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Valentine's Day

East Bay bluesman Cal Valentine

By Nicky Baxter

East Bay guitarist, singer and songwriter Cal Valentine is one of those unsung musical heroes who is long overdue for some serious recognition. No doubt, Valentine will probably never be awarded any Bammies or Wammies or Sammies hosted by local "official" popular music institutions; after all, he's no Preacher Boy. He's just a musician who has paid his dues living and playing the blues. Actually, it would do the native Texan a grave injustice to shunt him into a single stylistic slot. He can and does rock other black pop styles, including R&B and soul.

Valentine was unavailable for interview at the time this article was submitted, but I did have a chance to speak to his longtime pal (and singer) Trudy Johnson. "B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Bland," she reports over the wire from her Sacramento home, "[Cal's] played with 'em all." Furthermore, Johnson discloses that when the two met in the early '60s, Valentine was standing on the verge of getting his muse on, blueswise.

"Not too long after he left Texas and moved [to Oakland]," Johnson recalls, "he came across this little place on Telegraph, called the Time Out Club, which was very popular back then." According to Johnson, the house band's head honcho beckoned him onstage to have a go at it with his guitar. Very likely, the veteran players had a cutting contest in mind. What they wound up with was something else.

"So he played behind them," continues Johnson. "Then they asked him if he knew any songs. He told 'em he did, and offered to play one." At this point, Johnson's voice rises dramatically. "That night? Cal Valentine blew Oakland wide open." He was offered a job right there on the spot as the band's lead guitarist, a chair he held down for round about five years.

Sometime in the mid-'80s, Valentine and the Right Kind, his band at the time, performed in Los Gatos, and I was fortunate enough to catch them in action. That evening, the Right Kind turned the joint into a Chicago-style hothouse, knocking the stuffiness out of the bar's more "refined" customers in the process. The quartet's repertoire, according to my notes taken that night, consisted of R&B dusties like James Brown's version of "Night Train," Robert Parker's "Barefootin' " and a handful of Junior Walker's classic soul jams.

The Right Kind was thick with talent. Besides singer/guitarist Valentine, the unit comprised tenor player Ronnie Lewis, bassist Bobby Reid and drummer Frank Samuels. I didn't know it at the time, but the Right Kind was kicking off a tour that would take it around the world; moreover, the band had a couple of records out. It was not, however, the right time for the Right Kind. The unit split apart, and Valentine hit the road as a gun for hire.

It was during this period that Valentine backed up heavyweights like King and Bland. In the early '90s, the guitar-flicker's peripatetic ways eventually found him in Amsterdam, sharing the stage with the likes of Luther Allison, Crescent City guitar great Earl King and Johnny Adams.

These days, Valentine doesn't get around much anymore. He's not still a young man. Now, he is picky about when and where he plays. But when he does slide under spotlight--blam!--it's Valentine's day once again.

Cal Valentine plays July 12 at JJs Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. (408/243-6441)

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