The “Secret Agent Man” reflects on 50 years of rock and roll, including his stint at the legendary L.A. music venue, the Whiskey a Go Go.
Singer-songwriter Johnny Rivers
Tavis: Fifty years ago this month the place to be here in L.A. if you love rock and roll was the Sunset Strip – specifically the Whiskey a Go Go, where Johnny Rivers was just starting his long-running stint at the legendary club.
Five live albums recorded at the Whiskey soon followed, as did some 30 million albums sold around the world, and hit singles like “Secret Agent Man” and “Poor Side of Town.”
This week, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Whiskey, Johnny Rivers is back in town, headlining a concert. Johnny Rivers, an honor to have you on this program.
Johnny Rivers: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Tavis: Does it seem like five decades?
Rivers: No, it went by so quickly. (Laughter) Like a life lesson. But it’s really a thrill to be able to relive that again a little bit and play some of those songs, and celebrate this anniversary and have the bottom line proceeds go to the Music in Schools program, which we’ve been initiating around the country.
Tavis: Tell me more about that first.
Rivers: Most recently we did the Riverside Academy in Reserve, Louisiana, which is like a suburb of New Orleans, with Deacon John Moore, who’s a legendary blues guitar player.
The next day we did it at McKinley high school in Baton Rouge, my old home town, with Herman Jackson, B.B. King’s drummer. It’s great, because we teach the students that are interested in getting into music how to really go about it.
We explain to them that music is like a wonderful fruit tree that bears all kinds of fruit off this one tree, but deep down in the ground is the roots, and the roots is the 12-bar blues.
So if you’re going to get into music, you’ve got to learn the 12-bar blues, and that’s the old expression – blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits.
Tavis: That’s true.
Rivers: You see.
Tavis: That is very true. Take me back 50 years ago to the Whiskey. I want to just kind of close my eyes and have you just kind of set the scene for me 50 years ago.
Rivers: Well, opening night was very exciting, because they had really done a great job PRing the thing. We had Klieg lights out in front. It was almost like a Hollywood premiere. People were lined up down the street.
I had played at another club, Gazzari’s down on La Cienega, a small little place, it was like a restaurant. Basically, we brought our following up from there. We had already gotten it started.
I was approached on the idea by Elmer Valentine, who conceived the whole idea. But the original Whiskey a Go Go was a small little club in Paris, France that only played records, and people danced. It was the hot spot in Paris.
So Elmer was there on a vacation, he saw that and he loved it. When he told me the name, I said, “What kind of name is that?” He said, “Well, got this place in Paris, and they call it a discotheque.”
I said (unintelligible). He said, “So what we’d like you to do is we want you to play three sets a night, but in between we’ll have these gals dressed in fringes, and they’ll play records in between your set so people can keep dancing.”
So that’s how that all came about, and we were playing, and all I did was play all these old songs that I had played back in my old band in Baton Rouge – Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles, because I was a big – I grew up with the blues in that part of the country. You couldn’t help it, back in the ’50s.
Tavis: The audience was made up routinely of who’s who. You’ve got people like Bob Dylan and the Stones and others coming to see you on stage. How do you look out in the audience at Dylan, at Dylan’s face –
Rivers: Bob used to come in – well, he didn’t go out in the audience, but he would come out and hang out with us. At that time he was known as the guy that wrote that song for Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Blowing,” he hadn’t really had a hit record yet. (Laughter)
Then later on he hit with “Like a Rolling Stone” and became a giant superstar. But he was just this great guy that wanted to hang out, and we’d talk. We’d talk about music, and he loved the blues and whatever as well.
But one night in August of ’64 we were playing, and all of a sudden the crowd shifted over to one side of the room. I asked my bass player, “What’s going on?” He says, “I think the Beatles are here,” and they had just done their first appearance at the Hollywood Bowl.
So John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo came in, and John’s date was Jayne Mansfield.
Rivers: So –
Tavis: Not a bad date if you can get it.
Rivers: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: Jayne Mansfield, wow.
Rivers: But Elmer took me over and introduced me to them and stuff, and then later on we actually met them about a year later in Europe, when I played a place in London. All four of them came, and that was great. But that was exciting.
Tavis: That’s got to be a thrill, though, to have people of that stature come just to hang out with you.
Rivers: Well, and have guys like Steve McQueen, who actually wrote the liner notes on the back of my third album. I used to ride motorcycles with him, and Gina Lollobrigida or Cary Grant dancing in front of you. (Laughter) It was unbelievable. I kind of got used to it. I almost took it for granted. But it was a thrill.
