How Sweet It Is

May 4, 2014 |
Mel Rivers, formally of The Drifters, performs at 2nd Saturdays May 10. photo courtesy The Picture People

Mel Rivers, formally of The Drifters, performs at 2nd Saturdays May 10.
photo courtesy The Picture People

Before the days of hip-hop, dubstep, disco, punk rock, metal, electro-pop, alternative and all modern genres, there was a simpler kind of music where the voice was the main focus and the soul was emoted through passionate, honest lyrics that spoke of love, life and struggle. Duos, trios and quartets would line street corners, subway stations and any acoustically welcoming space they could find to belt their voices without the assistance of auto-tune or the audio enhancing devices of today. It was all about melody, harmony, rhythm and soul. This is the era that singer Mel Rivers belongs to and those were his cherished days that live on through his deep vocals that he still belts today.

“The songs back then were all about love–all kinds of love. It was about the love that made you feel good, the kind of love that made you want to hold each other and even the sad ones made you glad that you had love. The lyrics were close and personal. Even the fast stuff like the jitterbug made you put your hands on somebody,” says Rivers. “There was a lot of slow stuff too, so you got a chance to whisper in her ear and hold her tight. The music nowadays doesn’t have that feel or that message. The spirit of it seems gone from today’s music.”

Rivers grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s when the decade of ’40s doo-wop was still the dominant music of the time. Rivers sang all throughout his childhood and in his teen years he developed a voice that was rich and low in timbre, which made him perfect for the foundational role of bass singer in a capella groups. He quickly found that music was a good way to stay out of trouble from the local gangs that surrounded his neighborhood blocks, so he dedicated most of his time to harnessing his craft and learning a catalogue of tunes that he would perform any chance he could.

“I got into music when I was around 13 years old. It was during the explosion of music coming over from the ’40s into the ’50s period. People were singing in hallways, in subways, anywhere they could get a good sound really,” says Rivers. “That was a period where there were a lot of gangs in the streets of New York and in the area I was living in, music was salvation for a lot of gang members. I found a home in music and I felt comfortable there. No matter what I did and how far away from music I went, it always came back to me. It always felt like it was what I was supposed to be doing.”

After performing on local street corners for some time, Rivers went on to join a group called Seville that quickly gained the praise of becoming the second coming of The Temptations. After spending two years holed up in small studio apartment while rehearsing and preparing, Seville went on to record tracks for some of the biggest record labels at the time including RCA and Millennium among others. But as Rivers began to be introduced to the glitz and glamour of the business, the long hours, tireless work and obstacles of the industry began to wear on him. And just when Rivers gave up on his dream, opportunity knocked unexpectedly.

“I got a little frustrated and I decided I couldn’t keep going through that stuff any longer so I started on as a law enforcement officer in New York and I worked my way up to sergeant. I was still singing at the time through a few outlets and I would set up local shows here and there. So one night I was setting up for a show in an auditorium and I had a disc of original stuff that I had worked on and I started playing the music and singing. Two people came up to me when I stopped and they told me that one was the lead singer of The Drifters and the other was their manager and they were looking for a voice like mine. They said they wanted to audition me and I thought they were playing a joke. So I went and auditioned and 90 seconds later they told me that I was in the band.”

Rivers went on to perform with the legendary act The Drifters, starting in 1990, for seven years; he toured all over with the band and shared concert bills with big names including the likes of Tina Turner. In 1997, Rivers got the news that his mother and brother were both battling cancer, so he moved to Tucson to be with them. Rivers has resided here ever since and still performs at Grace Temple Church, at local venues and even on the road with The Drifters on occasion. Rivers will be performing Downtown for the 4th anniversary of 2nd Saturdays on May 10, starting at 8 p.m.

“I’ll be performing material from The Drifters and some old classic tunes. Hopefully it’ll bring up some warm memories for some folks. And for the younger people, they’ll see how music used to be when it told a story from beginning to the end and was full of heart and soul.”

For more information on the show visit


Category: Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE