Eric Burdon was born in 1941 near Newcastle, England to a working-class family; his father did the electrical work in some of the clubs his band would later play. Because of his dad's line of work, the Burdon family had a TV by the time he was ten; in his autobiography Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood he recalls the electrifying moment of first seeing Louis Armstrong on television. Burdon took up the trombone (and in 1955 actually met Armstrong during an English tour, another great moment recalled in the book). However, realizing that he wasn't all that great as a trombone player, Eric went into singing. He attended Newcastle Art College.

Burdon started out as one of a bunch of people who hung out at the local jazz club, the Downbeat. He describes his friends as "like a motorcycle gang . . . without the motorcycles"; they were tough, hard-drinking and listened to American music. Some of these guys put together a jazz group called the Pagan Jazzmen, but they soon latched onto the blues/R&B that was coming across the ocean and became the Pagans. Whoever was around played in the group, but gradually a lineup formed. Drummer John Steel was a friend of Burdon's from art college; Chas Chandler and Alan Price, Hilton Valentine ran across Burdon around Newcastle's club scene. Mike Jeffery, owner of most of Newcastle's music clubs, became their manager, and their name changed to The Animals.

The Animals gained a reputation in English rhythm & blues, and in 1963 landed the chance to play with classic American bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson for a television special, and after that touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Gene Vincent. By this time they had moved south to London, center of the British music scene. Then came the plum of touring with Chuck Berry (as well as Jerry Lee Lewis again) -- the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds had been hoping for a spot on that tour. Peter Grant, who would later work for Led Zeppelin, was the road manager. At this time, their first single "Baby Let Me Take You Home" was on the British charts, but instead of trying to "out-rock Chuck Berry," they went for a quieter tune and recorded their own arrangement of the classic "House of the Rising Sun" as well as playing it every night. The song was a massive hit, but the arrangement had been credited to Alan Price rather than the entire band, giving only him the song's publishing royalties.

"House" hit #1 in many countries and the Animals flew to the U.S. for their first concert and television appearances; this time they were headlining over Chuck Berry and Little Richard. (Their affection for black blues artists, including many cover songs, led to such situations in the U.S. as:

  • "graffitti on the wall of our hotel proclaiming 'Eric Burdon is a nigger lover.' Well, yeah, he is, I thought. And fuck you for not understanding that you should be too."
  • "I ran up to Harlem quite often when I was in New York, but to escape my fans and to get a chance to see the artists I'd worshipped from afar for years. . . . The fans would sometimes give chase in taxis or their own cars and then trail off when they reached 110th Street.")
Their manager was setting up tax shelters in the Bahamas, which Burdon says would become "the Bermuda Triangle" for the band's money. Burdon describes the Animals' financial situation as "Fucked from the get-go . . . The Animals never had a chance when it came to protecting ourselves from the vampires in the music business."

Burdon married Angela King in 1967, but it didn't last due to the constant touring and rarity of time together. They drifted so far apart that Eric didn't know where she was until she showed up at his Los Angeles home asking to borrow money for airfare back to London; he told her he'd buy her the tickets if she'd sign a paper "relinquishing all marital rights." Around the time of the marriage, the original Animals were deteriorating. The band members and road crew were fighting (VH1 says that Burdon and Valentine were doing psychedelic drugs while the other band members just drank); the money they should have earned never seemed to show up. Alan Price quit the band after receiving a few royalty checks for "House of the Rising Sun." Not too long after, frustrated with their manager and producer's demands that the band be less bluesy and more pop, Eric announced that he was disbanding the group after the next few concerts they were already committed to.

Eric bought a home in Los Angeles and recorded a solo album, Eric Is Here, with New York session musicians. However, he decided he wanted English musicians and put together a group which was first called Eric Burdon and the Animals, then Eric Burdon and the New Animals. (sighmoan was kind enough to inform me that "one of the English musicians in The New Animals was Andy Summers, who went back to session work afterwards until The Police happened.") They got an MGM record deal and recorded, with Frank Zappa working on a few tracks with them. Burdon hung out with all the musicians of the area, whether he was in London or L.A., as well as becoming friends with Steve McQueen (both were motorcycle enthusiasts who enjoyed riding in the Californian deserts). However, the Charles Manson family killings and other 1969 events "killed the hippie myth" for Eric and he disbanded the New Animals.

Slightly burned out on music, he took acting lessons for a while, but then went back to music. Seeing a local band, Night Shift, he was very impressed and wanted to work with them. That they were a funky black band with "four backup singers, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, bass, percussion, drums, guitar, and keyboards" -- a far cry from his five-man rock bands, did not dissuade him. The core of Night Shift joined with Eric to become the band "Eric Burdon and War." They got themselves started by doing benefit concerts for the local free clinics and performing in San Quentin and other prisons, while all living together in a mansion in Bel Air. They were signed by MGM and managed by Jerry Goldstein and Steve Gold, who made a deal with Burdon that they would give him the film footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience's last concert. Jimi and Eric were great friends (and Jimi's manager was Eric's ex-bandmate Chas Chandler); one of Hendrix's last performances before his death was jamming on stage with Burdon and War in London. Two days later Hendrix overdosed, with Burdon being the person the girl who spent the night with Jimi called when she couldn't wake him up. (His autobiography recalls feeling guilty for some time that he hadn't told her earlier to call an ambulance, but after years of probing it became clear that Jimi had been dead for sometime before Eric was called.)

