Van Morrison PhotoBORN: August 31, 1945, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Van Morrison is one of the most critically acclaimed pop music singer/songwriters to have emerged in the 1960s. His bluesy voice and jazzy sense of improvisation have resulted in a three-decade career full of outstanding albums and concert performances. Morrison's father was a fan of American music, and he grew up listening to records by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, and Jimmy Rodgers, among others, spanning the genres of blues, folk, jazz, and country. As a teen, Morrison took up guitar and saxophone and played in a series of local bands, culminating in the formation of Them, an R&B quintet, in 1964. Signed to Decca Records (the catalog is now controlled by PolyGram), Them released two albums, Them (issued under the title The Angry Young Them in the U.S.) and Them Again and scored Top Ten hits in the U.K. with "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Here Comes the Night" in 1965. In the U.S., Them also charted with two Morrison-composed songs, "Gloria" (which became a rock standard) and "Mystic Eyes." But the group disbanded in 1966.

Morrison signed to Bang Records, a label set up by songwriter Bert Berns, who had written "Here Comes the Night," and in March 1967, recorded eight tracks in New York intended for single release. The first result of the session was "Brown-Eyed Girl," which became a U.S. Top Ten hit, prompting Bang to release the singles session as Morrison's first solo album, Blowin' Your Mind! (July 1967), though Morrison had not approved the release, the title, or the trendy psychedelic cover. Nevertheless, Morrison returned to the studio in the fall and cut eight more songs for Bang, which took five of them, culled five from the previous album, and released the deceptively titled The Best of Van Morrison (November 1967). With that, Morrison negotiated to get off the label, a process made easier by the sudden death of Berns in December 1967. Morrison agreed to turn over his next ten compositions to Bang, but submitted a tape of unusable off-the-cuff improvisations finally released in 1994 on Payin' Dues. (The Bang material has been reissued endlessly, the most complete version being Epic/Legacy's 1991 Bang Masters.)

Morrison then signed to Warner Bros. Records and recorded Astral Weeks (November 1968), which failed to chart but seems to have made every critic's all-time Top Ten list ever since. Living in Woodstock, NY, and later in Marin County, CA, with his wife Janet Planet, Morrison adopted a more commercial country-pop sound, and his second Warner Bros. album, Moondance (February 1970), was more of a sales success, spawning a Top 40 hit in "Come Running" and eventually selling over a million copies. Its follow-up, His Band and the Street Choir (October 1970), featured chart singles in "Domino" (which hit the Top Ten), "Blue Money," and "Call Me Up in Dreamland." Completing a trilogy of country-pop successes, Tupelo Honey (October 1971) produced chart singles in the title song and "Wild Night" and eventually went gold. Morrison took a more soul-oriented approach on Saint Dominic's Preview (July 1972), characterized by the album's first single, "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)." Hard Nose the Highway (July 1973), released around the time of the breakup of his marriage, found a more introspective Morrison crooning such material as Sesame Street puppet Kermit the Frog's "(It isn't easy bein') Green," but he bounced back with a powerful double live album, It's Too Late to Stop Now (February 1974), then made his most reflective album since Astral Weeks in Veedon Fleece (October 1974) before disappearing from record stores for two and a half years, reportedly due to writer's block. He returned with A Period of Transition (March 1977), an R&B-tinged effort that paired him with Dr. John. More assured was Wavelength (September 1978), whose title track was his biggest chart single in more than six years. Into the Music (August 1979) explicitly looked back on earlier styles and revealed an increasing religious interest, while the pastoral Common One (September 1980) was filled with references to English poets.

Morrison's albums of the 1980s and '90s largely repeated the musical styles and spiritual lyric themes he had developed in the 1970s, though they frequently contained moving performances. In 1984, Morrison switched from Warner Bros. Records to PolyGram, which had been distributing his albums outside the U.S. since 1979 on its Mercury label. He recorded with the Chieftains on the traditional album Irish Heartbeat (June 1988), a change of pace. In 1990, he experienced a career resurgence when Mercury/PolyGram released The Best of Van Morrison, which quickly became his biggest seller, at two million copies and counting. In his concert performances of the 1990s, Morrison increasingly relied on a band led by British jazz organist Georgie Fame and introduced guest singers, among them his daughter Shana. A typical performance was captured on A Night in San Francisco (June 1994). Morrison also continued to release new albums almost annually: Days Like This (June 1995) was his 22nd studio album of new, mostly original material in 28 years.

It was followed at the end of the year by How Long Has This Been Going On?, a jazz album recorded with Fame. A year later, he assembled Songs of Mose Allison: Tell Me Something, a tribute record to the jazz pianist recorded with Morrison and his band, Ben Sidran and Allison himself. Early in 1997, he released The Healing Game, which was his first album of original material since Days Like This. The Philosopher's Stone, a long-awaited collection of unreleased material, followed in 1998, and a year later Morrison returned with a new studio effort, Back on Top and collections of rare and live material (1998's The Philosopher's Stone and 2000's The Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again). It wasn't until 2002 that an album of new material survaced, but in May his long-anticipated Down the Road was released. . ~ William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide