Of all the swingin' songsters I idolize, from Alice Cooper to Michael Jackson to Bill Haley, Johnny Rivers is unique in that he doesn't really come with a concept, package, a presentation, a gimmick, a shtick. He's just this guy, you know?
Yet he's like hydrogen. He's the basic building block of the Universe. He's omnipresent. At the peak of his zenith, he was the suavest man in show business, radiating a smooth effortless calm that made even Dean Martin seem nervous and twitchy by comparison.
But who is he? Who was he? I don't even know. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head where he's from. I don't know a thing about his personal life or what his personality is like offstage. And that's the beauty of him - unlike with most of my idols, I don't feel a need to know. He was sent here by his handlers to make these groovy records, and our instructions are to pick up what he's puttin' down. Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die.
What's truly special about J.R. is his ability to cover songs that I don't even like, and imbue them with a quart of win. The Rivers oeuvre, consisting almost entirely of covers ("Poor Side of Town", written by Rivers himself, is a rare exception) is filled with selections from catalogues of schlock and dreck. Witness his superior versions of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears", The Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Loving", Bobby Hebb's "Sunny", Aretha Franklin's "Respect", The Temptations' "I Can't Help Myself", and Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale".
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, J.R. is a songster who could zap anything with the magic wand he was born with and improve it. His versions of Beatles tunes such as "I'll Cry Instead", "Can't Buy Me Love", "A Hard Day's Night" and "Run For Your Life" are superb, and he even dared to assay Buck Owens' "Under Your Spell Again", Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil", and Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street".
And then there's his surprising take on the Mamas & Papas tune "California Dreamin'. And don't forget his versions of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land" and Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q". Whatever the man touched turned to gold.
His biggest and most permanent mark on the collective culture, however, is undoubtedly "Secret Agent Man", the theme song for the TV show Secret Agent (Danger Man, they called it in the UK) starring Patrick McGoohan. This is the show that led to the unofficial spinoff The Prisoner, wherein McGoohan's secret agent character John Drake finds himself held in a kindler gentler Gitmo by British Intelligence.
But for my money, the finest Johnny Rivers moment ever is that money-shot heard round the world, Willie Dixon's "The Seventh Son". So perfect a thrown gauntlet of insane confidence and smooth bravado is it, I bet Prince wishes he wrote it:
I can talk these words, make 'em sound so sweet,
I can make your little heart skip a beat;
Heal the sick, raise the dead
And make the little girls talk out of their head.
I'm the one, I'm the one!
I'm the one they call the Seventh Son!
Johnny-O was in Louisville a year or two ago, singing with the Louisville Orchestra. I coulda had tickets, but you know, such is the external nature of his power that I didn't even need to go see him live - to hear his records is to already be touching the hem of his robe.
(Bonus Rivers links: check out "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water", "Summer Rain", "Midnight Special", "Mountain of Love", and his "Twist & Shout"/"La Bamba" medley. And we're still just scratching the surface of J.R.'s genius here...)
- - JSH