Obituary: Sterling Morrison

As a founder member of the Velvet Underground, the guitarist Sterling Morrison was part of a New York musical scene that brought a vibrant new cultural dimension to rock music at the height of the Sixties. Morrison, who played both bass and lead guitar, helped co-write some of the band's material, and provided stability to a band often torn by conflict between its main protagonists, Lou Reed and John Cale.

Born Holmes Sterling Morrison Jnr in 1942, he joined Reed (vocals), Cale (viola, bass and keyboards) and Maureen Tucker (drums) in 1965 to help form the first "alternative" band. Although met by a mixture of apathy and rejection at the time, and upstaged by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the Velvet's unorthodox approach helped liberate rock music and challenge many of its strictures and preconceived ideas.

The band was born out of a meeting between the poet and songwriter Lou Reed and the Welsh-born avant-garde musician John Cale at a party in 1964. Reed played Cale some of his demos but it was some while before they worked together. Reed formed various groups with his friend Sterling Morrison, who lived close by in New York and often went clubbing with him. A former trumpet-player, Morrison studied creative writing with Reed at Syracuse University. After they had played as the Warlocks and the Primitives, Cale joined and the new outfit called themselves "Velvet Underground", taking the name from the title of a pornographic book. Eventually they came to the attention of Andy Warhol and the celebrated artist and film- maker became their manager and featured them in his mixed media show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Warhol also put them together with Nico as guest singer, much to Reed's dissatisfaction. However the group gained a residency at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village and became the house band at Warhol's Factory. Their debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, officially produced by Warhol, was released in March 1967 by which time Nico and Warhol were no longer involved in the group. Although ignored by radio stations, the album created a sensation among those who understood its significance. Aggressive, sometimes surreal musical textures impelled songs that had a gritty, documentary realism, dealing with such previously taboo subjects as sado-masochism, on "Venus in Furs", and drugs on "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for the Man."

Reed and Cale were undoubtedly the main musical catalysts. But Morrison also made an important contribution, notably to "Femme Fatale", which was written for Nico at Warhol's behest, by Reed in collaboration with Morrison. Inevitably there was a critical backlash to the Velvet's drug songs, and it was Morrison who defended his friend's work. He stated in an interview, "'Heroin' is a beautiful song, possibly Reed's greatest and a truthful one. It should be pointed out that when Reed sings he's only glamorising heroin for people who want to die. The real damage has been done through the cult of personality. Rock fans have taken heroin, thinking Lou took heroin, forgetting that the character in the song wasn't necessarily Lou Reed."

The band's ground-breaking album also introduced the concept of extended performances. Morrison said: "We figured that, on our first album, it was a novel idea just to have long tracks. People just weren't doing that - everyone's album cuts had to be two minutes. We did 'European Son', which ran for nearly eight minutes." When the album was released, Morrison recalled, "I was never more excited about anything, and used to call up Cashbox to find out our chart position before the magazine hit the stands. I couldn't wait to know."

Subsequent albums included White Light/White Heat (1967), The Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded (1971).

The Velvet Underground survived the departures of Nico, Cale and finally Lou Reed, who quit in 1970 to launch a highly successful solo career. For a while the old band toured under the aegis of Doug Yule (vocals) and Billy Yule (drums) but in 1971 Sterling Morrison eventually left to take up a post teaching English at the University of Texas, in Austin. He also worked for a while as a tugboat captain in Houston. Morrison continued to work on musical projects with Maureen Tucker and last year was a featured performer with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.

Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, although the band had long since faded from the scene, Velvet Underground continued to be a major influence on new generations of groups, including the Psychedelic Furs, who were inspired by the Velvet's "Venus in Furs". Songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'n' Roll" were also much admired by proto-punk rockers. The original band re-formed to play together for the first time since 1969 for an appearance near Paris, France, in 1990. The Velvet Underground reunited for a European tour in 1993 but, after mixed receptions, dissolved due to "internal difficulties" before the band could return to play in America.

Chris Welch

Holmes Sterling Morrison Jnr, guitarist, bass player: born East Meadow, Long Island 29 August 1942; married (one son, one daughter); died Poughkeepsie, New York 30 August 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m