“I was inspired by the local coal merchant”: Pete Mitchell on Eric Burdon

The Absolute Radio DJ talks blues, soul — and coal — with the former Animals frontman

British bluesman Eric Burdon has just released his first album since 2005. Let the River Run Dry is a gritty blues affair from the mercurial former frontman of the Animals, who is now in his early 70s. He has now reached the same age as some of those early bluesmen that changed the life of this working-class lad from the North East in the early 50s.

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Burdon certainly cuts a profile and exudes a slight air of intimidation. I would not like to tackle him on a bad day. Once he thaws out, he’s a gentle, thoughtful and engaging man who is accompanied by his young attractive wife and PA. He’s got it all going on and he knows it. Talking the blues with Eric is immensely enjoyable. He has met and played with just about everybody. We get on because we are both lovers of American blues and soul.

The Motown, Stax and Atlantic records that my teenage aunties and uncles played on my grandad’s stereogram when I was a scruffy, snotty-nosed kid, were just plain old pop records to me. Not blues or soul, just pop. They were very different from the blues and gospel records that Eric was raised on, but they are no less important.

The songs of black America inspired a generation of British kids to copy and reproduce music that had, by and large, been ignored by the American record-buying public.  It’s a misnomer that we can’t actually produce some authentic rhythm and blues here in the UK. The sheer brilliance of Amy Winehouse and Adele can quite happily sit alongside Aretha and Etta, for instance. Jamiroquai and Georgie Fame could match Stevie and Marvin. You will not spot the join.

If we forensically work our way back through “British soul” we encounter Annie Lennox and Tom Jones, and our greatest exponent of American R&B Dusty Springfield. Now she was the real deal. For the purists among us, we can name check another Welshman, Gene Latter. His recording of Sign on the Dotted Line was huge on the underground soul scene. DJs like Roger Eagle first played rare American soul and R&B at the birthplace of northern soul, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, as early as 1963.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNkhtlNMD38

The newly formed Mod scene was at the heart of this appreciation of music coming out of Detroit, Chicago and Memphis. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones would cover early blues and soul records and import them back to the United States where teenagers screamed and danced to them, thinking that they were at the epicentre  of this new social and music revolution. Some of those early bluesman would have been entirely forgotten if not for John, Paul, Mick and Keith.

It was a select band of British musicians accompanied by a handful of enthusiasts that rescued the traditional blues of the southern states. Mr Burdon was one of that band of merry men. This transatlantic sharing of poems and stories is fascinating and he offers me his take on this cross-fertilisation. He seems to think that the origins of his biggest hit House of the Rising Sun, lie in Britain. Further investigation adds gravitas to his story. It is apparently based on traditional ballads from the 18th century and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to a New Orleans setting. Alan Price of the band has said that it was originally a 16th-century English folk song about a Soho brothel.

How did a young Eric Burdon learn to sing like he was born in the Deep South? “Strangely I was inspired by the local coal merchant, who would trawl the streets on his horse and cart, selling his wares, shouting C-O-A-L, at the top of his voice. I copied him and soon discovered that there was a certain way of pitching your voice that got you attention,”  he beams. “I then saw a movie called Baby Doll, a black comedy released in 1956, which featured Shame, Shame, Shame by Smiley Lewis and that was the first time that I realised I was listening to real raw rhythm and blues. On the jukeboxes in Whitley Bay I would hear Chuck Berry and Ma Rainey and Sister Rosetta Tharp — some of these records were made back in the 30s. They sounded so ancient and distant, I was so intrigued. Those records shaped my vocal style. If you listen to the House of the Rising Sun for instance, you can hear it all, the influences in that recording.”  

Eric left the Animals and join forces with San Franciscan funk outfit War and has not stopped singing to this day. He is without doubt one of our best blues singers and for me is a little underappreciated and respected. Maybe one day he will be described in the same glowing terms as some of those great blues singers he listened to during his misspent youth on the streets of Newcastle.

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Pete Mitchell talks to Eric Burdon this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio – www.absoluteradio.co.uk/listen