Hilton Valentine, ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ Indelible Guitars and John Rossberg
When I heard the latest death news Friday, that original Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine had passed away at the age of 79, I naturally had to listen to “House of the Rising Sun.”
That was easy enough, because I have the whole song embedded in my otherwise rapidly faltering memory. I may forget my wife’s name before I forget how, in the fall of 1964, “House of the Rising Sun” coaxed way more sound than should have been possible from my Realistic transistor radio or the tiny speakers in our sky blue 1963 Ford Falcon.
As a bonus back then, every spin of “House of the Rising Sun” on WDRC or WPOP was an adventure. You had to wait until the end of the penultimate verse to know whether you’d hear the long version, the one where Eric Burdon takes one more deep breath and blows the speakers again with “One foot on the platform . . . .”
Today, long after Eric went back to wear that ball and chain, “House of the Rising Sun” remains one of those songs that never wears out, and a major part of the credit goes to Hilton Valentine.
He played the introductory chords, on a Gretsch Tennessean guitar. Anyone who was alive and owned a radio in 1964 knows how those chords sound, how Valentine repeats the ominous buildup as if he were taking us into an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
He repeats the pattern throughout the song, even as Alan Price’s organ slowly overtakes the guitar as the dominant instrumental player. Between those two and Burdon’s vocal, it’s no wonder the song roars through town like a freight train.
So I was thinking a lot about Hilton Valentine and the Animals after I saw that he had died. And as a kind of aside with slightly less resonance for the larger rock ’n’ roll world, I also thought about John Rossberg.
Like so many British Invasion musicians of the ’60s, he grew up listening to the skiffle music of artists like Lonnie Donegan. Skiffle was a bit of folk, a bit of jug band, a bit of blues, a bit of pop and just generally lively music for a Saturday night party.
Valentine formed his own group and after it had kicked around for a couple of years his guitar skills came to the attention of Chas Chandler, a bass player who invited him to join the Alan Price Combo, which soon became the Animals.
This was 1962. A year later they were the hot band in Newcastle. A year after that they were one of the hottest bands in the world, with “House of the Rising Sun” hitting №1 on both sides of the pond in the fall of 1964.
Their next test was not to be one-hit wonders, and they passed easily with the likes of “Don’t Let Me Misunderstood” and the all-purpose anthem “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.”
They didn’t do so well on the concurrent test, which was holding the band together. Price left in 1965, feeling eclipsed by Burdon. The music industry’s familiar financial sleight of hand left the group with hit records and empty bank accounts. Alcohol and drugs kicked in, hitting Valentine hard, and by the end of 1966 the original group was history.
Valentine’s opening to “House of the Rising Sun” stands tall in that amazing forest of indelible guitar intros that became a signature of the British Invasion.
The Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction” tends to get top billing. But the list blossoms way beyond that: “A Hard Day’s Night,” The Beatles. “Wild Thing,” the Troggs. “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks. “For Your Love,” the Yardbirds. “Long Cool Woman,” the Hollies. “World Without Love,” Peter and Gordon. “Needles and Pins,” the Searchers. “Happy Jack,” the Who. “I Only Want To Be With You,” Dusty Springfield.
You hear the intro, you know the song.
Valentine recovered his equilibrium and would play both solo and with various reincarnations of the Animals for the rest of his life. He remained friends with Burdon, who tweeted out a warm farewell on Friday.
He played his music all his life. Even more than getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which happened in 1994, that’s a sign you got something right.
John Rossberg wasn’t a musician. He was a friend of mine. He was a music fan. A serious music fan. In high school, he was the guy who could tell you the nuances of bands, explain the production details, break down the guitar licks. He loved guitar solos, especially the ones that “wailed.”
He went on to work in a record store in Meriden, Conn. — think High Fidelity — with our mutual friend Mark.
As Mark related it, John had a girlfriend named Germaine. At one point, in the course of being a music fan, John and Germaine met Hilton Valentine, who had made his way to Connecticut.
Hilton and Germaine became an item. Then they became married. John, as Mark recounted it, accepted this and stayed with them.
One night in November 2000, John went to bed and never woke up. He was 52. His obituary said he was survived by his father, his stepmother, two half-sisters “and a friend, Germaine Valentine.”
Two decades later, it was Germaine Valentine who sent out a note confirming the death of her husband Hilton.
It never gets less impressive to think how a few guitar chords like Hilton Valentine’s intro to “House of the Rising Sun” made their way around the world. Sometimes you also remember the more modest stories that always crop up along the path.