Johnny Rivers: Comeback Kid
As noted in a recent Southern Song Of The Day feature, Johnny Rivers, along with The Rolling Stones, was one of the many prominent artists who covered Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” In fact, Rivers recorded it twice, once for his ’69 compilation, A Touch Of Gold,and then again for his ’75 comeback album, New Lovers and Old Friends. The comeback in ’75 was not his first. Nor his last. Persistent souls keep coming back. In Johnny Rivers, we have a most persistent soul.
While he was an accomplished songwriter, nearly all of Rivers’ hit singles were written by others. Very significant others. In many cases, the original versions were instant classics. That didn’t faze Rivers. He would add his own Louisiana-meets-Los Angeles flavor to beloved songs. Often his versions were equal and perhaps superior to the originals. And they climbed the charts.
His first hit, “Memphis,” was a spirited rendition of Chuck Berry’s ’59 song. It seemed ubiquitous in the Summer of ’64, the Summer of The Beatles, climbing all the way to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Berry’s original is a rock and roll treasure. His inventive and touching narrative of the father estranged from his 6-year-old daughter captivates. Berry has the listener considering the situation. But Rivers’ version has more spark; the music takes center stage. Recording live at The Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard, Johnny Rivers delivered one of the best American records of that year.
His hit recording brought him success but it may have cost Johnny Rivers his friendship with Elvis Presley. For about three years, Rivers frequented Presley’s Bel Air home, playing touch-football and hanging out with the guys. On a visit in early ’64, Presley played Rivers a test pressing of his version of “Memphis,” recorded that January. Surprisingly enough to the Presley camp, in May of that year, Rivers’ own version of “Memphis” was released. In Careless Love, The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick wrote that Elvis and associates believed Rivers pulled a fast one on them.
There was no question among any of the guys that Johnny had known Elvis was planning to put it out as his next single. Elvis should just release his version now and kill the little – – – -sucker’s, they all muttered angrily among themselves. But Elvis would not, he just shook his head sorrowfully and said he didn’t want to see Johnny anymore.
Presley’s “Memphis” finally surfaced in August ’65 on the Elvis For Everyone album. It’s a fine performance but lacks the drive that Rivers brought to the song.
Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote about “Memphis” in The New York Times. He identified most with Rivers’ version, writing that “in some ways, it best captures the internal tension of the song.” He goes on to describe the playing as “bright and clear,” noting how Rivers’ “guitar rings through the bridge and chunks away in the verse.” Having grown up in Baton Rouge, Rivers’ Louisiana twang was usually evident on his recordings. Klinkenborg made note of that, advising us to listen to the way Rivers sings “ridge.” In an amusing but spot-on conclusion, Klinkenborg determines that “for the story of a shattered man, this is an incredibly happy song.”
For nearly three and a half years, the hits kept coming for Johnny Rivers. “Maybellene.” “The Midnight Special.” “Mountain Of Love.” “Seventh Son.” “Secret Agent Man.” “(I Washed My Hands In) Muddy Water.” Each one a rocking performance and all but “Mountain Of Love” recorded at The Whiskey-A-Go-Go. Rivers was in a groove. His tight little band could really play. The audiences were engaged, giving the songs a lively yet intimate sound. But in ’66, as he kept churning out the hits, Rivers shifted gears for a different approach.
Changes. Rivers made a seamless transition from “go-go” sound to one softer and more reflective. Another round of hits followed, with “Poor Side Of Town,” written by Rivers and producer Lou Adler, climbing all the way to number 1. Then a pair of Motown covers, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” and “The Tracks Of My Tears,” ran up the charts. “Summer Rain,” an up-tempo song did well enough, peaking at number 14 in late ’67. The hit machine didn’t seem likely to stop, but suddenly it did. Five years would pass before Johnny Rivers would have his next hit record.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Johnny Rivers was good at picking songs. In ’70 he got hold of one called “Fire And Rain.” Executives at Warner Brothers Records heard Rivers’ brassy version of it and quickly released James Taylor’s original as a single. Fresh off his Sweet Baby James album, “Fire And Rain” was a huge hit for Taylor, launching his career and, indirectly, those of other introspective singer-songwriters.
All Star Effort. In ’72, Johnny Rivers gathered a terrific group of musicians to produce L. A. Reggae. Hands down, it’s the best album of his career. The band included drummer Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos and legendary pianist Larry Knechtel. It was Knechtel who played the piano on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He suggested Rivers record “Rockin’ Pneumonia-Boogie Woogie Flu,” an old Huey Smith song calling for a rigorous workout on the 88s. Knechtel was up to it. He took to the keys with strength and finesse. Rivers came through with an inspired vocal performance. The band was hopping. Young man rhythm had a hold on them all. The song went all the way to number 6. Johnny Rivers was back.
L. A. Reggae was a solid mix of cover songs and five originals, all written by Rivers, with help on three by newcomer Michael Georgiades. The new songs made a strong impression. “Stories To A Child” and “New York City Dues” rocked with abandon. This went beyond the “go-go” sound. Everyone played with great intensity. River recalls having “that great studio sound and a tight band with a real groove in it because Jim Gordon was probably at his height at the time.”
The pace of L. A. Reggae did cool off here and there. “On The Borderline,” a Rivers original, is warm and gentle, reminiscent of “Poor Side Of Town.” “Come Home America” is a softly delivered track with political observations. It was dedicated to George McGovern and was used in his ’72 presidential campaign.
Sometimes good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. McGovern found himself back in the Senate and Johnny Rivers failed to keep the new hit streak going. But there were two more comebacks over the next five years. One was with his ’75 rendition of The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda,” featuring harmony vocals by Brian Wilson. It received wide airplay and peaked at number 22. The next hit, in ’77, was a cover of Jack Tempchin’s “Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin’).” It went up to number 10.
High Praise Indeed. Johnny Rivers may have irritated Elvis Presley but he did impress Bob Dylan. In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan offered quite the compliment, saying that of all the recorded versions of his songs, Rivers’ cover of “Positively 4th Street” was his favorite.
It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth. When I listened to John’s version of “Positively 4th Street,” I liked his version better. I listened to it over and over again. Most of the cover versions of my songs seem to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’ version had the mandate down…… When I heard John sing my song, it was obvious that life had the same external grip on him as it did on me.
Johnny Rivers has gone more than three decades since a hit record, but remember, he’s a persistent soul. Last year he released Shadows on the Moon, a critically acclaimed album in which he explores new horizons, offering a blend of r&b and jazz, with help from old friends Jimmy Webb and Michael Georgiades. He also continues to be a popular concert attraction. Last October he opened for Bob Dylan at The Hollywood Palladium. Randy Lewis of The Los Angeles Times wrote that Rivers “gave a spirited 40-minute set,” appearing “impossibly ageless-looking and sounding.” You know, a guy like that is always ready for a comeback.