The Beau Brummels
Before Triangle and Beyond
By Steve CooperThe Beau Brummels was America's first salvo in response to the British invasion that invaded her shores in the latter part of 1963 and (especially) 1964. Page-boy haircuts and sharkskin suits snugly in place, they were "the American Beatles." Like the Beatles, their music was a combination of folk and rock and roll (though the Beatles had more R&B stock in their stew). Unlike the Beatles, the Beau Brummels were only fairly successful.
When Triangle appeared in 1967, the Beau Brummels were on the down slope of their hit-making history. Starting in 1964, on the tiny Autumn Records label, the Beau Brummels had had two Top Ten radio charters, "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just A Little." It was an era when small labels could have big hits, though they usually had to cut distribution deals with bigger labels. Autumn Records was begun and started by San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue and featured the production talents of an up-and-comer named Sylvester Stewart (later to become Sly Stone of Sly & the Family Stone fame). Oddly enough, it was Stewart who produced all the Beau Brummels singles and albums recorded for Autumn (odd because the Beau Brummels were anything but a funk band). However, the innocent, innovative ‘60s was a decade of broad possibilities.
The Beau Brummels' third hit single, "You Tell Me Why," wasn't as big a hit as the first two, but quickly became an FM favorite, due to its winning-if-moody combination of folk and rock. Guitarist Ron Elliott wrote most of their songs, sometimes in combination with vocalist Sal Valentino, sometimes in combination with bassist Ron Meagher. Still other Beau Brummels songs were written by Elliott and friend (though non-band member) Bob Durand. The group was fleshed out by John Petersen on drums and Declan Mulligan on (occasional) vocals and guitar. And then, in 1966, Donahue's label folded. Just like that. Tiny labels tended to do that in the ‘60's—even tiny labels with big hits. The Beau Brummels quickly signed with a larger label, Warner Brothers. Their first release for the Brothers Warner was a huge misstep. Beau Brummels '66 was an album of covers by a group known for writing their own. And the choice of covers, such as "Louie Louie" and "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," was hardly inspired. The Beau Brummels desperately needed either another hit or a change of direction.
And, then, in 1967, the "change of direction" came in the form of the Triangle album. The original quintet was now down to three—Elliott, Meagher, and Valentino—hence, the "triangular" title. Triangle was not only a major departure for the Beau Brummels, it was a major departure for the times. At once mystical and playful, Triangle was one of those albums that seemingly appear out of nowhere, delight and confound the critics, are largely ignored by the public, and then sink back into the creative ooze from whence they came, thereafter appear on "Best Albums of All Time" lists by dusty discophiles in the know. Compare it to Love's Forever Changes and the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle in that regard. Sonically, Triangle is a bit of Beatles, a bit of Lovin' Spoonful, a bit of Buffalo Springfield, a bit of Van Dyke Parks, a bit of Randy Newman, and a whole lot of Ron Elliott and Sal Valentino. And, give credit to ace producer Lenny Waronker, producer of such Warner/Reprise acts as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, for the smarts to let the Beau Brummels follow their muse down an exciting, if not so commercial, path.
Nine of the eleven cuts on Triangle were written by Ron Elliott, with lyrical help from Sal Valentino and Bob Durand. The other two songs are well-chosen covers—Randy Newman's "Old Kentucky Home" and Merle Travis' "Nine Pound Hammer." As done by the Beau Brummels, the two covers fit seamlessly with the originals. The instrumentation and vocal layering is so perfectly, fully rendered, the eleven songs form, without overt design, a unified whole. It is a pop/folk/rock symphony without pretension or genuflection.
The lead-off cut, Elliott/Durand's "Are You Happy?" finds the Brummels in a Lovin' Spoonful mode of sorts. But it is much more. For one, Sal Valentino's voice. If forced to compare his vocals, I would have to say Gene Pitney filtered through Bob Dylan. He has Pitney's timbre and volume and Dylan's sly, expressive tone. Though "Are You Happy?" has the jangly, good-timey feel of a Spoonful song, it also has Valentino's ethereal, resonating vocals providing mystery and romance. Especially enigmatic are the echo-chambered vocals at the end of a line, an effective technique used on many of the songs on Triangle. Ron Elliott's acoustic guitar playing is also different than your average Nashville Cat. There's a high-stringed, bell-like tone that owes as much to flamenco as it does to country or folk.
"Only Dreaming Now," written by Elliott and Valentino, fully joins the gypsy caravan "Are You Happy?" only glanced at from afar. Elliott's string arrangements and guitar playing, with Valentino's aching, powerful vocals form the swirling foundation, as an accordion and a cello dart in and out and about. The lyrics are veiled and evocative, like a Fellini movie: "She danced above my head/Above my bed/Like no other I have known."
"Painter of Women" is everything "Only Dreaming Now" is and more. Sal Valentino's vocal is alternately a sinister mumble and a full-on, plaintive wail: "Seventeen lanterns are burning tonight/Isn't he a sight/Sitting alone on his plush, Persian rug/In the blackest night/With his fancies in flight/All his colors are bright/And the canvas is whiter/The painter of women." At least I think Sal is singing "the canvas is whiter." That's another interesting thing about his vocals—he frequently bends the words for effect.
"It Won't Get Better" finds us back in John Sebastian land, however the addition of French horns lets us know something else is up. Valentino's lyric is a sage admonition: "Hey, all you young fellas sitting on top of the world/Taking in all of them pretty young girls/Take ‘em, they don't get better."
Merle Travis' "Nine Pound Hammer" becomes positively Pitney-esque in Valentino's hands. His vocal soars and shouts, proving he could "go to church" if he wanted to. Ron Elliott's arrangement chugs and churns, slows, and then ascends in intensity and drama. Quite the anthem. Of course, the coal mine becomes but a metaphor in this fancified (though compelling) setting.
