A few hundred family members, friends, former employees and just plain fans of Whisky A Go-Go co-founder Elmer Valentine, who died at age 85 in December, packed the venerated club he opened 45 years ago for a night of toasts and music. The music was led by Johnny Rivers, whose extended engagement as the Whisky's opening act in 1964 put the club and the singer on the national map. Among those joining Rivers on Monday at the club that helped launch countless careers were Stephen Stills, Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and British blues band leader John Mayall.
Jack Nicholson, looking up to the stage from his spot on the floor about 15 feet back, described his longtime friend as "the man who looked like all seven dwarfs." The actor said one of his favorite life quotes came from Valentine, a Chicago cop who moved west to start a new life in the entertainment business. "He used to say, 'Some people score and they never know it. Jack, we scored, and we know it.' "
Doors drummer John Densmore didn't play, except for a quick drum roll he rattled off in memory of Valentine before Rivers took the stage, but lauded him as a rarity in the world of club owners, who as a group tend to elicit more curses than compliments from musicians.
"I've gotta say, I never met a music club owner or promoter who cared more about musicians and the people who made it than Elmer Valentine," said Densmore, who showed up in what he called his "hippie jacket," a buckskin number with fringed sleeves.
Densmore was caught up in conversation with Ronnie Haran Mellen, the Whisky's original talent booker, who first spotted the Doors at another club, the London Fog. "She came in on the last night we played there, the night we were fired. She came back to Elmer and said, 'This is a band that has to be our house band.' " Valentine agreed, and the Doors' run at the club put it on the fast track on its path to becoming one of the most celebrated rock bands of the era.
Chris Hillman laughed while recounting a night at the club in 1969 shortly after he'd left the Byrds to start the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. " Jerry Lee Lewis was there, and we were up there in the dressing rooms," he said, pointing to the balcony. "Jerry Lee was telling Gram that he'd taught the Beatles everything they knew and they'd be nothing without him. I remember thinking at the time, 'This is great -- this is history.' "
Valentine's old friend and business partner Lou Adler and Adler's son Nic organized Monday's tribute. "We waited a little bit after his passing to do this," said Nic Adler, who now oversees operations at the Roxy, which Valentine, his father and other partners opened in 1973. "Elmer wouldn't have wanted any crying. He just would have wanted laughter and people telling stories, and that's what is happening tonight."
The music Monday revolved around the Whisky's first wave of success in the '60s, some reflecting tacitly or directly the musicians' formative experiences on the Sunset Strip. Rivers, who recorded a string of live albums at the Whisky, sang several of his mid-'60s hits, swampy Southern pop-rock versions of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" and "Maybelline" as well as "Secret Agent Man." Stills offered "For What It's Worth (Stop Hey What's That Sound)" and "Love the One You're With." Hillman reeled off the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star."
The opening of the Whisky helped revive a part of Hollywood that had been a destination for Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and other members of Tinseltown's elite in the 1930s and '40s.
Folk music fans, who were plentiful in the late '50s and early '60s, had the Ash Grove, the Troubadour, PJ's and McCabe's in Santa Monica, but rock music hadn't yet established a beachhead.
Valentine, who was part owner of PJ's, came upon a foundering club on the Sunset Strip called the Party that he wanted to take over. He offered Rivers a one-year contract to open the club.
Valentine patterned his operation after a European discotheque called the Whisky A Go-Go that he'd visited in Paris while on vacation the previous summer, where patrons danced while deejays spun records, a form of nightlife that hadn't caught on in the U.S. yet. Valentine hired female disc jockeys to play records in the breaks between Rivers' three live sets each night so patrons could continue dancing. Valentine is credited with starting the go-go craze stateside.
"He put them above the bandstand," Rivers said. "They were right over my head. That bandstand was so small -- it was only about 5 by 7 feet. . . . Eventually, they had to put up a guard rail in front of the stage because dancers would be swinging their arms and they kept hitting the mike stand and whapping me in the mouth."
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. "After 'Memphis' came out, I started getting offers for one-nighters," Rivers said, "and Elmer was nice enough to let me out of the contract to do them. I went from making $350 a week to $5,000 a night. And that was a lot of money then."
The Whisky became one of the focal points of L.A.'s mushrooming rock scene, hosting future Hall of Fame acts such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Doors. Soon, international acts including the Who and the Kinks were dropping in to play. In the '70s, it was also a breeding ground for progressive and hard rock. Van Halen built much of its early following through repeated appearances at the Whisky.
The club's fortunes ebbed and flowed over the years. Valentine and partner Mario Maglieri stopped booking live rock acts for a time in the mid-'70s when the folk singer-songwriting boom hit. They turned it into a dance club and then devoted the room to stage musicals.
When the punk-rock revolution began around 1976, the Whisky returned to live music, hosting the Runaways, X, the Motels and others on L.A.'s punk and new-wave scene. And it imported such influential acts as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Police and Elvis Costello.
Another lull came in the early '80s and the Whisky closed for a couple of years, reopening during the pay-to-play era in Southland music, when bands were required to pay up front for a performance slot and hope to generate a profit by selling the tickets themselves.
"Elmer remained in the background -- he was kind of a shy person," Rivers said. "But he always enjoyed showcasing new acts. He always wanted to give talented young artists a break, and when one of them became successful, it was almost like it was one of his kids."