When Van Morrison began work on his fourth album His Band and Street Choir, he faced the biggest challenge of his career. His last two albums, 1969s Astral Weeks and 1970s Moondance, had been stonewall classics. Following these albums up wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be the biggest challenge of Van Morrison’s career.

This challenge began in early 1970. The recently married Van Morrison, was living in Woodstock, in upstate New York. So it made sense to record some demos locally. Van found the perfect location, a small church in Woodstock Village. It was the perfect place to work on new material, which would eventually feature on  His Band and Street Choir, which will be  rereleased on vinyl on 4th December 2015  byRhino.

Originally, Van wasn’t intending this new material to feature on an album. He had recently released Moondance on the 29th January 1970. It was too soon to think about a new album. That could wait. However, he was happy to hone old songs and work on ideas for new songs. This included songs he had previously written and recorded over the last few years. Van hadn’t been happy with them. Now that he had with some time on his hands, he decided to hone these songs.

Among them, were I’ve Been Working, Domino, Virgo Clowns and Crazy Face. None of these songs were new. Some had been written and recorded years ago.

I’ve Been Working was first recorded in 1968, during the Astral Weeks’ sessions. Crazy Face had been inspired by Going Around with Jesse James, which Van had recorded for Astral Weeks. So it wasn’t a new track. Nor was Domino, which had been recorded several times before. The first times was just after the Astral Weeks’ sessions were completed. Virgo Clowns had been recorded in early 1969. However, just like the other tracks, they never made it onto to an album. So Van began work on them.

At the church, drummer  David Shaw (Dahaud Shaar) began setting up microphones and some basic equipment. This included the tape recorder. It was a low-fi setup that Van and his band encountered. Despite this, they began recording demos of I’ve Been Working, Domino, Virgo Clowns and Crazy Face. They then began work on Crazy Face and Give Me a Kiss, which had never been recorded before. Over the next few days and weeks, the sessions at the Woodstock church became a dry run for the recording of His Band and Street Choir in the spring of 1970.

Recording of Van Morrison’s fourth album began in March 1970, at the A&R Recording Studios, in New York. That would be home to Van and his new band for the next four months.

As Van Morrison’s arrived at the A&R Recording Studios, there were some familiar faces in the new band. This included bassist John Klingberg and guitarist John Platania. Both had played on Moondance, and slotted into the rhythm section alongside David Shaw (Dahaud Shaar). He played drums, percussion and bass clarinet, and had played on the Moondance tour. Three other familiar faces were the backing vocalists Judy Clay, Emily Houston and Jackie Verdell. Their backing vocals featured on Moondance. On His Band and Street Choir, they added backing  vocals on If I Ever Needed Someone. Joining the veterans of previous Van Morrison albums and tours, were some top musicians.

This included Alan Hand on piano, Hammond organ and celeste. Keith Johnson played trumpet and Hammond organ. Jack Schroer switched between alto and baritone saxophone, and piano. Van Morrison played guitar, harmonica and tenor saxophone. Most importantly, he added his unmistakable vocals. Augmenting his vocals were The Street Choir.

Originally, Van Morrison planned to record his fourth album without a backing band. He had wanted to sing a cappella, with only backing vocalists accompanying him. The backing vocalists Van decided, would be called The Street Choir. However, things didn’t work out that way. Van recorded with a backing band and The Street Choir. It eventually featured Larry Goldsmith, Janet Planet, Andrew Robinson, Ellen Schroer, David Shaw and Martha Velez. The Street Choir and Van Morrison’s band spent the next four months recording the album that was originally meant to be entitled Virgo’s Fool. By July 1970, Virgo’s Fool was complete.

Six months after the release of Moondance, Van Morrison had handed his fourth album into Warner Bros. It hadn’t been smooth sailing. Van Morrison wasn’t happy with the backing vocals. Originally, he had planned to use a quintet. However, additional backing vocalists were drafted in. This he felt, had spoiled the sound of Virgo’s Fool. There was very little he could do now. Warner Bros. were planning on releasing Virgo’s Fool on 15th November 1970, just in time for Christmas. 

Although Virgo’s fool had been recorded, the album still had to be mixed and mastered. Then there was the small matter of an album cover. Warner Bros. were determined that the album be released before Christmas. That wasn’t their best idea.

