The Standells had three hits in 1966. The most successful and best-remembered is “Dirty Water” (“down by the River Charles…love that dirty water, ah Boston, you’re my home…you’re the number one place !”). Those hits (and many of their other recordings) were written by Ed Cobb, their producer. From the mid-1950s until 1966, Cobb was the bass voice in The Four Preps, a hit-making Hollywood vocal group, whose "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" was a million-seller in 1958. Cobb also wrote “Every Little Bit Hurts,” a hit for Brenda Holloway in 1964, and “Tainted Love,” on a Gloria Jones single in 1965 but not popular until it was a favourite in England’s late 1970s Northern Soul revival movement, becoming a big new wave hit in 1981 by Soft Cell.
On the Standells first album, In Person at P.J.s (1964), the lineup was Larry Tamblyn (vocals, organ) and Tony Valentino (vocals, guitar), both founding members in 1962 ; Gary Lane (bass, who was replaced by Dave Burke in 1966, then John Fleck in 1967) ; and the recently recruited Dick Dodd (vocals, drums), who became the main vocalist.
I saw the Standells twice : in July 1967, at the Vancouver, British Columbia, Teen Fair (with the Tamblyn, Valentino, Dodd, Fleck lineup), and in 2013 at the Ponderosa Stomp Festival in New Orleans (in a lineup that included Tamblyn and Fleck).
The interview took place December 14, 1996, at Bellisimo’s – Tony Valentino’s Italian restaurant in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
black and white photo : Larry Tamblyn (organ), Tony Valentino (guitar), Dick Dodd (drums), John Fleck (bass), 1967
album cover photo : Larry Tamblyn, Tony Valentino, Dick Dodd, Gary Lane, 1966
Craig Morrison : You were a house band in a club before you recorded.
Tony Valentino : Yeah, we actually started in Hollywood in this club called the Peppermint West. It was the club to play. All the celebrities were coming in, and it was quite a scene. It was the place to go. From there we found a manager who walked in one night. He said, “I want to manage you guys.” So then he booked us to P.J.’s and we played at P.J.’s for quite a while. We did our first live album at P.J.’s.
CM : Who was your manager ? It wasn’t Ed Cobb, was it ? That was your producer.
TV : No, it was Burt Jacobs. Ed Cobb was part of the production company, a producer that was involved with the production company. It was Seymour Heller actually [that ran the talent agency]. At the time he [Heller] had Liberace, also Regis Philbin, who was his son-in-law. We did a lot of shows with Regis Philbin when he first started. He used to have a TV show. From P.J.’s then we got booked in Las Vegas. We went there with our long hair like the Beatles. It was the first long-haired band that ever played in Las Vegas. People were spitting at us and laughing. But the place was packed. We played at the Riviera.
CM : What was your repertoire like ? Were you doing Beatles songs ?
TV : Not really. The Beatles, actually, were not even here yet. We heard about the Beatles through this Italian magazine my mom had at home. Gary Leeds, our first drummer, goes, “Hey, look at these four guys. They’ve got long hair. Look at that.” So we went and bought wigs and put the wigs on. It was the funniest thing. We went to Las Vegas and it was quite a commotion because the place was packed because people wanted to see us.
CM : Where did the name Standells, come from ?
TV : It came from standing around. We used to stand around at this first agency, McConkey Agency, a couple of blocks off Hollywood Boulevard, near Cahuenga and Yucca I think it was. There was a little office there so we used to stand around in the corner waiting for the phone calls to see if anybody was booking us. That’s why we decided to call ourselves, the Standing Around, the Standells.
CM : I grew up in Victoria BC, and remember hearing your records on radio stations from Vancouver and Seattle. I always really liked “Why Pick On Me ?” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.”
TV : We cut “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” in Seattle actually [at Kearny Barton’s Audio Recording studio]. We were playing in Seattle when “Dirty Water” broke and then they called us to do an album right away because the song was already, like, number 12 on Billboard. So we had to do an album in Seattle quickly and release it.
CM : Of course, I also liked “Dirty Water.”
TV : That was my riff. I made it up. Ed Cobb wrote the song for us in the studio [Sound Recorders in Los Angeles] where we were recording at the time, on top of a garage in Hollywood, with Armin Steiner. He became a famous engineer, this guy. He did a lot of famous people. We recorded on top of his garage, ping ponging tracks. Then we put the song together. We just got taken like everybody else [because their creative contributions to the lyrics, such as Dick Dodd’s spoken introduction, and the arrangement were not acknowledged in the songwriting credits].
CM : I wondered where you got some of the songs : “When I was a Cowboy,” the Leadbelly song, for example.
TV : That was Ed Cobb. We made some mistakes. I feel that we should have stayed with the direction of “Dirty Water.” But we went in a lot of directions because Larry was writing different completely from what we were. He was in a completely different style.
CM : How would you describe it ?
TV : More soft, kind of ’60s melodic. I was in the direction of more hard rock like Dick was. Larry wrote some of the songs on the album like “Don’t Say Goodbye” [a 1965 single] or “Pride and Devotion” [on the Dirty Water album]. It was completely different, but with 12-string though, it came out pretty nice. That was the best song that I like that Larry wrote. It was a different style.