After the success of three albums by the band and the single "Spill the Wine," Gold and Goldstein pulled a nasty trick. Apparently the contracts the band had signed were phrased so that "Eric Burdon" and "War" could be considered separate entities -- the managers took "War" to the United Artists label (where they would continue their success without Eric) and left Burdon at MGM, "probably the worst record label in the world at that time." Gold and Goldstein continued to try and get Burdon to do their bidding with the enticement of the Hendrix film footage. The stress hurt Eric's health, and his career; he tried picketing MGM's offices with a sign reading "Speak to me before you sign with MGM records -- Eric Burdon." This succeeded only in getting the label angry at him. He ended up suing Far Out Productions, the company he was partners with Gold and Goldstein in. From 1972 to 1974, the litigation went on. Burdon recorded with blues artist Jimmy Witherspoon, but since the company controlled his performance rights, he couldn't do concerts in the U.S. The IRS even claimed that he owed back taxes and for a while prevented him from leaving the U.S. (However, the IRS investigation proved that he'd never received the royalties he was supposed to owe tax on, so he was eventually allowed to leave the country.) Gold and Goldstein released Burdon material that he had not approved and did not consider ready for release.

Eventually, things were quieted down enough that Eric returned to California, married a girl named Rose and fathered a daughter Alex, and formed the first version of the Eric Burdon Band. They were signed to Capitol Records. However, guitarist Aalon Butler started to believe that he had been endowed with Jimi Hendrix's spirit -- an emotional situation for Burdon; "It seemed like Hendrix's ghost was tagging me everywhere I went." Capitol went over Burdon's head and released the band's rehearsal tapes as an album without his consent. With a new guitarist, the band went on tour, but record company troubles and Rose Burdon's drug use and erratic behavior while Eric was away continued to put Eric under a lot of stress. Eventually the marriage collapsed and Eric decided to stay in Europe for a while. He put together another band to tour in Germany and recorded an album in Ireland. The Animals also did a reunion album in 1975, but Goldstein and Gold had an injunction put on its release for two years, by which time it was a bit dated. Burdon continued to tour with his bands and even appeared in a semi-autographical 1982 film called Comeback, as well as smaller acting jobs. He also did some of his own discs' cover art during these years.

His next band in Germany was called Fire Department, and they toured for some time. Eventually, though, Eric left Germany and bought a house on the Mediterranean island of Minorca to settle down for a while. His mother was dying of cancer in England and he was only a few hours away from her there, and the climate was similar to that of California. However, it was damp enough that his asthma did not fare well, and in few years he decided to move back to the more arid parts of California. The Animals did a reunion tour about this time (1983), and Eric participated on the condition that he be able to shoot a documentary about the tour. However, the band fought as much or more than ever, and through bad timing they were also trapped for three days and nights in a Houston hotel as Hurricane Alicia hit the area. Burdon says the original Animals would never play together again (even if Chas Chandler hadn't died of a heart attack in 1996).

After the reunion tour, a new version of the Eric Burdon Band was formed and they toured Europe and nearby areas. Their visit to Israel fascinated Burdon so much that he went back alone in 1985 to tour the Negev Desert by Jeep. After he came back to live in California again, he became an American citizen. His first autobiography, I Used To Be An Animal But I'm All Right Now, was published in 1986. Later he would tour with the Doors' Robby Krieger and make a brief appearance in Oliver Stone's The Doors (though he'd been promised a much bigger part), record with Paul Shaffer and form the Eric Burdon/Brian Auger Band with keyboardist Auger, who ran everything; however, the band was cheated by the management Auger signed with, and then by the business partners of the original. Burdon says he couldn't afford to fly to Cleveland to see the Animals inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994; it would have meant missing the concert dates that were keeping him afloat.

The next year, the Burdon/Auger band disintegrated and Burdon formed the Eric Burdon's I Band, also know as the Flying I Band. However, their manager took the tapes they recorded for an album and sold them to a small label called Disky, who released them in a final form where "the final mixing and mastering was so bad that the programmed drum click tracks spilled over the ends of the songs." (However, Burdon's re-recording of "House of the Rising Sun" from these sessions was used by Martin Scorcese in Casino, so there was a tiny bit of silver lining.)

As of 2001, Burdon has yet another band, again called the New Animals. That was also the year Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood came out; it was described as "better organized" than his first book (courtesy of his coauthor, perhaps) but still a collection of anecdotes (and a real pain to find actual dates in when I was writing this). However, it has some terribly entertaining scenes (such as the bit where Burdon, one woman on each arm, passes Sean Connery on the street in London and Connery exclaims aloud that he had chosen the wrong profession). However, a lot of the Amazon reviews complain that he talks so little about actually making his music. According to his official website, a second volume of the autobiography will come out sometime.

Burdon, Eric, and J. Marshall Craig. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2001.||9559