Charles allowed me to reach jazz men who wouldn’t even consider speaking the words rock and roll, rhythm and blues, but when they heard Ray Charles and his big band and the orchestra playing jazz alto, they said, oh, this is a different guy altogether.
So I bridged that gap through my Ray Charles collection to jazz musicians in my hometown and allowed me to record for the first time in my life because I was the only singer around. I was the only voice available. They didn’t particularly like me, but I was the only choice [laugh].
So I cut a jazz record when I was like 17 years of age, way before The Animals. It was cut on black shellac, direct to disc, and you could play it like 20 times and then it turned white [laugh].
Tavis: That might be good for record sales, though. If they really liked the record, every time it runs out, they go buy another one [laugh]. 20 times and that’s it.
Burdon: Yeah, but that was the first time I was able to hear my voice.
Burdon: It was a pretty strange experience. I knew that I had a lot of development to do and I knew that I had to get to America and The Animals allowed me to do that. I mean, I’ll give you one little instance which was just magic.
I got off an international flight at LAX and I took a taxi. Back then, I used to like a drink. I said to the taxi driver, “Man, I’m thrashed. Let’s stop at a bar and let me get a whiskey or something.” He said, “Well, the only bar I know is a place called The Carousel.”
It used to be a post office and it was a circular building and it was a Black nightclub for years. I stopped there and the first people I met at the bar was Big Joe Turner on one side and Jimmy Witherspoon on the other and I’m stuck between those two guys.
Tavis: Wow [laugh]!
Burdon: Just full of it ’cause these are my heroes, you know.
Burdon: And somebody brought a microphone over and we didn’t move from the bar ’cause Big Joe was on crutches at the time. There I was singing at the bar with a microphone in my hand with my two heroes, right? I thought, wow.
Tavis: Welcome to America [laugh].
Burdon: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Since you went there, again, I’m gonna follow you. What do you think of your voice now? You referenced your voice back then, the first time you heard it on vinyl wax. But what have you made all these years of this voice that you have? It is distinctively yours.
Burdon: Well, I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning a lot. You know, live performance helps you wake up and straighten up because the people are there and you got to do it. There’s no editing and none of that, you know. So you learn every – and your voice changes. As you’re touring, your voice changes.
I was talking to a fellow singer of mine in England, Maggie Bell, a Scottish girl, and she said, “Aw, never worry about the condition of your voice, Eric. If it goes wobbly one night, just pretend you’re Louis Armstrong.”
That’s great advice because that does happen. Your voice changes on the road, you know. But I believe that the reason why I did a good performance on this particular album is I fell and broke my back. I had a bad operation and I had six months of recuperation where I wasn’t allowed to do anything. And I was recording these tracks during that time, so my voice had a lot of time to relax and give a good sharp performance.
That’s what I say to a lot of people who ask me advice. What would you do to keep your voice in shape? Try and relax whenever you can and stay quiet for periods of time.
Tavis: So I’m glad you went there. Your back put you in a situation, a position, where you had to take time off and relax your voice and that’s part of the story. But the other part of the story is Bruce Springsteen.
I love the story about the encounter that the two of you had at the Music Festival, South by Southwest, that you were encouraged to go to by somebody who was very dear to you. But tell me the story of your going to South by Southwest and the encounter with The Boss and how that inspired you to sort of get back out there – my phrase, not yours?
Burdon: Well, he asked me and I’m not gonna turn him down. I did once before and I felt kind of guilty about that and he helped alleviate that weight off of my shoulders when he invited me perform with him. I have a lot of respect for the guy and he’s a great live performer. He’s a powerhouse. He did a lot for me when he made those comments at the keystone speech at South by Southwest, but…
Tavis: Hold it. You’re running past that real fast. The audience is asking what comments are you referring to. He was very complimentary about your work along with The Animals and how it influenced his writing and how he was, with his writings, trying to hit the mark that you all had set. Is that a fair interpretation of what he said?
Burdon: Yeah, but it’s amazing that he could see today what I was going through mentally back then on camera. You know, he said, “That little guy in front of the band with that little jacket on that he wanted to scream out of and his hair looked like my daddy’s wig” and that’s exactly the way I felt, you know.
I did feel like I wanted to just like tear the coat off. That’s what we did onstage. You know, that’s what we do onstage. But this was on film and the way you saw The Animals for the first time was on The Ed Sullivan Show and you had to be all smart and tight and all that kind of stuff.
Tavis: But you felt constricted, though.
Burdon: Yeah, I did, I did. Sure, I felt constricted.
Tavis: You felt constricted then, Eric, physically, aesthetically? Or you felt constricted artistically?
