In the early '70s, he fronted the band War, delivering that extraordinary vocal on "Spill The Wine." In 1971, he joined the blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon on the album Guilty, which is when he was "thrust into the heart of black America."
A man of many genres who is still touring and recording, Eric is a historic figure in rock, but you might be surprised to learn where punk comes into play. Then there's that incident with Carole King...
Eric Burdon: I've always viewed myself as a punk. The Animals could have evolved that way. We had the energy and the anger, but we didn't stick together. When the punk scene became commercial, I was all for the politics of the movement, but the music didn't really stand up and ultimately, it was self destructive.
Songfacts: Rolling Stone ranked you 57th on the 100 greatest singers of all time. Congratulations! Who are your favorite singers of all time, and what have you learned from them?
Burdon: Thank you. I laughed when I saw that I was 57th on the list. I thought, "Yeah, that's me." I do 57 different varieties of music. I'm my own worst enemy because I move around too much. I change my attitude and feelings then jump from blues to rhythm and blues, then to jazz and folk. But I'm a singer, and that's what I do. A couple of my favorite singers are Ray Charles and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Songfacts: Both Iggy Pop and Bruce Springsteen voted for you in the Rolling Stone poll. What do you see of yourself in these two very diverse artists' styles?
Burdon: Recently I saw them both at the ceremony for Jimmy Cliff's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I like them both. But I can't rank Iggy's music with Bruce's recording history. Springsteen is a great song writer and visionary. He kind of continued Dylan's move into the electronic rock world. I suppose I see myself in the middle somewhere.
Songfacts: Although many of the other British Invasion bands (The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles) drew from the blues, The Animals seemed to have more in common musically with the British blues revival that came along much later. Did you feel a little out of place back then?
Burdon: I thought that we were darker than any of the other bands initially. I thought The Kinks were fantastic though. Their attitude outstripped the Stones and the Beatles.
Songfacts: What are your thoughts on the way The Animals evolved musically?
Burdon: I don't think that The Animals got a chance to evolve. We were the first to admit that we took blues songs from American artists, but if the Animals had stuck together and worked together instead of worrying about who was getting all the money, we could have evolved more and come out with more music to be proud of.
Songfacts: Also around the late '60s/early '70s, you joined with War and made much funkier music. How did that period's success compare with the initial success of The Animals?
Burdon: It seemed natural to me that I should get together with black musicians. I remember my time with Jimmy Witherspoon and War. War was the production and management's concept of what I should be doing. At the time I was involved with the Actor's Studio, but I let myself get talked into it. Now, it seems very unnatural. They hated blues, which was a shock to me but I got them to play it eventually. [For more on War, see our interview with their original drummer Harlod Brown.]
On the other hand, my time with Jimmy Witherspoon was unforgettable. I learned a lot from him and he helped expose me to a scene I wouldn't have gotten to from anybody else. We performed several big penitentiaries together and I was thrust into the heart of black America, which certainly wasn't War. It was people on death row in San Quentin. I got to touch upon the true black attitude back then and I treasure every memory. I always try new things with my music. That's one of the bad things, or maybe it's a good thing, but I'm never happy doing the same thing over and over again.
Songfacts: Your version of "The House of the Rising Sun" turned a traditional folk song into a rock standard. Can you please explain how you were able to create such a radical remake of a familiar folk standard?
Burdon: Well, "House of the Rising Sun" is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn't only a great trick, it was a great recording. The best aspect of it, I've been told, is that Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker. Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic "House of the Rising Sun."
Songfacts: Speaking of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", in what ways do you think you've been misunderstood as an artist over the years?
Burdon: I've really been misunderstood. By my mom, my dad, school teachers, a couple of the women that I married. I've been misunderstood all of my life.
Songfacts: I didn't even realize "Don't Bring Me Down" was a Goffin/King song until I started to do research for this interview. How different was the original from the way you recorded it?
Burdon: I didn't realize that it was a Goffin, King song until I was in a doctor's office in Beverly Hills and Ms. King came in and sat next to me. I didn't know it was her, I was just reading a magazine and she turned to me and said, "You know, I hated what you did to my song." I didn't know what to say, so all I said was, "Well, sorry." and then as she got up to go into the doctor's office, she turned around and said, "But I got used to it."
Songfacts: When you sing "San Franciscan Nights" these days, is it with fond memories or remorse, and what do you think the so-called "Love Generation" accomplished?
Burdon: Well, the "Love Generation" helped the anti-war stance in the states. It certainly turned a lot of soldiers' heads around, making them wonder why they had to be out fighting a war when back home their girlfriends were frolicking around and it caused a lot of anguish on that level. Maybe it helped politically with the so-called enemy. I'm not sure.
Songfacts: Which of the songs that you've written are you most proud of, and why?
Burdon: I'm not sure. I wrote a song called "Anything" that's a Love Generation song. It's more than just a song about a love for your woman; it's about love for everything, from the Earth, to your friends, and even your enemies.
Songfacts: Do you still live in Joshua Tree, and if so, how does that part of the world influence/inspire your music?
Burdon: I do still live in Joshua Tree, but It's not Joshua Tree that inspires me, it's the whole desert. I like living in the desert because I feel that that's how the future is going to be. Nothing left but sand and rocks. If I can learn to live under these fiery conditions, I can conquer anything.
Songfacts: I read that an ex-wife of yours burned down your California house in the late '70s. What is the most treasured thing you lost in that fire, and why did it mean so much to you?
Burdon: I was on tour in Germany at the time and I came home to no home. All of the stuff in the house was burned up and turned to ash. Great pictures and albums. Everything of the house that hadn't been burned up was picked through by the scavengers and once again, I had to start over with nothing.
Songfacts: Lastly, you performed at the original Monterey Pop Festival. What are your memories of that experience, and did you realize at the time what a momentous occasion it was?
Burdon: It was the first gig we'd played with a new lineup. We had hardly had a chance to rehearse, but we made it though. I have great memories of being there. It was a wonderful weekend and I'll never forget it.
September 13, 2010.
Photo: Marianna Proestou.
For much more on Eric, check out ericburdon.com.
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