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Remembering Johnny Rivers

The internet has made a big difference to many people’s lives. You now have a place to publish your loony theory that only you are interested in. There’s a place for the millions of people with a mania for selling things that millions of other people don’t want to buy. A community of Friend-collecting Facebook worshippers. Access to fingertip research aids that make reports of all kinds much quicker to produce.

I’m coming to realise that the internet is also a time machine. Thousands of broadcasters on sites like YouTube, Flickr and Google Books are making it possible to visit the past through archival images, out of print books, and vintage audiovideo material now easier to access than ever before.

Back in the 60s, when I was discovering rock and roll music, I listened to a singer called Johnny Rivers. I thought he was more interesting than Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Beatles combined, but somehow I never heard anything more of him. Around about 1967 he seemed to disappear.

Then, a week or two ago, I pressed a link on YouTube, and there he was, singing his definitive version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee.

Johnny Rivers was a bit younger than Elvis, and he is still performing today, but he fell between the cracks in rock and roll history. The music was based on the performances of rhythm and blues singers with gospel roots like Little Richard, urban poets like Chuck Berry and ragtime and honky tonk based balladeer charmers like Fats Domino. All these happened to be African-Americans, whose achievement was stolen by more popular white performers, and there has been a rush to give these men back their due. Another development has been in the writing department. Once there were songwriters, and there were musicians. Then along came the Beatles, who were prolific composers, and suddenly everyone was writing their own music. The word ‘cover’ took on a derogatory meaning. Johnny Rivers was a white singer who did cover versions of black music, and so became very unfashionable.

This is getting rid of the baby as well as the bathwater and then throwing away the plug. Johnny Rivers didn’t produce a lot of great work, but it included some of the greatest rock and roll performances ever made.

Rivers came from Baton Rouge to Nashville as a song writer, moved to LA and landed a job at a new nightclub in Hollywood called Whiskey a Go Go, Sunset Strip. Doesn’t it reek of seedy nostalgia, like some old TV show you used to watch? Rivers did some good things. He recorded his albums live, and it made a difference. He worked with a stripped down backup group, drums, bass, organ and his lead guitar and voice. And the songs were all about the rhythm section, with some of the best bass playing on record, with voice and guitar cutting in and then stepping back so the beat was what you heard.

In 1964 the Beatles did their first American tour, and Beatlemania was all around. In April they had 12 singles in the top 100 chart, including the top 5 places. Rivers went ahead and released his first album Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey a Go Go and the single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. The album went to no. 12 on the album charts, the single got to no. 2 on the top 100 charts in July. Rivers actually pushed the Beatles off the charts during the height of Beatlemania.

It’s interesting to compare Rivers’ arrangement with Berry’s. Berry is not actually playing rock and roll as we know it today, but a softer, more sophisticated, jazz influenced arrangement which gives scope for Berry’s innovative guitar accompaniment. That guitar was to influence most of the key performers in rock and roll, especially Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. But the rhythm accompaniment that Rivers worked out was the way the music was to go. A lot of people contributed to the making of rock and roll, but Johnny Rivers’ version of Memphis is the one we would most easily recognise today. It’s still contemporary.

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee

Help me find a party tried to get in touch with me                                                         

She could not leave a number but I know who placed the call                                 

’cause my uncle took a message and he wrote it on the wall

Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie

She’s the only one who’d call me here from Memphis Tennessee

Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge

Just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge

Last time I saw Marie she was wavin’ me goodbye

With “hurry-home” drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye

But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree

And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add

Only that I miss her and all the fun we had                                                                  

Marie is only six years old, information please

Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

There’s got to be a case for Chuck Berry as a significant poet. But back to Rivers. Unobtrusive, but the vocal really works. The voice is not great at first listening, but it does the song well. Rivers actually had a fine blues voice with a good range, but he didn’t show it off. Like the guitar. Just a few raw chords, no virtuosity. But it’s just what the song needs. History in the making.

In 1964 Rivers also released Here We a Go Go Again (it’s thanks to Rivers’ success that when you rewatch old teen talent shows on television there’s a backdrop of go go dancers gyrating away to the music). The single from that album was another Chuck Berry cover, Maybellene from 1955, a no. 1 r’n’b hit of that year that Rivers took to no. 12 on the top 100 of 1964. If Memphis was a brilliant cover, Maybelline excelled it. Starting with a menacing bass overtone that mimics the throbbing of a motor revving up at a lights halt, Rivers launches into the chorus, a blues lament for a lover who can’t be true, wisely not trying to outshine Berry’s famous riff, probably the best ever written in a rock and roll song, but delivering a real lament just the same. Those were the days when if your heart broke you went for a drive, fast. We got worse since then.

