“Brown Eyed Girl” is a song by Northern Irish singer and songwriter Van Morrison. Written by Morrison and recorded in March 1967 for Bang Records owner and producer Bert Berns, it was released as a single in June 1967 on the Bang label, peaking at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It featured the Sweet Inspirations singing back-up vocals and is considered to be Van Morrison’s signature song. “Brown Eyed Girl” has remained a staple on classic rock radio, and has been covered by hundreds of bands over the decades.
After finishing his contract with Decca Records and the mid-1966 break-up of his band, Them, Morrison returned to Belfast seeking a new recording company. When he received a phone call from Bert Berns, owner of Bang Records, who had produced a number of recordings with Them, he flew to New York City and hastily signed a contract (which biographer Clinton Heylin says probably still gives him sleepless nights). During a two-day recording session starting 28 March 1967, he recorded eight songs intended to be used as four singles. The recording session took place at A & R Studios and “Brown Eyed Girl” was captured on the 22nd take on the first day. Of the musicians Berns had assembled, there were three guitarists – Eric Gale, Hugh McCracken, and Al Gorgoni – plus bassist Russ Savakus, pianist Paul Griffin and drummer Gary Chester. It was released as a single in mid-June 1967.
Originally titled “Brown-Skinned Girl”, Morrison changed it to “Brown Eyed Girl” when he recorded it. Morrison remarked on the original title: “That was just a mistake. It was a kind of Jamaican song. Calypso. It just slipped my mind. I changed the title.” “After we’d recorded it, I looked at the tape box and didn’t even notice that I’d changed the title. I looked at the box where I’d lain it down with my guitar and it said ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ on the tape box. It’s just one of those things that happen.” It has also been stated that the song was about an inter-racial relationship and Morrison changed the title to “make it more palatable to radio stations.”
The song’s nostalgic lyrics about a former love were considered too suggestive at the time to be played on many radio stations. A radio-edit of the song was released which removed the lyrics “making love in the green grass”, replacing them with “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey” from a previous verse. This edited version appears on some copies of the compilation album The Best of Van Morrison. However the remastered CD seems[clarification needed] to have the bowdlerised lyrics in the packaging but the original “racy” lyrics on the disc. Lyrically, it “shows early hints of the idealized pastoral landscapes that would flow through his songs through the decades, a tendency that links him to the Romantic poets, whom Morrison has cited as an influence” according to music journalist Erik Hage.
Because of a contract he signed with Bang Records without legal advice, Morrison states that he has never received any royalties for writing or recording this song. The contract made him liable for virtually all recording expenses incurred for all of his Bang Records recordings before royalties would be paid, and after those expenses were recouped, the revenue would become the “subject of some highly creative accounting.” Morrison vented frustration about this unjust contract in his sarcastic nonsense song “The Big Royalty Check.” Morrison has stated that “Brown Eyed Girl” is not among his favorite songs, remarking “it’s not one of my best. I mean I’ve got about 300 songs that I think are better”.
To capitalise on the success of the single, producer Berns assembled the album Blowin’ Your Mind without Morrison’s input or knowledge. Released in September 1967, the album contained the single as its lead-off track as well as songs recorded by Morrison at the March recording sessions for Berns. The album peaked at No. 182 on the Billboard 200.
Morrison’s original recording of “Brown Eyed Girl” remains widely familiar today, as the uncensored version is regularly played by many “oldies” and “classic rock” radio stations. In 2005, Van Morrison received a Million-Air certificate by BMI as a “Top European Writer” for reaching 7 million US radio and television airplays for “Brown Eyed Girl” and again in 2007, Morrison was awarded another Million-Air certificate by BMI for 8 million air plays of “Brown Eyed Girl”. In 2009, “Brown Eyed Girl” was at the top of the list for most played songs at the BMI London awards winning a Million-Air certificate for nine million air plays. In 2011, “Brown Eyed Girl” joined an elite group of songs as it was honoured for having 10 million US radio air plays and therefore becoming one of the ten songs that have been registered with BMI that have received that number of radio plays. As of 2015, “Brown Eyed Girl” remains the most downloaded and most played song of the entire 1960s decade.
Paul Williams included “Brown Eyed Girl” in his book Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles, writing that:
“I was going to say this is a song about sex, and it is, and a song about youth and growing up, and memory, and it’s also — very much and very wonderfully — a song about singing.”
This song proved to be the impetus for Morrison’s career. It was his first single after leaving his position as lead singer for the Belfast-formed Them and led to his relocation to the United States and an eventual contract with Warner Bros. Records, where he recorded his career-defining album, Astral Weeks.
Dave Marsh in his 1989 book, The Heart of Rock and Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever, rated it No. 386. In 1999, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) listed it as one of the Top 100 Songs of the Century. In 2000, it was listed at No. 21 on the Rolling Stone/MTV list of 100 Greatest Pop Songs and as No. 49 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs. In 2001, It was ranked No. 131 as one of the RIAAs Songs of the Century, a list of the top 365 songs of the 20th century chosen with historical significance in mind.
In November 2004, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison was ranked No. 110 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. At the same year, it was listed as No. 79 on the All Time 885 Greatest Songs compiled by WXPN from listeners’ votes. In January 2007, “Brown Eyed Girl” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was ranked as the 152nd greatest song of all time, as well as the tenth best song of 1967, by Acclaimed Music. It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Van Morrison – vocals, guitar
Eric Gale – bass guitar
Gary Chester – drums
Al Gorgoni – guitars
Hugh McCracken – guitars
Garry Sherman – organ
The Sweet Inspirations – back-up vocals