BB King’s Times Square Blues Club
28 September 2012
A favorite, and justifiable, pastime among many pop music aficionados is to grouse about who has not yet been enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You’ll frequently hear such worthy names as Chicago, the Moody Blues, Heart, KISS, and Hall & Oates on that list. What is truly a crime is that you rarely hear anyone lament why Johnny Rivers, who placed 17 singles on Billboard’s Top 40 charts and sold over 30 million records in his career, has not yet received rock music’s ultimate honor. “Johnny Rivers is a talented guy,” admitted Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, the person most responsible for determining who makes it through the hallowed doors of the Cleveland shrine, when I spoke to him at a media event for the ill-fated Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in SoHo a few years ago.
Johnny Rivers will turn 70 next month but based on his performance to mark the milestone at BB King’s Blues Club, he looks at least 25 years younger than that, and sings and plays the guitar as if he were 25.
Rivers first came to fame in 1964 performing rock & roll in a nightclub setting at LA’s Whisky A Go-Go. It is not hyperbole to state that he created the 60s “go-go” sound and helped make the Sunset Strip a pop cultural icon. He has always maintained a reputation in the music industry for being someone who must be seen live.
Playing in an intimate venue as BB King’s was tailor-made for Rivers’ strengths. Perhaps in honor of BB’s musical legacy, Rivers opened up his show with a trio of blues tunes: “Down at the House of Blues,” “Chicago Bound,” and “The Midnight Special,” which he played in a far slower tempo than his 1965 hit version. He quickly segued into a rocking rendition of blues great Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” which was also a hit for him in ‘65.
While it was expected that Rivers would perform his hits, he was more than happy to remind the audience of some of his favorite rock standards. After playing a few refrains of his 1964 hit cover of Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love,” he quickly turned it into a medley as he did a few bars of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City.” What was left unsaid was that the chord progressions on all three were rather similar. The history lesson continued with Rivers tackling Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” giving it the same treatment that Creedence Clearwater Revival did in their 1968 take on the song. The only misfire of the night was Rivers’ dull folk take on the traditional “House of the Rising Sun.” He would have been better off leaving that one to one-time Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon. The one positive was his Flamenco-style guitar playing on the tune.
Although he was never known for writing political tunes, “Come Home America,” the flip side of the hit 1972 single, “Rockin’ Pneumonia,” became the musical theme of George McGovern’s ill-fated presidential campaign. Some 40 years later, Johnny performed another populist composition that he composed, “The American Dream,” in which he sang of lost jobs and retirement plans shattered by Ponzi schemes.
Rivers did not omit any of his crowd-pleasers as “Summer Rain,” aided by pianist Skip Edwards and guitarists Jimmy Vivino and Will Lee, was very well received as Rivers kidded the crowd about claiming to remember 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. He led a note-perfect audience sing-a-long to “Baby, I Need Your Loving.” He brought the house down with two of the best rock guitar hits of all-time, “Memphis,” in which he broke into a Bob Dylan impression for a stanza, and “Secret Agent Man,” with its fun sense of urgency.
He finished the night with a surprising cover of Steve Miller’s 1978 classic, “Jet Airliner,” which clearly would have sounded great had it been around when Rivers was recording his live albums at the Whisky A Go-Go.
Seeing an accomplished artist as Johnny Rivers in an intimate setting as BB King’s Blues Club reminded a lot of us of why we were drawn to rock & roll.