Hilton Today

Hilton Valentine was born on May 21, 1943, in North Shields, Northumberland, near Newcastle, England. Like many other players who came out of the UK, Hilton was drawn to the fast rootsy sound of skiffle music, made popular by Lonnie Donegan whose cover of “Rock Island Line” became a top 10 hit in both the UK and the US. After learning a few chords, Hilton formed his own skiffle band called The Heppers and started to gig at local venues. Eventually, the Heppers left skiffle behind, adopted a harder rock 'n' roll sound, and renamed themselves The Wildcats. Working in the clubs of Tyne and Newcastle, The Wildcats amassed a local cult following and Hilton made a name for himself as a hot guitarist with wild stage antics.

Around the same time (1963), an unknown but persistent bassist by the name of Chas Chandler took notice of Hilton’s aggressive playing and onstage antics and asked him to join his group called The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, soon to be rechristened The Animals by their manager, Mike Jeffery. The Animals were quickly rushed into the studio where they recorded their first single “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, which included Hilton’s cool, aggressive guitar intro.

Although their live shows featured Hilton’s muscular, Chuck Berry-influenced riffing (as evidenced on the Live at the Club a GoGo album), their earliest studio efforts were more refined affairs, showcasing singer Eric Burdon’s vocals and keyboardist Alan Price. Within a year after forming, the band struck gold with a moody cover of “House of the Rising Sun”. From his haunting, arpeggiated guitar intro on “House”,which became a rite of passage for budding guitarists who came of age in the ‘60s, to his fuzz-through-a-tremolo power chords of ”Don’t Bring Me Down”, Hilton's knack for musical hooks greatly contributed to The Animals' string of hits until the breakup of the original band in late 1966.

In early 1970, Hilton released the acoustic/psychedelic influenced album All in Your Head on EMI Records, which today is a collector’s item although Hilton humbly states that it is something about which he’d rather forget. Following a period of soul searching, Hilton rejoined the music scene as a manager and player. Over the years, he reunited with the original Animals three times since their split, and in 1994, Hilton and The Animals were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Today, Hilton concentrates on acoustic material and has recently released a new CD under the doppelganger “Skiffledog”, cleverly entitled It's Folk 'n' Skiffle, Mate! (Tatty Records), which is available through various online sources, including Hilton's website.

Tom Guerra recently spent an afternoon with Hilton for what turned out to be a warm and vibrant discussion of his career - past, present and future, for Modern Guitars magazine.

TG: Congratulations on the release of It's Folk 'n' Skiffle, Mate!. Are you gigging a lot to promote it?

Hilton Valentine: Not really a tour or something to promote it, just doing gigs here and there. Got a few coming up locally.

TG: What drew you to the guitar initially and what type of music were you listening to?

HV: What drew me to the guitar was seeing Lonnie Donegan doing “Rock Island Line” on television, on a show called the The Six Five Special. It was on at five minutes past 6:00 p.m. I wanted to play guitar after seeing that, and of course, after hearing Chuck Berry and seeing him do the duck walk.

TG: So, a combination of skiffle and rock 'n' roll got you into it?

HV: Yes, but in the late ‘50s, it was all the same at that point; it was all new and exciting and under the banner of rock 'n' roll for us.

TG: A lot of the British artists we speak to who grew up in the ‘50’s cite Radio Luxembourg as a major influence. Did you listen to it as well?

HV: Yes, Radio Luxembourg was the station to listen to, because the BBC tended to be very stodgy.

TG: How did you develop your style of playing? Did you take lessons or mostly learn from records?

HV: I took about four or five lessons in the beginning to get me started, from a guy who charged half a crown, which was two shillings and sixpence, for a lesson. There were three of us going, each paying the fee. He would teach us two to three chords each lesson so I said to the others, “I’ll just go, learn the chords, and then teach you and we can spend your half crowns.” So that was a good idea. He did show us how to read the chords, tablature-style.

Then a short time later, I saw a book advertising “1,000 chords for half a crown", so I knew I had to get it. After that it was just a matter of getting the book and learning from it. That, and learning a lot of mistakes and bad habits. [Laughs]. Everything seemed to come together at the same time, as far as the early rock 'n' roll and skiffle movement, and there were a lot of guys just down the street playing, so I’d go and watch them and learn from them and vice versa. It was just a melting pot of learning. Basically my style of playing was formed by the guitarists I was listening to. I imagine that's how it is for any guitarist.

TG: Do you remember your first good guitar and amp setup?