This resulted in the design of the album cover being rushed. Janet Planet, Van’s then wife, designed the album cover and wrote the sleeve notes. They were later criticised by Van’s biographer Brian Hinton as sounding: “a little desperate.” Especially the words: “this is the album that you must sing with, dance to, you must find a place for these songs somewhere in your life.” However, Janet Planet’s words were well meaning. She was trying to ensure Virgo’s Fool was a success. Others weren’t being as careful.

As Warner Bros. prepared the promotional versions of Virgo’s Fool, it was like a chapter of accidents. Instead of the title Virgo’s Fool, the album was entitled His Band and Street Choir. That wasn’t the end of the mistakes. The track listing was wrong. Then as I’ll Be Your Lover, Too draws to a close, part of  a conversation could be heard. It should’ve been edited out. That however, wasn’t the end of what was quickly becoming a fiasco.

Photos had been taken for the gatefold album cover by David Gair. He shot the photos at a party for John Planet’s son, Peter. Van Morrison was pictured surrounded by the wives and family of his band. When Van Morrison saw the photos, to was scathing. The photos were “rubbish.” Things got worse. The album cover featured Van Morrison dressed in a full length kaftan. It made Van Morrison looking like the stereotypical hippy. This didn’t please him. He fumed, as he had never embraced the hippy lifestyle. This was just the latest in a series of mishaps. It didn’t bode well for the release of His Band and Street Choir.

Before His Band and Street Choir was released, critics received their copy of the album. Despite the wrong title, incorrect track listing and dreadful album cover, critics were impressed. That wasn’t surprising. Domino had been released as a single, giving people a taster of the album. It reached number nine in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-two in Holland. So it was no surprise that the reviews of His Band and Street Choir were positive. Just like his last two albums, His Band and Street Choir was released to widespread critical acclaim.

His Band and Street Choir was released on 15th November 1970. The album reached number eighteen in Britain, thirty-two in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-eight in Holland. Despite Astral Weeks and Moondance being regarded as classics, His Band and Street Choir had been a bigger success upon its release. That wasn’t end of the success.

Blue Money was released as a single in 1971, and reached number twenty-three in the US Billboard 100. That made it two hit singles from His Band and Street Choir. Sadly, two didn’t become three when Call Me Up in Dreamland stalled an ninety-five in the US Billboard 100. However, His Band and Street Choir was regarded as a success by Warner Bros. and Van Morrison.

Opening His Band and Street Choir, is Domino a tribute to New Orleans’ born singer Fats Domino. A chirping guitar is joined by an urgent rhythm section and Van’s lived-in vocal. Soon, stabs of blazing horns and a jangling piano join the rhythm section. They drive the arrangement along, while Van delivers a vocal powerhouse, as he gives thanks for “Domino.” Van combines elements of Celtic soul with R&B on what would become one of his best known songs.

Unlike the majority of tracks on His Band and Street Choir,  Crazy Face has an 8/4 beat. It’s a track that was inspired by Jesse James. A thoughtful meandering piano is joined by an acoustic guitar and rhythm section. Van’s vocal is best described as a mid-Atlantic twang. Like an actor in a play, Van brings the lyrics about one of America’s most famous outlaws to life. When his vocal drops out, washes of Hammond organ and joined by a scorching saxophone. It’s panned right, leaving plenty of space for the rest of the band. They stretch their legs until Van’s vocal returns. His vocal is a mixture of power and passion. He’s like a showman, as he adds an element of theatre and drama.

A strummed guitar opens Give Me A Kiss, a song Van wrote to celebrate the birth of a child. Happiness fills his vocal, as the bass helps walk the arrangement along. Stabs of growling horns are added. So are doo wop harmonies as this joyous, feel good song begins to swing. 

As I’ve Been Working unfolds,the rhythm section, guitars and percussion set the scene for Van’s weary vocal. Soon, the weariness disappears and hope and happiness shines through. He’s with the woman he loves, and suddenly, everything seems worthwhile. Again, the bass is prominent in the mix. Washes of Hammond organ can also be heard in the distance. Then braying horns make an entrance as Van vamps. His vocal is like a stream of consciousness. Then when the vocal drops out, his band jam, and showcase their considerable talents. When Van returns, he vamps and the band play around him. Van and his band are one, on what’s one of the highlights of His Band and Street Choir.

Call Me Up In Dreamland has been inspired by gospel music. and is a song about life on the road. Subtle horns and the bass combine, before a roll of drums signals the arrival of Van’s grizzled vocal. Soon, Van’s joined by gospel-tinged harmonies. They’re crucial to the song’s success. The R&B inspired saxophone that replaces the harmonies work, but only just. The song seems to loose momentum. Then Van saves the day. He literally grabs the song and makes it work. Adding the finishing touch are the returning harmonies. They ensure the song reaches a joyous crescendo.

Slowly and deliberately, a lone acoustic guitar plays on I’ll Be Your Lover, Too. It’s joined by Van’s needy, heartfelt vocal. Soon, drums played by brushes join the acoustic guitars. They allow Van’s impassioned, hopeful vocal to take centre-stage on this beautiful ballad about his relationship.

Blue Money was penned by Van about his financial situation. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Van’s lyrics are full of humour. He’s able to laugh at himself and his problems. That’s the case from the opening bars. A guitar is joined by the rhythm section and Van’s vocal. He strolls through the lyrics, delivering a plethora of puns. Behind him, the band make sure the arrangement swings. Later, The Street Choir add harmonies which augment Van’s vocal on this catchy, pun filled track.

Virgo Clowns should’ve been the title-track to the album. It wasn’t a new song. Originally,  it was recorded in early 1969 as (Sit Down) Funny Face. Van rerecorded it during the first Street Choir session as Funny Face. Then at the the A&R Recording Studios it became Virgo Clowns. Urgently strummed guitars, backing vocals and later, a braying saxophone accompany Van’s impassioned vocal.

A celeste opens Gypsy Queen before the bass and acoustic guitar accompany Van’s vocal. It veers between heartfelt to reassuring and powerful. He uses his full vocal range. Behind him, washes of Hammond organ and horns are added. They provide the perfect accompaniment to Van on this heartfelt ballad.

It’s thought that Sweet Jannie was inspired by The Impressions’ Gypsy Woman. There’s certainly an R&B influence present as the arrangement bounds along. Van’s accompanied by the rhythm section and chiming guitars. They’re omnipresent as Van pays homage to The Impressions. Ironically, this homage is by far, the weakest song on the album. Van’s at his best when he’s himself.

Proof of this is If I Ever Needed Someone. He’s accompanied by gospel-tinged harmonies, piano and the bass as he delivers one of his best vocals. It’s full of emotion, and can only be described as soul-baring confessional.

Street Choir closes His Band and Street Choir. A Hammond organ is joined by  the rhythm section and piano. Van’s impassioned, hurt-filled  vocal is accompanied by soulful harmonies and wistful horns. They’re a potent combination and prove the perfect way to close Van Morrison’s fourth album, His Band and Street Choir.

Despite the problems that beset the release of His Band and Street Choir, the album became the most successful of Van Morrison’s four album career. That’s ironic, given Astral Weeks and Moondance are two of the most important albums not just in Van Morrison’s career, but the history of music. Every album Van Morrison went on to release, was compared to his two classic albums. This includes His Band and Street Choir, which will be rereleased on vinyl by Rhino on 4th December 2015.

His Band and Street Choir has always been overshadowed by Astral Weeks and Moondance. In 1970, Van Morrison was trying to followup an album of the magnitude of Moondance. It was almost impossible. Critics had said the same about Astral Weeks, and Van came back with Moondance. However, His Band and Street Choir is no Moondance. 

Having said that, His Band and Street Choir is a very good album, and for too long, has been understated. It’s one of the finest albums Van Morrison released during the seventies. His Band and Street Choir is only let down by Sweet Jannie, Van’s homage to The Impressions. Apart from that, it’s a case of wallowing in Van Morrison at the peak of his powers on His Band and Street Choir. This creative spell continued.

Right up until 1972, Van Morrison could do no wrong. From Astral Weeks and Moondance, through  His Band and Street Choir, 1971s Tupelo Honey and 1972s Saint Dominic’s Preview, Van Morrison was writing and recording some of the best music of his career. These albums featured Van Morrison at the peak of his powers. Despite their undoubted quality, they’ve been overshadowed by his two classic albums, Astral Weeks and Moondance.

Every album Van Morrison released was compared to Astral Weeks and Moondance, rather than viewed as a new piece of work. As a result, Van Morrison spent his career trying surpass, or even match Astral Weeks and Moondance. He never quite managed to do so. However, the nearest Van Morrison came, was on albums like His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey and Saint Dominic’s Preview.





1 Comment

  1. Like you, I have lots of respect for albums 3 – 5. And the live double ‘It’s too late to stop now’ is a ripper also!

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