Los Angeles, CA

Why Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout the Seventh Son

Frank Mastropolo

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Imperial Records

In 1963, Johnny Rivers was a struggling singer-songwriter in Los Angeles looking for his first hit. After studio gigs, Rivers spent evenings at Bill Gazzari’s club on La Cienega Blvd., listening to jazz. When the house band quit, Rivers said on his website, Gazzari approached him to take their place.

"Bill said, 'You're a musician. Can't you come in and help us out for a few nights until I can find somebody?' I said, 'I play funky rock and roll. I don't think that's what you want in here.' He begged me, 'Please come in and play your stuff until I find another jazz group.'

"Trini Lopez had been playing over at PJ's, doin' this slap rhythm thing. I said, 'I can do that kind of stuff.' I didn't have a band so I called Eddie Rubin, a jazz drummer."

The duo — just guitar and drums — became a big hit playing rock and R&B standards. Later bassist Joe Osborn joined in. Among their fans at Gazzari’s were record producer Lou Adler and club owner Elmer Valentine, who would offer Rivers a year’s contract to appear at his new disco: the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip. "The Whisky was a smash from opening night," Rivers said. "I brought my following from Gazzari's."

"Seventh Son" by Johnny Rivers

Rivers and Adler decided to record the performances live in early 1964 and release an album. "We recorded this album two nights in a row and took it to every record company in town. None of them wanted it," Rivers recalled.

But small Imperial Records took a chance and scored with Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go, which yielded the hit single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s "Memphis," followed by another Berry composition, "Maybelline." In Goldmine Rock, Glenn A. Baker explains what was behind the success of Rivers’ live albums.

"The secret of his magical formula had much to do with producer Lou Adler (later to spin gold for Jan & Dean, Mamas and Papas and many others, and originate the Monterey Pop Festival). Adler overloaded a constant fevered rhythm, driven along by relentless handclaps and an intense live atmosphere."

"Seventh Son" by Willie Dixon

Rivers’ next album, Meanwhile Back at the Whisky A Go Go, gave him his third hit single,“Seventh Son,” written years earlier by the "Godfather of the Blues," Willie Dixon.

Dixon worked as a songwriter and house bassist with Chess Records in the 1950s. If you don’t know Dixon’s name, you’ve certainly heard the songs he wrote: "Little Red Rooster" (covered by the Rolling Stones), "You Shook Me" (Led Zeppelin) and Cream’s "Spoonful." Himself a seventh child, Dixon explained in his book I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story that belief in the powers of the seventh son was steeped in bayou folklore.

"The Seventh Son is kind of a historical idea. In New Orleans and Algiers, Louisiana, they have these people calling themselves born for good luck because they're the seventh sister or seventh brother or the seventh child. The world has made a pattern out of this seven as a lucky number. Most people think the seventh child has the extra wisdom and knowledge to influence other people."

The inspiration for "Seventh Son," says Dixon’s brother L.V., was their mother, who would spontaneously create rhymes and poetry.

"She ended up writing two or three books of her poems. A lot of times Willie would look in her new book of poems and say, 'I like that — I think I’m going to change the words around on that.'

"People talking about the seventh son, I think that’s one of the pieces he wrote when she wrote something about somebody being lucky with seven this and seven that and talking about the cat had nine lives."

"Seventh Son" by Mose Allison

At Chess, Dixon gave "Seventh Son" to singer Willie Mabon. Released as a single in 1955, the song failed to chart. But it was a jazzy version relased by blues pianist Mose Allison in 1963 that caught Rivers’ ear. On his site, Rivers freely admits borrowing the vocal phrasing from Allison’s cut.

"There was a little jazz club called the Down Beat in Gulfport, Mississippi… Mose used to play there. He did 'Seventh Son' and I thought, 'WOW, what a cool tune!' I got totally turned on to Mose, got all his records and wound up doing a bunch of his tunes live that I never recorded."

Dixon finally recorded his own version of "Seventh Son" in 1969, but Rivers’ remains the biggest seller, peaking at number seven on the Billboard chart in 1965.

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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