Friday, March 9, 2012

Interview: Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels

When I picked up 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, the main purpose was to discover "new" music. At 30 years old, I'm not the newest kid on the block. In fact, I once owned a cassette tape of The New Kids on the Block. But I still feel like I don't know music from the '80s, or even the early '90s, and aside from what got played on oldies or classic rock stations, anything earlier than that is completely unknown.

This year's Grammy's are a great example of how many folks younger than myself are even farther removed from recent music history. The phenomena of "Who TF is Paul McCartney" and the number of forum comments about how "Nirvana sucked, Foo Fighters RAWK!" shocked me. I'm sure people feel the same way when I say "The White Album is overrated" and that's why I am trying to expand my palate (in terms of classical, jazz, world) and expand my education (understanding the influence of the White Album or Captain Beefheart even if I don't appreciate the sound).

All of that is nice, but when I hear something that I have never heard before, and I really enjoy it, that's the true payoff. Something deep in my soul shouts "Yes! This is the treasure I have been searching for!" I'm always torn between listening to the songs I already love and that never ending journey of finding new songs to love. It can be tedious, time-consuming, and painful (especially if I force myself to finish a whole recording, as I do with this book), but my passion for discovery is rewarded every so often.

The Beau Brummels is a band I had never heard of. In fact, I assumed when I read the name in the book that it was one guy and that he probably played jazz or cajun music. What I discovered instead is a band that was so huge that they were drawn into an episode of The Flintstones (as "The Beau Brummelstones"), they have a song that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame considers one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" ("Laugh, Laugh"), and another that is on Mojo's "100 Greatest Psychedelic Classics" ("Magic Hollow").

Their sound on the album Triangle (stream it here) has that signature San Francisco folk styling, Tolkien-esque lyrics, and the mesmerizing vocals of Sal Valentino. When I heard them my thoughts immediately went to another, more recent San Francisco artist, freak folk pioneer Devendra Benhart, who seems to have copped at least part of his delivery from Valentino. The question that immediately came to my mind was why had I never even heard of these guys? I decided to call lead singer Sal Valentino and find out what he thought about being listed in the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

What started as an interview quickly morphed into two guys talking about music they like, and eventually became me getting an education on lots of music I have been missing. Mr. Valentino certainly has a wealth of knowledge and a love of music, listening and playing, that showed throughout our discussion. He was gracious with his time, and even his record collection (he has offered to send me his copies of most of the artists he recommended during our interview). Check out highlights of our conversation below. I have removed most of my interjections of "I've never heard that one." Check out the list at the end for links to the recordings he mentions:

What do you think about being included on a list like the 1000 Recordings?

Well you know, I didn't know that! I knew about the other one, about "Laugh, Laugh" being one of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll." So Triangle is the one, huh? Well that's pretty good, you know, considering we're not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame... then again, rock and roll wasn't really what we were doing, I dont think. Eh, what did I know, we were young.

Triangle is my favorite album of all the ones the Brummels did, but Triangle was the first record I got to be a part of as far as the writing went with [guitarist] Ron Elliot. We both worked on it together. I basically brought in the titles and Ron did the research and all the legwork, 'cause he was good at that. And it was a great time. And [producer and Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker was great. He had a lot of faith in us. He really wanted to see us happen, but it wasn't in the cards then.

What do you think about people just discovering Triangle now? Because I had never heard of Beau Brummels.

One thing a couple of record promotion guys said to me from time to time is that if it's a good record its gonna always be a good record. [They said] that's why you don't quit on a good record.

Do you think triangle has aged well?

From time to time I still do [in solo shows] "Are you Happy?" I worked off Triangle around here for a little while. "Magic Hollow." "Nine Pound Hammer" was one take. It was a nice record. We worked hard on it, too. It was probably the best stuff we had ever done. I'm glad that it's lasted and I'm glad that there was people that believed in those records.

We were just mild mannered guys. I dont think anybody really looked at entertainment or a performing career other than maybe Ron Elliott. I love singing. I never thought I was a Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart or any of those guys, I just loved singing the songs. And it's funny with the Brummels we got swept away with the first two records. The second one was bigger than the first one and what do you do? You cant say "No I dont want to go. [laughs] No, I want to stay home, I dont want to do that." We didn't know any better. We had a good time.

