My mother loved Johnny Rivers, the rock and roll singer famous for such hits as “Secret Agent Man,” “Summer Rain,” “Memphis,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving” and “Poor Side of Town.”
We lived in Rome, Georgia, until I was in sixth grade and Mother always listened to a Chattanooga radio station, WFLI — 1070 on the AM radio dial. “Jet Fly, WFLI!” the deejays would say. The reception came in better at night, I remember.
We owned an electric typewriter that typed in four different colors – red, black, blue and green. We also had a half-dozen ballpoint pens that wrote in those same four colors. Mother would buy stacks of blank postcards and various kinds of stationery and she, my brother and I would spend countless hours at the kitchen table writing and typing notes to radio stations — especially WFLI — requesting they play Johnny Rivers songs. We used fake names and all those different colors of ink and paper to make it seem as if there were legions of Johnny Rivers fans out there in radio land. (Which, I’m pretty sure there actually were. They just might not have been as prolific with the correspondence as we were.)
We’d also take turns calling the radio station, which was long distance, to request Johnny Rivers songs.
We moved to Columbus, Georgia, when I was in sixth grade, and we continued this same routine with Mother’s new favorite radio station, WCLS. The legendary disc jockey Scott Shannon was there at the time, I recall.
Of course, Mother also bought every Johnny Rivers record as soon as it came out. She spent hours alone in the living room listening to them over and over. Sometimes she would put her ear right against the stereo speaker so she could literally hear every breath he drew.
Dad took Mother to see Johnny Rivers at the famous Whisky A Go Go nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. They sat at a front table every night for a week, they told us. Finally, Johnny Rivers invited them back to his dressing room one night. Mother promptly lost her contact lens and everyone, including Johnny Rivers, got down on their hands and knees and tried unsuccessfully to find it. They went to Detroit to see him, too.
In 1969, when I was in eighth grade, Mom and Dad took my brother and me to the Atlanta International Pop Festival because Johnny Rivers was playing there. The car overheated on the backed-up interstate, I remember, and we had to stop and let it cool off. But we made it to the Atlanta International Raceway and the music festival in time to be standing by a fence near the stage when Johnny Rivers’ helicopter touched down in a nearby grassy area. He ran right beside us to get to the stage. (This was a month before the much more famous Woodstock festival, and I could not believe my luck to get to go to the one in Atlanta. None of my friends’ parents were taking them to rock festivals, I can guarantee!)
I tell you all this to explain why it was important to me to see Johnny Rivers last month. He was playing in Shreveport, of all places, and Alan and I got tickets on the seventh row in the historic Strand Theatre.
Now, Shreveport, as a city, does not have much to recommend it unless you like to go to casinos. Its downtown is like Knoxville’s was 20 years ago. Other than around the casinos, it’s pretty dead. The downtown Hilton where we stayed was very dated. Uber doesn’t even operate there. We took taxis, which were old and rundown. Every young person we met told us there is nothing to do in Shreveport if you don’t want to gamble. The young folks said they spend their off time driving three hours back and forth to Houston for fun.
We flew into Shreveport on Saturday and flew back home on Sunday. And, let me tell you, it was worth it. Johnny Rivers is 73 now. I was concerned that he might be losing his voice or his stage presence. He’s not. He’s still got “it,” whatever “it” is that Mother responded to so passionately.
He played all his hits. He was engaging. The audience was large and enthusiastic, although I do have to admit to seeing one person pulling along an oxygen tank.
Mother passed away several years ago. But I felt that she was with us that night, listening to his every breath.
Here’s the good stuff. Snippets of Johnny Rivers singing “Mountain of Love” and then “Memphis” and “Secret Agent Man.”