Tavis: What made the Whiskey such a fertile place for these live recordings?
Rivers: Well, it could have actually been done anywhere. It’s just that we had it going there, and so we brought in the remote truck. Back in those days we only had three tracks to record, so you had to mic everything just right.
We didn’t have enough mics to – enough tracks to mic the audience, although the audience was clapping and singing along. So then after we recorded it we’d have to go in the studio and bring in a bunch of our friends and add some more clapping and singing on it to simulate the audience reaction that we had live in the club.
Tavis: What are you most looking forward to about this gig 50 years later?
Rivers: Well, it’s just being able to – a lot of the people that are coming from all around the country, I’ve got friends coming from New Orleans and St. Louis and working with Jimmy Webb as well, such a great talent.
We hadn’t worked together in quite a while. We started out together in the ’60s, and it’s a thrill to be able to perform with him again.
Tavis: What are you – there’s a part of me that’s loath to ask this question, but I am really curious as to your point of view, which is what do you make of this rock and roll genre 50 years later?
Rivers: Well, it’s still going, and it’s just basically the blues. That’s, again, getting back to the foundation of what we’re teaching these young kids, is you’ve got to learn the blues, because that’s the roots of it all.
That’s where jazz came from, that’s where country music came from, it’s where bluegrass – it all came from the blues. So you learn that, and then you have the foundation and you can go on and do classical music, you can do whatever you want from there. But you’ve got to learn that first.
I think that’s why rock music in its different forms still has that basic root thing to it that feels good. It has to have that groove. It’s like Duke Ellington said: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Tavis: “If it ain’t got that swing.”
Rivers: That’s right.
Tavis: Do-wop, do-wop, do-wop, do-wop.
Rivers: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: So what do you – I’m curious, what do you make, Johnny, of the fact that – and I say this with all due respect – what do you make of the fact that 50 years later, that you are still here.
You’re still here, you’re still playing, you’re looking sharp, you’re looking good.
Rivers: Thank you. (Laughter) For an old dude.
Tavis: I ask – well, I ask that because there are – you’re going exactly where I wanted to go. There are a bunch of folk from that era who did it long enough to get – my mom used to say to me; my mom does say to me all the time that the only way you don’t live to get old is that you die young.
Rivers: That’s exactly right.
Tavis: Somebody else said only the good die young.
Rivers: We lost so many great musicians and artists because they got caught up in that whole drug deal and all of that stuff.
Tavis: Precisely. So what do you make of the fact that you’re still here 50 years later?
Rivers: Well, because I didn’t do that, and I took care of myself. Basically I’m a vegetarian, I run every day, I exercise. I kind of control my living habits. I try to get a good night’s sleep every night, I don’t stay up all night and do all that stuff.
Tavis: Yeah, not anymore.
Rivers: Yeah, I had my time. (Laughter) But not these days. It’s great, and I can still get out there and perform. I still enjoy that. I’m at a point in my life now where I’ve been blessed to have this long career. We want to be able to give back to the next generation and let them know where rock came from, where rap music came from, where hip-hop came from. It’s all from the blues.
Tavis: Yeah. I don’t want you to give the show away, not the playlist top to bottom, but just give me some sense of, just give me a little bit of what’s on the playlist, just a little taste.
Rivers: Well, we’re going to do the hits. You have to do the hits.
Tavis: Yeah, you got to do the hits.
Rivers: Everybody’s got to play their hits. But we’ve got some new songs and some cool album cuts, and I’m going to do a song with Jimmy that he wrote that’s in his new album, and then we’re all going to get together and jam. I got the Waters family, Maxine, Julia, and Oren.
Tavis: They can sing.
Rivers: Yeah, and they can sing, man.
Tavis: They can sing. (Laughter)
Rivers: We’re going to all do a big jam at the end. It’s going to be fun.
Tavis: Well, I’m sure at this point you couldn’t get a ticket if you wanted to, unless you kind of knew Johnny Rivers personally.
Rivers: I don’t even have any. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. That was Johnny’s way of saying if you’re watching this, don’t call me. (Laughter) I don’t have any more tickets to give you.
Tavis: I know you are going to have a blast. Fifty years later, Johnny Rivers is back on the scene. Good to have you here.
Tavis: Congratulations in advance.
Rivers: I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Tavis: I know it’s going to be a great show.
Rivers: Thanks a lot.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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