Many Rivers to cross
A conversation with the Secret Agent Man
By Chris Jay 05/31/2012
Johnny Rivers’ career has been nothing short of amazing. Though best known for “Secret Agent Man,” a song so ubiquitous that it’s become his nickname, Rivers’ other accomplishments are often overlooked. He single-handedly fought the British Invasion in the early ’60s, he penned the No. 1 hit song “Poor Side of Town,” he started his own label and publishing company long before most artists even dreamed of doing so, and even Bob Dylan said that Rivers’ version of “Positively 4th Street” was his favorite cover version ever of any of his songs. (Think about that one for a second.) All that and Rivers still isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. VCReporter caught up with Rivers to discuss the current state of the industry, being Bob’s favorite and how he really feels about not being inducted.
VC Reporter: Your career is a perfect example of the longevity and diversity that’s almost impossible to have anymore. What’s your take on the music industry in 2012?
Johnny Rivers: It’s just a shame what happened to the major record companies. They were out of touch and lost control. Most of the artists now start their own labels and sell their music online and on their websites. I kind of miss the old days, though. Real vinyl records with artwork and all that involved. Real record companies with big promotion and radio departments. Real record stores. It’s just a different world now. I think it was probably easier then, but maybe not ’cause back in the day you couldn’t start your own website. There was none of that stuff. If you didn’t sign to a record company that promoted you properly, you had no chance of making it as a recording artist, whereas these days a lot of these groups start themselves and have success. The changes in the industry have had an upside and downside.
Bob Dylan said in his book that he liked your version of “Positively 4th Street” more than his own.
Not only that, he said, of all the recorded versions of his songs, and it’s probably two or three thousand versions of his various songs, he said that my version of “Positively 4th Street” was his absolute favorite.
That’s amazing. You’ve had things like that happen in your career but the general public is more aware of you for just a few specific songs.
Like “Secret Agent Man”?
Exactly. Do you embrace that or do you feel a lot of your work has been overlooked because of it?
I embrace it. You know, Eddie Van Halen came up to me once and said, “You know, I used to listen to “Secret Agent Man” over and over again when I was learning to play guitar.” (Laughs.) A lot of people learned to play guitar with that riff. I can live with that.
You’ve got a benefit show coming up in Ojai. Do you still enjoy performing as much as you did when you first started all those years ago?
I love playing. It’s all I’ve done all my life. I love doing live performances more than anything. It’s a benefit, too. There’re a lot of young bands opening up. I love that. So it should be a great time up there. I love the area and it’s helping out a school.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony just happened, and I know you must get this a lot, but for crying out loud, when are they going to let you in?
I’m in the Axl Rose camp. (Laughs.) It’s so political. To me it’s kind of a misnomer. A lot of the artists that are in there don’t even play rock and roll. Most of the time when people ask me how come you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I go, “Well, I’m just lucky I guess.” (Laughs.)
Johnny Rivers will perform at the Summit Music Fest on Saturday, June 2, 2-10 p.m. The event features other local entertainment, food, beer and wine. Sulphur Mountain Road, Upper Ojai. For more information and tickets, call 727-1393 or visit www.summitmusicfest.org.