By Mark Daponte
When John Lennon was 15, his Math teacher wrote on his report card that he was “certainly on the road to failure.” And when Elmer Valentine was 14, he ran away from his Chicago home and from a teacher who predicted that when the boy reached adulthood, he’d be sitting in an electric chair.
But just as John found his niche, Elmer found his as one of the owners of the go-to club in the 1960s called the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood. Not only was this perpetually packed place a breeding ground for STDs, it was also a breeding ground for bands who took their early steps toward stardom on the Whisky’s stage. The partial list of groups (The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Young Rascals, Them/Van Morrison, and Frank Zappa) who honed their act at Elmer’s place reads like a wing at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
And if there ever was a Pop Culture Hall of Fame, Elmer deserves a plaque for introducing the term and concept of go-go girls. He noted in a 2000 interview for Vanity Fair: “It was just so popular, right from the very first night. I was just lucky. It was easy.”
It all happened because a mother discovered that her daughter won a contest to spin records in the Whisky’s suspended glass booth. It was a DJ offer that the young lady’s irate mother refused. Scrambling to find a replacement, Valentine offered the gig to Patty Brockhurst, the Whisky’s cigarette girl. Perhaps overjoyed that the booth protected her from the unwanted grasps of the smarmy leches dancing beneath her, Patty shook her tail-feather to the records, and voila! For better or worse, an indelible image of the swingin’ ’60s was created, helped by Joan Labine who created the iconic combo of a fringed dress and white boots.
Had JFK not been assassinated, the Whisky may have just been another watering hole on the Sunset Strip. In a 2016 interview for Las Vegas Magazine, guitarist Johnny Rivers recalled working at a club called Gazzarri’s, which he noted: “…was a small little restaurant in ’63. No one was playing rock ’n’ roll in LA. There was nothing happening.” Elmer, noticing the crowd that Johnny was pulling in, asked him to ply his trade at his club. Johnny demurred until the night of November 22, 1963. That’s when he told Gazzarri’s tight-fisted owner, Bill Gazzarri: “Bill, I won’t be coming in tonight, and [Bill] said, ‘Well, what do you mean? We’re open!’ I said, ‘Nobody’s open tonight!’ so that made my mind up—this insensitive bastard. So I called up Elmer and I said, ‘You still want to do this thing on Sunset?’ and he goes, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ Bill wanting me to work the night Kennedy got assassinated made my mind up to take the new deal, so basically I did and that’s how it came about.”
When Rivers and drummer Eddie Rubin became the Whisky’s house band, they became the template for the two-person band like the White Stripes. Rivers recalled: “They PR’d the thing really big and opening night at The Whisky was like a Hollywood opening. A premiere. They had klieg lights out front and this and that, movie stars. People had lined up, up the street.”
And lines, both on the street and up musicians’ noses, kept on coming. House bands included Love, Young Rascals, Buffalo Springfield, and the Doors. That particular gig ended because an acid-and-alcohol-filled Jim Morrison adlibbed a naughty lyric to “The End.” Organist Ray Manzarek remembered that ill-fated night: “I realized heʼs doing Oedipus Rex! And then I thought, ‘My God, I know what’s coming next!’”
Elmer, perhaps fearing that people would picket his club, fired the band. Elmer reasoned: “I was a redneck ex-policeman from Chicago! Catholic boy. F_ _ k your mother? Thatʼs the worst thing I could ever…”
But there were, uh, “episodes” in Elmer’s life far worse than a drunk Jim Morrison slurring into a microphone. These included Elmer being indicted (but never convicted) for extortion when he was a Chicago detective and managing nightclubs for murderous gangsters. When asked if he ever killed anyone, Elmer only replied: “Thatʼs personal.”
But there’s no arguing that Elmer made his first financial killing in LA by running PJ’s, a Hollywood club where Trini Lopez recorded his top 1963 album, Trini Lopez at PJ’s. The Whisky also acted as a recording studio with live albums by Johnny Rivers, the Stooges, Otis Redding, and Alice Cooper emanating from its stage.
Elmer, who Jack Nicholson noted looked “like all seven of the dwarves,” died in 2008 at the age of 85, leaving a lasting impact on the music scene with his club — and collecting a lot of stories along the way.
For example, despite having fired the Doors, he had befriended Jim Morrison and would occasionally let him crash at his house. Elmer revealed: “Jim couldnʼt handle being that big. Remember how he got arrested in Miami for indecent exposure? He was up here in the house one night, and he said, ʻWould you like to hear what really happened? You donʼt know what itʼs like to be a pop star. They think I have a 12-inch d_ _k. I wanted to show that I have a little oneʼ (and he did have a small one)—ʻso that theyʼll leave me alone.ʼ”
This post was previously published on CultureSonar.
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