Nick Lowe, Johnny Rivers, Arlen Roth : Poor Side of Town

Once upon a time.

Long, long ago.

Far, far away.

There was a place; a place you can almost remember in your dreams.

A place, let’s call it a garden or an enchanted meadow, where the Sun shone brightly every day and gentle breezes played among the whispering trees.

Everyone knew everyone and everyone was safe and content.

But, but, one day, one fateful day, Humankind thought that being safe and content and warm everyday wasn’t quite enough.

It was the, ‘Everyone’ that was the killer.

For, Humankind craved particular pleasure.

Particular knowledge.

People and places and things that are mine and mine alone.

Individual consciousness.

Personal. personal, personal.

And so it began. And, so it goes on.

For, along with all these particular, personal possessions and holdings came, carrying poisonous venom, Lust and Greed, Envy and Pride, Wrath and Sloth and Gluttony.

But, but, so did Charity and Chastity, Diligence and Temperance, Kindness, Humility and Forgiveness.

There would, in particular be much need of Forgiveness.

In this new world musician and storytellers found that the glory and the folly of their fellows made for endless material for compositions.

Most songs and most stories are, in the end, about the sharp pain and the ecstatic joys of finding love, the loss of love, the theft of love and the betrayal of love.

So, here’s one of those stories.

Lust is here. And Envy. And Pride.

And, so too is, maybe, some humility and some forgiveness.

So, everything you need for a hit song!

And, a mighty Number One hit is exactly what Johnny Rivers and his supporting team of crack musicians and backup vocalists provided in 1966 with, ‘Poor Side of Town’.

Johnny RIvers was an established hit maker marrying the sound of 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll with folky elements on sides like, ‘Memphis’, ‘Mountain of Love’, ‘Midnight Special’ and, ‘Secret Agent Man’.

What distinguished Johnny Rivers records was their sense of easy flow that invites the listener to sing and dance along. It’s why he was such a legendarily popular live draw at the Whisky a Go Go Club.

Johnny Rivers is a guy it’s very easy to like.

Poor Side of Town was a very important record for Johnny because he had written it himself and because it introduced a more reflective balladerring element to his style.

The song wonderfully melds aspects of breezy Californian Pop with tinges of a more troubled Southern Soul ballad.

So, the superb piano of Larry Knechtel, bass of Joe Osborn and drums by the ubiquitous Hal Blane added to Johnny’s subtle guitar make for a tale that offers both sunshine and shadow.

To top it all off Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King (The Blossoms) provide a choral element that ravished the ear.

Arranger Marty Paich made sure it all came together as a premium blend.

And the story?

Well Rich Girl, Poor Boy and a spiral from ecstacy to tragedy is a tale that will be told for ever and a day.

I think particularly of the film, ‘A Place in the Sun’ starring the most eye scorchingly beautiful couple in the history of the cinema (now there’s a claim) Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

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Sometimes a young woman can be so bewitchingly, breathtakingly beautiful that a young man, poor as he may be, will, must, cross any line, risk any risk, to be with her, to have her smile that brighter than the Sun smile and say, ‘Do I make you nervous?’

Oh, oh, oh, she sure does make you nervous!

And she sees something gorgeous and vulnerable in him that the Preppy Princes picked out for her by Mom and Dad just can’t compete with.

So, though they know in their bones that this won’t end well they soon find themselves skin to skin in Sugartown.

Until, the fates (always hovering in the wings) intervene and the seconds count down to death in the Chair with the clock on the wall dissolving into her heartbreaking visage.

Welcome back to the Poor Side of Town!

Now over here in Britain Johnny Rivers wasn’t very well known and he didn’t figure in the Chart Shows nor was he hip enough to feature on the ‘Progressive’ end of the spectrum.

So, a confession. I didn’t hear the original of Poor Side of Town for many years after I had become aware of it through the version by Telecaster Master Arlen Roth.

I had noticed his name appearing in the credits on premium recordings and so swooped when his debut solo disc appeared in a bargain bin at HMV Records (and I was a deep diver into those bins!).

There’s a lovely hypnotic sway to this take on the song and the guitar has a dead on certainty that only the very best players ever achieve.

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To sign off a version from a tenured Professor of songwriting Mr Nick Lowe! (pictured above).

A further confession.

I own every record Nick has ever made and have seen him play on countless occasions through our joint misspent youths.

Seeing him now – a mature artist fully in command of his talent – is greatly cheering.

It seems that Nick now strives, successfully, to make records that appear effortless; concealing the infinite pains involved in achieving such an effect.

The musical empathy between Nick, Jukebox favourite Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Robert Traherne (drums) and Steve Donnelly (guitar) gives a regretful emotional depth to the story so that you feel like exhaling deeply at the end and wiping a tear from your eye.

Oh what tangled webs we weave.

Rich girls and Poor Boys.

Hoping against hope that, this time, the story will have a happy ending.

And don’t think that the dramatic leads in this story will ever listen to your sage advice to think and think again.

No. Some stories have to be played out again and again and again.

Towns and hearts will always be divided and few ever move, for good, willingly to The Poor Side of Town.

Yet, yet, there will always be those who believe that they can defy fate and the odds and strange as it may seem sometimes miracles do happen.

Welcome back Baby to The Poor Side of Town.

68 thoughts on “Nick Lowe, Johnny Rivers, Arlen Roth : Poor Side of Town

  1. Johnny Rivers had several great original songs. This is one of them. Unfortunately, his name is most associated with R&B covers that could be played on white only stations in the south as the last vestiges of Jim Crow. To me, that is a sad period in our country that we should never forget, especially today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I could usurp your site with “Poor Side of Town”, Johhny Rivers and Lou Adler. How the story arc of the heartbreak in the song contains one of the most impressive pop song romantic novel flash fictions out there (which is what great pop love songs should do). Lou Adler got credit but it was really for production. What JR and Adler proved with “PST” was how far and how slick pop radio production could go. In the midst of the British Invasion. As well, the production style of PST presaged the coming decade more directly than any of their counterparts and was a shot across the bow for West Coast producers of everything from singer songwriters to R&B and soul. Listen to the Eb Major 7th the Blossoms spread out for the “doot doo doo wa-ah” and you’ll see the coming of Richard Carpenter over dubbing his amazing sister. The really scary thing? I was looking for a way to email you about the quiet importance of this song, and the best girl group no one ever heard of. Thanks. “Poor Side of Town” is right in there with the flip side of the love coin, the Turtle’s Version of Sloan and Barri’s borderline insulin overdose “You, Baby”. I saw Johnny Rivers sing this when he was 74. And it was almost as good as the Whiskey version. Better, maybe. Because he was still standing in the face of clip art music and karaoke stars.

    Liked by 1 person

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