By Alec Palao


"The Beatles opened the door and the Beau Brummels sailed through it and for a while really rode the crest. That they have turned out, in the light of history, to be better than they seemed at the time, shows how advanced they were and how the taste buds have altered."


As self-appointed "grand-old-man" of the 1960s San Francisco rock scene, Rolling Stone founder Ralph Gleason might be forgiven for the slightly patronising tone of such patter. But his words reflect some of the snobbery inherent in the then-developing Bay Area rock community; a scene that was to disavow the Beau Brummels membership in its upper echelons, when by rights they should have been at the very top.


The Brummels' breakthrough in early 1965 established them as the first major rock group to emerge from the area, and they blazed the trail that many were later to follow. Under the helm of guitarist Ron Elliott, perhaps the pre-eminent songwriter of his generation, the group distilled rock, folk and country influences into a captivating and instantly recognisable style, that earned them two widely-admired national hits in 'Laugh Laugh' and 'Just A Little'. Elliott's accomplished guitar work, drummer John Petersen's trademark rimshot fills, even bassist Ron Meagher's nasal harmonies, all added up to a remarkably ditinctive sound. And the expressive vocals of Sal Valentino, rightly lauded as some of the best in rock, were the ace in the Brummels' pack.

The band’s history is well-known, but worth reprising briefly. Elliott and Valentino (real name Sal Spampinato) first sang together in school in the late 50s. Whilst Elliott studied musical composition at San Francisco State College,Valentino sang locally in North Beach, and even had a solo release ('I Wanna Twist') on the Falco label in 1962. With the Spring 1964 addition of Meagher, Petersen and Irish transplant Declan Mulligan, the Beau Brummels were formed. The combo's name cleverly hinted at their British-tinged material, but right from the start the group began performing Elliott's strong, quirky originals. According to the guitarist, "one of the reasons, for getting the band together, was so that I could hear some of my songs played."


After catching the combo at the Morocco Room in San Mateo on the San Francisco peninsula, popular local deejays Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell signed the Brummels to their Autumn label. Autumn got the outfit out of sleazy North Beach bars and into the top ten with the brilliant, Sly Stone-produced 'Laugh, Laugh'. The classic follow-up 'Just A Little' went top five, and the group were thrown into an ensuing whirlwind of touring and TV and film work. Mulligan left just prior to the release of the group's second album in late 1965, and when Autumn folded due to finance problems in April the following year, the bands contract was sold off: "We got off the road and found we belonged to Warner Brothers."

The immediate success of the Brummels had taken its toll on Ron Elliott, a diagnosed diabetic; "I'd never been comfortable on stage anyway, but the road devastated me health-wise. Sometimes the only memory I have from a tour is waking up in hospital after an insulin reaction." Although Elliott's place was taken by Don Irving for touring purposes in late 1965, by the end of the following year the Beau Brummels had effectively become a recording-only act. Valentino and Elliott remained the constants, and the resulting albums "Triangle" and "Bradley’s Barn", while commercially unsuccessful, are widely acknowledged as masterpieces of late 1960s pop. Fittingly, both records expound upon styles and influences that were present in the group from the very beginning.

Although the Beau Brummels taped a fair amount of material for Autumn, there are remarkably few finished masters that were not released while the group was with the label. Most are demos, although the group themselves considered many tracks that were released at the time - ie on their two Autumn albums - as unfinished. But, as the recently released "San Fran Sessions" box set attests, most of the unreleased material is as good as anything that was officially issued. Some may have been slated as singles, such as the infectious 'Fine With Me', which was mixed down as a tentative release in September 1965. The band did eventually re-record the tune, in a slightly different arrangement, for a Warner Brothers single the following year. 'Woman', one of the group's best rockers, appears on the "Sessions" compilation with Dec Mulligan's original vocal, as per the Brummels appearance in teen flick Village Of The Giants. When the song eventually surfaced (on the album "Volume Two"), Dec's vocal had been replaced by an acoustic 12-string, as the guitarist was no longer with the combo (and would soon be in litigation with its remaining members). The group also taped a similar instrumental arrangement of their other tune featured in the movie, 'When It Comes To Your Love'.


Also on the new box set, 'Dream On' is an obvious display of the country flavour inherent in even the earliest Beau Brummels tunes; an influence which reached natural fruition on "Bradley's Barn". 'I Grow Old' is almost an extension of that influence, in that Ron Elliott's low register growl brings to mind images of a pyschedelicised Johnny Cash, as it did in 'Gentle Wanderin' Ways'. Both of those tracks date from July of 1965, making their surreal lyrical imagery all the more remarkable. Elsewhere, 'I'll Tell You' is an outtake from "Volume Two" and features a brief solo from bassist Ron Meagher.

