Perfect Sound Forever

Johnny Rivers's Home Grown (1971)

A Singer-Songwriter Album Even Better Than Its Cover... and Its Covers
by Kurt Wildermuth
(August 2022)

Odds are, if you've been attuned to popular music of the past half-century, you've heard the two hits from 1966 for which Johnny Rivers is best known: "Secret Agent Man" and "Poor Side of Town." These mid-tempo miracles of pop-rock construction are so hook-laden that you can probably conjure at least parts of their melodies and lyrics ("They've given you a number..." "So welcome back, baby, to the..."), and you might even be able to mentally reconstruct their twangy guitar licks.

"Secret Agent Man" began as a TV show theme, composed by Steve Barri and P. F. Sloan and performed by Rivers; popular demand led this team to expand it into a full song. "Poor Side of Town" was a rarity for Rivers, especially at the peak of his popularity--an original, which he cowrote with his producer, Lou Adler.

Two years earlier, Adler had coproduced Barry McGuire's timeless folk-pop hit "Eve of Destruction" with Barri and Sloan, who was its writer. Adler also worked with the Mamas and the Papas, Spirit, and others. He may be best known, however, for producing Carole King's Tapestry, an immediate cultural touchstone that won four Grammys.

King's blockbuster was released in February 1971. That same year, Johnny Rivers covered one of its songs on his album Home Grown.

Rivers--born John Ramistella in New York and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana--had and may still have a resonant voice with a slight twang. Although he displayed an early ability to write hits, he seemed meant by nature and nurture not necessarily to write but to sing. In his prime, he delivered the kinds of easily accessible songs that sounded expansive and exciting on AM radio, where the hits lived.

Rivers had a signature sound: equal parts voice, richly strummed guitar chords, immaculately recorded bass and drums, and handclaps. He also had an interpretive versatility, a chameleonlike ability to adjust himself to the song, a facility that suggested falsely but entertainingly that he could sing anything. In short, as a singer he was a kind of male Karen Carpenter--a professional purveyor of honest feeling, an expressive artist who was also a formalist--though he was less technically gifted than she was.

For some listeners, Rivers begins with "Secret Agent Man" and ends with "Poor Side of Town." For others, a Rivers compilation does nicely, supplementing those twin peaks with additional hits and career highlights, nearly all of them covers: Chuck Berry's "Memphis," Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," Huey "Piano" Smith and John Vincent's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," and so on.

And then there are the albums: From the mid- to late sixties, Rivers recorded pop-rock, folk-rock, and mildly psychedelic covers, many of them live at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles. In the early seventies, he turned to singer-songwriter material, crafting collections that counted as his own artistic statements while consisting largely of other people's compositions. Rivers's Home Grown, a self-produced mix of covers and originals, is as heartfelt, personal, finely constructed, and cohesive as any album from the singer-songwriters of the period.

Home Grown has, serendipitously, turned me from an admirer to a true fan of Rivers, wanting to celebrate this vastly underrated album so as to spread the word about the man's talents. Although I never buy records just for the album covers, the cover of Home Grown sold me on a vintage copy. Put together the year 1971 with the "scrapbook" artwork--the reproduced embroidery on the burlap-textured cardboard; the collage of personal snapshots of the artist, his family, his band members, and scenes of rural life; the doodles and handwritten notes--and you pretty much know what the music will sound like. It will have that organic folk-rock-in-the-woods sound you love on records of the period by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Melanie, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judee Sill, the Band, Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, and so on.

Indeed, whereas on the previous year's Slim Slo Slider, Rivers covered two Van Morrison songs, here, on side 1, he performs two of Jackson Browne's: "Our Lady of the Well" and "Rock Me on the Water." Side 2 includes covers of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Carole King's "So Far Away," and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain." If you know Rivers had a way with other people's songs, when you see these titles, you want to hear his takes.

The musicians include session players who, as members of the loose collective known as the Wrecking Crew, had worked with Rivers from the mid-sixties on, such as pianist Larry Knechtel, bassist Joe Osborne, and guitarists Mike Deasy and James Burton. The latter, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Ron Tutt, and arranger Glenn D. Hardin were Elvis Presley's T.C.B. (Taking Care of Business) Band in the early seventies. Drummer Jim Keltner also belonged to the Wrecking Crew, though he hadn't played with Rivers; after Home Grown, he would go on to decades of session work, especially with the ex-Beatles John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr; and his presence here helps explain the album's sonic resemblance to some of their early-seventies recordings, to which Rivers, who'd covered the Beatles in the sixties, must have listened.