After we had been signed with Liberty Records, Sonny Bono was our producer [for a 45 on the Vee-Jay label]. Sonny and Cher. We used to send Cher out to get our food and she was singing our background vocals. Sonny Bono produced us on “Big Boss Man” and he hired all these big musicians, like Glen Campbell and Hal Blaine. All these guys, like two drummers and two bass players. He was competing with Phil Spector. At Goldstar where we were recording, Phil Spector was down the hall in another sound studio. We did “Big Boss Man” and then another song called “The Boy Next Door” that Larry wrote. Sonny almost had Larry sound singing like him, like Sonny Bono. “Big Boss Man,” I think made the [local] charts but nothing, it got in the 40s or something like that.
CM : When your big “Dirty Water” song came out, people must have thought you were from Boston.
TV : Still up to today. Sometimes people recognize me in the restaurant. “You look familiar.” People come in and go, “Didn’t you used to be in a band ?” Like the other night, a guy came in, a totally ’60s guy. He recognized me. I have CafĂ© Bellisimo now. My real last name is Bellisimo. When we got signed with Capitol Records they suggested that I change my name. My middle name is Tony, so I used Tony and they put Valentino. All the girls were chasing me or something ; I don’t know what was the story.
CM : Can we do an overview of how the band’s style evolved ? First of all, you started out at P.J.’s.
TV : P.J.’s, yeah, doing cover songs. We were doing some Beatles songs, Chuck Berry, some Sam Cooke. “The Twist” was famous then.
CM : Any surf instrumentals ?
TV : Not really. We never really got into that.
CM : What made the shift from the P.J.’s kind of style to your next phase ?
TV : Then we started writing a little bit and we were looking for material. That’s when Ed Cobb came in. Different people wrote different songs for us. The guy came from England that wrote a lot of songs for Herman’s Hermits. He [Graham Gouldman] wrote the song “No Milk Today.” He wrote a song for us [“School Girl”]. One guy [Mike Moore] wrote a song for us called “Animal Girl,” which our bass player, John Fleck, played the horn on it [trumpet]. It’s on one of the albums. At the time, our original bass player had to quit. He actually left us on the road in Florida. We were in Orlando and he left us, so we had to hire a new bass player [Dave Burke]. We were right in the middle of a tour. That was kind of chaos.
CM : So then you shifted into the “Dirty Water” style.
TV : Dickie was singing more bluesy, kind of like Ray Charles. That’s when the conflicts started, because Dick wanted to go in one direction with his singing. Larry wanted to put his songs on the album. I was caught in the middle. I wrote a couple of songs with Dick Dodd, more on the blues side. There’s one called “Love Me” which was never released. They released it in England recently and they sent me a CD from England. That song was really good. It was one of my favorite songs, and not because I wrote it but it’s really hard pounding. I wrote “Riot on Sunset Strip” with John Fleck.
CM : On your last album you started bringing in more instruments.
TV : When Dick Dodd quit the band we were ready to sign with Atlantic Records and my manager at the time signed Three Dog Night. We went to the office to sign our contract and Dick Dodd didn’t show up and we had no band, no singer. So Three Dog Night took our contract. They got signed. Then Lowell George, of Little Feat, was with us and he was great. I mean, this guy was unbelievable. He had his own songs. I mean, the guy was outrageous. Great ! I was really excited, but it wasn’t the Standells. We didn’t sound like the Standells anymore. We did some college gigs and people were yelling for “Dirty Water” or some of the other songs with Dick. It was kind of another chaos. It didn’t work out with him.
CM : Did he record with you ?
TV : No, never recorded, unfortunately.
CM : Do you remember playing in Vancouver ?
image at right : The Afterthought : West Coast Rock Posters & Recollections from the ’60s by Jerry Kruz book contains a poster he commissioned for the Standells appearance at the Vancouver Teen Fair in July 1967. The poster has only the band name and an image, no dates, venue, or ticket information.
TV : Yes, I remember playing in Vancouver very well. I remember that there was a contest on the radio that whoever won, the girl could go out with one of the members and she picked me. And I remember we went out to dinner, and they shepherded us around the whole scene. I love Vancouver. Actually, I went back to Vancouver. I re-formed the Standells in ’74, with different guys and I played in Vancouver for a couple of years. We did Regina, Vancouver, Edmonton. I love the Canadian people. It was great, really nice. I love the country.
CM : So you were the only original then.
TV : Yeah.
CM : The other guys didn’t want to do it ?
TV : No. One guy disappeared. Larry moved to Utah. Dick Dodd was, I don’t know, he just couldn’t get…
CM : You lost touch with him ?
TV : Yeah.
CM : Have you played around yourself lately ?
TV : Last time we played as the Standells we got back together again in ’89, believe or not. This guy said he was going to sign us. Did the whole scene. It was a yo-yo phony guy. But we played for K-Earth 101 [KRTH FM101.1, a Los Angeles radio station]. We did a concert and then we did two weeks in Reno at Harrah’s in ’88 or ’89.