Despite having a quite remarkable lead vocalist in Valentino, the Beau Brummels democratically allowed each member to sing at least a couple of songs during the Autumn period. Drummer John Petersen takes the lead on 'That's All That Matters', which dates from December 1964. The raucous vocal and Kinks-like structure make it considerably different to anything else the group attempted.

Five songs on the "San Fran Sessions" 3 CD box set come from their very last recordings for Autumn in March 1966, and all were possibly intended for a third album, until the demise of the label interrupted the proceedings. Of the five, only the unusual 6/8 time signature of 'She Sends Me' has appeared previously; here it is presented in a first-time stereo mix from the original multi-track tape. The four other titles on "San Fran Sessions", 'Cry Some', 'Let Me In', This Is Love', and 'Down On Me', are all uniformly excellent and indicative of the creative peaks Ron Elliott's songwriting was scaling. In particular the brooding, melancholic 'Let Me In' and 'This Is Love' are completely captivating, and it is odd that these songs were passed over in favour of some inappropriate covers for the band's first album on their new label, "Beau Brummels '66".


The large cache of demo recordings the Beau Brummels made for Autumn were probably engendered by Elliott's prodigious songwriting output: "Back then I was obsessed with music, it was in my head the whole time. Music wrote me." In April of 1965, the group entered Coast Recorders in San Francisco and taped almost 30 songs, seven of which appear on "San Fran Sessions". While these tracks are warts-and-all 'live' recordings, and were definitely not intended for public consumption, there are some great performances. The Roy Orbison stylings of 'Tomorrow Is Another Day' (also known as 'Little Girl') are a highlight, as is the Mulligan-sung Merseybeat of 'She Loves Me' and 'She's My Girl'. 'Love Is Just A Game' and 'Can't Be So' are two folky ballads that the group chose not to return to; they did however re-record (but did not complete) the unusually-structured 'I Will Go' for "Volume Two". The brief but charming 'I'm Alone Again' is another track from this period.


Amongst the Autumn tapes on "San Fran Sessions" there are also solo demos by Ron Elliott and Sal Valentino. Those by Elliott make for fascinating listening as examples of work-in-progress. Of particular note is his original demo of 'Coming Home', which was to later appear (as 'Going Home') on an Elliott-produced single by Marin combo Butch Engle & The Styx. Similarly, while a Beau Brummels group demo of 'No Lonelier Man' exists, the author's plaintive acoustic reading has the edge. The double-tracked harmonies of 'Til The Day' points to the strong influence of the Everly Brothers: "As a kid I loved the Everlys, and knew all their songs." In fact, as a Los Angeles-based guitar-for-hire, Ron later wound up playing on many of the Everlys' late 1960s sessions, as well as having the duo cover his compositions 'Empty Boxes' and 'Deep Water'. Meanwhile, Sal's 'Stay With Me Awhile' reveals a pensive folkiness far removed from his greaser days in North Beach.

Of perhaps greatest interest to the casual listener are tentative versions of three of the Beau Brummels' best-known tunes. 'Still In Love With You Baby', 'Just A Little' and 'Laugh, Laugh' are presented on "San Fran Sessions" in alternate takes that presumably date from mid-1964. It is possible that these form part of an early demo recorded at Gold Star in Los Angeles, and financed by would-be manager Rich Romanello, the owner of the Morocco Room. The arrangements differ little from the hit versions, and show the group already in full control of their 'sound'. 'Laugh, Laugh' in particular is revealed as a remarkably unusual rock song for the period, but its author modestly downplays such an observation: "I just turned on the radio one day (in the spring of '64), caught a verse of a Four Seasons record, turned the radio off and wrote 'Laugh, Laugh' ". The somewhat acerbic lyric "was just a situation I invented, and musically it was still simple (compared to) the music I was composing at college. It was more of the kind of stuff I would have been writing, but I got too much 'gas' from the guys, y'know, 'too many chords!' "


The Beau Brummels were with Autumn for less than two years, but it was a prolific period that saw their only chart success. Collections of unissued material quite often scrape the barrel of an artists career, but there is little amongst the substantial number of Brummels tapes in the Autumn vault that is not worthy of the ears of a larger public. The group were one of America's finest in the mid-1960s, with a consistency of quality that made the "San Fran Sessions" collection tough to compile, but a delight to listen to.


© Alec Palao


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