Elmer Valentine: Promoter behind Los Angeles' Whisky a Go Go and Roxy clubs
Wednesday 25 March 2009
When the policeman turned club promoter Elmer Valentine visited the Whisky à Gogo, Paul Pacine's Paris discothèque in 1963, he saw mini-skirted girls dancing to records spun by a disc jockey rather than to a live band – and had an epiphany. On his return to Los Angeles, in partnership with Shelly Davis, Theodore Flier and Phil Tanzini, he opened his own Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in January 1964 and decided to hire a female DJ to generate further interest in his new venture.
Auditions were held, but when the winner pulled out at the last minute after her mother objected, Valentine stuck a cigarette girl, Patty Brockhurst, in the glass booth above the stage. "She had on a slit skirt, and we put her up there," he recalled in 2000. "She's a young girl, so while playing the records, all of a sudden, she starts dancing to 'em. It was a dream. It worked."
Valentine made the most of his accidental contribution to popular culture by quickly adding two more girl dancers and putting all three in fringed dresses and white boots. The trio jigged and gyrated while the young rock'n'roller and headliner Johnny Rivers wowed the crowds.
Producer Lou Adler witnessed the frenzy and decided that a live album would be just the ticket to launch the singer and musician as a bona fide solo star. Though Johnny Rivers at the Whisky a Go Go wasn't as live as it claimed, it certainly caught the imagination of US teenagers who bought it and made Rivers' cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" – aka "Memphis Tennessee" – a No 2 single in July 1964. Within a few months, the "Go Go" craze spread throughout the US and beyond and dancing girls became a fixture of TV pop shows.
Inspired by the phenomenon, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles wrote the album Going to a Go-Go and recorded it at Motown the following year. The Whisky a Go Go concept was even turned into a franchise, but the original one on Sunset Strip remained the place to be for the movers and shakers and hangers-on, and the venue to play for successive generations of musicians.
Otis Redding recorded his In Person at the Whisky a Go Go album at the club in April 1966. Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Alice Cooper, Spirit, Chicago, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder all appeared there over the next three years, often securing their recording contracts after playing a particularly stunning set there, though Valentine fired The Doors because of Jim Morrison's obscene, Oedipal monologue in "The End". He also objected to Zappa's liberal use of profanities on stage.
Visiting British artists loved the Whisky, too. Graham Nash of the Hollies first met David Crosby and Stephen Stills there in February 1968, while the following January, Led Zeppelin, who had yet to release their debut album, flipped a coin with Alice Cooper to decide who'd go on last, and won.
In the Seventies, the Whisky welcomed Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the all-girl band the Runaways, local punk groups the Germs and X and hard-rockers Van Halen. The club closed for a couple of years in 1982 but is still going today, albeit as a venue for hire by promoters.
Born in Chicago in 1923, Valentine left school early and hustled a living on the streets of the windy city. He joined the Air Force as a mechanic and was stationed in Britain during the Second World War. After returning to Chicago, he joined the police force and eventually made detective in the vice squad but admitted he was on the take from the Mob. "It was a way of life," he said. "I left Chicago because my wife dumped me, and I was flipped out."
In 1960, he relocated to Hollywood where he opened his first nightclub, PJ's, and booked an unknown Mexican-American singer and guitarist called Trini Lopez who built such a reputation as an entertainer that Frank Sinatra's arranger and producer Don Costa signed him to Sinatra's Reprise Records in 1962. The following year, Lopez's irresistible Latin-flavoured version of the Pete Seeger and Lee Hays composition "If I Had a Hammer" sold over 4m copies around the world, enabling Valentine to capitalise on his club's fame by selling up his interest in PJ's and travelling to Europe to visit the Whisky à Gogo.
Valentine sold his interest in his Whisky a Go Go in the Nineties, but remained involved in the running of his other venues, the Rainbow Bar & Grill and the Roxy Theatre. When his death was announced, all the Sunset Strip clubs dimmed their lights in tribute to the man who had done so much to put the area on the map.
Elmer Valentine, policeman, club owner: born Chicago 16 June 1923; married (marriage dissolved, one daughter); died Los Angeles 3 December 2008.
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