CM : How many were there ?
TV : All originals. We all got back together, except Gary, the bass player. That was great. We had another guitar player and the band sounded really good.
CM : Did you do any recordings ?
TV : This guy was going to record. We issued this sound recording and the guy turned out to be completely phony. He completely messed me up because Paul Shaffer [the bandleader and musical director of the television show Late Night with David Letterman] calls me one day at my house. Somebody gave him my phone number. He called me that he was interested in putting us on David Letterman because he was a big fan of the Standells. Then I told this manager, and the guy calls the Letterman show and he said that the only way he could put us on would be if he put this other band on it [too] and they had no idea who this band was. So he screwed up the whole scene and we never got to go on. Anyway, that’s showbiz.
CM : Yeah, too bad. You were working alongside the Chocolate Watchband.
TV : Yeah, at the Rich Podolor studio, American Recording.
CM : That was another of Ed Cobb’s groups.
TV : Yeah, after a while I guess. ’Cause we were recording with Rich Podolor ; he produced Three Dog Night after, you know. I guess he produced them too. They used to come in right after us in the studio.
CM : What was his role ? Did he tell you what to play ? What was your relationship with him ?
TV : Yeah, we put the songs together and then, sometimes directing how to finish a song, to do one bridge or two bridges, not to do this or that. But that’s what producers do.
CM : Do you think there was an LA sound around this time ?
TV : Well, we had the Buffalo Springfield and there’s us with the “Riot on Sunset Strip” and “Dirty Water.”
CM : There were other groups, like Love.
TV : Actually, our bass player John was with Love, [led by] Arthur Lee. We used to hang out together with Frank Zappa in Laurel Canyon and all the Buffalo Springfields, [drummer] Dewey Martin. Neil Young used to sit in front of the Whiskey. He couldn’t even get in ; I had to get him in sometimes. He had this jacket with the fringes on it, and he used to hang out there on Sunset Boulevard.
CM : Did you think that those groups had a similar kind of sound or was everybody just trying to do their own thing ?
TV : I think everybody was trying to do their own thing. The biggest influence on us was Them and the Kinks and the Animals.
CM : More of the harder side of the British invasion.
TV : Yeah. Right before that we were doing more cover songs for dancing, because we were playing in the clubs. We were trying to get a direction. We didn’t really have any [of our own]. Actually, I was part of a song which I wrote when I came from Italy. It was called “Let’s Go.” I wrote it with this guy Lanny Duncan. I’ll never forget this. He used to come to my house and we’d put the song together. He only had one part of the song. I put the whole bridge part in the song. Then we went and cut it. We paid five dollars a piece in Glendale in this little studio. Then he took the song to Warner Brothers and he sold it. At the time, I got signed with Liberty Records with the Standells and I was in Hawaii. We got booked in Hawaii. I just didn’t know about all this royalty thing. I had no idea. I lost out on that one big time.
CM : Who recorded “Let’s Go ?”
TV : I recorded it originally on the demo because I wrote it with this guy. The Routers [had the hit].
CM : And you didn’t get any royalties. Painful.
TV : I didn’t get any. As a matter of fact, about eight years ago, the Cars put the handclapping on one of their songs [“Let’s Go” by the Cars from 1979 is a different song, but uses the rhythmic clapping from the Routers’ hit] and the guy sued the Cars. This lawyer called me to testify on behalf of the Cars. I should have done something then. I was so stupid. I didn’t really think about it. We ended up in court. They didn’t pay us too much. It was like a big chaos in the royalties.
CM : Are you getting some royalties now from other things ?
TV : Now we’re getting a percentage of everything the Standells make.
CM : What was it that caused the group to break up ? Was it just this change in direction ?
TV : It was a change in direction. Dick wanted to go on his own. Well, the problem was that my manager and Ed Cobb and those guys got into a big fight and they split up. Burt Jacobs wanted to take us with him, says, “Oh, we’re going to sign with some different people.” The other guys, they took Dick and said, “We’re going to make you a big star. We’re going to record you on your own.” They recorded him [for a 1968 album called The First Evolution of Dick Dodd] and nothing happened. He’s tried so many times.
Tony Valentino - from his facebook page
CM : What do you feel when you listen to those old songs now ?
TV : They play “Dirty Water” all the time here on the radio. Friends of mine call me from Chicago, “Hey, they played your song on a show here.” It feels good. I sit in the car and listen to the songs. It’s amazing. I wrote a lot of originals but nothing really happened. I was just writing, for years. I wrote about two hundred songs. I just got disgusted. I had to get off the road. I opened a restaurant now.
CM : How long have you had your restaurant ?
TV : Six years.
CM : I saw a video of you guys miming to “Dirty Water” and you’re fooling around with a bucket of water.
TV : I’ve got that. Somebody sent me that not too long ago. I couldn’t believe it.
CM : Thank-you. I’m really happy to have talked to you.
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I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, © 2006