Harrison, of course, infused his own music with his religious beliefs, and Rivers might have taken inspiration from that practice. Christianity runs through these songs, from scattered lyrical references to themes to the final track, "Think His Name." The name happens to be Jesus, though here it is sung exuberantly by the Guru Ramdas Ashram Singers. Whereas that choir may put you in mind of Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," from 1970, Rivers's jaunty music, heavy on the strummed guitar and handclaps, sounds like it could have inspired the Faces' quite secular "Ooh La La," which came out two years after Home Grown.

"Think His Name" ends side 2, so if you really can't stand such exhortations or musical professions of faith generally, you can enjoy the rest of the album and just lose the last four and a half minutes. I tell you this, though: After years of picking up the needle before Peter Tosh launched into his acoustic sermon at the end of 1978's Bush Doctor, I finally let Tosh's track play through and found it moving, if still short of a conversion experience. So, I advocate lightening up, giving "Think His Name" a chance, and maybe enjoying the chants.

But we're starting at the end of the album. Flip Home Grown over and you'll find, at the start of side 1, Johnny Rivers "moving to the country" in a song by that title. The album credits identify the writers of this song as Charles D. Harris and Ron Milo Duquette, who sing with Rivers on it.

In researching Harris and Duquette, I discovered a 2016 blog page wherein blogger Frank/Franko pays the exact kind of tribute to Rivers's album that I'm offering. Just to be clear: I'd written all the previous paragraphs before reading that page. Even though this ground's been covered, I'm hoping to reach readers--you, perhaps--who otherwise might not have appreciated Rivers or Home Grown.

I'm finishing this piece before reading the rest of the blog post. At this point, though, I thank Frank/Franko for the revelation that Harris and Duquette were in the country-pop-folk-psych-rock band Charley D. and Milo. That band's one, self-titled album was released by Epic Records in 1970. It doesn't include "Moving to the Country," but it does include lots of lovely music, memorably a cover of Dylan's always-welcome "I'll Keep It with Mine."

According to Discogs, Milo was billed as Ron Milo DuQuette on the band's album. His Wikipedia page confirms this name, so presumably the "alternative" version noted above was a faulty transcription in Rivers's handwritten credits. However, just to make life more interesting and these paragraphs knottier, DuQuette, an expert on magick who has authored a set of Tarot cards, is "also known as Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford and by his neo-Gnostic bishop title of Tau Lamed," so possibly he was playing with his name, such as by calling himself Ron Milo Duquette, even in 1971.

For the record, Milo's musical partner, the late Charley D.--billed as Charlie on Home Grown--was also known as Charley Packard and the Reverend Charley Packard. His online memorials, from people he worked with as a substance-abuse counselor and marriage officiator, are worth reading because they're so touching.

Finally, according to Discogs, the pianist on Charley D. and Milo was Larry Knechtel, aka Larry Knechtel, who presumably was the connection between Harris, DuQuette, and Rivers.

"Moving to the Country" starts Home Grown off with a mellow Neil Young vibe. Imagine the melody of "Down by the River" or "Southern Man" married to the music of "Harvest." But don't imagine "Horse with No Name," the band America's confusingly Young-like hit. Rivers sounds not like Young but like a folk-country version of himself, the bearded, blissed-out dude on the album cover, singing of "better days" on the horizon. That the song is no put-on is verified by the tasty piano playing throughout and it's ultimately sold by the fluid guitar solo. These bearded, blissed-out dudes can play! (Well, duh, some of them belonged to the legendary Wrecking Crew. This album was no thrown-together hippie jam.)

Track 2, "My New Life," continues the calm existential thread, its acoustic guitar helping Rivers sound like the voice of sincerity as he celebrates a turning point. The song was written by Frank Kinsel, a folk-rocker whose debut album was released, like Charley D. and Milo, by Epic Records in 1970. Coincidence? Since Home Grown came out on United Artists, the connection between these artists is obscure, though of course Rivers was a music-biz insider. If pianist Knechtel connected Rivers with Charley D. and Milo, perhaps they connected Rivers with Kinsel.

