While the news of Hilton Valentine‘s passing a few weeks ago was a somber reminder that no matter how timeless The Animals‘ songs were, the clock is always running. On the less somber side, it also reminded me of what an honest, kind, and gentle person Valentine was to both fans and other musicians. Having weathered the London scene of the mid-60s, Valentine was no stranger to unfettered adulation and its assorted trappings at an early age. However, to his credit, once fame faded away, he continued performing original music and even formed a skiffle group in his later years to delve back into the music that inspired him all those years ago. Relocating to Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1997, he even graciously found time to talk and even perform songs from his Animals days with admiring fans.
The Animals were always held in high esteem by garage punk fans everywhere. While the nostalgia circuit bands were content to churn out “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the edgier young bands in the garage scene picked “I’m Cryin” or “Boom Boom Boom” as a gritty homage to their heroes.
Even as the 80s moved into the 90s, it was not uncommon to hear a band take on a song from The Animals’ vast catalog. In some way, it was almost a rite of passage. One of those bands was The Lynchpins. A clever portmanteau of leader Michael Lynch’s unique name.
While Michael is probably not as well known outside of the NY/NJ area, his uncanny musical ability (and talent) are well known among garage music fans in this area. Among Micheal’s many amazing achievements is writing for Ugly Things magazine, performing at various International Pop Overthrow events, fronting The Anything People and The Lynchpins, and even playing sideman to literally hundreds of other musicians such as Palmyra Delran. So it was only natural to find yourself seeing a Michael project at some point.
One particular evening at a performance space under the Acme Restaurant on Great Jones Street (titled appropriately enough UnderAcme), The Lynchpins found themselves on yet another bill. After they performed a bunch of originals to a group of very appreciative (if slightly tipsy) friends, they suddenly introduced a guest performer. To everyone’s surprise, that person turned out to be Hilton Valentine. And, while it was certainly shocking to see a 60s icon standing right in front of you, to hear those songs come out of his guitar was beyond description.
I asked Michael’s bandmate in both The Lynchpins and The Anything People, Doug Mayer, recently his thoughts about Valentine and how that whole performance came about.
“I’m not 100% sure if it was Michael or Lynchpins drummer Elliott Goldberg who contacted Hilton who was living in Connecticut at the time (June 2002). Since Michael was planning a 1960s music fest at Acme Underground, I’m pretty sure he was the main impetus behind asking Hilton to participate. Philadelphia’s Mondo Topless was on that bill, but the rest of the acts were not as well known. While Michael designed the poster, the main illustration of The Rolling Stones is actually taken from a mid-1960s teen magazine. One name notably absent from the gig poster is Hilton Valentine himself. I suppose we were not entirely sure if he would be able to make it, and so we did not update the poster in time. We did write down ‘Special Guests?’ just in case.
“Much to our delight, he did accept, and we went full speed ahead with preparations. Prior to the gig, Michael, Hilton, and I (as a power trio!) rehearsed once at a Long Island rehearsal studio and went over the three songs Hilton agreed to do with us: ‘I’m Crying,’ ‘Baby Let Me Take You Home’ (which Hilton introduced at UnderAcme as a Dylan song The Animals modified), and ‘Outside Looking In.’ For the show, Hilton requested a large Vox amplifier to use on stage. Michael rented this for Hilton and returned it the same night to the gear rental place.
“Hilton was very friendly with us before the show and unassumingly sat in the back of Acme Underground with his wife, eating a sandwich he brought to the gig. We were respectful with our guest and didn’t bother him with too many questions or recollections about his old Animals days. He was so down to earth that seeing him hanging out in person seemed very familiar in a funny way.
“After the show, Elliott drove him back to the train. Hilton actually complimented us on our playing as a group, and that felt really nice to hear! A year or two later, I noticed he had started his own website for his music projects, and he posted a bunch of the photos that you had taken of the gig. It felt cool to know that he seemed happy to have done the gig.
“Overall, my big impression of Hilton that night we played on the same stage was his professionalism, experience, and showmanship. He told each of us exactly where would be a good place to stand on the stage while he played with us. But, he didn’t say it in a bossy or condescending manner. More like an older brother who knew what would be best for us. I was lucky to be standing the closest to him and playing the only other stringed instrument on stage (a bass guitar). There definitely were moments where I felt both of us were communicating visually and emotionally on stage.
“The other big impression I had is related to Hilton’s guitar playing style and tone. There was something about his level of experience from the rock and roll past that gave him a monster tone and feel on the electric guitar. I was listening to some early Animals albums recently and was thinking again how his playing is just as good as anything Keith Richards did back then, and how it was a shame that Hilton did not get more recognition overall. He could still produce that sound live.”
Doug’s bandmate Michael had an even more amusing anecdote about the show. Especially when I asked if that really was a stool standing in for a snare drum stand in some of my photos. “HAHA! Yes, that was Elliot! He forgot to bring his snare stand, and no one else was around to ask—or willing to offer one. So, he just grabbed the nearest barstool and asked the soundman to boost the highs on the snare.”
While that was a welcome surprise, little did any of us realize that Valentine would reappear not once but several times in the following years performing Animals hits with NYC garage veterans The Headless Horsemen. I asked Elan Portnoy for his thoughts on the passing of Hilton as well as how he came into their orbit.
“It’s never easy when you lose a friend. Although sadness threatens to overshadow the magic they contributed to your life, you take solace in the memories made while they were still here. In that way, they live eternally in our hearts and minds. My friendship with Hilton shines brightly in my treasure chest of musical and personal memories and will surely maintain its glimmer for the remainder of my life.
“I met Hilton backstage at B.B. King’s in NYC when The Headless Horsemen shared the bill with The Moving Sidewalks in 2013. Amid the thick dressing room chaos, I could immediately sense Hilton was an extra-cool cat; meeting him was momentous for me. When he later called and invited The Headless Horsemen to play his 70th birthday celebration, I was thrilled and honored. Hilton’s wife, Germaine, put together an amazing party. At the shindig, Hilton jumped onstage for a bunch of tunes with us, and I flashed back to when I was about nine, playing House of the Rising Sun with my first band. Hilton was much more than a guitar idol to me; he was also gigantic in his coolness and kindness, always optimistic and a true English gentleman at all times.
“Hilton joined The Headless Horsemen onstage once again at The Bowery Electric where we played a whole set of Animals’ numbers together. As we played, he and I glanced at each other and smiled while the magic flowed through our hands and into our guitars; it was one of those perfect moments that will replay in my head, in slow-motion, forever. Several weeks before Hilton left this world, my band The Overdrive Five had the honor of collaborating with him. Hilton played ‘Apache’ in his first band and with us. Our version will be released as soon as the final touches have been touched. ‘Am, C, D, F’ should be on his stone. Hilton passed away on the exact day my dad would have turned 100. Tough day for me.”
So, while the media world will eulogize Hilton for his well-deserved reputation as one of the architects of the 60s London R&B scene, the majority of us here in NYC who met him will remember him as that very kind person who was only too happy to make our dreams come true. Thanks again, Hilton.