Just a Little

The U.S.A. suddenly found itself on the defensive. Someone had to attend to the task of slowing the pace by which so many music acts from England were claiming higher percentages of Western Hemisphere radio airplay and record sales with each passing month during 1964. The public's tastes were changing; it seemed logical to incorporate a bit of the Brit mindset into what became a folk-rock retaliation of 1965, gradually enabling American rock and roll to reclaim its never-totally-relinquished home turf. The Beau Brummels led the charge, doing so with an Anglicized name that belied their San Franciscan origin (the real Beau Brummell was an early 19th century British military man and fashionista, perhaps the first person to publicly combine those two distinctions). The mild moniker fake-out fooled few and the band's first single, "Laugh, Laugh," scored one for the red, white and blue while also drawing attention to what would soon be a thriving rock scene in San Francisco's Bay Area.

Setting the ostentatious battle cliches aside, I'd say the Beau Brummels were quite simply a very talented group. Sal Spampinato was the first among their ranks to make a record, the trendy, treacly "I Wanna Twist" in 1962 under the group name Sal Valentino and the Valentines. The Beau Brummels came together about two years later with the addition of bass-playing college student Ron Meagher, lead guitarist and college dropout Ron Elliott and drummer John Petersen. Irish-born guitar-harmonica man Declan Mulligan also joined (so the band was one-fifth British!?) and by mid-'64 they were playing small clubs in the area. KYA air personalities Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell had established the independent Autumn label (scoring an immediate smash with "C'mon and Swim" by hometown dance specialist Bobby Freeman); Donahue saw the Brummels perform and signed them. Sylvester Stewart, another local DJ (he later rose to prominence as Sly Stone), moonlighted as an artist and producer for the label and tackled the project of producing the new band.

Elliott penned "Laugh, Laugh," a sort of romantic revenge tale ('I hate to say it, but I told you so...') with Mulligan's harmonica work perhaps the song's main hook. An instant hit, it reached number one in several California cities (though not in S.F.!) and was a national top 20 hit in the early months of 1965. Elliott often composed songs with high school friend Bob Durand and their work on "Just a Little" gave the Beau Brummels an even bigger second hit, top ten in May. A breakup song, the lyrics avoided explanation ('...I'll cry just a little 'cause I love you so...and I'll die just a little 'cause I have to go...away'), leaving listeners hanging in that good way that sells lots of records.

Mid-1965 represents the band's peak of popularity. A third top 40 hit, Elliott's "You Tell Me Why," tendered the most downbeat viewpoint yet ('You tell me life was meant to good, two-thirds misery...') and was one of the more compelling singles of the year by any act. Ron and Bob's "Don't Talk to Strangers" ('...beware of hidden dangers!'), every bit strong as the first three singles, somehow missed the top 40. The fivesome appeared in fall feature Village of the Giants, a schlock sci-fi flick starring Tommy Kirk and actor-singer Johnny Crawford; they lip-synced two songs from the album Beau Brummels Volume 2: "When it Comes to Your Love" and "Woman," the latter with a lead vocal by Mulligan, who'd already left the group under uncertain circumstances. He was replaced by guitarist Don Irving from Pasadena, who got himself drafted into the Army about a year later and was not replaced.

John Petersen, Declan Mulligan, Sal Valentino, Ron Elliott, Ron Meagher

The two albums and four hit singles of '65 achieved a quality suggesting the Beau Brummels might be successful for years to come...but other forces were working against them. One grade-Z movie was bad enough; in December they were depicted as cartoon band "The Beau Brummelstones," performing "Laugh, Laugh" on a December 1965 episode of ABC's The Flintstones, a career choice (were they forced into agreeing to it?) worthy of deeper consideration. In January 1966 they appeared in Wild Wild Winter (inferior to the unaffiliated Ski Party from the previous year), a ski-slopes variation on the many beachfront-set teen films of the day. It deserves preservation for one reason only: lip-synced performances by Dick and DeeDee, Jay and the Americans, The Astronauts and the Beau Brummels, who did "Just Wait and See" from the LP Introducing the Beau Brummels.

"Good Time Music" (written by John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful) had spent a single week on the national charts at the end of '65, a short time before Autumn Records went out of business. The group's contract was sold to Warner Bros. and the Beau boys were handed the assignment of recording an entire album of cover versions (or else!)...Beau Brummels 66 was made up entirely of serviceable Brummels-style takes on top hits by The Beatles, Byrds, Kingsmen, Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Herman's Hermits, Cher, The Mamas and the Papas and Nancy Sinatra (that's right, they did "Boots"), plus Peter and Gordon's Paul McCartney-penned hit "Woman"...the same title as the Beau Brummels' original song that had been preserved on vinyl and film just months before! A non-album cover of Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings" (The Association had already made an unsuccessful bid with it) was released as a single and barely scraped the charts.

The band did have opportunities to indulge their ever-shrinking numbers. John Petersen left to man the drumkit for another WB signee, Harpers Bizarre (previously known as Autumn act The Tikis). Sal, Ron and Ron ventured forth with Triangle, featuring mostly original material. Then Ron Meagher was drafted, which pared them down to a duo. Sal and Ron E. headed south to record a country-rock album, Bradley's Barn, with the best Nashville musicians Owen Bradley's infamous Quonset hut studio had to offer. The "Cherokee Girl" 45 marked the breaking point. No amount of record company hype, or good reviews, could generate much interest in these later efforts.

Sal Valentino stayed with Warner Bros. as a solo act and released a few singles, experimenting further in the country-rock genre. From '71 to '73 he sang lead for Stoneground, a ten-member S.F.-area band. Ron Elliott took on several assignments, recording solo and with various acts including The Everly Brothers and Van Dyke Parks. In 1975 the original Beau Brummels reunited (minus Meagher) for an eponymous one-shot album on Warner; its single was an updated version of their 1965 hit "You Tell Me Why."

- Michael Jack Kirby


Just a Little