Johnny Rivers and Me

July2_Rivers_Album

One of five albums recorded (live?) at the Whisky a Go Go in San Francisco.


BY JIM MELLOAN |
Johnny Rivers’ career was in high gear 50 years ago. On the July 3, 1965 Billboard Hot 100, his “Seventh Son” hit No. 7 — which was, fittingly, its peak (and where it remained for three weeks). He had hit it big the previous year with his versions of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Maybellene,” as well as “Mountain of Love,” a 1960 Harold Dorman song.

Though Rivers was a songwriter, his success as a performer came from his energetic covers of songs originally done by other artists. “Memphis,” “Seventh Son” and 1966’s “Secret Agent Man” were each from one of five albums recorded live at the Whisky a Go Go in San Francisco.

It’s a matter of some speculation how “live” these albums actually were. Apparently, a lot of the tracks were actually recorded in a studio with a small live audience. But there’s no question that Rivers was responsible for the success of the club, owned by Elmer Valentine, a former vice cop who converted it into America’s first discotheque, and in the process helped revive the Sunset Strip. Of “Memphis,” Rivers told the Los Angeles Times last year, “It wasn’t a big hit for Chuck. That record took me from $350 a week to $5,000 a night…They didn’t come to see the Whisky. They came to see Johnny Rivers.”

I’ve always loved “Seventh Son,” originally written and recorded by Willie Dixon in 1955 (the year I was born). Sting also does a great cover of it on Jools Holland’s 2001 album “Small World Big Band.” I performed it with Mansueto Ventures’ company band The MansueTones around 2010. But it’s “Secret Agent Man” that I have a special relationship with. Written for the American broadcast of the British series called “Danger Man” starring Patrick McGoohan (renamed “Secret Agent” in the U.S.), the song, by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, features one of the classic guitar riffs of all time, right up there if not better than Monty Norman and John Barry’s James Bond Theme.

In the mid-’60s, the whole culture was secret-agent crazy, with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “I Spy” on TV, and later, more fantastic spy heroes in the movies like Dean Martin’s Matt Helm and James Coburn’s Derek Flint. Rivers’ in-your-face rock-‘n’-roll delivery was perfect for the song.

But now about me. I moved to New York City in 1993, after having lived in and around Boston for 14 years. In Boston, while I went to clubs to see bands, I never found a bar where I considered myself a regular. I hoped to find such a place in New York. I lived in the Kips Bay neighborhood, barely known as a neighborhood, bordering Murray Hill — not really known for anything except old commercials before 800-numbers became common announcing the number to call as one with a Murray Hill exchange.

Famously, Kips Bay for a long time was the one unnamed neighborhood on the maps in New York taxis, just a patch of gray. In 1994, a small bar opened up on Second Ave. at 33rd St. called South Beach. The South Beach neighborhood of Miami was just beginning to be recognized as hip, and the idea behind this bar (owned, coincidentally, by a guy from South Dakota named Murray) was that it would be a home for Miami Dolphins fans. So that kind of worked, maybe, for 16 days out of the year.

Then it became a neighborhood bar for mostly 30- and 40-somethings, a bunch of misfits who over the ’90s became pretty good friends. And there was a bartender there named Stormy Spill. Her real name. She was a singer-songwriter who bore a facial resemblance as well a low-register vocal resemblance to Cher. But she favored flannel shirts and ripped jeans, and her music was much more blues-based. She started up an “Acoustic Jam” on Sunday nights that attracted some of the best old-school musicians in town.

These were guys who would tour with ’60s nostalgia acts like The Tokens and The Chiffons. I had moved to the city having gotten a reporting job with Worth magazine, and for a couple of years I had thought, all right, that’s it with the artsy-fartsy stuff, no more music, no more improv, I are now a serious journalist. And the Acoustic Jam in short order blew that notion out of the water. In 1996, I started going to Faceboyz Open Mic at Surf Reality on the Lower East Side, also on Sunday nights, more of a conceptual anything-goes deal, and so Sundays consisted of a one-two punch that meant I was frequently late to work on Monday morning.

Often at two or three in the morning, the crowd at South Beach would achieve glorious five-or-six-part harmony on numbers like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or “It Don’t Come Easy,” blasting through the open windows onto Second Ave.

One night Stormy was doing a rendition of “Secret Agent Man” and went up on the words. I took over, as I knew them cold. And I was a hit. Soon the song became my trademark at the jam, and people actually called me “Secret Agent Jim.” I kind of out-Johnny-Riversed Johnny Rivers, as I exaggerated his delivery: “Thay-a’s a may-an who lives a life of danger…”

Johnny Rivers has aged as well as his music. Photo by Michael Albov via johnnyrivers.com.

Johnny Rivers has aged as well as his music. Photo by Michael Albov via johnnyrivers.com.

Pherg, a rotund regular who was a sports photographer, marveled at my delivery as I worked the crowd, moving amongst them and delivering the song while leaning on the bar or the wall: “You were leaning on shit!”

And sometime in the late ’90s, Paul Page, a bass player, played with Johnny Rivers, and told him about me, and got an autograph from him, which he gave to me as a birthday present.

Rivers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Whisky a Go Go last year at his own event with Jimmy Webb across town. He wasn’t invited to the Whisky a Go Go celebration, which concentrated on its later punk and metal years. He still records and releases music occasionally. And I don’t know where Stormy is now.

Jim Melloan is a writer, actor, musician, and editor. He does occasional columns for this publication on pop music from 50 years ago. His radio shows “50 Years Ago This Week” airs Tuesdays from 8–10 p.m. on RadioFreeBrooklyn.comFor info on Johnny Rivers, visit johnnyrivers.com.

 

 

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