Burdon: I dealt with the artistic side of it by, like I said to you before, jamming within the A and Z of a certain song. I’ve got that space in the middle where I can twist the lyrics around and shape them to my desires which made me one of the worst lip-synchers in history ’cause I’m always going to a different place. But you got the lyrics in your head and it’s demanding that you sing the same thing over and over again.
That’s been a constant performance battle for me is to try and find my own self within the song. But it’s okay. I know I’m on the right track because the audiences tell me what I want to hear. They’re the people that matter.
Tavis: When did you know that the time was right or, in retrospect, was the time right for you to leave The Animals and to do the solo thing?
Burdon: Well, we had a lot of banditry behind us instead of management. We were mismanaged completely and nobody knew where the money was going and we were told this and told that, you know.
But we were touring America and were getting $200 a week per diem, which was the money we agreed to in England. But when we got to the states, nothing changed. And we were working so hard, different gig every night right across the states to the point where I’d be collapsing after a show and stuff like that.
But, you know, it was okay. That’s what we signed up for is the hard work. But then when you arrive in New York and you’re sitting back in the hotel and then – I can remember this well ’cause it’s on film. Your press officer comes in and goes, “Where were you guys? You were supposed to be in a meeting this morning.”
We were in bed asleep trying to get some rest and recuperation, and there’s nobody there to back us up and help us. We were just like thrashed completely and we ended up making a record in the Bahamas along with taking a break, kind of mixing the two together, and we were on a boat in the bay and there was a fight started between the road manager and the bass player.
In fact, the bass player was getting ready to jump in his swimsuit off the side of the boat and we’d been warned that there were sharks around. The road manager was in the galley making steak and eggs breakfast. He was flicking bloody steak out the window going, “Come on, little sharkies.” I’m like I’d had enough of this [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. Exit, stage left [laugh]. How did the War thing – how did that happen? How did you end up with them for a minute?
Burdon: Well, The Animals were rolling. I was in L.A., I didn’t want to go back to London and face the storm of the press. Didn’t like me that much anyway. I loved L.A. You know, it was great. I was living in Laurel Canyon. It was like being in heaven, actually, by then. I said I’m going to the Actors Studio. You know, I want to be amongst people that know more than I do. So I signed up for the Actors Studio here in West Hollywood and had a great teacher, Jack Goldfein, and I was doing well there. I really enjoyed it.
Then I heard these guys come along and say, “Listen, man, what’s all that stuff about movies and acting? If you wanna do that, you’ve got to earn money in the field that you’re proven in, so pull in your band together. You know what? We see you with a Black band.” I said, “Well, that’s a great idea.”
So they scouted around, they found this band down in Long Beach. Turned around, went down there and saw this band that had like four girl singers, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, bass. I was like you can’t take this on the road and make money.
So we had to chop down the size of the band and eventually we got it down to like six band members and myself. Seven people is about the top size you can travel with and make a break, you know. And it was wonderful for a couple of years, you know, it was really good.
But the surprising thing is I got a shock. For the first time I realized that Black Americans didn’t understand what the Blues was all about. They hated it [laugh]. I had to wrestle their arms and all of that to get them to play certain Blues licks. But then once it went on record…
Tavis: They loved it.
Burdon: They saw the meaning of it, you know.
Tavis: That’s how Wynton Marsalis feels trying to get us to appreciate jazz. We have this conversation all the time, so I feel you on that. Tell me about “Til Your River Runs Dry!”
Burdon: Well, it began with a conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev who told me that the next big problem in the world is gonna be water.
Tavis: He’s right about that.
Burdon: So we got some water in the works, you know, and we got another song in the works and then my wife came up with this title. I don’t know what it was. ‘Til my river runs dry or whatever, something that has a connection with the problems we’re having with water in today’s world.
For some people, it’s too little and, for other people, too much. So it’s a wide and broad spectrum, but it is an important problem that we’re gonna face.
Tavis: What’s cool about it is is that you make social consciousness sound good. I mean, it’s one thing for people to be preached to or prosethelytize, but for you to prick the conscience and to make it sound doing it, and who knew that the inspiration was Mikhail Gorbachev? Who knew [laugh]? I didn’t know that until you just said that. You caught me on that one.
Burdon: You know, when you’re faced with somebody who you know knows more than you do. Like I said about the Actors Studio, I want to be surrounded by people who knew more than I did. That’s the only way you can learn, that’s the only way you can learn. So, yeah, that was the springboard that led to this.
Tavis: Well, it’s been nice to have spent 30 minutes with somebody who knows more than I do, so thank you for your time.
Burdon: Thank you for the compliment.
Tavis: No, I mean it. The project is called “‘Til Your River Runs Dry!” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Eric Burdon, former front man with The Animals and with War and been doing the solo thing for a lot of years now and doing it well. Eric, good to have you back. Good to see you, man.
Burdon: Fine, man.
Tavis: Take care. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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