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Superstars of the 60s: Johnny Rivers

Imagine it you had 9 top 10 records, 17 songs in the Top 40 and founded your own record label where you discovered such acts as the 5th Dimension. Now, imagine all that and you’re still not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!

Then you must be imagining that you’re Johnny Rivers.

Rivers is a New York boy who was born John Ramistella. While still a kid, his family moved to the Louisiana where Johnny took his last name from the Mississippi River. He struggled for years to get a foothold in the recording business, eventually traveling from Louisiana to L.A.

Nothing happened until Johnny was signed to a year’s contract at the Whiskey A-Go-Go nightclub. Johnny opened for the club’s traveling roster of headliners. Soon, Johnny was packing crowds in on his own. He finally achieved his breakthrough with a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” Legend has it that Johnny stole the arrangement from Elvis Presley after Presley played him a demo of the song that King was planning on releasing. For that time forward, apparently, Rivers was persona non grata around Presley.

Rivers followed up his first hit with many more, most of them covers of rock & soul classics like “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’,” “Maybellene,” and “Midnight Special” interspersed with new tunes like “Poor Side of Town” and “Summer Rain.” He scored one of the biggest hits of his career when he was asked to sing the American theme song to a British spy TV series. When Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan was imported into the U.S., producers decided to rename it Secret Agent. Most Baby Boomers can still sing the lyrics to that theme by heart.

Rivers then became one of the first rock stars to form his own label - Soul City Records. One of the first acts he signed became the labels biggest success - the 5th Dimension. Rivers also gave songwriter Jimmy Webb one of his first breaks by encouraging the 5th Dimension to record Webb's tune "Up, Up & Away."

Rivers had his final 2 hits in the early 70s – a cover of “Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Slow Dancing (Swayin’ to the Music).”

Rivers continued recording into the 1980s, but without much success. He still tours to this day – doing some 50 to 60 shows a year.
As for the reason he’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? You’ll have to ask the selection committee.

The Story Behind the Song – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)

Most of us know the situation in Northern Ireland has been tense for decades.  That tension bubbled over into tragedy on January 30, 1972, when a group of unarmed civil rights activist, protesting Britain’s practice of imprisoning suspected Irish radicals without trial.

British troops opened fire on the crowd, killing 13. As you might expect, British investigators bought the soldiers’ claims of “self-defense” and exonerated them.

A little over 10 years later, the Irish rock band U2 wrote a song about it for their album War.

U2’s front man, Bono, claims the song is not meant to be partisan, just a simple plea for peace and calm.

BTW – In 2010, the British government finally accepted responsibility for the massacre, calling it “unjustifiable.”

Supergroups of the Sixties - The Searchers

When Beatlemania exploded across America, record labels began scouring England and specifically Liverpool looking from groups that might be able to follow the Fab Four up the charts.

One of the first to accomplish this feat was the Searchers, a British band that took their name from John Wayne’s classic Western film. Like their fellow Liverpudlians, the Searchers had begun as a skiffle band and gradually morphed into a rock act. They also had played at Hamburg’s Star Club, honing a solid lice act.

The Searcher hit the UK charts in 19right on the heels of the Beatles with their recording on “Sweets for My Sweet.” They followed that with “Sugar and Spice,” a song written by their producer Tony Hatch. They boke into the U.S. charts in early 1964 with their version of a song co-written by Sonny Bono, “Needles and Pins.” Between 1964 and 1965, they scored 7 Top 40 hits in the States. Unfortunately, “Sugar & Spice” was not one of them as a Chicago band called the Cryan’ Shames did a virtual note-for-note cover that was the U.S. hit.

Even more unfortunately, in 1965, the hits just stopped coming. The band continued recording and touring, but were relegated to being an “oldies” act by the early 1970s. The Searchers managed to land a new record contract with Sire Records in 1979 and recorded two albums for that label that received very favorable response from the critics and from live audiences when the band began working this new material into their live sets. Alas, radio airplay was virtually non-existent and sales were sluggish (although a compilation of their work for Sire is still available on CD).

Like many groups, the band went through personnel changes over the years with only rhythm guitar/vocalist John McNally staying with them from start to finish. Bassist Frank Allen had the second longest tenure, joining in the summer of 1964 and then staying with the band for their rest of their career. The band’s most distinctive vocalist and lead guitar player, Mike Pender was with the group from 1960 until 1985. The band went through drummers almost as quickly as Spinal Tap with Chris Curtis manning the kit during the time the Searchers cranked out all their hits.

The group actually continued performing until March of this year (2019) when they finally announced their retirement.

A Searchers playlist:

  • “Sweets for My Sweet”
  • “Sugar & Spice”
  • “Needles & Pins”
  • “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me”
  • “Don’t Throw Your Love Away”
  • “When You Walk in the Room”
  • “Farmer John”
  • “Love Potion No. 9”
  • “What Have They Done to the Rain”
  • “Take Me for What I’m Worth”
  • “Have You Ever Loved Somebody?”
  • “Hearts in Her Eyes”
  • “Almost Saturday Night”
  • “Love’s Melody”
  • “Everything But a Heartbeat”

The Story Behind the Song – “Mony Mony” (1968)

Tommy James’ “Mony Mony” is one of those great little rock songs from the 60s that has aged very well. Thanks to a cover from Billy Idol in the 1980s, the song was reintroduced to a whole new generation of listeners. But what, exactly, is the song about?
Not much, as it turns out. Tommy James says he and songwriting partner, Ritchie Cordell, were just trying to come with a frat/party rock song in the vein of “California Sun”  or “Money (That’s What I Want)”… something that cut against the grain of all the “serious” rock that was then dominating the music scene.

So, who the heck is “Mony?”
Ah, there is the real story. James and Cordell had most of the song together. They had even created the music tracks in the studio. But they were stuck on a girl’s name. They wanted it to be unusual (like “Sloopy”) and it had to be two syllables to fit the track they had already created.

The pair were sitting in James’ apartment in New York City trying to complete the song. As James tells it: “…finally we get disgusted, we throw our guitars down, we go out on the terrace, we light up a cigarette, and we look up into the sky. And the first thing our eyes fall on is the Mutual of New York Insurance Company. M-O-N-Y. True story.”

And for the first and probably last time in rock history, an insurance company inspired a classic song!

Woodstock - Featuring The Beatles?

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock concert ever, you may wonder why certain acts weren’t there.

After all, the intention of the promoters was to assemble the greatest bands and artists in rock at that moment. Here are 3 of the acts they tried to get, but couldn’t.

The Beatles: Of course, you would always start at the top. So, the guys behind Woodstock got in touch with John Lennon. Reportedly, Lennon told them the Beatles WOULD perform live if the promoters also agreed to an appearance by the Plastic Ono Band. The promoters allegedly said no to the Plastic Ono Band, so John said no for the Beatles.

The Rolling Stones: If you can’t get the Beatles, get the Stones, right? Alas, Mick Jagger was busy filming the movie Ned Kelly in Australia, so the Stones couldn’t appear.

Led Zeppelin: In 1969, Led Zeppelin was just starting to break and on their first American tour. Why didn’t they appear? Peter Grant, their manager thought if Zeppelin appeared as just one of a bunch of other acts, the band would seem less important. So, Grant turned the promoters down.

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