Johnny Rivers and the Hall of Fame
Opinion by Kevin Harvey
Johnny Rivers turns 75 today and I just thought I’d bring it up. Along with a question: Why isn’t Rivers in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame? I suspect that anyone who takes Rock seriously has an overlooked performer or group who he or she believes has been slighted; but, please, no place in a Hall that considers Joan Baez a rock singer, ABBA a rock band? Bobby Darin! Bonnie Raitt? The one hit album burn-out Guns n’ Roses? Watch the audience when Metallica is playing at the Hall. Half the room seems to be enjoying the sonic pummeling; half look like they’re sitting, slack-jawed, through a half-hour MRI. Did the genius Miles Davis make Rock music? Only if you stretch the definition of some of his mid-70’s live sets to the breaking point. Have Green Day been around long enough to be honored for anything? I don’t know what to say about KISS. Do they belong in The Rock and Roll Makeup Museum? What would they sound like if they played the way looked around the house? Bobby Darin was a talented club singer - what Sinatra called a saloon singer - but a Rock guy? My mind keeps going back to Eddie Cochran. He was good, even very good, but was he better, more significant, than Johnny Rivers? There’s something going on here and I think I know what it is. Johnny Rivers was just a regular guy - not John Cougar normal - but handsome normal. Not only was he good looking, he came without neurotic subtext, no undercurrent of addiction angst, or bloated ego-pain. Besides, everyone knew that the temporary love beads and beard were market driven, that as soon as he could jettison the consciousness-expansion albums, he’d make an album of Roots music before going back to doing what he did best: singing three-minute, timeless, Rock n’ Roll songs as well as anyone in the business.
Listen to the Live Whiskey albums again; he may be a cover artist but he is an exceptional cover artist. His voice is Bronx-Italian and Baton Rouge; born in NYC and raised in the South, his ability to embody Rock-a-Billy and early Rock was natural. It's who he was. And is. If the knock against Rivers is that he didn’t write his own songs, mention Elvis’ lifelong writer’s block. Elvis didn’t write The Poor Side of Town; Johnny Rivers did. His covers of Chuck Berry were unsurpassed. And the other covers - Baby, I Need Your Lovin’; The Tracks of My Tears; Help Me Rhonda; Positively 4th Street - which Dylan - who stole Johnny’s drummer - called the best he’d heard. All of Carl Perkins. Into the Mystic! Rivers was the real deal. Indeed, he remains the real deal.
Ten years ago, I caught his Birthday show at B.B.King’s joint in New York. Rivers was thin, healthy; his white hair cropped; free of artifice, he sang his set as if it mattered to him, as if we were jammed into the Whiskey in 1965. Some drunk wanted to fight me, but it didn’t ruin the show. In fact, it moved everything a degree closer to ’65. I’m guessing Johnny Rivers is singing Secret Agent Man tonight or later this week and he isn’t worrying about the Hall of Fame, why ABBA is in it and he isn’t. So it's left to me to point out that any Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame that has failed to induct Johnny Rivers into its ranks is merely a building that needs to fill a few hours every year for HBO. If I’m writing the same thing for his 80th, a dime says he’s playing. And I’ve jumped off the wagon to toast him.