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe deVille
Cadillac rollin’ on an open road
But nothin’ out-run my V8 Ford
Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
Bumper to bumper rollin’ side to side

Maybelline, why can’t you be true
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true
You’ve started back doin’ the things you used to do

Well the Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford
The Ford got hot and wouldn’t do more
It done got cloudy and started to rain
I tooted my horn for the passing lane
The rain water poured up under my hood
I knew that were doin’ my motor good

Maybelline, why can’t you be true
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true
You done started back doin’ the things you used to do

Well now, the heat went down and the motor cooled down
And that’s when I heard that highway sound
Cadillac lookin’ like a ton of lead
A hundred and ten a half-a-mile ahead
Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
I caught Maybelline at the top of the hill

Maybelline, why can’t you be true
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true
You done started back doin’ the things you used to do.

Berry said the song was not original, he got it from someone and rearranged it, so we shouldn’t pour scorn on Rivers for doing a cover. It was alright then. But how brilliant was it in 1955 to put broken hearts and fast cars together? That’s looking ahead for you. Rivers delivers all the soul the song’s got, and he drives it fast.

Back again in 1964 with his third album In Action, and a number nine hit with Harold Dorman’s Mountain of Love.

Standing on a mountain looking down on a city
The way I feel is a doggone pity
Teardrops fallin’ down a mountainside
Many times I’ve been here, many times I’ve cried
We used to be so happy when we were in love
High on a mountain of love

Night after night I’m a-standing here alone
Weepin’ my heart out till cold grey dawn
Prayin’ that you’re lonely and you come here too
Hoping just by chance that I’ll get a glimpse of you
Tryin’ hard to find you, somewhere up above
High on a mountain of love

A mountain of love, a mountain of love, you should be ashamed
We used to be a mountain of love
But you just changed your name

Way down below there’s a half a million people
Somewhere there’s a church with a big tall steeple
Inside a church there’s an altar filled with flowers
Wedding bells are ringin’ and they shoulda been ours
That’s why I’m so lonely, my dreams gone above
High on a mountain of love

A mountain of love, a mountain of love, you should be ashamed
We used to be a mountain of love
But you just changed your name

The loping beat of this number must have given the go go girls a good workout. Another lament, and it rocks.

In 1965 Rivers released yet another live album, Meanwhile, Back at the Whiskey a Go Go, which featured a lot of soul classics. Rivers had a fine voice for soul numbers and his version of Stop In the Name of Love and Land of 1000 Dances are worth the listen. But the song that draws me is Stagger Lee, a song from the turn of the century, with notable previous versions by the great Mississippi John Hurt and Lloyd Price, not forgetting Wilbert Harrison.

The night was clear
And the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
And he was barkin’ up at two men
Who were gamblin’ in the dark
It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight

Stagger Lee told Billy,
“I can’t let you get away with that”,
“Well you have won all my money
And my brand new Stetson hat”
Stagger Lee he ran home
Went and he got his forty-four
Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom
Just to pay that debt I owe”

Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee
Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom
Just to pay that debt I owe”

Stagger Lee went to the barroom
He stood across the barroom door
He said “Now nobody move”
And he pulled his forty-four
“Stagger Lee” cried Billy,
“Oh please don’t you take my life.”
“I got me three little children
And a very sickly wife.”

Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee
“I got me three little children
And a very sickly wife”

Stagger Lee shot Billy,
Oh he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy
And went right through The bartender’s glass
While I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
And he was barkin’ up at two men
Who were gamblin’ in the dark

Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee
And he was barkin’ up at two men
Who were gamblin’ in the dark

Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee
Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom
Just to pay that debt I owe”

Rivers had his first compilation album released in 1966. Golden Hits featured a standout version of I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water, a song by Joe Babcock that was a Stonewall Jackson country hit of 1965 also covered by Elvis Presley. Rivers makes both these performers look tame. Rivers took the song to no. 19 on the Top 100 chart. The organ player is in a frenzy here, the beat rock solid.

I was home in Macon, Georgia
They kept my Daddy in the Macon jail
He said, son, if you keep your hands clean, uh huh
You won’t hear those bloodhounds on your trail

I fell in with bad companions
I robbed the mail up in Tennessee
And I got caught way up in Nashville, uh huh now
And they locked me up and threw away the key

I washed my hands in muddy water
I washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
I tried to do like my daddy told me, now
I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

I asked the jailer, said when’s my time up?
He said son, you know we won’t forget it
And if you try and keep your hands clean, uh huh
Why we may just make a good man of you yet

But I didn’t wait to get my time in
I broke down, broke out the Nashville jail
I just crossed Atlanta, Georgia, oh now
And I can hear those bloodhounds on my trail

