Farewell to the heart of one of The British Invasion’s greatest bands
Hilton Valentine was a singular guitarist of the British Invasion era.
While his work with the Animals, the band he helped form in 1963, was never especially flashy, it was a defining element in the band’s original motif. Indeed, his classic arpeggio opening for the group’s first major international hit, a remake of the traditional folk standard, “The House of the Rising Sun,” will in fact always be remembered as an essential part of the legacy that helped birth his signature sound.
A YouTube clip of the band performing their landmark hit is notable for the fact that Valentine is the only member of the band who seems to smirk during the carefully choreographed performance.
VIDEO: The Animals “House of the Rising Sun”
Valentine, who died Friday of undisclosed causes in his adopted home of Connecticut, first made his mark as a self-taught guitarist in a pair of skiffle bands in the Tyneside region of Northern England where he was born and raised — first with the Heppers, and then with the band that evolved out of that group, renamed the Wildcats. He immediately made his mark as a demonstrative performer, helping to bring the group its local notoriety. Singer Eric Burden, bassist Chas Chandler and keyboardist Alan Price, then members of the Alan Price Combo, took notice of Valentine’s over-the-top image and enlisted him in their fledgling outfit, which eventually changed its name to the Animals. Drummer John Steel was the last to join, completing the quintet.
By 1964, the Animals were well on their way to international acclaim and fame. The massive success of “House of the Rising Sun” paved the way for a series of subsequent singles, many of which helped the group attain significant prominence as part of the first wave of the so-called “British Invasion” — “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” chief among them. Led by Burden, a fiery but diminutive lead singer, the band continued its winning streak for the next two years, remaining a key part of British producer Mickie Most’s successful hit-making stable — one that also included Donovan, the Jeff Beck Group, Lulu and others that achieved varyingly degrees of success both at home and worldwide. The Animals’ material was mostly of the Brill Building variety, but it still managed to sustain their place at the top of the charts throughout their initial run.
During that time, Valentine secured an essential role in the outfit, although his guitar work was generally considered a secondary factor in the band’s sound as compared to the predominant presence of Burdon’s vocals and Price’s expressive organ work — two primary elements that defined the early Animals’ efforts. Unlike many of his peers — Clapton, Beck and Page in particular — he never came across as the stereotypically flashy guitarist prone to take center stage. He was instead a team player who contributed significantly to the band’s trademark musical tapestry.
AUDIO: Hilton Valentine All In Your Head (full album)
Following the dissolution of the original Animals in 1966, and Burdon’s decision to rebrand the band as “Eric Burdon and the Animals,” Valentine left the group and moved to California and released a solo album All In Your Head. It boasted a potpourri of different styles showcasing Valentine’s expanding musical mindset, but for the most part it remained overlooked and ignored. He participated in various short-lived Animals reunions in the ‘70s and ‘80s and, in 1993, he and original Animals drummer John Steel formed their own version of the band, which they dubbed the “Animals II.” Valentine parted ways with that group in 2001 but reconnected again with his original bandmates when the Animals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and later, when they received their star on the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame in in 2001.
Valentine’s activities mostly remained well under the radar in the 20 years since. He returned to his original passion, skiffle, by forming a band called Skiffledog, with whom he toured and recorded two albums — It’s Folk ’n’ Skiffle, Mate! and Skiffledog on Couburg Street, as well as a holiday album titled Merry Skifflemas! with Big Boy Pete Miller, late of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers.
AUDIO: Skiffledog “Working Class Hero”
On hearing of Valentine’s passing, Eric Burdon posted the following: “The opening opus of ‘Rising Sun’ will never sound the same!… You didn’t just play it, you lived it! Heartbroken by the sudden news of Hilton’s passing.”
Hilton Valentine was 77. He was the second major veteran of the British Invasion to pass away this month, following the loss of Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers in early January.