But who connected Rivers with Jackson Browne, whose two songs appear on Side 1? Browne didn't release the pastoral, faux-historical, New Testament-referencing "Our Lady of the Well" until 1972, or the apocalyptic yet redemptive "Rock Me on the Water" until '73, but somehow these songs reached Rivers. Rivers's Van Morrison covers bore their writer's trademarked vocal style, but these Browne covers don't sound like knockoffs. They continue Home Grown's unified feel; their arrangements detailed but not fussy.

Between and after the Browne covers are, respectively, "Look at the Sun," cowritten by Kinsel and Rivers, and Rivers's own "Song for Michael." On the former, acoustic guitar provides continuity while fiddle, pedal steel, and a repeating background vocal that hauntingly echoes Rivers's lead vocal provide novelty. Rivers sounds a million miles from "Secret Agent Man" but utterly at home delivering this brief, incredibly sweet paean to sunlight and, by extension, existence.

Shimmering guitar and trills from a flute (by the Wrecking Crew's Jim Horn) open "Song for Michael." Rivers's young son, Michael Amphilius Rivers-Ramistella, speaks briefly on this song, wherein his father exhibits the utmost humility in wanting to both entertain the listener and celebrate the father/son relationship and, by extension, ties among people. The arrangement drifts around like the singer's contemplations. By the end, the band has kicked in, the backup singers are charged up, and all sounds right with the world.

Side 2 brings us yet another Rivers original, "Permanent Change." Powered by James Burton's dobro picking, this one sounds like good-time country but presents philosophical messages as the singer again contemplates changing his life:

You only get what you give
The way you die is the way you live
And what you want is not always what you need

. . . And the only thing that's permanent is change

One answer is to embrace the here and now. Another is to follow Curtis Mayfield's advice in the next song and "get ready, for the train to Jordan." This version of "People Get Ready" won't make you forget the Impressions' unsurpassable original, from 1965, but it's lovingly crafted. It starts quietly, with cascading guitar and gentle backup vocals, then picks up, with cellos and strings arranged and conducted by Hardin.

On Carole King's "So Far Away," Rivers eschews the piano-and-bass-focused spareness of the original and continues the unified sound of this album side, again aided by cellos and strings. His upper register may not quite arrive where he projects it, but he clearly loves the song. His vocal feels like a caress, and he injects a bit of fun by briefly twisting a line into Lennon-esque dream-weaving.

King's version of "So Far Away" came out on Tapestry. A year earlier, James Taylor had introduced "Fire and Rain" to the world on Sweet Baby James. Taylor's recording is easy to take for granted or dismiss--OK, even to hate passionately--as background music until you actually listen to it and register its quietly devastating beauty.

Much credit for the success of Rivers's version must go to Jim Horn, who arranged and conducted the cellos and horns. More country than folk, the track opens with an initial vocal resemblance to Taylor, but Rivers subsequently sounds more like Harry Chapin, whose debut album would be released the year after Home Grown. The tempo picks up, and by the end Rivers and the chorus, horns, throbbing bass as in the Beatles' "Paperback Writer," and a psychedelic-soul rave-up make you forget what song you're listening to. These last moments of "Fire and Rain" build up a bigger head of steam than anything else on Rivers's mellow collection.

Finally, if you let it, "Think His Name" works its magick while also, in its club-in-the-studio atmospherics, reminding you of Rivers' early days at the Whiskey.

Music of this kind doesn't invite deep musicological analysis, but it's more complex than it appears. Indeed, musically, this particular album may be as deceptive as its cover and title: homegrown, homespun, yet at its heart a sophisticated artwork.

The choices that went into the arrangements announce themselves, not in a showy way but as markers of thought and feeling. There's a little ache of pedal steel here, a backup chorus there. Rivers comes across as a kind soul who wants to proclaim but not dictate, a professional musician making a product that is so welcoming and expansive in its vision, yet so committed to the details of daily life and to universal love, that it gives the word "commodity" a good name--makes it sound more like, say, "community."

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