HV: Well, my first guitar, which wasn't good, was a no name guitar made out of plywood that came in a cardboard box that me mother ordered for me through the newspaper. I was only 13. The next guitar I got was a Framus hollowbody with f-holes, to which I fitted a pickup onto the end of the neck. I attached this to a little radio which had an input for a record player and that was my first electric guitar. We’d actually bring this radio to our early gigs, which were local church halls and outdoor events, listen to it in the dressing room, and then bring it out and play through it. From there I got my first real electric guitar, which was a Rosetti Lucky 7. I wanted a Fender but couldn't afford one so I settled for any guitar that had a solid body.

I remember it was a bright shade of green. I also got an amp called a Stadium Truvoice [model] TV19 with it as well. From there I went to a Hofner guitar, then a Futurama, a Burns Vibra-Artiste, and shortly before I left The Wildcats for the Alan Price Combo, which of course became The Animals, I had gotten a Gretsch Tennessean, and a bigger Selmer amp called a Selectortone with the push-button tone selectors. I considered this to be my first good guitar and amp setup.

I played the Tennessean with The Animals, which, incidentally, was the last guitar that I had to purchase because after we had some success we got free gear from Rickenbacker and Vox. The last guitar I had with them [The Animals] was the Fender Telecaster and I had the Vox Super Beatle amp by then.

TG: Within a year of forming, “House of the Rising Sun” catapaulted The Animals onto the world stage as part of the British Invasion along with The Beatles and Rolling Stones. When did you first become aware of that tune?

HV: Bob Dylan’s version was the one I first heard. But Eric [Burdon] had heard the Josh White version. Bob Dylan got his version from Dave Van Ronk. In that [Martin] Scorsese PBS special on Dylan, it sort of explained the whole folk scene where Pete Seeger would play “Turn, Turn, Turn" and people would say, “Hey, you’re stealin’ from The Byrds,” and then Dylan would do “House of the Rising Sun” and people would accuse him of stealing it from The Animals. [Laughs]

TG: There’s been a lot of controversy about who actually created the Animals' arrangement for "House of the Rising Sun", which is credited to Alan Price. Care to shed any light on this?

HV: Basically, we all sort of chipped in to arrange it, but I think it was Chas Chandler who said that if anyone should have gotten the royalties, it should have been me. But what happened was that as we started rehearsing it, I was coming up with my arpeggio bit [the famous Am-C-D-F chord sequence] and Alan Price said to me, "Can you play something different because that is so corny?" So I told him, "You play your damn keyboard and I'll play me guitar!" Then, after a few rehearsals, he started playing my riff and we recorded it.

Our manager, Mike Jeffrey, came down and said that since the song was in the public domain, we needed to credit an arranger. He said that we couldn’t put all of our names on the record because it wouldn’t fit, so he just put Alan's name on it saying it’s understood that the royalties will be shared among everyone. We were all so gullible then we just believed that we would get our share. But we never put anything in writing and to this day, only Pricey has been getting royalties on it. And if you talk to him now, he’s actually convinced himself that it was he who actually arranged it.

TG: The Animals were like two bands, a raw and raucous blues rock 'n' roll band live, and a more refined band in the studio where you made singles. How did you choose your material?

HV: Well, there was an agreement between us and our producer, Mickie Most. The agreement was that we would pick the album tracks and Mickie would choose the singles. And most of the album material was the stuff we were doing on live gigs. The one song that we fought with Mickie over was “House of the Rising Sun”. He wanted Ray Charles' “Talkin’ Bout You” to be our single, as [the UK TV show] Ready, Steady, Go had picked that song as a theme song. He thought about the free publicity we would get, but we held firm and “House” was released as the A side.

TG: The Animals hit records had some great guitar sounds on them. Can I name a song and you tell me what guitar and amp you used? How about “Boom Boom”?

HV: That was the Gretsch Tennessean through the Selmer Selectortone.

TG: “House of the Rising Sun”?

HV: That was also the Gretsch Tennessean through the Selmer Selectortone.

TG: “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”?

HV: By that time we were endorsing Vox, so I used the Vox Teardrop 12-string through the Vox AC30 treble boost.

TG: “We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place”?

HV: That was my Rickenbacker 6-string through the AC30.

TG: “It's My Life”?

HV: I believe that was the Rickenbacker 12-string through the AC30.

TG: “Don't Bring Me Down”?

HV: That was a 1966 Telecaster through a WEM fuzztone into the AC30. That Tele was given to me by a friend of mine, Deering Howe.

TG: Do you still have any of those guitars?

HV: No, they are all gone, and I’m not sure where. When The Animals reformed in 1983 I had to borrow a guitar. My old friend Tappy, who played with me in The Wildcats and then was the road manager for The Animals, had some of Jimi Hendrix's guitars. He was the road manager for him as well, so he loaned me his white Gibson SG.

TG: One of the great urban legends of rock was that after you left the Animals in 1966, you ate a bunch of acid, thought you were Jesus, and turned your back on rock 'n' roll.

HV: No, that is not true, I didn’t think I was Jesus. Buddha...maybe! [Laughs] We’re all Buddha though. No, I just got so turned off by the music business end of things, I left it behind. Well, I left playing behind; I didn't leave the business entirely. Shortly after the Animals broke up I produced Keith Shields, my former Wildcats singer, for a couple of singles on Decca. Natasha Pyne as well. The Animals actually reformed for a one-off charity gig in Newcastle at the City Hall in 1968. Not too many people seem to know about that. In 1969 I started recording my solo LP, so I never really left. It seems I've always had my hand in it in some way.

TG: From having a number one hit with “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964 to being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, what do you feel has been the highlight of your career?

HV: Oh, boy. I’d say that the first time we came to the US, in New York, playing the Paramount Theatre in Times Square, five shows a day for 10 or so days during school holidays, was just amazing. Also, getting to meet our heroes. People like Chuck Berry, getting to do a tour with him in the UK was just great. I remember on the first night of that tour there was a local Liverpool band called King Size Taylor and the Dominos that were backing Chuck. They were a great band. They started playing, but for whatever reason, Chuck wouldn’t come out of the dressing room unless he was paid up front. So the tour manager, Peter Grant,who later managed Led Zeppelin, ended up shoving Pound notes under the door until Chuck came out. He couldn’t get the Pound notes through the door fast enough, but eventually Chuck and his guitar came out. So he comes out on stage, starts doing his bit, plays his set, does a duckwalk across the stage, out the stage door and into a car, and that was it.

Of course, meeting The Beatles for the first time in ‘64 was certainly another highlight. They had already done and were doing so much. We did Ready, Steady, Go and Top of The Pops and we’d meet them backstage on the shows. We used to go to the London clubs and we’d end up staying till two and three o'clock in the morning just having a good time, getting in to all sorts of trouble, listening to some great music as well. The Beatles, The Stones, The Hollies, Georgie Fame, they were all there too.

TG: What do you think is the legacy of The Animals?

HV: The most mismanaged, fucked up band that just got totally taken by their management. [Laughs] Oh, I don't know. I do think that we were among those responsible for turning on white America to the blues music that was already right in their own backyard, they just didn't know it. And I guess, of all the British Invasion bands back then that made it over here, we probably had a more authentic delivery of the blues.

TG: You started out playing both folk and skiffle, and then got more into the rock 'n' roll thing. Your latest release is both folk and skiffle. Do you feel you’ve come full circle?

HV: I definitely have come full circle. What’s so good about folk music is that it’s so easy to play and sounds good, and it has a lot of appeal. It’s folk music because it came from folk and it’s about folk, with choruses that folk can sing along with. I wanted to put a skiffle band together when I was back in England a few years ago, but it just never happened because I was too busy on the road playing with John and Dave.

TG: Regarding the new CD, a few of the tunes, including “Looking to the Sun” and “River Tyne”, seem very autobiographical. How did you pick out the material for the record?

HV: Yes, both those songs are in fact autobiographical. “Looking to the Sun” is a song about me trying to keep things positive and putting some perspective on things when I was feeling down, trying to remember what I had accomplished and keeping towards the light. “River Tyne” is about me missing home when I was living in L.A. I picked “Working Class Hero” because it was just a song that I could relate to having come from a very working class background. John Lennon and I had parallel lives in many aspects. It just felt natural to do it. Donovan and I were friends back in the '60s and because I always enjoyed his early work, I recorded “Ballad of a Crystal Man”. The skiffle numbers on the CD were songs that I used to sing back when I was 13 or 14-years-old with my skiffle band, The Heppers.

TG: Do you envision yourself playing rock 'n' roll again?

HV: Oh yeah, every now and then. I have tried putting a few bands together but it gets discouraging. You either get someone that’s really good but psychotic [laughs] or someone that’s technically very good but has no feel. I get the chance to play when friends come to town. I even had a reunion with my Wildcats buddies Harry and Ronnie a year ago. I've also recently played with The Yardbirds, Robby Krieger and The Pretty Things. Oh! And how could I forget? We had an Animals reunion concert for two nights when we were inducted into Hollywood's RockWalk of Fame. That was great fun. Eric, John, Dave and I hadn't been on stage together since 1966. That was back in May of 2001.

TG: As far as your current setup, what are you primarily playing these days?

HV: Well, as I'm playing acoustic music now, I'm using my Guild 6-string and my Martin 12 -string. When I do get to plug in, I use my Fender Custom Limited Edition Telecaster through my VOX AC30. It’s the treble boost model as well.

TG: Having owned original Vox AC30s in the 1960s, how does this compare?

HV: It’s every bit as good and sounds great. Vox went back to the original components they used back in the '60s for this model. It has the blue alnico speakers in it as well.

TG: How did the all acoustic album come about?

HV: It’s all her fault [points to his wife, Germaine]! As far as how it came about, I always play acoustic music around the house and Germaine kept telling me that I should record it. She was instrumental in getting me back in the studio! Before doing so though, I did a lot of rehearsals so I was ready when time came to record. I recorded most of it live with just acoustic guitar and vocal.

TG: You definitely put some passion into “Working Class Hero".

HV: It’s a classic, but I think I’ve put my own stamp on it.

TG: How about “Wreck of the Old 97”?

HV: “Wreck of the Old 97” is one of those skiffle songs and, as I mentioned before, I played those with my first band, The Heppers. I loved playing it then and still do now and I’d like to do another CD with more skiffle on it.

TG: How do you think your playing has changed over the years?

HV: I don't think it has, really. I mean, when I'm playing straight out rock 'n' roll, my solos are in the same vein as they were in the '60s. I have a different type of solo in "River Tyne" because that was a different type of song and that's just what came out.

TG: Who are your all-time favorite musicians and are there any current players you're listening to?

HV: As far as all-time favorites, besides those who influenced me early on that we’ve covered, I really like Neil Young. I appreciate his voice and playing so much, on both acoustic and electric. I also love all the early rock 'n' rollers - Cliff Gallup, the guitarist with Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Scotty Moore of Elvis fame, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and of course, Link Wray was a great guitarist who we just lost. Dylan of course is an all time favorite as well.

TG: What is your take on the state of rock 'n' roll today?

HV: I think there are some pretty good young bands around. My current favorites are The Black Keys and The Jet City Fix. Incidentally, JCF backed the late great Link Wray when he toured here in 2003. That's how I heard about them. They opened for his show and then the drummer and bass player stayed on and were his backing band. I like The Strokes as well.

TG: For the majority of your career, you’ve been the only guitarist in your band. Do you like playing with other guitarists or would you prefer to be the sole guitarist in a band?

HV: It depends on what music I'm playing I suppose. When it's Animals' music, I prefer to play solo, trading off with a keyboard player. With the acoustic music I'm playing now, well, with the skiffle songs really, I could use a second guitarist because on the CD I laid down at least two guitar parts for those songs and it's impossible to play them both live.



Eric Burdon on Hilton Valentine

Tom Guerra recently spoke to legendary singer and former Animals front man Eric Burdon on the subject of Hilton Valentine.

“As kids at Newcastle, we were sort of out of breath at the fact that Hank [Marvin] had made it into The Shadows, and looked so cool, as cool as Buddy Holly, and he was from our hometown. So we all thought, "Well, if Hank made it, maybe we can." And it really was Hilton who made the early Animals a rock band because I don’t think the element of rock was in the band until we found him. In those days, Hilton wasn’t just playing rock 'n' roll, he looked rock 'n' roll. Here was a guy with the greased mop of hair combed back, cheap leather jacket, winkle picker shoes, black jeans and a smile on his face playing through an echoplex, which was a secret weapon back then. [Laughs]

I first heard Hilton playing in a bar at Whitley Bay with a rock band called The Wildcats, and I went running back up to Newcastle and said, “I’ve found this guy, and he’s got an echoplex! He really was the only rock guitar player around. There were other good players at the time, but they were all just sort of jazz oriented, playing those types of rhythms. But Hilton was all about the rock 'n' roll thing, like...[sings the intro to “Baby Let Me Take You Home”].

These days, I have a superb guitar player in my band named Eric McFadden, and I told him that I really want him to imitate Hilton Valentine for certain songs, but he hasn’t got the technical tools. They don’t exist anymore. Eric promised me that he’s going to look for the right sound gadgets to achieve what Hilton did on “Don’t Bring Me Down!”

I’ve got Hilton’s new CD, It's Folk 'n' Skiffle, Mate!, and it’s real good. He went back to the tree's roots. That is what the album is all about. It’s got some Lonnie Donegan on it too. People seemed to have forgotten about the type of influence Donegan had. He was responsible for opening one of the gates to the past that America had lost and bringing it alive again. And really, that was the birth of the whole British thing."

All photos (c) Hilton Valentine