[5 December 2007]
For a while, Johnny Rivers was the toast of Tinseltown. When Elmer Valentine offered him a one-year contract to open his new club on Sunset Strip little did the journeyman musician and songwriter from Baton Rouge know his star would soon be in the ascendent. The Whisky á Go-Go’s doors swung open on January 15, 1964, and the star-packed L.A. in-crowd were ready to party, and party hard, to Rivers’ funky reinterpretations of rock ‘n’ roll standards and classic R&B, inadvertently kicking off the handclapping, watusi dancing Go-Go sound. Luckily, these riotous performances were captured on a string of live albums, starting with Johnny Rivers Live at the Whisky á Go-Go, produced by Lou Adler, that rewarded the performer with five top ten singles in the Billboard charts and his very own mansion on the hill. Not bad for a man who once said about his Louisiana upbringing, “We weren’t poor, we were double poor”.
However, as the decade slipped downstream in an hallucinogenic haze, Rivers found the hits drying up. Behind the scene, he was right up there, forming his own record label Soul City and signing West Coast soul-popsters the Fifth Dimension (he also played guitar on their recordings), as well as co-founding the Monterey Pop Festival with Adler, John Philips, and Paul Simon; however, by the time 1967 rolled around, he had only one more ‘60s hit left in him. That the sublime ballad “Summer Rain” (included here with an alluring flugelhorn solo by Chuck Findley) was possibly the best song he’d recorded and appeared, the following year, on his finest album, Realization, a record that musically and lyrically acknowledged the “Summer of Love” vibe without jumping on the bandwagon like so many others, seems downright unjust—especially when you consider that this marked the beginning of Rivers’s years in the wilderness as a recording artist and his current status as one of the most underrated performers of his generation.
But when Rivers took to the stage at the Olympia Theater on May 23 , 1973 to record Last Boogie in Paris, the final show of a gruelling European tour, he was riding on the back of his first big chart success in five years. Luck, second sight or more likely a longing to get back to his musical roots saw the soulful singer jump the gun on the mid-‘70s rock ‘n’ roll revival and release two albums in quick succession—L.A. Reggae and Blue Suede Shoes—producing reworked smash-hit singles of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, respectively. Finally, exhilirating live versions of both these songs can be heard here for the first time on Last Boogie in Paris: the Complete Concert, which, apart for a limited eight-song, Europe-only release by Atlantic the following year, was criminally left on the shelf until Shout! Factory and Rivers put their heads together.
After the singer introduces the L.A. Boogie Band—a group of session musicians, including jazz pianist Mike Melvoin on B3 organ, saxophonist Jim Horn and drummer Jim Gordon, who initially came together in the studio to record Blue Suede Shoes and ended up sounding as tight as any rock band on the road—the album starts proper with another Smith-penned tune “Sea Cruise”, a pumpin’ piano boogie that neatly sets the tone for the rest of the concert with its stabs of electric guitar and soaring, hornline flourishes. The handclapping, fingerpopping action of earlier live recordings has been replaced with a southern soul sweep which loses none of the former’s rockin’ energy but adds smooth arrangements that truly swing on an eclectic mix of tunes such as Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’, a couple of Motown covers, “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” and the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”, and a crowd favorite of little-known country artist Rex Griffin, “Walkin’ Bues”.
Elsewhere, Rivers successfully reprises his first big hit from 1964, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”, and fires up Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, while a bluegrass reworking of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face” seems oddly out of place but in a good way. Yet as with most live performances, there are the occassional misjudged moments. For example, the band never quite gel on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, while the Rivers-penned closing number “John Lee Hooker ‘74” at ten minutes plus with its call-and-response crowd participation falls into the category of “You had to have been there”. Nevertheless, listening to the entire concert 34 years later just makes you stop and wonder what the hell the executives at Atlantic were thinking back in 1973.