Johnny does a covers album.
Well, Johnny was never adverse to covers anyway.
Normally, three quarters(or more) of the songs on any of his albums are covers. He wrote, but rarely.
What he does is add his “go go” beat to the songs or otherwise turn them around to satisfy his stylistic desires.
And, usually, this works (on me) because Rivers knows what he is doing and he happens to like music I otherwise like.
I had said this in another comment on him: “I never had much time for Johnny Rivers in my youth. He always seemed neither here nor there as I thought he was a MOR act just playing some rock n roll….. On the plus side it seemed that a lot of people who I quite liked, liked him. Also his albums were in abundance in op shops…. The more I listened the more worth I found in his music. I’m still not sure that he will make the upper echelons of my favourites but what I have found, with the passage of time, is a singer who is very smart, knows his music, understands his historical context and can sing and excite when needed… And that is enough … isn’t it?”
Look to my other comments for background on Johnny but it is fair to say that “old school” rock “n” roll is something he was brought up on and loved. In the mid to late 60s he became a little more contemporary and “introspective” (didn’t everyone post Dylan?) but ultimately he was a rock n roller at heart.
This album, luckily, came out at a time when the complexity and introspective excesses of the late 60s and early 70s were being readdressed by a turn to old school rock.
Bowie put out “Pin Ups” (1973) as a tribute to his 60s influences, Bryan Ferry put out “These Foolish Things” (1973) with many of his favourite 50s and 60s tunes and “Another Time, Another Place” (1974), Dylan put out “Self Portrait” (1970) and “Dylan” (1973) (the last against his wishes) both with a fair chunk of covers, Nilsson put out “Pussycats’ (1974) which, also, had a fair amount of covers, The Band put out “Moondog Matinee” (1973) and John Lennon put out “Rock n Roll” in 1975.
And, arguably, putting aside blind fan devotion aside (for example I prefer Bowie over Rivers but his covers album is not as good) this is as good an album as any of the others and certainly better than the Dylan, Bowie and Lennon LPs.
When is a covers album a covers album?
It’s arguable that most of Elvis’ LP output could be called covers albums. Well, that is the case, at least, when he wasn’t having music written for him or pitched to him. But, in all fairness, his songs don’t always come off as covers because he was a supreme interpreter and one where his stylistic personality (often) overshadowed any earlier memory of the song.
Not always, but very often.
Rivers has a distinctive style but doesn’t always make the songs his own.
What he does have is smarts and a rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
Rather than try to make the songs his own he just plays them straight with a “go go” beat, albeit a rootsy, organic “go go” beat which is in tune with the times (1973). On this album we have 50s rock, 60s soul, 60s folk rock, 50s R&B and it works because Rivers has approached most songs from this roots perspective. (he had dipped his toe into this well with his previous album “L.A. Reggae” from 1972). Rivers also produced the album, so clearly he knew what he was looking for. Interestingly, he called Side I (up to "Solitary Man") "1955 – 1965" whilst Side 2 is called the "Boogie Side". Rivers dedication and enjoyment is palatable, so much so that you don’t feel you have to compare the songs (as much) to the original versions.
This stripped down rootsy interpretation would in some ways anticipate the (later period) Flaming Groovies, NRBQ, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Blue Suede Shoes – (Carl Perkins) – a pretty good cover pitched somewhere between Elvis’ version and the Carl Perkins original, both from 1956.
- Medley: Searchin' (J. Leiber/M. Stoller) / So Fine (J. Otis) – a smart medley of the Searchers 1957 #3 hit with the Johnny Otis which was a hit (#11US) for The Fiestas in 1959.
- It's Allright – (C. Mayfield) – The Impressions hit (#4US, 1963) with horns and all – nothing is added.
- Hang On Sloopy – (B. Russell, W. Farrell) – The McCoys had a #1US in 1965 with this (and The Vibrations had a #26US in 1964 under the title "My Girl Sloopy"). This version is well done and updated to the 70s without being trashy. Nice keyboard work also.
- I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better – (G. Clark) – The great Gene Clark Byrds song (from 1965) has been covered by everyone. This version is not as sublime as the original but is quite rollicking and a lot of fun. But, the song was great to start off with.
- Solitary Man – (N. Diamond) – This Neil Diamond song from 1966 (also, done by many others) suits Rivers perfectly. His performance is good (and a little gruffer than the original). Diamond didn't have a hit with it until 1970 (#21US).
- Over The Line – (M. Omartian, P. Dahlstrom) – Patti Dahlstrom wrote this with Michael Omartin and the song seems to be an original, or at least, not a charting hit for anyone. It's a funky horn driven workout.
- Willie And The Hand Jive – (J. Otis) – Johnny Otis again. Here he had a hit with the song in 1958 (#9US) with his Johnny Otis Show. This is funky and well done.
- Got My Mojo Workin' – (P. Foster) – First recorded by Ann Cole, but a hit for Muddy Waters in 1957 (#9US). Rivers seems to following Elvis' arrangement of the song from his “Love Letters from Elvis” album of 1971. It was not the first time Johnny had covered a song Elvis had done and it would not be the last. His version here is good but not the carnal explosion that is the Elvis version.
- Turn On Your Love Light – (D. Malone, J. Scott* ) – The Bobby Bland hit (#28US) from 1961. This is an excellent version.
A good party album…. I'm keeping it.
Now if I could only find some like minded people to come to my party.
1973 Blue Suede Shoes The Billboard Hot 100 #38
He never had any chart action in England.
I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better
- In praise of cover art. The picture doesn't do the sleeve justice but there is a lot of thought in here. The sleeve is textured with raised ridges framing the picture of Johnny in the middle. Shoeless, he is, despite the name of the album. That picture lifts (it seems to be a postcard) and underneath it printed into the sleeve is a pair of blue suede shoes. The album title is likewise raised and done to resemble shoe laces. It's not Sgt Peppers but thought still went into it.
Muscians: Backing Vocals – Herb Pederson, James Hendricks, Michael Georgiades , Bass – Joe Osborn, Congas, Instruments [Special Effects] – Gary Coleman, Drums – Jim Gordon, Guitar – Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Piano, Organ, Backing Vocals – Michael Omartian, Saxophone – Jackie Kelso, Jim Horn, Trumpet – Chuck Finley, Producer, Vocals, Guitar, Backing Vocals – Johnny Rivers