by Alan L. Chrisman
(This is part of a series of blogs I’ve been doing on some of the groups and of some of the perhaps lesser-known songwriters and players behind some of rock’s classic songs).
Johnny Rivers had 9 top ten hits and sold more than 30 million albums in the 60’s & 70’s. But he’s probably best known for his Live at the Whiskey a Go Go albums, recorded at the famous club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
Johnny Rivers (Ramisstella) grew up in Louisiana and was in a teenaged band there called the Rockets with Dick Holler, who would go on to write the novelty hit “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron”. There he also knew guitarist and fellow Louisianan, James Burton, who played with Elvis and Rick Nelson (see my previous article on Nelson and Burton). Through Burton, Rivers met Ricky Nelson who recorded one of Rivers’ songs, ”I’ll Make Believe”. In 1958, he met legendary DJ Alan Freed (who some say, first popularized the phrase, “rock ’n’ roll”) who advised him to change his name to Rivers after the Mississippi river.
His big break came though, when he was asked to perform regularly at the Whiskey a Go Go in 1964. The owner had copied a famous club in Paris, Chez Regine’s, which had followed the Peppermint Lounge in N.Y. (see previous article on the Lounge and “The Twist”). He decided to put girls spinning records and dancing in cages (because the club was so small) above the stage and these became known as Go Go Dancers. (“Go Go” may have come from the French word, la gogue, or the American soldiers’ expression, “Go, man Go”. Rivers’ was the house band and soon Hollywood and musicians were lining up to get in and dance.
Lou Adler, who would go on to produce Carol King’s Tapestry and The Mama & The Papa’s, decided to record Johnny Rivers live at the club (in which he would do a medley of blues and rock classic’s like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”) and it sold lots of albums. In fact, Rivers was one of the few old-school American artists to survive the newly arrived Beatles and British Invasion at the time.
This brings us to songwriter, P.F. Sloan’s also interesting story. P. F. Sloan, when only 13 years old, met Elvis in a L.A. music store, and Elvis gave him a guitar lesson. In 1963, he started working for Lou Adler as a guitar player and songwriter. He and partner, Steve Barri, wrote the theme song for the T.A.M. I. teen TV show( the show where Mick Jagger was reluctant to perform after James Brown). Sloan and Barri wrote and played and sang on the hits for imitation Beach Boys, Jan & Dean’s surf hits “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Little Old Lady from Pasadena”.
In 1965, Sloan wrote the classic protest song for Barry McQuire, “Eve Of Destruction” (you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’). Sloan also played lead guitar on Mama’s and Papa’s songs and it’s his guitar beginning their “California Dreaming”. He wrote and made the famous riff for “ Secret Agent Man”, a big hit for Johnny Rivers in 1966. He also wrote hits for The Turtles, “ You Baby” and “ Let Me Be”, and later most of The Grassroots’ songs, ”Where were You When I Needed You” , Things I should Have Said Today” , etc.
Johnny Rivers would go on to have several more hits in the 60’s and early 70’ including his own soulful song, “ Poor Side of Town” , and covers of Motown’s “ Baby I need Your Lovin’” and “Tracks of my Tears”. Rivers also discovered and produced the black group, The Fifth Dimension and their hit from the musical Hair, “Let the Sunshine In” and their “Wedding Bell Blues”. He also gave songwriter Jimmy Webb a big break when the 5th Dimension recorded Webbs’, “Up Up and Away”. In 1975, Rivers had another hit with a remake of Brian Wilson’s, “Help Me Rhonda” with Wilson on back-up vocals. Johnny Rivers also recorded the title song for the popular American TV concert show “ Midnight Special”. And along with Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, etc. appeared on a tribute album to Buddy Holly in 2000.
But one of my favorite Johnny Rivers albums is 1968’s Realization. It contains some of his more reflective songs, like “Going Back to Big Sur” and Scott Mackenzie’s (who wrote the 60’s classic, “San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair”) “What’s the Difference being Different” as well as the hit, “Summer Rain”, which perfectly captured the “Summer of Love”( ‘Sgt. Peppers playing in the sand’). I saw Johnny Rivers perform at my university that year along with Petula Clark (“Downtown” etc.). And one of my prized P.F. Sloan LP’s is Raised on Records, 1972, with his own version of the song he wrote for The Turtles, “Let Me Be” and the title song about the influence of music.
Johnny Rivers was an artist and producer who seemed to be able to adapt to the times from old-school blues inspired rock ’n’ roll to the changing times of the 60’s and 70’s and still have hits and P. F. Sloan wrote and played, behind the scenes, on many hits for many artists and should be recognized.
See below Johnny Rivers doing Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tenn.”, 1964:
See below Johnny Rivers doing “Secret Agent Man”, 1966, written by P.F. Sloan:
See Barry McQuire’s classic protest 1965 hit, “EVE OF DESTRUCTION”: