In 1983, T. Valentine was driving a cab, listening to Larry Lujack on WLS AM, when he heard the song that would change the course of his life: Josie Cotton's new-wave ditty "Johnny, Are You Queer?" Valentine, a failed R & B singer and songwriter who hadn't recorded in more than 15 years, had recently lost his wife to another man, and the song gave him a wicked idea: "Damn," he thought. "I can get back at Lucille and write a song about her and say that she's a lesbian, so when she hears this record she'll know I was getting even with her."
It took two years, but he did finally release a tune called "Hello Lucille Are You a Lesbian?" on his own label, Val Records. Over a stiff funk beat he simulated a lunatic, interrogatory telephone call: "Hello Lucille, are you a lesbian? Do you like to go to bed with other women?" He went on to confide to the listener that she "always wear pants, long pants. When we go out, it like two mens out together." Thanks mostly to regular airplay on Northwestern University's WNUR, the song became a minor cult hit.
Fifteen years later, "Hello Lucille" remains the most important cut of Valentine's career. A photo of Valentine performing it in the mid-80s--on his knees, fist raised, pounding a telephone into the stage--decorates the cover of his first CD, also called Hello Lucille Are You a Lesbian?, which was released this fall by Norton Records, a New York imprint that specializes in garage, R & B, and rockabilly rarities. Norton owners Miriam Linna and Billy Miller had been searching for Valentine for more than a decade. Without authorization they'd included the song on an early-90s compilation called The Big Itch, hoping it would bring him out of the woodwork, but they never heard from him. Last year the label came across an old children's record released on Val and sent a note to the mailing address on the sleeve on the off chance that the elusive T. Valentine would get it.
He got it. "They had been looking for me for a long time," Valentine says. "We talked over the phone and they wanted permission to release some of my old stuff that they'd heard. I also told them that I had some new stuff, so they agreed to let me record four songs."
Thurmon "T." Valentine came to Chicago from West Helena, Arkansas, in 1950, at the age of 17, and within five years he'd caught the showbiz bug. While working on a General Motors assembly line out in Willow Springs, he wrote his first song, a still-unrecorded jam called "Sweet Little Girl," but he had no luck putting together a band. No wonder: "I didn't care much for performing because I couldn't sing," he admits. "My type of stuff...it's not singing and it's not rapping. It's in between, Valentine, my own style."
His first complete artistic endeavor was not a record but a play called The Vampire, written two years later. "One night I was sitting around looking at TV and I seen this vampire movie and I kind of liked it," he says. "I always did like vampires and Dracula and werewolves kinda movies. Damn, I thought, I'm going to do a vampire thing. I thought if I could do a vampire thing really good I wouldn't need a band." After an arduous search he found three women to fill out the cast for the brief three-act drama in which Valentine played the title role. They performed it at south-side clubs for about a year. "People would really like it," he says. "They had never seen nothing like that, a black guy with three girls doing the vampire thing." But one of the women moved away with a boyfriend, and another quit when she became pregnant. So Valentine returned to music.
Exploiting his friendship with blues pianist Detroit Junior, Valentine managed to get the fledgling Bea & Baby label to issue the single "Teen-Age Jump" b/w "Little Lu-Lu Frog," a pair of raucous Chuck Berry-style rave-ups featuring his singular atonal holler. Not surprisingly it failed to catapult him to stardom. In 1962 he launched Val with another single, "Betty Sue" b/w "Do the Do." He's rerecorded the A side a couple of times since then: "I don't know why I like that song so much. I don't even know a girl named Betty Sue." But the B side was preferred by Willie Dixon, who adapted it for Howlin' Wolf, who recorded an utterly unrecognizable version of it for Chess. Although Valentine was credited as a coauthor, he's never made a cent off the song.
Valentine recorded a few more cuts in the 60s, including 1967's "Massius Ray," a jab at Muhammad Ali for his refusal to serve in Vietnam. "No, no, Uncle Sam," he sings, aping Ali in a girlish falsetto, "don't send me to Vietnam, don't send me to Vietnam. I'll stop talking so much, I'll stop talking so much." But in the 70s, busy with more lucrative work and his ill-fated marriage, he quit making music altogether, until inspiration struck in '83. He retired in 1995, and when Norton reached him, he was spending most of his time baby-sitting his grandson.
Since then the benjamins haven't exactly started rolling in, but modest opportunities continue to arise. Not long after it came out, Valentine's CD came to the attention of Jake Austen, the local garage-rock fanatic who edits the fanzine Roctober and coproduces the cable access dance show Chic-a-Go-Go. In September Valentine performed one act from The Vampire on the show, and this Friday he'll introduce his new four-piece band at Chic-a-Go-Go's holiday concert at the Empty Bottle.
"As soon as I finish this show and I do some others, I got to get some money together and start working on the vampire play," he says. "I got one girl to do it so far. We're going to make a play out of 'Betty Sue,' too." In the meantime, he says, he's available for "wedding receptions, retirements, banquets, birthday parties--anything that concerns music, we will perform. This band can do anything."
On Wednesday night Schubas plays host to the first Chicago benefit for Sweet Relief, the fund started by singer-songwriter and multiple sclerosis sufferer Victoria Williams to help defray the cost of medical treatment for uninsured musicians. The lineup includes an array of interesting duos, including alt-country divas Kelly Hogan and Neko Case, former Coctails Archer Prewitt and Mark Greenberg, Bowl of Fire guitarist Colin Bunn and Truckstop percussionist Jason Adasiewicz, singer Chris Mills and former Pinetop Seven guitarist Charles Kim, and Casolando's Carlos Ortega and Butterfly Child's Joe Cassidy. Music starts at 8; admission is $10.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.