I washed my hands in muddy water
I washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
I tried to do like my daddy told me, now
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Rivers continued to release good material over the years. In 1983 he had an album called Not a Through Street, with his superb version of Stand By Me, the Ben E King hit of 1961, no. 4 on the top 100 that year, written by King, Leiber and Stoller. I prefer Rivers’ version over the more famous ones by Ben E King and John Lennon (it’s not as good as the Playing for Change video, but, hey, that’s a video). Rivers features as usual bass lines of genius and also one of his best vocals.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darlin’, darlin’,
stand by me, oh now now stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darlin’, darlin’,
stand by me, oh stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me, stand by me, yeah

Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me,
oh now now stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

Darlin’, darlin’,
stand by me, stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

But by 1967 Rivers had changed focus. The album Rewind featured versions of The Miracles hit of 1965, The Tracks of My Tears and Baby I Need Your Lovin, a Motown hit for the Four Tops in 1964. Rivers wandered off looking for new material, and found it in folk songs, soul ballads and psychedelia. I was busy listening to the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan at the time, which is why I lost sight of Johnny Rivers then. His chart topping period was 1964 to the mid seventies, but he has always been critically admired for his achievement, and his sales have mounted up to over 30 million, so he has a fan or two in the world.

I’m not that attached to his later work, but in the mid 60s he was definitely rock and roll’s greatest performer, and it’s most influential performer. Yes I know the history books say it was Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but the fact was racial prejudice swept these giants under the carpet. We have to admit it. And by 1964 Elvis was a spent force. So let’s celebrate Johnny Rivers. Welcome back! This is popular music, a democratic art form, so it’s OK to have a lot of kings (and a queen or two as well).

PS: Here’s Johnny Rivers earlier in 2013 (the man’s 71 years old for heaven’s sake) showing he hasn’t lost a thing as a performer over a 50 + year career!

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


10 comments on “Remembering Johnny Rivers

  1. Sylvia Sotelo
    Saturday, 17 January, 2015

    Great article, I have loved his music for years. Johhny is performing tonight in the city that I live in but I couldnt make it. Im so sad about that.

    • phillipkay
      Saturday, 17 January, 2015

      You’ll have to play your favourite Johnny Rivers track instead.

  2. phillipkay
    Friday, 21 November, 2014

    Good to hear from you Gino! “Summer Rain” came out in 1967, just after “Secret Agent Man”, “Muddy Waters” and his self penned “Poor Side of Town” (all 1966), and reached no. 14 on the charts. “Poor Side of Town” was a no. 1. Johnny was hot back then in the USA. “Summer Rain” was reissued on the 1991 “Anthology 1964-1977”; it was written by James Hendricks, and contains a chorus line “and the jukebox kept on playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”, a little bit of pop history recalling the tremendous popularity and influence of that album and of the Beatles themselves at the time. Those were the days. Plenty of great covers of the tune but Rivers, unostentatiously as usual, manages to remain the best. “Changes”, as you will know, was a 1966 album, Rivers’ third studio album. Back then he was releasing one studio and one live album a year (peaked at no. 33 on the charts). As I added to my blog, Johnny’s still going strong today.

  3. Gino
    Friday, 21 November, 2014

    Still have the Album and Cover of “Changes” which I puchased when it came out. What is the history of Summer Rain?
    It still gets played quite often on XM 60’s on 6 Thanks

  4. phillipkay
    Sunday, 19 October, 2014

    Great to find another fan! There must be 30 million of them according to record sales figures.

  5. Angel Pennisson
    Sunday, 19 October, 2014

    awesome to find this article ! good job. i saw johnny rivers on a riverboat in new orleans ,late 80’s. he was a ball of energy !

  6. phillipkay
    Saturday, 27 September, 2014

    Probably more people remember Rivers for Secret Agent Man than they do for Memphis. Shows how versatile the man was. One of the giants of rock and roll and a definite candidate for the Hall of Fame.

  7. Susan
    Saturday, 27 September, 2014

    I liked Secret Agent Man that was used for the TV show.

  8. phillipkay
    Friday, 15 August, 2014

    Great to hear that. I think myself Brazil has one of the best pop music cultures in the world, so it means more when you make your comment on him. I’m so impressed with the latest clip I found, recorded live when Rivers was in his 70s. I’m also impressed with how much i like Brazilian music without understanding a word of Portuguese. That’s music I guess.

  9. luiz fernando
    Friday, 15 August, 2014

    Nice article about King Johnny Rivers. Here in Brazil we are fans of Johnny Rivers. It is the place in the world where he continues to hit until Hohe. He is one of the greatest singers and performers of our time in Brazil and he feels at home. Here he was more successful with some songs that the United States itself.

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This entry was posted on Monday, 1 October, 2012 by in music and tagged , , , .
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