Johnny Rivers

TrackAlbum
MemphisAt The Whisky a Go Go
MaybelleneHere We a Go Go Again!
Mountain Of LoveIn Action!
Midnight SpecialHere We Go Again
Secret Agent ManAnd I Know You Wanna Dance
Poor Side Of TownChanges
Baby I Need Your Lovin’'Rewind
The Tracks Of My TearsRewind
Rockin’' Pneumonia and
the Boogie Woogie Flu
L.A. Reggae
Swayin’' To The MusicOutside Help

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Many years ago, I’d say about 27-28 if I had to guess, there was this band called Pieces of Felix I just loved. Don’t bother looking them up, they never had a recording contract I knew of or grew past playing in some bars in Akron, Ohio, but when I was a very young man starting to knock around bars and listening to live music I thought those guys were amazing. Especially their show stopper, Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man. It made me want to find out who recorded the orginal, which is a funny concept where Johnny Rivers was concerned. Johnny is pretty much forgotten these days here in the US and over in the UK he never even sniffed the charts so it might be fair to say he was never known there. No, Johnny was the ultimate American Singles Act. Nine Top 10 Singles, thirteen in the top 20 and seventeen in the top 40. And all but three of them between 1964-1967. As for albums? Just one broke the top 12. He was really known as a live act when it came down to it. Of the nine albums he released during the 1964-1967 heyday, five of them were live, and all five were recorded at Los Angeles’ legendary Whisky a Go Go where Johnny held court for years knockin out one great cover after another, while occasionally mixing in a tune of his own,

These days Johnny probably makes a decent living on the Rib Burn Off Circuit, which for you folks in the UK it’s a festival of sorts that pretty much every town of over 50,000 people in the US has during the summer. It’s centered around consuming a lot of barbecued meat, drinking a lot of beer and listening to musical acts you probably wouldn’t pay to see but since it’s part of the ticket prices and you do kind of like that one song you go ahead and see them. But then as he is one of the few acts who is the copyright owner of his recordings he is probably doing OK for himself.

Johnny had a pretty unique career from 1957-1964. He made his first record with the band The Spades when he was just 14 years old. In 1958 he met Alan Freed, who encouraged him to change his name as John Henry Ramistella didn’t really flow. He worked alongside Brother Dave Gardner and Roger Miller and because of his friendship with James Burton sold some songs to Ricky Nelson. But in 1964 he had released twelve singles and he was a long way from having anything even akin to a hit.

Then, based on his success as a club performer in LA, he signed a one-year contract to perform at the new LA Sunset Strip Nightclub, The Whisky a Go Go. By this time he had also become friends with Elvis Presley, who perhaps foolishly played his friend the test pressing of a Chuck Berry song Memphis he had just recorded. Johnny quickly recorded it live, copying everything down to the arrangement, and released it to become a #2 hit. Elvis was not happy.

Figuring if Chuck was good to him once he would be again, he followed up that single with the No #12 Maybellene. All of a sudden the guy who toiled for years was a hit maker.

He then reached into the catalog of one hit wonder Harold Dorman and covered Mountain Of Love, and yet again he found himself with a top ten hit.

His luck went to the next level when he then recorded the traditional folk song Midnight Special as a bit of a rocker and managed to make it up to No #20, not a big hit but a hit. Where luck entered the picture is when in 1972 the late night concert show The Midnight Special premiered on US TV and was one of the few places you tuned into hear live music from 1972-1981. What was cool is they recorded real live performances, no lip syncing for this show. For the next ten years once a week at midnight Rock n Roll lovers were greeted by Johnny singing The Midnight Special over the opening credits. That is the kind of thing that keeps you in the public eye even when you don’t have a hit.

Rivers lucked out again when P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri went looking for someone to record the US theme for the soon to be broadcast English show Danger Man. The writers’ publisher and producer Lou Adler also happened to be Johnny’s producer and manager so Secret Agent Man was recorded and climbed to No #3.

Around this time Johnny starting branching out and formed his own label. He produced his own hits from then on and won a Grammy for producing the 5th Dimension, who recorded on his Soul City Records.

Johnny also seemed to be pretty gifted in sensing shifts in taste. In 1966, he went from being a club rocker to a balladeer. To his credit his only No.1 record Poor Side Of Town was a by-product of this shift and surpisingly enough was also written by him.

Deciding it was time to mine the Motown catalog, Johnny then had two Top 10 hits with the Four Tops’ Baby I Need Your Lovin’ and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ The Tracks Of My Tears. And unlike his early years he was releasing hits from studio albums and not just live albums.

Johnny hit a bit of a slump after that, going five years between top 40 singles. But then he was a Grammy Award Winner Producer who owned his own label and the copyright on his songs. Life was still pretty good for Johnny Rivers.

In 1972, he recorded his third million seller with Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, which was yet another cover, this one of a 1957 song by Huey “Piano” Smith and The Clowns. He snuck into the top 40 a couple more times with covers of Blue Suede Shoes and Help Me, Rhonda, on which Brian Wilson sang back-up vocals for Johnny but he really wasn’t in the big league anymore.

In 1977, Johnny scored his final Top Ten single with Slow Dancin’ (Swayin’ To The Music) a cover of the 1976 song by the Funky Kings. It’s supposedly his most downloaded song on iTunes.

Johnny occasionally has reactivated his Soul City label to release an album and performs about 50-60 shows a year these days.

A cagey businessman or was he one heck of an opportunist? He gets some crap for covering a whole lot of songs by black performers, but unlike some other white cover artists his versions tended to be pretty damn good. While he did pen a song or two himself, Johnny Rivers is pretty much the most successful cover band of all time. I guess some sort of props have to be given for that. You’ve got to have some kind of ability to crack the top 40 seventeen times with songs that were often a hit for someone else within the past five years.

All I know is there are a handful of songs, like Secret Agent Man, that make me turn up the volume when I hear it.

 

The Legendary Johnny Rivers – official website

Johnny Rivers – Poor Side Of Town

Johnny Rivers – Baby I Need Your Lovin’

Johnny Rivers – Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu

Johnny Rivers – Swayin’ To The Music

Johnny Rivers biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #295

4 Comments

  1. Richard Greer
    Jun 8, 2014

    Nice article. He was always one of my favorites and I think underrated.

  2. Jim Lyons
    Jun 13, 2014

    Pieces of Felix? They were awesome! I had the pleasure of fixing up a female roommate with Joe Brigandi, the amazing drummer.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Jul 15, 2014

      Jim, are you serious? Do you remember Pieces of Felix? If he was a drummer, he also could play a lot of things – because one of the bands tricks was to swap instruments for a couple of songs.

  3. Peter Viney
    Jul 15, 2014

    As you say, Johnny Rivers had very little impact in the UK, though Memphis was a whispered “must hear” for bands. After the three live “A Go Go” albums, he did “Johnny Rivers Rocks The Folk”, which really was the “usual suspects” … If I Had A Hammer, Where Have All The Flowers Gone, Catch The Wind, Green Green, Tom Dooley etc. But first, it’s all very well-played, and the imposition of his strong style makes it flow as an album. It came out in September 1965. The interesting bit is Bob Dylan went to see him at the Whisky AGoGo around this time, and poached his drummer, Mickey Jones, to join The Hawks for the 1966 leg of the tour. Was it seeing Blowing In The Wind and Mr Tambourine Man rocked up by Johnny Rivers? According to Mickey Jones, he was the best-paid Hawk in 1966, having greater financial expectations due to his time with Johnny Rivers and before that Trini Lopez … two specialists in live albums.

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