History credits the British Invasion with reintroducing rock and roll to the Americans who, failing to appreciate their good fortune, had chosen to discard or declaw it. Not only does this perspective underestimate the surf rockers, R&B artists and early garage rockers who mutated and perpetuated the genre – lest we forget, “Louie Louie” was a hit before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but it also overlooks the ’50s-style rockers who carried the flame. One of the leaders of the first rock and roll revival was Johnny Rivers, a white singer and guitarist from Louisiana who had been playing rock for nearly a decade before scoring his first hit, a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that climbed to #2 in amid the UK deluge of 1964. While Rivers built his career remaking familiar rock and R&B hits, he was closer in spirit to early Rolling Stones than Pat Boone redux. Rather than watering down the form, he emphasized the viscerality and rougher edges by recording his first several albums and singles live at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles – even as the tight band, female backing singers and clubby atmosphere ensured nothing got too out of hand. Rivers followed “Memphis” with a string of other Top 20 covers, including Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” as well as the Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan original “Secret Agent Man,” originally recorded as the theme song for the imported and retitled UK TV series Danger Man.
Rivers’s sole number-one hit, however, was a conscious departure from the “go-go sound” that had made him famous. One of Rivers’s rare self-penned singles,“Poor Side of Town” updates the Righteous Brothers’ orchestral blue-eyed balladry by toning down the melodrama and adding a light Motown-ish groove. (He’d carry the formula to its logical conclusion on his similarly-arranged covers of “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “The Tracks of My Tears” the following year). The storyline of the song itself is fairly standard stuff: poor girl leaves poor boy for rich guy; girl gets dumped; girl retreats back to the Poor Side of Town. As the poor boy, Rivers at first greets the girl’s return guarded and a little bitter: “How can you tell me how much you miss me/ when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me?” As the song progresses, though, he begins to soften and admit he still loves her, even as he acknowledges she’s settling (“I can’t blame you for tryin’/ I’m tryin’ to make it too”). Rivers recasts the title line at the end of each verse to chart the narrator’s emotional progression: from sarcasm (“welcome back, baby, to … ”), to melancholic longing (“it’s hard to find nice things, on … ”), to hope (“together we can make it, baby, from the poor side of town”). The song’s arrangement emphasizes the class divide, contrasting street-level rock elements (the gently stinging guitar, Rivers’s slack enunciation, the doo-wop “shooby-dooby” vocals) with a plush bed of strings and the serene, pure-toned vocals of The Blossoms.
“Poor Side of Town” finds Rivers experimenting with recasting rock and roll in a more “adult” format, perhaps inspired by the polished R&B/country blend of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds recordings. Yet there’s also the sense that perhaps he and producer Lou Adler had overcorrected a little. Rivers’s tremulous phrasing hints at the complexity of reactions brought on by the girl’s return, but the overbright production threatens to blow out any emotional shading. Even if Rivers was attempting to emphasize the divide between the straightforward, authentic poor side and the empty gloss of the rich, the latter actually grows more dominant as it’s supposed to be fading in the rearview. The Blossoms’ role doesn’t seem quite worked out either. Despite getting two lines to themselves near the end, they’re not there to add the woman’s perspective but to reinforce the narrator’s – why else would they cooingly echo the charges of “plaything” and “overnight fling”?
By the time Rivers released the accompanying LP (pointedly titled Changes), he and Adler had refined the use of lush instrumentation to add sophistication and poignancy without contradicting the emotional current. In a way, Rivers’ mid-to-late ’60s records were no less experimental than what was going on in the rest of the rock world at the time – only rather than drawing from the avant-garde or expanding on roots genres (folk, blues, country), he was trying to see how much polish rock could take without losing its form. It might not have been as hip as what the British acts were doing, but it was perhaps more prescient of the direction mainstream rock was headed in the decade to come. 6
Hit #1 on November 12, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
173 of 1024 #1’s reviewed; 16.89% through the Hot 100