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Oh, Pioneers 

Behold - the forgotten history of the Beau Brummels, the true originators of the San Francisco sound of the '60s

Wednesday, Mar 1 2006
Open up just about any popular book on '60s rock music, and the story of how the "San Francisco sound" developed will unfold something like this: In the spring of 1965, the Byrds, a group of Los Angeles folkies merging the sound of the Beatles and the lyricism of Bob Dylan, released an electrified version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." With its 12-string jangle, reverb-drenched production, and soaring harmonies, the tune shot straight up the charts and in the process inspired hordes of folkie bohemians throughout the Bay Area (and all across America) to trade in their acoustic guitars for electric axes, including members of an old-timey country-folk outfit by the name of the Charlatans, the musicians credited most often as the visionaries who forged San Francisco folk-rock.

But I have an alternative theory, a kind of forgotten history (especially here in the Bay Area) wherein the aesthetic foundation for the San Francisco sound -- the moody, atmospheric, minor-key vibrations created by such Haight-Ashbury heads as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, and Blackburn & Snow -- was actually laid six months earlier, by a band most of you have probably never heard of.

It was the fall of 1964. Looking for new talent to sign to their small label, Autumn Records, two now-legendary S.F. DJs, Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue and Bob "The Mighty Mitch" Mitchell, along with their young producer, Sylvester Stewart (later to become Sly Stone), headed down to a club called the Morocco Room in San Mateo to catch a popular young quintet consisting of three young men from the city -- singer Sal Valentino, guitarist and composer Ron Elliott, and drummer John Petersen -- as well as Oakland native Ron Meagher on bass and an Irishman by the name of Declan Mulligan on guitar. The band called itself the Beau Brummels, a phrase denoting an excessively well-dressed person, a fop.

Now, the club's owner, Rich Romanello, was the group's manager, and he had taken the Brummels down to Hollywood earlier that fall to cut a demo at the famed Gold Star Studios (the home of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys). But despite the group's Anglophilic moniker and a repertoire sprinkled with several Beatles tunes, the formative Brummels sound heard on this three-song demo feels more rooted in American soil than Liverpudlian, as the tight harmonies and country-rock swing of the Everly Brothers' hits from the early '60s ("Cathy's Clown," in particular) resonate throughout. According to Al Hazan, who produced the demo, "I never thought of the Brummels in terms of the Beatles" -- more on this in a second -- "it was Ron Elliott's talent as a songwriter that caused me to want to produce them." Indeed, "People Are Cruel," the gem of the demo and a rather intricate pop number for a 19-year-old to have composed, exudes a somber, almost desperate tone, which is all the more enhanced by Valentino's quivering, country and western-informed croon.

Thus, Donahue and Mitchell found exactly what they were looking for: a polished, professional-sounding group with great songwriting that, if marketed properly, would allow these DJs to cash in on Beatlemania. And that's exactly what they proceeded to do, with a speed and efficiency typical of shrewd business types who know that cash cows need to be milked as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Within a matter of weeks, Donahue and Mitchell signed the Brummels to Autumn (eventually supplanting Romanello as their manager), pulled them from the Morocco Room, relocated them to DJ's (their club in North Beach), and whisked these young men into Coast Recorders (on Bush Street) with a nascent Sly Stone as their producer. By January 1965, Donahue and Mitchell had dressed the Brummels in matching, faux-Beatles suits and were spreading rumors that the group was indeed from the United Kingdom. Shortly thereafter, the Elliott-penned "Laugh Laugh," the first American single to really nail the folk-rock aesthetic, climbed to No. 15 on Billboard, and the Brummels -- while the Byrds were still in the studio recording their version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- emerged as bona fide American teen idols, complete with sexually charged little girls screaming and chasing after them; appearances on American Bandstand, Shindig, and Hullabaloo; sold-out concerts at the Cow Palace and the San Jose Civic Auditorium (with the Beach Boys); cameos in such trashy teen flicks as Wild Wild Winter and Village of the Giants; and an animated spot as the "Beau Brummelstones" on The Flintstones.

And herein lies the reason their tale is forgotten history. How could any manager-groomed pop group appearing on The Flintstones be taken seriously as a folk-rock pioneer when the mythical narrative of '60s folk-rock is based upon a central theme -- hip folkies turning electric and transforming mindless Top 40 pap for teenagers into groundbreaking modern music for smart, college-educated young adults? The Brummels' image, regardless of how good the group was musically, didn't fit that narrative, while the Byrds' did, despite the fact that only a single Byrd actually played an instrument on "Mr. Tambourine Man." Combine the image problem with a slew of managerial and promotional blunders, and you've got a trailblazing band whose time in the spotlight was markedly short, though it did go on to create some of the most inspired music of the '60s, recordings on a par with anything made by the Kinks or the Beatles. It's a tragic yet illuminating situation that calls into question the whole mythology of the '60s, a decade revered as a time when artistic innovation and popular taste coincided.

On the northeastern tip of Sacramento, in a modest prefab condo complex that sits not too far from the Capital City Freeway, a Wonder Bread factory, and McClellan Air Force Base, Sal Valentino shuffles a stack of CD-Rs, searching for a burn of some old 45. When he finds the right disc, Valentino slips it into his Bose Acoustic Wave sound system and starts scanning the first few notes of each track. His left index finger pokes the forward search button in rapid succession while his right hand, tucked inside the pocket of his baggy sweat pants, clutches a Zippo, the lid of which his fingers nervously flip open and shut, open and shut, open and shut.

About The Author

Justin F. Farrar


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