Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Johnny Rivers
Going through my sister’s record collection yesterday, I realized that my sister seems to be a step or two behind the so-called “hip” crowd. Remember when we reviewed the British Invasion bands who got psychedelic in the late 1960s? It’s like she wasn’t hip enough to latch on to these acts when they were emerging or cutting-edge, she caught ‘em on their downslide … know what I mean?
Well, I think that’s pretty cool – we’ve all heard their hits anyway. So in that spirit, today we will spin Realization, a 1968 psychedelicized concept album from pop-rocker Johnny Rivers. In the early to mid-1960s Johnny Rivers had a string of Top 40 hits including “Secret Agent Man,” “Poor Side Of Town,” “Seventh Son” and handful others. He took a number of cover versions to the upper reaches of the pop charts, often outselling the original versions of some of these songs – he hit with Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” in 1964, with Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” in 1965, Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” in ’65 and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” also in ’65.
Johnny Rivers dependably rocked the Top 40, but by 1966 he wanted to grow as an artist so he took over production duties on his records and started writing more of his own songs. Unlike other established artists who wanted to get suddenly freaky in those psychedelic daze, Rivers’ wig-out album was gentle and introspective with keyboards, flutes and strings instead of sitars and fuzz guitars.
And it has just the right blend of originals and well-chosen covers, including his version of “Hey Joe,” which kicks off the album. Actually Rivers’ “Hey Joe” has its share of Sgt. Pepper-inspired sound effects and electric guitars to begin his song cycle about living in California (I guess). “Look To Your Soul” is a nice ballad, one of three songs from the album written or co-written by Rivers’ collaborator, James Hendricks (who was a member of the New York group the Mugwumps, which also included future Lovin Spoonful members John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, and future Mamas & Papas Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty). Hendricks and Rivers co-wrote “Something Strange,” and Hendricks alone penned the album’s big hit “Summer Rain.”
Upon its release “Summer Rain” was sort of an instant classic – it evokes the turbulent era by name-checking the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while embracing a nostalgic memory of a summer that could be just past or lived long ago. The song would climb into the Top 20 and was Rivers’ last big hit of the 1960s.
The covers include a killer version of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and a knockout blue-eyed soul version of “Brother, Where Are You” by Oscar Brown Jr., who was a poet/singer/civil rights activist of the era. Rivers alone wrote “Going Back To Big Sur,” which evokes the laid-back vibe of the central California coast, where redwoods and rocky cliffs overlook the majestic Pacific Ocean.
Realization was a hit album, and Johnny Rivers kept rockin’ into the 1970s, where he scored more hits like “Rockin’ Pneumoniaand the Boogie Woogie Flu” (1972), and his last Top 10 hit “Swayin’ To the Music” (1977). Rivers’ cover of Leadbelly became theme song for the popular TV show “Midnight Special,” a rock variety show hosted by Wolfman Jack. Johnny Rivers continues to play concerts today, and if you go to one of his shows make sure you yell out a request for “Going Back To Big Sur.”
YouTube: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers in 1973