The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side Of Town”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Johnny Rivers – “Poor Side Of Town”

HIT #1: November 12, 1966

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

I’m guessing that not too many people under, say, 45 know who Lou Adler is. If they do, maybe they only know him as the guy with the beard who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games, or maybe they know him as the father of the guy from Shwayze. But through the ’60s and ’70s, Adler was a sort of LA scene king — a prodigious pop producer who also opened the Roxy, co-produced the Monterey Pop Festival, discovered Cheech & Chong, and helped get The Rocky Horror Picture Show made.

Unlike someone like Phil Spector, Adler didn’t really have a signature sound. And he also made a whole lot of crap. Crap like “Poor Side Of Town.”

Johnny Rivers was an Italian kid who was born in New York, but he’d mostly grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He broke into music as a Nashville songwriter and session musician, but he eventually got a gig at the LA club the Whiskey A Go-Go, which is where Adler first encountered him. Rivers specialized in the kind of jumped-up blues-rock that was popular in go-go clubs like the Whiskey, and Adler produced a 1964 live album that Rivers recorded at the club.

Through the mid-’60s, both Adler and Rivers had plenty of success. Before “Poor Side Of Town,” Adler hit #1 with producer’s credits on Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction” and the Mamas And The Papas’ “Monday, Monday.” Rivers, meanwhile, made a bunch of hits, the biggest and best-enduring of which was the 1966 novelty jam “Secret Agent Man,” which made it up to #3. But Rivers wanted to break out of that go-go style and start making ballads. That’s what he did with “Poor Side Of Town,” his only #1.

Rivers and Adler wrote “Poor Side Of Town” together, and it’s a song about a guy whose ex wants to get back with him after breaking up with a rich guy: “That rich guy you’ve been seeing must’ve put you down / So welcome back, baby, to the poor side of town.” But it’s not really a venomous song. Rivers’ pride has been hurt, but he still wants to get back together with this girl, and he even empathizes with her ambition: “I can’t blame you for trying / I’m trying to make it, too.” He tells her that they can make it together, that they really need each other.

On paper, that seems like a surprisingly nuanced and layered view of a relationship. Rivers might still be mad, but he knows how the world works, and he’s trying to stay realistic about what he can and can’t offer. But in practice, the song’s tone is muddy and confused, as if Adler and Rivers aren’t quite sure whether the guy should stay mad or not. And that’s mostly because of the deeply schmaltzy way Rivers sings it and the deeply schmaltzy way Adler produces it.

As a singer, the Rivers of “Poor Side” comes off as someone who has no business singing ballads. He’s almost painfully insincere, and you can almost hear his eyebrows inverted on the song-opening scatting. His timing is all over the place. Meanwhile, the canned backing vocals sound like middle-of-the-road late-’60s stuff, and the twangy guitars never quite find a way to lock in with the folk-rock flutes or the melodramatic strings. The bones of a good song are in there, but the execution is straight-up lounge-lizard dreck.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Eels’ cover of “Poor Side Of Town,” from the 2006 live album Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall: