Hilton Valentine – The Animals, was born on 21 May 1943 in North Shields, Northumberland, England, and was influenced by the 1950s skiffle craze – a kind of fusion of American folk, country, jazz and blues-. His mother bought him his first guitar in 1956 when he was 13, he taught himself some chords from a book called “Teach Yourself a Thousand Chords“. He continued to develop his musical talent at Tynemouth High School and formed his own skiffle group called the Heppers. They played local gigs and a newspaper described them at the time as, “A young but promising skiffle group”. The Heppers eventually evolved into a rock and roll band, the Wildcats in c. 1959. The Wildcats became a popular band in the Tyneside area, getting a lot of bookings for dance halls, working men’s clubs, church halls etc., and it was during this period that they decided to record a 10″ acetate LP titled Sounds of the Wild Cats.
But then came the Animals! The group was formed in 1963 when Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, which already included the other original members of The Animals. There are different versions of the origin of the name of the band. Some say they were nicknamed that way because of their “animal” attitude on stage and because they were sticky. Others say it was in honor of a friend of Eric Burdon’s who was nicknamed “animal”. They soon began to get noticed and in 1964, they moved to London to play at various well-known clubs in the capital.
Their style drew elements from blues, creating a style of psychedelic rock and hard rock that was unique for its time and influenced many later bands and artists. The Animals’ best-known song is “The House of The Rising Sun”, which reached number one on the popularity charts in both the UK and the United States.
Now the Animals were hobbled by being on MGM Records, which was never cool. We knew that back then, we saw the labels on the 45s, we knew the orange and yellow of Capitol, the red of Columbia…MGM was a lame label, without the infrastructure of its big time competitors. But the Animals were giants.
It was the summer of ’64. The summer of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The British Invasion was in full swing, our minds had expanded to encompass the work of seemingly everything from the U.K., assuming it was good. And the Animals were.
At that point most people had no idea “House of the Rising Sun” was a Dave Van Ronk staple, never mind being on Bob Dylan’s first LP, it was the rock sound that put the Animals’ version over the top. Of course you had Eric Burdon’s vocal, but there is not a boomer alive, that’s how ubiquitous hit songs were back then, who doesn’t know the opening guitar lick to “House of the Rising Sun.” That arpeggio lick was played by Hilton Valentine.
Now the original incarnation of the Animals only lasted until 1966. Sure, their hit-making era was only three years, from ’64-’66, but they’d paid dues before that, beginning in ’62, in Newcastle upon Tyne, an industrial area without the hipness of Liverpool, never mind London. The Animals had a dark name and they were perceived as dark. But they had a slew of hits.
“House of the Rising Sun”, of course was their breakthrough, and went to #1, but “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which only went to #13 in the U.S., was a bigger song, probably better remembered. Barry Mann and Cynthia Well wrote it, but the Animals made it their own, and it did not have the legacy of a standard, it was fresh, brand new.
As for “It’s My Life”…Eric Burdon was gonna ride that serpent, he was gonna break loose, because..
“It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want”
This was the ethos of the sixties, it’s not the ethos of today. Our parents were not fighting us for attention, there was no question of them being our best friends, we were throwing off the chains of society, of expectations, we were gonna forge our own path.
It’s a great song, Burdon delivers it, but never underestimate the importance of Hilton Valentine’s twelve string guitar. And the Animals had other hits, but “Don’t Bring Me Down” is probably my favorite.
“When you complain and criticize
I feel I’m nothing in your eyes
It makes me feel like giving up
Because my best just ain’t good enough”
The hormones had awoken. Puberty was in full swing. What you wanted was too often unattainable. You had crushes. But to them you barely existed, if at all. But to you, they were everything. The only thing you had to soothe yourself was this music.
“Oh, oh no
Don’t bring me down”
Now in the case of “Don’t Bring Me Down” one cannot underestimate the importance of Dave Rowberry’s organ, and Eric Burdon sings with nuance, something absent from too much of today’s music, and it’s a great Gerry Goffin/Carole King song, but what truly makes “Don’t Bring Me Down” a hit is Hilton Valentine’s fuzz guitar. It’s a bedrock element of rock history. And you probably had no idea who Hilton Valentine was. He’s that guy!
Valentine left The Animals for a solo career after the original line-up split in 1966. He was very close with Eric Burdon and while there was no touring Hilton lived in the downstairs basement apartment of Eric’s Laurel Canyon home and when Burdon became frontman for War, he took Hilton Valentine with him on tour as their guitar tech. Valentine went on to take part in several reunions and toured with Burdon in 2007. He never left the music.
Based in Connecticut with his wife Germaine in recent years, he also released music with his band Skiffledog.
Hilton Valentine died 29 January 2021 at the age of 77.
Our heroes no longer die before their time, they don’t O.D., their bodies give out and they’re gone, and there are so many of them these days that their deaths are less shocking and get less attention, after all, nobody lives forever.
Eric Burdon paid tribute to Valentine on Instagram, writing: “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.
“We had great times together, Geordie lad. From the North Shields to the entire world…Rock In Peace.”