In praise of The Animals

Music

I recently read about the passing of Hilton Valentine, the original guitarist for The Animals, who has died, aged 77.

Valentine’s simple arpeggiated riff in the band’s version of the traditional tune House of the Rising Sun remains one of the most recognisable guitar parts in the history of rock’n’roll.

Valentine’s passing caused me to reflect on the wider influence of The Animals. The original lineup split by 1966, but in that time they recorded some memorable songs, including the huge hits We Gotta Get Out of This Place and their uptempo cover of (Don’t let me be) Misunderstood, originally written for and recorded by Nina Simone.

The Animals were one of the British groups from the early 1960s who took the R&B of the (predominantly black) artists in the US and repackaged it in a form that brought the genre – and its original performers – to a larger audience. A number of groups were part of this ‘wave’, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, to name but a few. While it might make one baulk to think that it took the playing of ‘black music’ by white performers to make the style palatable to white audiences in America (racial segregation still existed in some states in the early 1960s), it is worth remembering that these same audiences later turned to the original artists themselves. This created career-changing opportunities for artists such as BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so many, many more.

Yet their influence on the artists who followed in their footsteps shouldn’t be underestimated. They were more than just local heroes in the north east of England; their activities after the breakup of the original group in 1966 led to a few significant ripples through the music world…

As well as the countless musicians who picked up a guitar to try and play House of the Rising Sun, or to start their own rhythm & blues outfit, The Animals also raised the profile of several well-known acts, one way or another.

Lead singer Eric Burdon became well respected for his soulful, yet gravelly, voice. After initially attempting to create a new version of The Animals (with only Burdon as the surviving founder member), he was soon teamed up with an up and coming R&B band. The resulting outfit – Eric Burdon and War – had success with the single Spill the Wine, and two albums together.

However, Burdon unexpectedly left the group halfway through a European tour. The band continued without Burdon, creating some very well-known hits in the 1979s, including Cisco Kid, Low Rider and Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Alan Price, keyboard player for the animals, had something if a dual career after the group disbanded. He worked with fellow 60s star George Fame for many years, while also writing film & theatre scores. He also released a few solo albums, and in his songs choices, became one of the first performers to bring the music of American songwriter Randy Newman (later famous for songs such as Short People and You’ve Got a Friend In Me) to a wider audience.

Meanwhile, Animals bassist Chad Chandler discovered a young Jimi Hendrix performing in Greenwich Village, New York, and became his manager. He set up the legendary guitar player with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but used his connections to secure gigs in the UK for the group, and introduce him to contemporaries on the sixties music scene in London, such as The Beatles and Eric Clapton. In fact, the last time Hendrix performed live was onstage in London with Eric Burdon & War, the day before his tragic early death.

Chandler went on to manage the British glam-rock group Slade, who had several hits through the seventies (including one of the most well-known Christmas songs in pop music). His other business interests helped to build the Newcastle Arena, a sport and large capacity concert venue, which meant those of us in the region now got to see more of the bigger artists when they came around on tour!

I’m sure similar ‘family trees’ can be found throughout the history of rock’n’roll, and maybe it is the shared home region which fuels my fondness for them, but The Animals were much more than a few catchy songs and one incredibly famous guitar riff.

Rest in peace, Hilton Valentine (1943 – 2021). The music lives on.

Ten guitarists who influenced my playing, in pictures

Music

This is one of those exercises / challenges which circulates around Facebook from time to time (much like the one which inspired a previous post about ten albums which inspired me). This one asked guitarists to post photographs of ten guitar players who had been the greatest influence on their own playing.

I find these thought exercises difficult – challenging is the perfect word! I feel like I could post forty pictures and still have missed out a key influence on my playing, yet here we are, in no particular order…

What do these players have in common? Some are strikingly different. The key characteristics I gravitate towards in other musicians are…

  • Tasteful or melodic solos
  • Blending of musical genres
  • Dazzling showmanship / inspirational technique

…and all of the guitarists pictured above have one or more of these traits.

As always, these are just my opinions. I may well delve into my influences in more specific areas in a future article. But what are your biggest guitar influences? Get in touch or leave a comment to let me know!

Great Guitarists #11: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Great Guitarists

In this installment, a singer and guitar player who took the blues, folk and gospel and created what could arguably be considered the forerunner to rock’n’roll…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Born in 1915, Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) started playing guitar and singing in church at the young age of just four years old. Touring with an evangelical church troupe from the age of six, she settled in Chicago. Her stage name comes from her first marriage to preacher Thomas Tharpe at the age of 19; she carried on using the name Tharpe professionally after their divorce in 1984 , up until her death from a stroke in 1973 (during which time she remarried twice).

Tharpe is perhaps best remembered as a singer, with a loud clear singing style. But something about her singing, combined with her foot stomping and blues-tinged guitar picking – not to mention some cool lead lines – stirred the interest in many young listeners who would go on to be the next generation of musicians. Little Richard and Johnny Cash both called Tharpe their favourite singer, she is cited as a crucial influence to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Meatloaf and Karen Carpenter. Tharpe’s appearance on a British TV special about the Blues and Gospel Caravan, a European tour of US musicians that also included Muddy Waters, Otis Span and Sonny Terry, amongst many others, brought her to the attention of British audiences, including future guitar superstars like Eric Clapton.

“Tharpe’s guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing that was a precursor of rock and roll”

Biography.com (‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe’, 2015)

Tharpe’s guitar playing is said to have directly influenced the vocals/guitar style of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – and if the first rock’n’rollers such as Berry, Presley and Richard call Tharpe an influence, she must the foundation of all that followed…

Tharpe’s career was curtailed by a stroke in 1970, and she died just three years later. Nowadays, her influence is often unfairly overlooked, and sometimes forgotten entirely. However, Tharpe played a crucial role in the history of American music of the 20th century, not to mention the birth of rock’n’roll. Furthermore, in this brilliant article by Erin White, Tharpe is hailed as a Queer Icon too, largely due to speculation over her affair with singer Marie Knight.

Here she is on a TV show in the mid-sixties, singing a gospel song with a gospel choir, but playing a slightly overdriven Gibson Les Paul Custom (although we know these as a Gibson SG nowadays) with it’s three humbuckers. She also pops in a blues-based solo in the middle!

When I think of three humbucker guitars, I recall Neil Young’s ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul, or the rock band KISS. As for the SG guitar shape, Angus Young of AC/DC and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are the first two players who spring to most people’s minds – not a lady in her fifties singing a combination of blues and gospel. It must be remembered that for many, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first black woman they’d ever seen playing an electric guitar, and she could play! But what else should we expect from the Tharpe – one of a small handful who can truly claim to be the start, or inspiration, of rock’n’roll?

Recommended listening

Tharpe’s 1944 single Strange Things Happening Every Day, is considered one of the first rock’n’roll singles, and is the first ever Gospel record to make it onto Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now called their R&B chart). One her most acclaimed studio albums is Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956). This record marks the stylistic change, backed by New York session musicians, and is considered highly influential on later rock’n’roll artists.

With a career that took place from the 30’s to the early 70’s, it is sometimes best to seek out compilation albums in order to have all of Tharpe’s most well-known releases in one place. To that end, I would recommend Bring Back Those Happy Days: Greatest Hits and Selected Recordings (Jasmine, 2018), or the 4-CD set The Original Soul Sister (Proper, 2002).

As with each installment in the Great Guitarists series, I have only touched upon the surface of these influential players. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, as well as recommendations on who should be featured (I have another four or five lined up already – I wonder if anyone can guess who is coming next?). Until next time…