Belfast, Ireland is Van Morrison’s refuge, strength and often times inspiration for the rock-jazz-blues mélange that is this Celt’s body of work. In a career roughly split into the Bang and post-Bang periods (Bang being the record label for which he briefly recorded while being produced by Bert Bern in the ‘60s), Morrison’s remained a balladeer through success, retreat, criticism and acclaim. Battling debilitating stage fright throughout his career has lent itself to a sort of tough resilience in his presence as a live performer, but it’s his iconic songwriting that really secures his foothold in the rock canon.
Morrison, born George Ivan Morrison on August 31, 1945, playing in R&B band the Monarchs after leaving school at 15-years old, later starting the legendary group Them, for whom he wrote “Gloria”—a song that’s been covered umpteen-million times in the rock era by Patti Smith, U2 and the Doors among others. Them disbanded after a 1966 U.S. tour, at which point Morrison launched his solo career with “Brown-Eyed Girl,” still his most famous song, and the 1967 album Blowin’ Your Mind. Its follow-up, 1968’s Astral Weeks, is generally agreed upon as his finest work—jazz-inflected and masterfully performed—even though it didn’t generate any hit singles itself. Moondance, which came out in 1970, generated three hit songs: “Into the Mystic”, “Caravan” and the title track. His Band and the Street Choir, released that same year, featured “Domino,” another of his greatest hits.
The early ‘70s was his most productive period, and his releases at that time included Tupelo Honey and It’s Too Late to Stop Now. After divorcing wife Janet Planet, his 1974 album Veedon Fleece was another career highlight, released during a five-year span in which he refused to tour due to overwhelming stage fright. In the ‘80s, Morrison toured to high-fan approval and critical praise, and his music during that time took an especially spiritual turn. 1988’s Irish Heartbeat was recorded with fellow Irish group the Chieftains, composed mostly of traditional Irish tunes with two Morrison originals (including the title track, which originally appeared on the oft-overlooked 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart). 1989’s Avalon Sunset was a commercial success in the U.K., featuring the hit “Whenever God Shines His Light”, as well as “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”, which Rod Stewart made a hit a few years later in 1993.
In the ‘90s, Morrison’s career ignited once more and duets with daughter Shana, shared eclectic elegance with jazz pianist and musical raconteur Mose Allison for Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, and the eternally smooth influences of Ray Charles and Sinatra contributed to his warm, philosophical product. Even into the millennium, Morrison remains active, continuing to record and perform, though he’s become notoriously even more crotchety in his older age. 2008’s Keep It Simple was his first album composed entirely of originals since Back on Top came out in 1999. He released a new live recording in 2009: Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.