Nobody rocked harder or better than Johnny Rivers
(No. 28 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
It was a most surreal scene.
Outdoor concert venue in the ‘80s. Warm summer night. Not quite dark yet. Crowd still filing in to see a show consisting of several outstanding acts (please don’t ask me to remember who else was on the bill). Lone figure walks across the stage, plugs in his guitar and starts playing blues numbers. No introduction. No backup. No problem.
Thirty minutes later, the guitar is unplugged and the solitary man leaves the stage.
Solitary man? – Neil Diamond?
Secret Agent Man?
And if he hadn’t included a hit or two in his set, he may have remained a secret to many in attendance. To this date, he has remained a secret to The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a snub hopefully to be rectified in the very near future. For Johnny Rivers is truly one of the greatest to rock us since Bill Haley set this whole thing in motion.
Bruce Eder, on allmusicguide.com, described him best, writing, “Rivers was very much a kindred spirit to figures like Buddy Holly and Ronnie Hawkins, with all of the verve and spirit of members of that first wave of rock & rollers.
The magnitude of Rivers’ accomplishment shouldn’t be underestimated – since early 1964, the American charts had been dominated almost exclusively by British rock acts, with American artists picking up the scraps that were leftover, and then along came this new white kid from Baton Rouge, playing ’50s-style rock & roll and R&B like he means it (and he did).”
Everything about Rivers said Rock & Roll. Born Johnny Ramistella, he became Johnny Rivers after none other than Alan Freed suggested a name change, Rivers’ home on the Mississippi River his inspiration. Once he became Rivers, the hits started flowing (sorry).
The beginning was rather auspicious, though, as Rivers and drummer Eddie Rubin filled a sudden vacancy at a Los Angeles nightclub, later to be joined by famed bassist Joe Osborn. The trio proved so popular they became a mainstay until given a one-year deal to open the new Whisky A Go Go. The rest, as they say, is history, the Whisky soon becoming the place to go…go (sorry).
With his ripping guitar, occasional harp and pleasing Southern drawl, and the exceptional backing of Rubin and Osborn, Rivers breathed new life into a series of Rock classics that eventually found their way onto his first two LPs, “Johnny Rivers At The Whisky A Go Go” and “Here We A Go Go Again!” It was just basic, stripped-down, three-piece Rock. And it was great. Actually, it still is.
Both albums became hits, propelled by hot versions of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Maybelline,” which shot to No. 2 and No. 12, respectively. Ironically, it was not the British, but two American groups that held “Memphis” in the runner-up position in the Summer of ’64, the first being The Beach Boys with “I Get Around,” then The Four Seasons with “Rag Doll.”
For the third LP, Rivers went into the studio and came out with “Johnny Rivers In Action!,” which yielded his second top 10 hit, a cover of Harold Dorman’s “Mountain Of Love.” Meanwhile, his version of the traditional blues chestnut “Midnight Special,” pulled from the second album, became a smash, later becoming the theme of the popular television concert show.
In the summer of 1965, Rivers returned to live recording with “Meanwhile Back At The Whisky a Go Go,” which gave him another Top 10 single, a sizzling remake of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son.”
Having had hits with two straight renditions of blues classics, Rivers began to branch out. His next album jumped onto the folk-rock craze started a couple months earlier by Bob Dylan and The Byrds, and his version of Pete Seeger‘s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” gave him his seventh straight hit single. A remake of Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again” made it eight as Rivers expanded into Country Rock.
But 1966 brought him back to live recording and returned him to the Top 10 as “Secret Agent Man,” used as the theme for the TV show “Secret Agent,” soared to No. 3. Another live single, “(I Washed My Hands In) Muddy Water,” a remake of Stonewall Jackson’s No. 8 Country hit, climbed into the Top 20 and punctuated his “Johnny Rivers’ Golden Hits” long-player.
While a Greatest Hits set often denotes the end of a hit-making career – sort of a career summary in many cases – for Rivers it signaled only a direction switch. He went into the studio with a string section, vocal backing from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and a tune he had penned along with Lou Adler. The result was his only No. 1 single, the classic “Poor Side Of Town.” It was included on the aptly named album “Changes,” which also featured a hidden gem penned by a then-unknown songwriter, Jimmy Webb. The song, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” remained an album cut while “Poor Side Of Town” ruled the airwaves. Glen Campbell heard it, copied it almost note-for-note, and finally got his solo career into the superstar stratosphere when his recording became a hit, eventually winning two Grammys and reaching classic status.
But Webb had already prospered thanks to Rivers’ knack for recognizing a great song. Rivers started his own record label – Soul City – signed a new group – The 5th Dimension – and provided them with five Webb originals for their initial offering, which he produced along with Marc Gordon. Several months prior to Campbell’s breakthrough, The “Up, Up & Away” LP and the single of the same name leaped into the top 10, the single winning a slew of Grammys, including “Record of the Year” and “Song Of The Year.”
Firmly established as a successful record company owner and producer, Rivers could have rested on his laurels. But in 1967, he played a major role in organizing the Monterey Pop Festival, in which he also was one of the featured performers, and issued what I believe to be his best album and one of the best of the ‘60s, “Rewind.” Including eight originals from arranger Webb and backing from “The Wrecking Crew’s” Hal Blaine, Osborn and Larry Knechtel, the LP produced two hit singles, Motown covers “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “Tracks Of My Tears,” each reaching the top 10, and a terrific reworking of Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.”
“Rewind” reached No. 14, his best showing on the album charts since his debut, but the follow-up, 1968‘s “Realization,” did even better, climbing to No. 5. Though I don’t feel it lived up to “Rewind,” it did have its moments, especially the big hit “Summer Rain.”
Rivers’ pace slowed during the ’70s, but he remained a force, charting five more albums and several hit singles that included the 1972 remake of Huey Smith & The Clowns’ “Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu,” which soared to No. 6, a terrific version of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda,” which reached No. 22 with Brian Wilson himself contributing backing vocals, and 1977’s “Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin’),” which became his last Top 10 single.
Still releasing recordings and making appearances, Rivers remains viable, but largely underrated. As Eder wrote, “Johnny Rivers is a unique figure in the history of rock music. On the most obvious level, he was a rock star of the 1960s and a true rarity as a white American singer/guitarist who made a name for himself as a straight-ahead rock & roller during the middle of that decade. Just as important behind the scenes, his recordings and their success led to the launching, directly and indirectly, of at least three record labels and a dozen other careers whose influence extended into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.”
Simply put, Johnny Rivers belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.