Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Old Rivers

Johnny Rivers, one of the more underrated talents in the history of rock music, becomes eligible for Social Security today. John Ramistella was born in New York City on this date in 1942 but soon moved to Baton Rouge, where he grew up listening to Fats Domino and other titans of Louisiana music. He then moved to Los Angeles, seeking work as a songwriter and session musician alongside his friend and fellow Louisianan James Burton, and wound up as the headline singer when a brand-new club opened up on the Sunset Strip called the Whisky a Go Go.

Rivers was so popular at the Whisky that his manager, Lou Adler, decided to release a live album of his work there in 1964, a canny and unorthodox decision that deserves a lot more notice than it gets. James Brown released his Live at the Apollo in 1963, and Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips Pt. 2" was a live record in the summer of that same year, so maybe that had something to do with it, but putting those songs out on a live record infused them with a tremendous amount of energy. "Memphis," his first hit, still sounds fresh to me; I'm surprised that more pop acts didn't try putting out live records around that time. His best single, the unstoppable "Secret Agent Man" -- Rivers devised the sinuous opening guitar lick (the song was co-written by P.F. Sloan of "Eve of Destruction" fame) -- wasn't cut live, but they made it sound like it was.

After starting his own label, Soul City, Rivers the A&R man discovered Jimmy Webb (or at least claimed he did) and the Fifth Dimension. But what's most remarkable about Johnny Rivers are those early singles, where his vocal and the live sound make them wholly his own, even though they're mostly not just covers but covers of familiar hits. Here's Johnny (introduced by Judy Garland!) singing "Secret Agent Man" on Hollywood Palace:


johnny rivers of jordin sparks said...

"Rivers devised the sinuous opening guitar lick"--wasn't he playing the James Bond theme, already beloved by secret agent men everywhere?

I sure love "Swayin' to the Music (Slow Dancing)."

T. Nawrocki said...

No, no, no. The James Bond riff is in a whole different key, and the rhythm is slightly different as well.

That information came from a quote from Johnny Rivers himself at, which is a hugely expansive set, chockfull of all sorts of information, most of which is boring and useless.