Johnny Rivers-Help Me Rhonda.

Label: BGO Records. 

By 1975, Johnny Rivers was approaching his thirty-third birthday, and had already spent nearly twenty years as a musician. His career began while he was still a student at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. That was where John Henry Ramistell had formed his first band, The Spades. They made their recording debut when John Henry Ramistell was just fourteen, and a year later, some of the music The Spades recorded was released on the Suede label in 1958. This was the start of what would be a prolific recording career.

Later in 1958, John Henry Ramistell was visiting New York, where he met DJ Alan Freed. He advised John Henry Ramistell to change his name to Johnny Rivers, after the Mississippi river which flowed through his how town of Baton Rouge. John Henry Ramistell took the DJ’s advice, and that marked the birth of a future musical legend.

Just ten years after Johnny Rivers was born, he came to the end of what would be the most successful period of his career. He had enjoyed a string of huge hits between 1964 and 1967. 

This started in 1964, when Memphis reached number two in the US Billboard 100 and number one in Canada. Later that year, Maybellene reached number twelve, and then Mountain Of Love reached number nine. The success continued  in 1965, when Seventh Son reached number seven in America and number one in Canada. For Johnny Rivers, this was his second Canadian number one. His star was in the ascendancy.

As 1966 dawned, Secret Agent Man reached number three. The followup, I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water then reached number nineteen. Johnny Rivers then enjoyed the biggest hit of his career, when Poor Side Of Town, number one in America and Canada. For Johnny Rivers, this was his third Canadian number one and his eighth top thirty hit in America since 1964. 

Soon, eight became nine when Baby I Need Your Lovin’ reached three. This was followed by The Tracks of My Tears which reached number ten. Then when  Summer Rain reached fourteen,  it gave Johnny Rivers his twelfth top thirty hit in America.

The following year, 1968, was a strange year for twenty-five year old Johnny Rivers. His fifth album Realization reached number five, and sold over 500,000 copies. This resulted in Johnny Rivers’ first gold disc for what was the most successful album of his career. However, after three years where he could do no wrong, the hits had started to dry up for Johnny Rivers during 1968. Given how successful his fifth album Realization had been, he hoped that this was just a blip.

Sadly, it wasn’t, and over the next three years, Johnny Rivers’ singles stalled at in the lower reaches of the US Billboard 100. His most successful single was Muddy Water, which reached forty-one. This was changed days for Johnny Rivers. Even his albums weren’t selling in the same quantities. For Johnny Rivers and executives at United Artists Records, this was a worrying time.

It looked as if Johnny Rivers’ luck was changing when he released Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu in 1972. It reached number six on the US Billboard 100 and number three in Canada. Buoyed by the success of Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Johnny Rivers’ went into the studio to record his eighth album L.A. Reggae.

Accompanying Johnny Rivers were some of L.A.’s top session players including drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Jay Osborn. They were joined by a glittering array of guest artists, including  guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Jimmy Webb and the original Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison. This all-star band played their part in what was one of Johnny Rivers’ best albums, L.A. Reggae.

It was also one of his more successful albums of recent years. When L.A. Reggae was released in 1972, it reached seventy-eight in the US Billboard 200. This was his highest chart placing since Realization in 1968. 

Alas, L.A. Reggae was a false dawn for Johnny Rivers. He enjoyed a minor hit with his cover of Blue Suede Shoes in 1973. It reached number thirty-eight in the US Billboard 100. However, when Johnny Rivers released his 1973 album Blue Suede Shoes, it failed to chart. So did the followup Rockin’ Rivers, which was Johnny Rivers’ United Artists Records’ swan-song.

Later in 1974, signed to Atlantic Records and released his tenth album The Road. It became Johnny Rivers’ third consecutive album to fail to chart. Johnny Rivers time at Atlantic Records was short, and he was soon son the move again.

Next stop for Johnny Rivers was Epic, where he would release his eleventh album New Lovers and Old Friends in 1975. When the album was released in the UK, it was entitled Help Me Rhonda, which recently reissued and remastered by BGO Records. For Johnny Rivers, Help Me Rhonda was a chance for redemption and to rescue his ailing career.

For his new album, Johnny Rivers chose ten cover versions. This included Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Same Old Song, Brian Wilson’s Help Me Rhonda, Christine McVie’s Spare Me A Little, Barry Despenza and Carl Wolfolk’s Can I Change My Mind and Ned Doherty’s Postcards From Hollywood. They were joined by Tay Uhler’s New Lovers And Old Friends, Sherman Kelly’s Dancin’ In The Moonlight, Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On, Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want and Michael Georgiades’ U.F.O. completed Help Me Rhonda. It was recorded at four of Los Angeles’ top studios.

Johnny Rivers took charge of production on Help Me Rhonda, which was recorded at Western Studio 2 and 3, while other sessions took place at Sound Labs and Wally Helder’s in Hollywood. Joining Johnny Rivers, were some of the top sessions musicians of the seventies. On each song, Johnny Rivers was joined by an all-star band Western Studio. Their lineup changed from song to song, which meant three bassists,  four drummers, and five guitarists joined Johnny Rivers who played guitar and harmonica. He was also joined by a horn section, strings, backing vocalists, three pianists, a percussionist, Michael Georgiades on harmonica, saxophonist Plas Johnson and tenor saxophonist Tom Scott. Joining them were the great and good of West Coast session players.

