The song peaked at #1 in the Billboard 100, #1 in Canada, and #1 in the Uk in 1964. This song was my introduction to the Animals sometime in the 1980s. Love the organ and Eric Burden’s voice in this.
Historians have not been able to definitively identify The House Of The Rising Sun, but here are the two most popular theories:
1) The song is about a brothel in New Orleans. “The House Of The Rising Sun” was named after its occupant Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (which means “Rising Sun” in French) and was open for business from 1862 (occupation by Union troops) until 1874, when it was closed due to complaints by neighbors. It was located at 826-830 St. Louis St.
2) It’s about a women’s prison in New Orleans called the Orleans Parish women’s prison, which had an entrance gate adorned with rising sun artwork. This would explain the “ball and chain” lyrics in the song.
The melody is a traditional English ballad, but the song became popular as an African-American folk song. It was recorded by Texas Alexander in the 1920s, then by a number of other artists including Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White and later Nina Simone. It was her version The Animals first heard. No one can claim rights to the song, meaning it can be recorded and sold royalty-free. Many bands covered the song after it became a hit for The Animals.
The folk music historian Alan Lomax recorded a version in 1937 by a 16-year-old girl named Georgia Turner. In this context, it is sung in the first person, present tense with the singer lamenting how the House of the Rising Sun has ruined her life. In this traditional folk version, the main character is either a prostitute or a prisoner. The Animals changed it to a gambler to make their version more radio-friendly.
In 1964, this folk song about a New Orleans brothel became a transatlantic hit for a British rock band when The Animals recorded it. Their version landed at #1 in the UK on July 9, and in America on September 5.
The Animals performed this song while touring England with Chuck Berry in May 1964. It went over so well that they recorded it between stops on the tour. In our 2010 interview with Animals lead singer Eric Burdon, he explained: “‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording.”
Bob Dylan included this on his first album in 1962, using a folk arrangement he picked up from hearing Dave Van Ronk perform it and singing it as “it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl.” When The Animals recorded it two years later, it was transformative listening for Dylan, who learned he could put apply a rock rhythm to a folk song. He bought an electric guitar and started to use it, famously at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where he did an electric set for the first time.
“Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker,” Eric Burdon told Songfacts. “Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic ‘House of the Rising Sun.'”
The Beatles began their chart domination in America when “I Want To Hold Your Hand” went to #1 in February 1964. They landed five more #1 hits before “House Of The Rising” topped the chart on September 5, beating every other British Invasion group to the top except for Peter & Gordon, who spent a week at the top in June with “A World Without Love,” a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
This was the first international hit Mickie Most produced. An Englishman, Most went to South Africa in 1959 and formed a band called Mickie Most and his Playboys. Since rock music had not come to the country, Most recorded popular songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” running up a string of hits. Upon returning to England in 1962, he turned to production work, since he had honed his songcraft skills in South Africa.
After seeing The Animals perform at Club A-Go-Go in Newcastle, he began producing the band; their first recording was “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” which was released as the group’s first single and made UK #21. Next was “The House of the Rising Sun.”
Most quickly became the top producer in England, adding Herman’s Hermits, Donovan, Lulu and Jeff Beck to his roster.
The Animals recorded this in one take, as they had perfected the song from performing it on the road. The Animals’ drummer John Steel recalls in 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, “We Played Liverpool on May 17, 1964 and then drove to London where Mickie (Most) had booked a studio for ITV’s Ready Steady Go!Because of the reaction we were getting to ‘Rising Sun,’ we asked to record it and he said, ‘Okay we’ll do it at the same session.’ We set up for balance, played a few bars for the engineer – it was mono with no overdubs – and we only did one take. We listened to it and Mickie said, ‘That’s it, it’s a single.’ The engineer said it was too long, but instead of chopping out a bit, Mickie had the courage to say, ‘We’re in a microgroove world now, we will release it.’ A few weeks later it was #1 all over the world. When we knocked The Beatles off the top in America, they sent us a telegram which read, ‘Congratulations from The Beatles (a group)’.”
The producer Mickie Most recalls, “Everything was in the right place, the planets were in the right place, the stars were in the right place and the wind was blowing in the right direction. It only took 15 minutes to make so I can’t take much credit for the production. It was just a case of capturing the atmosphere in the studio.”
The UK version of this song runs 4:29, which was longer than any other #1 hit in Britain to that point (most hits of the day came in under 3 minutes). The Animals’ UK label, Columbia, didn’t want to release it as a single because of its length, but the group’s producer Mickie Most fought for it.
In America, the song was edited down to 2:59.
The first Animals single was the far more traditional “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” which reached #21 in the UK and #102 in America. “House Of The Rising Sun” was their second single, and the one that broke them big.
The Animals had 14 Top 40 hits in the US, becoming one of the most successful British Invasion bands in the United States. They split up in 1968 over various music and business issues. Burdon told Songfacts: “I don’t think that The Animals got a chance to evolve. We were the first to admit that we took blues songs from American artists, but if the Animals had stuck together and worked together instead of worrying about who was getting all the money, we could have evolved more and come out with more music to be proud of.”
Animals organist Alan Price was the only band member given credit for arranging the track, meaning he is paid almost all the royalties. Their record company told the other members that there was not enough room to list them as arrangers.
The organ solo was inspired by jazzman Jimmy Smith’s hit “Walk on the Wild Side.” Alan Price performed the solo on a Vox Continental.
In the UK, the Animals version was re-released in 1972 (going to #25) and again in 1982 (#11).
After The Animals split up, Eric Burdon soured on this song and went through a long period where he wouldn’t perform it, saying he “regarded the song as an embarrassment.” He later made peace with it, regularly performing it in various styles.
The English art rock band Alt-J covered this for their 2017 Relaxer album. Their version is so different to the other interpretations by the likes of The Animals and Nina Simone that it barely even registers as a cover version. The group told NPR’s All Things Considered:
“We have always seen ourselves as a bit of a folk band, and so it seems fitting to try our hands at a song like this. No one knows for sure where this song originated, but our version is very much set in New Orleans. The first verse is mostly from the folk song, the second is our own, thus continuing the folk process of taking a song, changing it, and passing it on.”
House of The Rising Sun
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one
My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans
Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one