by Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Johnny Rivers rolling into Riverwind
In 1964 Johnny Rivers performed his current hit “Maybelline” for a crowd of young people on the TV dance show American Bandstand. After the three minute song, host Dick Clark asked Rivers when he got his first big break.
“It was at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas and then Harrah’s Casino at Lake Tahoe,” the then 22-year-old Rivers replied.
Fifty years later the senior statesman of rock ‘n’ roll is still playing casinos. He will be rocking the Riverwind Casino, 1544 W. State Highway 9 in Norman, 8 p.m. May 17. Tickets are $35-$45 and are available at riverwindcasino.com.
Rivers has actually never stopped playing clubs. Much of his early success in the 1960s resulted from recordings of live performances at joints such as the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Calif.
Some blame the British Invasion of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who for diminishing Rivers’ and other American artists’ careers. But Rivers has never stopped recording, producing and playing live shows. Back when the recording industry was very much an insider’s business, Rivers founded his own label, Soul City Records. Having come out of the Louisiana music scene and known for covering songs by African-American performers, soul was no stretch for him. It wasn’t lily white Ricky Nelson who recorded Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” Rivers did it in 1965 when racial tension was at its height in America. It’s notable in the American Bandstand show mentioned above that the audience was a happy jammed-together mixture of black and white kids.
From his Soul City Records work Rivers won a Grammy as producer of the 5th Dimensions’ hit “Aquarius/ Let the Sun Shine In” which won Record of the Year in 1969. He is also responsible for giving Okie singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb a massive boost to his career a few years earlier.
Rivers arranged for the 5th Dimension to record Webb’s fluffy “Up, Up and Away” composition which became a runaway hit and snagged an incredible five different Grammys in 1967. Coincidentally, Webb is performing at the Sooner Theatre May 9. In a 1998 TNN interview, Rivers also acknowledged introducing Webb to singer Glen Campbell, which led to an uber-successful writer-artist collaboration.
During the 1970s Rivers continued covering other writers’ material including “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Help Me Rhonda.” He released the curiously titled “L.A. Reggae” album in 1972 which included a string of non-reggae tunes including “Brown Eyed Girl.” Rivers is remembered by many in that era for singing the theme song for late night TV rock concert show “The Midnight Special.” That tacked on to his earlier television program notoriety singing “Secret Agent Man” for the 1964-1966 boob tube series “Secret Agent.” It’s the song that plays unbidden if you open Rivers’ website today.
The 1980s is not regarded as a stellar decade for popular music but Rivers continued plugging away. He released the “Borrowed Time” LP and reactivated his Soul City Records label for a platter titled “Last Train to Memphis.” Possibly because of his early experience as a record label founder, Rivers was among the few artists who started a career in the 1950s to have personally retained copyright ownership of his own recordings. Towards the turn of the century he was rediscovering the blues roots that had inspired his youth. In 2000 Rivers was included with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Sir Paul McCartney on a tribute album to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame five years ago.
Rivers’ 21st century shows preserved digitally from outdoor events, such as the 2009 city of Monterey’s 200th anniversary celebration, reveal an artist who has changed little over time. His voice is strong. He’s trim and handsome and still plays guitar standing up on stage. A question that comes to mind is why has Rivers never been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? It’s just a matter of time and he undoubtedly has years of artistry ahead of him. Next week’s Riverwind show may be an opportunity to see Rivers in the year before his induction.
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