Quite naturally, I am saving the best for last (actually, I don't have that kind of patience—it's just a cheap attempt at literary closure). "Magic Hollow" and "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune" are, alone, enough to place Ron Elliott in the "Shining Songwriters of the Sixties" category. "Magic Hollow" is an eerie waltz, accompanied by Van Dyke Parks on harpsichord and some uncredited player (perhaps Parks) on concertina. Cellos and violins abet. Valentino's vocals are quavering, heartrending, theatrically echoed at all the right places. The lyric is "Summer of Love," but more mythical than hippie: "My sight is blessed/You have not guessed/So won't you follow/For through the dark/I hear the lark of Magic Hollow." All told, the song is a gentle, wonderfully melodious invitation to a better, more soothing place.
On the other hand, "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune" opens quietly, but we are now in a more unsettling place: "The air is full of strangeness/An unfamiliar breeze blows." The guitars build slowly, then rapidly to a climax, at which point the singer bellows forth: "Delight, delight/The wolf of velvet fortune is on his merry flight." Once again, we're invited—this time to a better, more invigorating place. "Magic Hollow" is a calming sedative. "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune" is an amphetamine.
Triangle was and is a masterwork. In 1967, it was barely promoted, barely made Billboard's Top 200, and sank from view without so much as a ripple. The Beau Brummels would make another fine album for Warner Brothers, Bradley's Barn, more shitkicker than shaman, however Triangle is the Beau Brummels' Pet Sounds, their Sgt. Pepper.
Which is not to belittle Bradley's Barn. Recorded in Nashville and released in 1968, Bradley's Barn is an extremely solid outing, with the two remaining Brummels, Valentino and Elliott, mixing it up with Nashville session men and creating a good-to-great country-rock ambience. Like Triangle, Valentino's vocals are echoed in key places, giving the songs a mythic, mysterious quality. However, where Triangle was heavy on string arrangements, Bradley's is heavy on guitars and pedal steel.
Take a song like "Deep Water," for example. Valentino's vocal is echoed almost to distraction at times, and is back-porch natural at other places. The ringing, finger-picked backing guitars plant one foot in Nashville, while Ron Elliott's odd-time, guitar lead and Valentino's fetchingly over-the-top singing places the other foot squarely in Haight-Ashbury. The juxtaposition of styles and locales gives the songs on Bradley's an alluring edge, not unlike the way Gram Parsons' bastard mix of Keith Richards and Merle Haggard gave his approach an edge.
Bradley's Barn was somewhat more successful on the charts than Triangle, but not by much. The exhilaration of their creative peak was dashed on the rocks of commercial indifference. So, alas, Valentino and Elliott, the last of the Brummel Mohicans, went their separate ways.
Ron Elliott, guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire, released a critically acclaimed solo album, Candlestick Maker, released in early 1970. The album is, to a degree, a continuation of Bradley's Barn and Triangle, though containing a long, ambitious, fourteen-minute opus called "The Candlestick Maker Suite: Part One—Dark." Sorely missing, however, are Valentino's vocals. Elliott's voice, though wistfully competent, is not in the same league as Valentino's Pitney-esque swagger. Candlestick Maker, critically befriended as it was, never came close to denting the Top 200 Billboard chart.
Sal Valentino saw some success after the Brummels break up in a sort of precursor to Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" called Stoneground. Stoneground was a revolving, loose affiliate of singers and musicians who, mostly, covered other writers' songs. Ex-Beau Brummels record label exec Tom Donahue was instrumental in bringing the whole magilla together. Valentino was, at times, the lead vocalist while, at many other occasions, a quartet of female singers traded leads and back-ups. Bassman Terry Davis also traded male leads with Valentino. So, as you can see, Valentino was a player, rather than a leader in this "democratic" band.
Stoneground's initial, eponymous, 1971 studio album is, by far, the best, although it couldn't hold a candle to most any Beau Brummel song you could name. Produced by Valentino and containing two of his compositions, the Triangle magic peeks through on occasion, but, mostly, the magic is buried beneath the community ooze. The other four or five Stoneground albums, dating from 1972 to 1980, are best forgotten. The problem with the communal, hippie vibe that permeated Stoneground's later efforts was that there was no strong hand in charge. To Valentino's credit, he got out after the third release in 1973.
After that, the Beau Brummels had one last hurrah, 1975's reunion album called, simply, The Beau Brummels. Emboldened by a 1974 reunion tour, all of the original members, with the exception of Ron Meagher, came back to the fold for one last attempt. As reunion affairs go, The Beau Brummels was a fair-to-good excursion. Songs like "Down to the Bottom" and "Tennessee Walker" captured some of the old Brummel daring-do, but much of the release revealed the rust and timidity that frequently characterizes "together again" albums.
And that was that for the Beau Brummels. For a time, Valentino left music entirely and only recently has been touring on rock and roll nostalgia tours with his Sal Valentino Band. Ron Elliott became a successful graphic artist, now going by the name R. Elliott. At various odd occasions, all of the Beau Brummels have reunited for one-off concerts and warm memories.
The Beau Brummels' music refuses to go away. Besides the Triangle and Bradley's Barn re-releases, there are plans (by the Sundazed record label) to put out a live album taken from the '74 reunion tour. All of the Beau Brummels' Autumn Records LPs have seen multiple issues on CD, both in their original form and in compilation. Quality music is timeless and the Beau Brummels made quality music. The wolf of velvet fortune, once on his merry flight, could not be returned to the bog.
Triangle has been re-released on Collectors' Choice Music label
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