Ya know, sometimes things just get interesting around here. As I produce show after show, week after week, rarely a day goes by that something extraordinary doesn’t happen, either on stage or off, on the phone or in person.
I’ll start our weekly journey with a show that we did last Saturday night. It was with the legendary Johnny Rivers. He charted several times between 1964 and 1967, and continued to do so well into the ’70s. His biggest hits include: “Memphis” (rising to No. 2 on the music charts, 1964), “Mountain Of Love” (No. 9, 1964), “Seventh Son” (No. 7, 1965), “The Poor Side Of Town” (No. 1, 1966), “Baby I Need Your Lovin’ ” (No. 3, 1967) and “Secret Agent Man” (No. 3, 1966).
Rivers is definitely a hitmaker, and remains as popular today as he ever was.
We do so many shows at The Arcada, and many sell out our 900-seat theater. But you would be surprised who doesn’t sell out. We get good numbers, but they don’t “pack” the place. Especially artists from the 1960s. In Johnny’s case, he waaaaaaaay sold out, for the second year in a row!
Johnny is a pretty humble guy, but he is a perfectionist and can get a bit “impatient.” His sound check is extremely thorough, and he does not leave the stage until it is absolutely the way it should be. I welcomed him back to the theater, and he responded, “Hey Ron, how’s it goin’?” in that familiar Baton Rouge, Louisiana, accent.
I had just been in New York City and told him I was in a cab there and the driver played his hit “Secret Agent Man” over and over, like three times! He asked where I was in New York, and I told him I was in the Bronx, my favorite part of NYC. “Did you know I was born there?” he proudly asked.
“Yep,” he said. “Right around the transition between rhythm and blues into rock ‘n’ roll in the South, my father got a job and moved me and my brother down there. Guys like Fats Domino would play our high school dances. That’s what got me into rock, and it was a good thing it happened when it did. I probably would have been doing the ‘do-wop’ thing like Dion!”
One of my favorite songs growing up was “Secret Agent Man” by Rivers. It is one of those songs everybody knew, and it just sounded cool to sing. It was like playing air drums and guitar to the Surfaris’ “Wipeout.” It was just that cool. It came out in 1966, rose to No. 3 on the charts, and has remained a fan favorite to this day. It was the last song of his live show at The Arcada that night, and the crowd went absolutely crazy upon his finale.
So there we were, backstage after the show. He was toweling off, after throwing me a shot about the “warmth” of the theater. (“Hey Ron, throw another log on the air conditioning,” he shouted to me from the stage during his show.) “Man, they still love ‘Secret Agent Man,’ ” I keenly observed.
“Yes, it is still the thing I get asked about the most, and it is still fun to perform,” Rivers said.
“It wasn’t actually a song in the beginning,” he blurted. “I actually wrote a few regional hits prior to that and we started to tour abroad. It actually all started when we were touring in England. We did a place called the Ad Lib club in London. These four guys came in specifically to see us. It turned out to be the Beatles! I got to be friendly with George (Harrison). We talked about Elvis and Carl Perkins, whom I knew very well. My band members hung out with the rest of them, it was a very cool, laid back night.”
He continued: “We then met the producers of a very popular television show in the U.K. called ‘Danger Man.’ They were bringing the show to the states and needed an opening song, one that was more ‘hip’ for the American audience, since theirs was based on an instrumental version featuring a harpsichord. My producer, Lou Adler, was also the producer for the team of two performer/songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. So Lou got us all together and we came up with the theme song,” Johnny said.
“What do you mean it wasn’t a song in the beginning,” I asked. “Well, it was just supposed to be an opening of a TV show,” he said. “So we just recorded a verse, a chorus and a little instrumental part. But everybody was bombarding the radio stations to play the song, but it didn’t exist! So we went into the studio and recorded the whole song, and people went nuts over it!”
I had never really heard of P.F. Sloan before, so after the show on Saturday night, I went back to my office to shut down, as I customarily do. Before I closed my computer, I Googled this P.F. Sloan guy. He was a guitarist who played on many session albums, including some for the vocal group of the Sixties, The Mamas and the Papas. He went on to write for groups including Jan and Dean, the Turtles and Herman’s Hermits. Along with Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” he wrote the Vietnam protest anthem “Eve Of Destruction” for Barry McGuire.
“Wow!” I thought it would be cool to try and contact this guy, maybe to bring him to the theater, or even just for an interview on my radio show or for this column. That was Saturday night. A few hours later, I learned P.F. Sloan passed away from pancreatic cancer at 70 years old.
As I said, some pretty interesting things happen in my crazy world, on a regular basis. The way I got to “meet” P.F. Sloan was a bit odd, and somewhat unfulfilling as it turns out, yet it happened in such a way that from not knowing him, I got to know him well, in a hurry.
Equally odd is that I now say goodbye to this songwriting icon. P.F. Sloan took his last breaths almost at the same time Johnny Rivers was performing Sloan’s biggest song on our historic stage. A salute to him, and an honor for us.