I don’t know why I never respected Johnny Rivers as a musician. I guess I always just figured he was a singer of someone else’s songs and therefore not someone to be taken seriously. He might be best remembered for that “Secret Agent Man” song – at least, that’s what I remember him best for. But in researching him for this blog piece, I realized that he had quite a lot of hits over the years…and they were all songs that I knew (and liked) and went, “Ohhhh yeaaaaaah, he did do that!”
I always thought that Rivers only sang “Secret Agent Man” in front of a backup band or session musicians. Turns out, he doesn't look anything like I pictured him - and I'm surprised that since the 1960's I can't remember seeing even one picture of him. Also turns out that he not only played guitar on the song, but played that famous and iconic opening riff as well as the solo in the middle. Listen here…
I love the introduction by a very inebriated Judy Garland. She looks like she can barely stand up.
The clip is interesting. Johnny is clearly singing and playing the guitar – not sure if his bass player and drummer are the ones being heard. Perhaps there is a band offscreen somewhere, or perhaps Rivers is singing/playing to a soundtrack.
And what a soundtrack! In the 1960’s we went through a period where “rock ‘n roll” artists were accompanied by orchestras with predominant, big brass bands with big, modern amped-up drumkits and up-front electric guitars. (Think of the James Bond theme.) The result was a huge, bombastic sound that was, in my humble opinion, really awesome. Then The Beatles came along and pared us down to two guitars, bass and drums. And we thought that was all you needed to be a rock band. (Then of course later The Beatles added a full orchestra to their music and we were back where we started.)
It is said that while Johnny Rivers did do versions of other peoples’ songs, he “made them his own” and in some cases did a definitive version that was better than the original or the one a major artist was primarily know for. Which brings us to…
A song popped into my head the other day. It was called, “The Snake” written by a guy named Oscar Brown Jr. but made popular in 1968 by a singer named Al Wilson.
Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in for goodness sake
Take me in, oh tender woman
SSSSSSSSSighed the snake…
Great song. Songs like that get rattling around in my brain and I can’t get them out for days. Anyway, I was going to put Al Wilson version of the song up here in this post, but as I was listening to it I saw that Johnny Rivers also did a version of it. Turns out that Johnny Rivers produced the Al Wilson version when he signed Wilson to his record label.
I listened to Johnny Rivers' version, which was performed on that same TV show on which he did "Secret Agent Man." And I have to admit, the guy does a great job! Listen...
This Johnny Rivers' version is awesome - he kills it! This is such a great video. I really love the go-go dancers in the background, especially that skinny girl on the left. Look at her go(go)! Also, check out how the bass player can't keep his foot still during the song. And again, that backing orchestra is tremendous.
Johnny Rivers' attempted rise to fame coincided exactly with the arrival of The Beatles and the British Invasion. The Beatles knocked just all American artists (including Elvis!) off the charts. Those artists were still making records, but our focus was on the new style of music from England, with which we were so infatuated. But Johnny Rivers persevered, and he ended up having a long string of Top-40 hits, right up through 1977.
Surprisingly, Rivers is still singing and playing today! You can check out plenty of YouTube videos of his performances. He still looks and sounds great...for a 68 year-old guy.
So this is my post giving belated props to Johnny Rivers, a very under-appreciated artist of humongous talent. I've owed it to you for a long time, Johnny. Sorry it took me so long to get this to you.