TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's well known that Van Morrison got his start with a band called Them, which had a few hits before he left for a solo career. But the release of "The Complete Them" by Legacy - it turns out that the story is a bit more complex than that. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY PLEASE DON'T GO")
THEM: (Singing) Baby, please don't go. Baby, please don't go. Baby, please don't go down to New Orleans. You know I love you so. Baby, please don't go.
ED WARD, BYLINE: George Ivan Morrison was born to musically-inclined parents in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1945 and dropped out of school in his mid-teens with their blessing to pursue his interest in music. At first, he worked with showbands, those uniquely Irish outfits whose last incarnations can be seen in the film, "The Commitments." But he soon joined a more modern combo, the Monarchs, who played rock 'n roll and even recorded a single for CBS Germany in 1961.
In 1963, he was in London again working in the Manhattan showband and stumbled onto a gig by the Downliners Sect at a club where they were playing blues and R&B, much as the Rolling Stones were doing. Morrison became convinced that a band doing this music in Belfast would be a hit and set out with one of his colleagues to form one. The bar at the Maritime Hotel in Belfast provided a place, so like-minded guys provided the personnel and an ad in Melody Maker for a London gig by someone called Shorty and Them provided a name. The hot, new band at the Maritime was known as Them. In July 1964, the band moved to London to make it, and in due time were signed by Decca and released a single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T START CRYING NOW")
THEM: (Singing) You ain't never had to cry, baby. Don't start crying now. You ain't never had to cry, baby. Don't start crying now. You never did it before. Don't do you no good no how. Cry, cry, baby, cry, cry all night long. Cry, cry, baby, cry, cry all night long. You're going to wake up in the morning to find your good man gone. Well...
WARD: Predictably, "Don't Start Crying Now" sold well in Belfast, but the dirty, little secret was Them didn't play on it. Instead, some of London's better studio musicians, including young electric guitar whiz Jimmy Page, played on the sessions. Them did well enough that in 1965, a hot new producer from America, Bert Berns, was given the band to write for and produce, starting with their second single "Baby Please Don't Go." That did a bit better because it had an old Monarch song on the B side.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")
THEM: (Singing) I want to tell about my baby. You know, she comes around. She's about 5-feet-4 from her head to the ground. You know, she comes around here just about midnight. She makes me feel so good. She makes me feel all right, and her name is G-L-O-R-I - G-L-O-R - oh, Gloria. I'm going to shout it out every night. Gloria. I'm going to shout it every day. Gloria. Yeah, yeah, yeah...
WARD: Berns got Decca to release another song from the session, one he'd written and recorded with Glasgow singer Lulu with only moderate success. This was a major hit in Britain for Them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE NIGHT")
THEM: (Singing) Oh, here it comes. Here comes the night. Here comes the night. Whoa, whoa, whoa, yeah. I could see right out my window walking down the street with my girl with another guy. His arms around her like it used to be with me, whoa, it makes me want to die. Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, here it comes. Here comes the night.
WARD: At this point, the British invasion had started in earnest in America, and Decca's American division started releasing Them records. "Gloria" was first peaking at 95, and "Here Comes The Night" made it to 24. But their American career seemed to end with their third hit, "Mystic Eyes," a bizarre harmonica rave-up with Morrison singing something about walking past the graveyard. Oddly, it went to number 33 in America, but the real action was albums of which there were three by the beginning of 1966. The band - and it had actually solidified into a permanent band - was doing well in live shows and plans were afoot to bring them to America where Bert Berns had relocated telling anyone who'd listen about this genius songwriter and singer he'd found. Back in Britain, Decca was flailing around, recording Morrison's first solo album then releasing the results mixed with tracks by the band on the album "Them Again." It showed Morrison and Them at the peak of their powers even daring to cover Bob Dylan and do it spectacularly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL OVER NOW, BABY BLUE")
THEM: (Singing) You must leave now. Take what you need you think will last, but whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast. Yonder stands your orphan with his gun, crying like a fire in the sun. Look out, baby, the saints are coming through. And it's all over now, baby blue.
WARD: The band went to the states for a quick tour. Decca rereleased "Gloria" as a single, and everything looked great until a Chicago band, the Shadows of Knight, released their own version which went into the top ten. They played the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles where a hot, new band called the Doors opened for them. But Them as a band was over. Morrison flew back to London and told Decca he'd signed as a solo act with Bert Berns' new label, Bang, and dissolved the band's contract. He had a bunch of new songs he had written and couldn't wait to get to New York and Berns to start recording. Them was over, although a band under that name continued to tour for a few more years. But Van Morrison was just getting started.
GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the forthcoming book "The History Of Rock 'N Roll: Volume One 1920-1963." The music he played was from "The Complete Them." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed like our interview about genetics and cancer or our conversations with Sarah Paulson and with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and director Scott Ellis about the new Broadway revival of the musical "She Loves Me," check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.