This included drummers Jim Gordon, Ed Green, David Kemper, Jim Helmer and James Raines who were joined by bassists Scott Edwards, James Hughart and Joe Osborn. The guitarists included David T. Walker, Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Tay Uhler and Ben Benay. Among the backing vocalists were Julia Tillman Waters, Maxine Willard and Ginger Blake. When it came to record Help Me Rhonda, Brian Wilson and Herb Pedersen were among the five backing vocalists. Their addition added to what was already an all-star band that featured on Help Me Rhonda. It was a slick, polished album that had the potential to transform Johnny Rivers’ fortunes. 

Prior to the release of Help Me Rhonda in 1975, the album received praise and plaudits from critics. That was no surprise, given the quality of music on Help Me Rhonda.

It opened with a joyous take of The Four Tops’ It’s The Same Old Song, Horns, backing vocalists and his all-star band accompany Johnny Rivers on this irresistible cover of It’s The Same Old Song. Equally irresistible is Johnny’s cover Help Me Rhonda. Brian Wilson joins the band and adds harmonies as mostly, Johnny stays true to the Beach Boys original. That is apart from the addition of a bluesy harmonica, which adds a new twist to a familiar song.Spare Me A Little is a soul-baring ballad, where occasional cooing harmonies provide the perfect foil for Johnny’s vocal. It’s a similar case on Can I Change My Mind where a Johnny delivers a hopeful, needy and heartfelt vocal against funky, uptempo and hook-laden arrangement. Closing which d side one of the original version of Help Me Rhonda, was the beautiful ballad Postcards From Hollywood. It finds Johnny delivering a tender, rueful vocal against an arrangement that marries lush strings, cooing harmonies and a weeping guitars.

Opening what was the second side of Help Me Rhonda was another ballad. Again, lush strings, weeping guitars and cooing harmonies provide the backdrop for this beautiful West Coast ballad. It’s all change as Johnny covers King Harvest’s classic Dancin’ In The Moonlight. He’s responsible for a joyous and uplifting cover of this hook-laden classic. Johnny then reinvents Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On. The piano leads the way before the rhythm section and guitar join Johnny. Adding the finishing touch are the backing vocalists as Johnny delivers an impassioned and soulful vocal. On Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want, Johnny stays true to the original as he fuses elements of pop, rock and soul. Closing side two of Help Me Rhonda was U.F.O., a memorable and cinematic fusion of pop and rock from the pen of Michael Georgiades.

Given the reviews of Help Me Rhonda, Johnny Rivers and executives at Epic had high hopes for the album. Its release was scheduled for later in 1975. Complicating matters was the decision to give the album different titles on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America, Australasia and mainland Europe, Epic released album as New Lovers and Old Friends. However, in Britain, Epic released the album as Help Me Rhonda. This was to build on the success of the lead single.

When it came to choose a lead single, Help Me Rhonda was chosen. This proved to be a good decision. Help Me Rhonda reached twenty-two in the US Billboard 100; thirty-five in Canada; thirty-four in New Zealand and fifty-two in Australia. This was the most successful single Johnny Rivers had enjoyed since Rockin’ Pneumonia and The Boogie Woogie Flu in 1972. When New Lovers and Old Friends was released in 1975, it reached 147 in the US Billboard 200.  While this was somewhat disappointing chart position, it was the first Johnny Rivers album to chart since L.A. Reggae in 1972. Maybe this marked the start of Johnny Rivers’ comeback?

Sadly, that wasn’t to be. When Wild Night was released by United Artists Records in November 1976, it failed to chart. However, the followup Outside Help reached number 142 in the US Billboard 200 in 1978. This was helped by the success of Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancing), which reached number ten in the US Billboard 200 and number three in Canada. That was as good as it got for Johnny Rivers.

After Outside Help in 1978, none of Johnny Rivers’ albums troubled the charts. For three decades his singles and albums slipped under the radar. Still, though, Johnny Rivers was a popular live draw, and his loyal fans continued to buy his albums. Sadly, the days of hit singles, number ones and gold discs were long gone.

A reminder of these days is Help Me Rhonda, which was recently remastered and reissued by BGO Records. It’s one of the best albums Johnny Rivers released during the seventies. He’s responsible for slick, polished sounding album where Johnny Rivers and his all-star band work their way through ten familiar songs. Mostly, he stays true to the originals, which are a mixture of hook-laden, uptempo tracks and beautiful ballads. These tracks show two different sides of Johnny Rivers.

When he turns his attention to ballads, Johnny Rivers becomes a troubadour, as he delivers soul-baring and heart-wrenching vocals. Then when the tempo rises on It’s The Same Old Song, Help Me Rhonda and Dancin’ In The Moonlight Johnny Rivers doesn’t spare the hooks on this trio truly irresistible songs. They’re a reminder of two sides of Johnny Rivers.

The two sides of Johnny Rivers can be heard on his eleventh studio album Help Me Rhonda, which was released in 1975. Help Me Rhonda literally oozes quality from the opening bars of It’s The Same Old Song to the closing notes of U.F.O. Sadly, Help Me Rhonda failed to find the audience it so richly deserved and nowadays, is one of the hidden gems of Johnny Rivers’ back-catalogue. Help Me Rhonda is also,  without doubt, one of his finest albums of the seventies, and is a reminder of a true musical legend Johnny Rivers at the peak of his powers.

Johnny Rivers-Help Me Rhonda.

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