To chart-topping American acts like Steve Lawrence (“Go Away Little Girl”) and Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs (“Sugar Shack”), 1963 had been a year filled with promise. And then came the Beatles, whose dramatic arrival in January 1964 clearly posed a commercial threat. By the middle of 1964, with Louis Armstrong (“Hello Dolly”) and Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody”) both having earned #1 pop hits, it may have seemed that the worst was over. But then came another blow in the form of the Animals, whose signature hit, “House of The Rising Sun,” reached #1 on the U.S. pop charts on this day in 1964. Steeped in a musical idiom very different from “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “House of The Rising Sun” hinted at an entirely new line of attack from the forces of the British Invasion.
While the Beatles traced their roots to early rock and roll, Eric Burdon, Alan Price and the other founding members of the Animals traced theirs to American R&B and blues—the same musical influences then shaping future members of the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Formed in their native Newcastle in 1962, the Animals got their big break playing as the opening act for Chuck Berry on his 1964 tour of England. While other bands tended to close their acts with hard-charging rock-and-roll numbers, the Animals made the idiosyncratic choice of closing theirs with a traditional song from the American south, reworked into a folk/blues/rock amalgam featuring Burdon’s growling lead vocal and Price’s pulsating organ line on the Vox Continental. “We were looking for a song that would grab people’s attention,” Burdon would later say, and it worked. Producer Mickie Most heard the Animals in 1964 and quickly arranged a recording contract. “House of The Rising Sun” was recorded in just 15 minutes in May 1964 and went on to top both the American and British pop charts just four months later.
While some have claimed that the Animals’ rendition of “House of The Rising Sun” was lifted fairly directly from the version Bob Dylan recorded for his 1962 debut album, Dylan himself appears to have lifted his from fellow Greenwich Village folkie Dave Van Ronk. In any event, it was the Animals’ version that topped the pop charts on this day in 1964 and made Dylan himself “jump out of his car seat” with enthusiasm when he first heard it on the radio.