Although never a posturing guitar hero, Hilton Valentine, who has died aged 77, carved his own niche as a rock’n’roll pioneer with his work with the Animals. A versatile and inventive player, he will always be remembered for the distinctive arpeggio chords he played on the group’s 1964 breakthrough hit The House of the Rising Sun, which topped the British and US charts.
The song, allegedly about a New Orleans brothel, was an old folk ballad of unknown authorship, and among numerous previous recordings of it was Bob Dylan’s version on his 1962 debut album. Valentine maintained that he had simply adapted Dylan’s acoustic guitar chords, in the baleful key of A minor, for the Animals’ electric version. It’s now seen as a landmark in the creation of folk-rock. Dylan was said to be so stunned by hearing the Animals’ version that he promptly decided that he too must embrace electric instruments, a seismic event in rock music history.
Valentine also made innovative contributions to other Animals hits. He added attention-grabbing themes on 12-string guitar to It’s My Life and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (both UK Top 10 hits and US Top 30 hits), and supercharged Don’t Bring Me Down (UK No 6, US No 12) with thunderous fuzz guitar played through an Echoplex device, a little-known innovation at the time.
The Animals vocalist Eric Burdon remembered how he had first heard Valentine playing with the Wildcats in Whitley Bay. “I went running back up to Newcastle and said: ‘I’ve found this guy, and he’s got an Echoplex!’ He really was the only rock guitar player around. There were other good players at the time, but they were all sort of jazz-oriented.”
Valentine’s stint with the original version of the Animals lasted only until the group’s break-up in September 1966, which he ascribed to poor management, a crushing touring schedule and too much alcohol and drugs, but the band left an indelible impression. (Burdon subsequently formed an entirely new group, Eric Burdon & the Animals.) In his keynote speech at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, in 2012, Bruce Springsteen recalled the impact the Animals’ records had on him: “To me, the Animals were a revelation – the first records with full-blown class consciousness that I’d ever heard … It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.”
Valentine was born in North Shields on the River Tyne. He was brought up by his mother after his father left when he was very young, but she died when he was 16. She had bought him his first guitar three years earlier. He described how he “took four or five lessons in the beginning to get me started … then I saw a book advertising ‘1,000 chords for half a crown’, so I knew I had to get it. After that it was just a matter of getting the book and learning from it. That, and learning a lot of mistakes and bad habits.”
He grew up listening to a diet of early rock’n’roll and skiffle, and was particularly struck by seeing Lonnie Donegan performing Rock Island Line on the BBC’s first rock’n’roll TV show, Six-Five Special. He formed his own skiffle group, the Heppers, while still a pupil at Tynemouth high school, and by the end of the 1950s they had evolved into a rock’n’roll group, the Wildcats. They built a local following playing at clubs and dance halls, and Valentine’s theatrical stage antics caught the attention of Chas Chandler, the bass player with the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. Valentine was invited to join the group, which in late 1963 evolved into the Animals, with John Steel on drums and Burdon on vocals. In 1964 they signed to EMI, with Mickie Most as their producer.
After the demise of the Animals, Valentine managed his former Wildcats bandmate Keith Shields, who recorded several singles for Decca, and in 1969 he released the psychedelically-influenced solo album All in Your Head (Valentine was a copious taker of LSD).
He rejoined the original Animals for a benefit show in Newcastle in December 1968. In 1976 they undertook a short tour followed by a new album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted (1977). In 1983 they released the album Ark (which brought them a Top 50 US single with The Night) and embarked on a world tour commemorated on the 1984 live album Greatest Hits Live (Rip It to Shreds). A decade later Valentine assembled the Animals II, playing the group’s best-known songs, and they released the album Interesting Life (2003).
In 1994 Valentine was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Animals, and the group were added to Hollywood’s Rock Walk of Fame in 2001.
He moved in 1997 to Wallingford, Connecticut, where he lived with his American wife, Germaine, and revisited his musical roots with his band Skiffledog, which released two albums, It’s Folk ’n’ Skiffle, Mate! and Skiffledog on Coburg St. In 2007-08, he toured with Burdon. His last recording was River Tyne (2019), a sombre folk song looking back at his roots in the north-east.
He is survived by Germaine and by a daughter, Samantha, from a previous relationship.
• Hilton Stewart Paterson Valentine, guitarist, born 21 May 1943; died 29 January 2021