It was the riff that launched a million guitarists — probably many millions. A series of bold electric guitar arpeggios — A minor C, D, F, A minor — inspiring us to take up the guitar just as the “British Invasion” of pop bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones was awakening us to the sounds that would score our lives.
“The House of the Rising Sun” was a traditional tune, maybe English, maybe French, in ultimate origin, massaged through the years and now telling the New World tale of a young man’s life turned tragic by a New Orleans house of ill repute.
Hilton Valentine and his guitar exploded that song into our collective consciousness in 1964, when so many of us pre-teens were beginning to beg our parents for guitars so we could be the next big thing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was there on CBS at 8 p.m. every Sunday that we gut-felt these mop-topped musicians from England driving us into adulthood with the news that “She Loves You” and the sober observation that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The Animals, with the striking guitar work of Hilton and the battered-blues voice of Eric Burdon, brought us the dangers of coming of age — “The ruin of many a poor boy” — and we couldn’t get enough. In Meriden, where I first met Hilton Valentine, we newborn guitarists practiced his unforgettable riff and gathered to play it in basements and garages on Maple Avenue and Reynolds Drive and all over town, as I’m sure they did in Wallingford, Newcastle, England, whence Hilton hailed, and any place there were six strings and a radio.
Of course, the Animals had their ups and downs, and splits and reunions, and Hilton was unencumbered in the mid-1990s when a young Meriden woman flew to London to seek out some music. Germaine was a former colleague and still a friend from Music World, the Meriden Square store where we sold vinyl records, very many of them holding the guitar magic of Hilton Valentine in their grooves.
Readers of the Record-Journal may remember the photos of Germaine as quarterback leading Maloney High School to victory in a snowy Powder Puff football game. Germaine was energetic and engaging, could talk to and befriend anyone, and I guess the phone call I received from another former record store colleague should not have been so much of a surprise, but it was. Our own Germaine had gone to England, met and married the Animals’ legend Hilton Valentine, and we were invited to an informal reception in Meriden celebrating their wedding and their return to the U.S. to live.
It was there that I first got to shake hands with the man who coined the “Rising Sun” riff. I recall my amazement that evening at being in the presence of rock greatness, and watching the soft-spoken, gentlemanly Hilton — still with a bit of a mop top, but turning lighter in shade as the years wore on — make new American friends.
Hilton settled with Germaine in Wallingford, and continued making music, much of it around town, where the lucky locals got to enjoy his incredible talent on classic rock songs and new skiffle music, the late-50s, early-60s styles revived from his pre-Ed Sullivan days. He also toured with his own version of The Animals, performed at the Hubbard Park bandshell during the Daffodil Festival, and even for a time rejoined Burdon playing the music that made them both famous. I was proud to know him. Hilton always put a smile on my face.
The Animals always closed their shows with another of their hit songs, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place.” Their audiences knew it would be coming and then they would be gone, ready or not. When I heard last weekend’s news that Hilton Valentine was gone, I was not ready. The man and his music will always be a part of rock history, local history, and my fond, fond memories. I will never forget shaking the hand that once rocked my musical world.
Legendary guitarist Hilton Valentine died on Jan. 29 in Wallingford, at age 77. Jim Zebora is a former Record-Journal music writer and business editor.