This is a story about singer-songwriter Dino Valenti and two songs for which he has songwriting credit that defined the Sixties. It also stars Edie Sedgwick, Jimi Hendrix, The Kingston Trio and Folsom Prison.
This is a story about two songs, one songwriter and one decade. The songs are “Let’s Get Together” and “Hey Joe,” each of which, in their own different way, defined the decade of the Sixties. The songwriter for both was born Chester “Chet” Powers in 1937, in Danbury, Connecticut, but he changed that perfectly fine name, for reasons that still seem mysterious, to Dino Valenti (sometimes written as Valente). The story also involves Edie Sedgwick, the “It” girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, the Kingston Trio, Jimi Hendrix and Folsom Prison.
In other words, it’s a mish mash of all the various forces, good and bad, that came together in that tumultuous decade.
“Let’s Get Together” became a (if not THE) hippie anthem for that decade, though that is not what the songwriter had in mind when he penned it. Even if you have never heard of Chet Powers, or Dino Valenti, you know his song, the chorus of which goes “Come on, people now, / Smile on your brother, / Everybody get together / Try and love one another right now…” He didn’t write or record the song with hippies or anthems in mind, of course. Hippies weren’t invented until 1967, when Time and Newsweek needed a convenient label to slap onto youth culture, and Valenti wrote the song four years earlier than that.
Chet Powers, in fact, came from an earlier time; his feet were planted in the Beat Generation. By the early 1960s, he was making his way as a folksinger playing the clubs and coffeehouses of Boston, New York, LA and San Francisco with friends like Fred Neil, John Phillips, Eric von Schmidt, Karen Dalton and Richie Havens.
In the summer of 1963, Chet/Dino wrote “Let’s Get Together” while staying at a California ranch owned by Francis Sedgwick, the wealthy father of 20-year-old, pre-Warhol Factory Edie Sedgwick, with whom Valenti was then involved. Presumably, “Let’s Get Together” was written as a love song to Edie, who already had had a tumultuous adolescence (anorexia, private schools, sanitarium) but had not yet met Andy Warhol (she would the next year, after she received a large trust fund from her grandmother).
Danny Fields recently recalled, “I only met Dino Valenti once, when he was kissing Edie Sedgwick goodbye in front of the Castle on Glendower [the legendary John Philip Law House in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood, leased at various times to the Beatles, Dylan and Warhol], when I was moving in for a couple of weeks. I said, ‘Who is that?’ and someone said it was Dino Valenti, and I remember thinking, ‘What’s she doing with HIM?’”
“I used to play ‘Let’s Get Together’ all the time on my FMU radio show, as performed by Jesse Colin Young, and I knew that Dino Valenti had written it, so imagine my surprise seeing him making out with Edie! This would have been the summer of ’67.”
Also, within the next year, Valenti would be busted on three separate occasions for drug possession. To pay for the legal help required to lessen his possible 10-year sentence at California’s Folsom Prison, he sold all rights to “Let’s Get Together” for $100 to Frank Werber, the manager of the Kingston Trio. Valenti never saw another dime from the royalties of the song, even though it became a hit single for the Youngbloods in 1967 (and was covered by Fred Neil, Jefferson Airplane, and the Kingston Trio). “Let’s Get Together” has since been used in nearly every feature film and documentary about the Sixties, not to mention providing some hippie vibe in countless ads. So, you can imagine that, on some level, Chet-Dino must have felt robbed.
The watered-down version of “Let’s Get Together” by The Kingston Trio:
Ah, but Valenti managed to turn the tables on the decade via another era-defining song, “Hey Joe.” “Hey Joe” is, of course, familiar to anyone who ever started a band as a kid. It had everything a garage-band classic needed: cool chord progression, easy-to-remember lyrics, instant ominous vibe, endless possibilities for guitar and drum solos. “Hey Joe” was registered at the Library of Congress Copyright Office in 1962 by a marginal folkie named Billy Roberts. Roberts was one of several people who claimed to have written the song, along with Tim Rose and Roberts’ former girlfriend, Niela Miller. (The truth is likely that nobody really wrote “Hey Joe”; it seems to have evolved from traditional folk-country-blues roots music).
But Valenti jumped on the “Hey Joe” bandwagon, too—and you can file this under “turnabout is fair play”—when he met Billy Roberts at Folsom Prison. Roberts was not an inmate, but a musician in the entourage of Johnny Cash, who had come to the prison to perform for the inmates. The charismatic and persuasive Valenti convinced Roberts to transfer the rights to “Hey Joe” to him as a way to convince the parole board that he was a working musician. That, and the $100 he received for “Let’s Get Together,” helped spring Valenti from prison.
He retained the rights to “Hey Joe” (much to Roberts’ chagrin, no doubt) and headed straight to LA to peddle “his” new song to the record companies. It worked, when the Leaves had their hit with it in 1966. Several other memorable versions have been released, the best-known being Jimi Hendrix’s.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience performs “Hey Joe” live in 1967 (JH plays with his teeth!):
Other versions of the song were recorded by Wilson Pickett, the Standells, Love, the Byrds, The Music Machine, Sons of Adam, Fever Tree, Marmalade, Deep Purple, Willy DeVille and (yes) Cher. The royalties from “Hey Joe” had to have helped offset the loss of boatloads of cash when “Let’s Get Together” became a hit for the Youngbloods in 1967 and one of the anthems of the hippie era.
Cher covers “Hey Joe”:
Valenti went on to join Quicksilver Messenger Service for a few years, writing most of the material (under then name Jesse Otis Farrow) on two of their more underrated albums, Just For Love and What About Me, and lived out the post-hippie dream in Northern California before, sadly, dying of a brain aneurysm at age 50. If there is a lesson to be learned from this, maybe it is this: Life is a roller coaster ride, so hold on tight, keep calm and stay seated.