The first time I heard "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune," boy, it really sounded good. That was really cool. It was like the first time we heard "Laugh, Laugh," sitting in the back of a car. It was unbelievable, hearing it on the radio, after being just like everybody else out there listening. I love singing and that's what I've basically been doing it for all the time anyway. I just love singing the songs, and I love listening to them. I love listening to music a lot.

If you had to put something on a list of 1000 recordings to hear before you die, what would you put on there?

Taj Mahal singing "Take a Giant Step." Paul McCartney did a lot of good stuff. Freddie [Scott]. One of the best vocals I think I've ever heard is a song he did called "Cry to Me." He's a great vocalist. Fred Neil's "Dolphin" album [Fred Neil]. Still a wonderful record. There's a lot to hear, especially now. There's no way you can get at everything, but there's a lot of great music to hear.

Are you listening to anything new right now?

I've been listening to a lot of the Black Keys. I think I've got all their albums. I love that guy's singing. That's what got me is the singing was fascinating to me. I couldn't figure out where he was coming from, what the influence was and then I found out. In [their] Rolling Stone article he mentions a jukejoint guy, named Junior [Kimbrough].

Little Feat. [Lead singer] Lowell George, best live singer that I think I'll ever hear. Man, I'm amazed everytime I put on Little Feat live. It's amazing singing and playing. Get the one that was a double album, Waiting for Columbus. Aw man, stuff like "Over the Edge," "Rocket in my Pocket," "Rock & Roll Doctor," "Willin'," "China White," "All That You Dream," "Feats Don't Fail Me Now," and also there's "Long Distance Love." I found Lowell just a fascinating singer. That was the best band I think I've ever heard live.

Levon Helm. The Band. I love his singing. "Don't Do It," it's a great great vocal. "Cripple Creek." All three of those singers, man, they were just amazing singers. Those guys were just so good. I saw Eric Clapton talking about 'em one time. He said when he first heard it, "the songs, this material, where was it coming from?" And he thought it was so unique, so unbelievable. And he was right, they were.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." By Roberta Flack. I just listened to it lately because I've always loved the song. Man, it is sooo slow.

Aretha. I mean, Aretha, Jesus. Ray Charles. He was a big influence on me, although I never pretended to think that I could sing like him. But he influenced a lot of my thinking about singing songs. His "Nancy," "Makin' Whoopee," that live version of "I Got a Woman." I saw Ray a few times. I liked him a lot, he was amazing. Bobby "Blue" Bland. I saw him once at the Troubadour. He wore a rose-colored suit. Man, he was the biggest guy in the room, too.

Oh, Marvin Gaye. Is the Let's Get It On album on there? They should have on there, too, is his rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the NBA All Star Game. I'm not sure if you've ever heard that. But oh, Marvin was the best. Nobody could do it like that. Otis was great. I got to meet him, too. I love Pavarotti. He was to be seen to be heard. I tell you, he was so good. I thought Michael Jackson, the footage of him before he died. I'd never seen anybody rehearse like that. Nobody. No how. That guy, boy, he could sing, too.

Now that we're talking like this, being of a 1000 albums, it's pretty cool.

Its been an eye opener for me, because I often think I know a lot about music and then I discover, you know, I know nothing.

There's always something. You can never get enough. You'll never have enough. Because there'll always be more.

Pick up Sal Valentino's solo work at Amazon and check out his website.
Buy Triangle here.
Read Moon's entry here

Here are the recordings/artists Sal listed that actually are included on the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (if no recording was listed, I linked to the one listed in the book):
The Band - The Band
Roberta Flack - "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
Aretha Franklin
Ray Charles
Bobby "Blue" Bland
Otis Redding
Michael Jackson

Here are artists listed in the book, but he chose a different song/album:
Taj Mahal - "Take a Giant Step"
Paul McCartney
The Band - "Don't Do It"
Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On and "The Star Spangled Banner"

Here are the rest, some of which appear in the book as a "Next Stop":
Freddie Scott - "Cry to Me"
Fred Neil - Fred Neil
Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus


  1. Great interview Mike - very enlightening! Looking forward to seeing you do more posts like this one - grats dude!

  2. Thanks Tony! It was a lot of fun and interesting to see what someone else would include on their list of 1000 Recordings. Plus Sal was just really cool to talk to and he had some good stories and had met a lot of people.