Sal Valentino returns to a band setting
Ever fantasize what your life would be like if you were in a ’60s band whose name was often used in the same sentence as The Beatles?
Or to be considered America’s answer to the British invasion as you played before thousands of fans while appearing with The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Animals from coast to coast?
How about singing a cover of “One Too Many Mornings” when Bob Dylan is in the Whiskey-A-Go-Go audience in Los Angeles or having Sly Stone produce your album?
In the words of Sal Valentino, who as the Beau Brummels lead singer was on the receiving end of the mammoth wave, that was simply the way it happened for his Bay Area folk-country group.
Forget that Beau Brummels band members needed bodyguards to ensure that female fans didn’t accost them on the way from the concert hall to the limousine or that they were on the road more days than at home. Members didn’t focus on their widespread appeal; they were concerned about creating more music.
“A lot of the talk about us, the P.R. about us was funny. We didn’t know. We were a bunch of guys with one guy writing songs and a hit came up pretty quickly, the first single we released nationally got into the Top 10 (“Laugh Laugh”). The second record was a hit, too, I was told it went to Number 5.” Valentino said from his Sacramento home last week. “It was great, we had great fun. Our very first concert was at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento in 1965 – they had to stop the show because kids rushed the stage. It was mind-blowing, running in and out of limousines. It was exciting. But I never thought much about it. It was just something happening when you’re young.”
When the Brummels formed, Valentino was 22 and had only been singing publicly for six years. (His first performances were at Sacred Heart High School rallies in San Francisco and, Valentino admits, “were totally scary. I wasn’t that kind of extrovert. I never dreamed I’d be a performer.”)
Now Valentino, 62, fondly remembers the five years starting in 1964 when his group toured constantly and appeared frequently on TV shows including “American Bandstand,” “Hullabaloo” and even “The Flintstones.”
“The favorite part, by far the best of times, was when I was a Beau Brummels by any means. Every time I drive by Memorial Auditorium, I remember. But everything changes,” Valentino said wistfully.
Those changes which led to the group’s breakup, included the severe toll touring had on the health of Elliot, the Beau Brummels guitarist/songwriter who suffered from diabetes.
“It was hard for him to do shows,” Valentino said. Sometimes, Elliot would have an insulin reaction and be admitted to the hospital following concerts.
Valentino is straightforward when describing the band’s demise: “We had no plans for touring. Ron Elliot couldn’t do it anyway so the drummer left. We proceeded to get another hit record when Autumn Records sold the Brummels’ record contract to Warner Brothers in 1966 but that was it. Our timing was great the first time but not the second time.”
When the band split up, Valentino sang lead vocals for Stoneground from 1969 to 1972 and enjoyed similar success. The jam group was cast as the house band in the movie “Medicine Ball Caravan,” backed by Warner Brothers, about the efforts of a 150-member troupe to spread peace and love here and abroad in the summer of ’70.
Partly because of the movie, Stoneground developed cult status abroad.
“I was befuddled, I didn’t know why Warner Brothers wanted to sign us,” Valentino said. “I stayed with the band ’til 1972. I wore out my welcome, I was tired. All my life, I never spoke up enough which is the wrong thing to do in a band which is supposed to be democratic. I was stupid. Instead of speaking up about if we should do this or do that, I would get mad.”
His music career halts
As quickly as the musical spotlight hit Valentino, it just as quickly ended for him.
“I stopped performing one day. My family told me ‘you had a good run, it’s time to move on,” recalled Valentino, who delivered phone books, made flower deliveries, was a horseracing teller (a terrible, terrible job, he added) and a variety of other jobs which didn’t involve putting a band together.
Staying in the musical industry a little longer as a talent scout, Valentino realized his performing career might indeed be over.
“Someone brought me a demo of Rikki Lee Jones so maybe I would take it to Warner Brothers. They signed her and she had a hit immediately with ‘Chuck E.’s in Love,'” Valentino recounted. “To tell you the truth, Ricky Lee Jones was good, I thought ‘hmmn, maybe I am past it’ – she was so far ahead of her time. I never even sang for her. She was really, really good.”
Unable to connect any other performer with record industry representatives, Valentino took on the odd jobs and moved back from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the ’80s to be with his father, who was diagnosed with cancer.
In 1993, Valentino stepped back briefly into the music arena when a Reno band covering Beau Brummels songs and other oldies invited him to play. A year later, Valentino left that group and moved to Sacramento where he had friends: “I didn’t like casino gigs. You play on stages above bars with machines in front of everybody.”
Four years ago, Valentino played again periodically whenever he had time “in between delivering phone books,” he added with a quick laugh.
Since last year, Valentino, who has retained his youthful-sounding voice, has become serious about playing in the Sacramento area on a regular basis. His band (Quentin Caine on guitar and backup vocals, and Ken Burnette on mandolin) is at Cooper’s tonight.
From Beau Brummels to Jackie Greene
Having appeared with some of the best musicians of the ’60s and ’70s, Valentino is now inspired by younger musicians, especially Sacramento’s Jackie Greene.
Greene, 23, is an Americana singer/pianist/guitarist/drummer/bass/harmonica player who received the Critic’s Choice for Best Local Artist and Reader’s Choice Best Folk Album at the SAMMIE’s Awards this year. He has toured nationwide with B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, John Hiatt and Richard Thompson, among others.
“I saw Jackie Greene at an open mike at Fox and Goose a couple of years ago. He was on as a solo – my friend hosted it – I said ‘who’s that, this guy’s pretty good.’ I went up and asked him if he had a CD, he gave me his first CD, ‘Rusty Nails.’ He wanted me to sing on his next album and a year later (two January’s ago), we did a Dylan tribute.”
That CD, “Positively 12th & K; a Bob Dylan Tribute,” was released in May of 2003 by DIG Music.
“Since then, I’ve been included in Jackie’s band and I’m still doing dates with him. I was dreading it being over; I told Jackie six or seven months ago you have to speak up if you get tired of doing my songs. He said ‘no Sal, you’re part of my set.”
Greene takes it as a “very nice” compliment that Valentino likes working with him.
“Sal and I get along on a personal level and a professional level. It’s difficult to find those types of relationships in this business. If we’re not doing music together, we still hang out and go to dinner, raise hell, etc. (yes, Sal can still raise some hell),” Greene said Monday. “Sal is an easy guy for me to work with because he’s so fine-tuned. He has been there, he has done that, you know. But he’s still up for my crazy ideas.”
Greene will co-produce a DIG Music CD next year for Valentino.
He’s happy to be musically back
As for his musical future, Valentino doesn’t hold illusions of becoming a headliner again.
“Right now, my passion is to make records. I miss it a lot. I want to make new records. Otherwise I’m just another guy from North Beach,” he said. “With my band, we’re doing a lot of Brummels, a lot of songs never performed live. We’ll do some Dylan, do some Jackie songs.”
This time around, he prefers the smaller, more intimate crowds where he can play off the audience.
“It feels good being back. Right now, I feel like I have a handle on things, not being swept away like in the Brummels or running around with a bunch of gypsy-hippies like Stoneground. I hope everyone is having as good a time as I am.”
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Sal Valentino Band
WHEN: Tonight from 8:30 to 11 p.m.
WHERE: Cooper’s, 235 Commercial St., Nevada City
ADMISSION: $3 for 21-and-over crowd
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