Johnny Rivers is a unique figure in the history of rock music. On the most obvious level, he was a rock star of the 1960s and a true rarity as a white American singer/guitarist who made a name for himself as a straight-ahead rock & roller during the middle of that decade. Just as important behind the scenes, his recordings and their success led to the launching, directly and indirectly, of at least three record labels and a dozen other careers whose influence extended into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.
Rivers was very much a kindred spirit to figures like Buddy Holly and Ronnie Hawkins, with all of the verve and spirit of members of that first wave of rock & rollers. He had the misfortune of having been born a little too late to catch that wave, however, and took until the middle of the next decade to find his audience. Born John Henry Ramistella on November 7, 1942, in New York, his family moved to Baton Rouge, LA, in 1948, and it was there that his musical sensibilities were shaped. His father, who played the mandolin and guitar, introduced him to the guitar at an early age, and he proved a natural on the instrument.
Meanwhile, Ramistella also began absorbing the R&B sounds that were starting to turn up on the airwaves at the dawn of the 1950s. Additionally, he got to see performers like Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed in person, and by the time he entered his teens, he was immersed in rhythm & blues. He was also good enough to start playing guitar in local groups and at age 13, he formed his own band, the Spades, playing New Orleans-flavored R&B and rock & roll, especially Fats Domino, Larry Williams, and Little Richard. Ramistella made his recording debut leading the Spades in 1956 with the song "Hey Little Girl," issued on the Suede label.
In 1957, he went to New York and wangled a meeting with Alan Freed, who was then the most influential disc jockey in the country. This led to a change of name, at Freed's suggestion, to the less ethnic, more American-mythic Johnny Rivers (which may also have been influenced by the fact that Elvis Presley had portrayed a character named "Deke Rivers" in the movie Loving You that same year), and to a series of single releases under his new name. Johnny Rivers' official recording debut took place with an original song, "Baby Come Back," on George Goldner's Gone Records label in 1958, arranged by renowned songwriter Otis Blackwell. Neither this number -- which sounds a lot like Elvis Presley's version of Blackwell's "Don't Be Cruel" -- nor any of Rivers' other early singles, recorded for Guyden, Cub, Era, or Chancellor, was successful. He made his living largely performing with the Spades and cutting demos of songs for Hill & Range, primarily in Elvis Presley's style.
It was as a composer that Rivers experienced his first taste of success off of the stage, when a chance meeting with guitarist James Burton led to one of his songs, "I'll Make Believe," finding its way to Ricky Nelson and ending up on the album More Songs by Ricky. By 1961, he was 18 years old and a veteran performer with six years' professional performing under his belt and relatively little to show for it except the experience; even a lot of the established figures in the business who'd tried to give him various breaks over the years, including Alan Freed and George Goldner, had fallen on hard times by then. He moved to Los Angeles and began aiming for a career as a songwriter and producer.
Fate played its hand in 1963, however, when a friend who ran a restaurant in Los Angeles appealed to Rivers for help when his house band, a jazz group, suddenly quit. He reluctantly agreed to perform for a few nights in a stripped-down version of his rock & roll act, with just his electric guitar and a drummer, Eddie Rubin. That was when lightning struck -- it turned out that audiences at the restaurant liked the way he sang and played, and soon the crowds were growing and his performing stint turned into an open-ended engagement. Bassist Joe Osborn was hired to join the combo and fill out the sound and suddenly seeing Johnny Rivers was becoming the thing to do.
It was at those gigs that Rivers hooked up with a songwriter and music producer named Lou Adler, a business associate of Herb Alpert who'd previously worked with Jan & Dean and who was planning to start his own record company. Rivers took on Adler as his manager and also got a contract, starting in mid-January of 1964, to play at a new club opening in Los Angeles called the Whisky a Go-Go. This was where Rivers' act and reputation exploded, resulting in turn-away crowds -- his act was so rousing and the chemistry between Rivers, his music, and the audience was so strong, that Adler decided to try and record him live at the club, and to do that, he and Rivers had to borrow the money to rent the necessary equipment.
At the time, there were other artists playing this kind of basic, danceable rock & roll, mostly in club settings, in and around Los Angeles. The most notable among them was probably Bobby Fuller, although the Standells were making something of a noise as well. In early 1964, however, none of those acts had broken nationally or even locally. Rivers got there first and, in many ways, paved the way for performers like Fuller, once he got heard.
The tape of Rivers' performance was rejected by every record company in Los Angeles until Adler got to Liberty Records. Liberty had been founded by Al Bennett in the mid-'50s and although it had enjoyed huge success with pop singer Julie London, Liberty was also more of a youth-oriented label than most other L.A. record companies at that time. Bennett didn't believe that Rivers' tape was anything special, but he was convinced by one of his executives, Bob Skaff, to release an album from the tape on the Imperial Records label, which Bennett had purchased a few months earlier.
Johnny Rivers at the Whisky a Go-Go, released in May of 1964, was a hit from day one, its sales boosted by the accompanying single, a powerful version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," which got to number two on the charts. The magnitude of Rivers' accomplishment shouldn't be underestimated -- since early 1964, the American charts had been dominated almost exclusively by British rock acts, with American artists picking up the scraps that were leftover, and then along came this new white kid from Baton Rouge, playing '50s-style rock & roll and R&B like he means it (and he did). The sales of the debut album were stunning for their time, rising to number 12 in a 45-week chart run on the strength of the single. In response, another live performance was released as Here We a Go-Go Again in late August of 1964. In the interim, his debut single was followed by Rivers' version of "Maybelline," which got to number 12.
Ironically, at around this same time, previously established performers like Dion were being ignored doing their own singles of Chuck Berry's music and even Berry himself was having trouble reaching the charts with any regularity. Part of the secret of Rivers' success was his stripped-down sound, guitar, bass, and drums, to which he and Adler only added piano a little later and which didn't get much more elaborate for two years. Dion, possibly because of all of his success prior to the British Invasion, and Berry, perhaps for the same reason and also his legal troubles (and resulting two-year absence from music ending in 1964), had trouble finding acceptance during this period, while Rivers was embraced by radio stations and listeners alike. Listening to his work, it seems almost a mid-'60s descendant of rockabilly music, with more flexibility in his range and singing.
Rivers' next few singles, with the exceptions of "Mountain of Love" and "Seventh Son" -- which made the Top Five and Top Ten, respectively -- didn't do quite as well, but all performed very respectably. As important as his singles were in keeping him on the radio and before the public, his albums during this period were extraordinary. Rivers proved himself exceptionally prolific and versatile, releasing seven more albums through the end of 1967. Most of these were recorded live at the Whisky a Go-Go, which remained his home base for many years and his favorite concert venue. And all of the albums after his debut were carefully calculated -- the performances displayed great spontaneity and rate among the best pure rock & roll documents of their era, but Rivers and Adler were also careful to choose songs that all translated well on vinyl.
He ranged freely between classic songs by Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and then-current hits and album cuts by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and even covers of Sam Cooke material. Other albums made room for electric versions of folk and blues numbers and his versions of '60s soul material and all of these albums sold very well by the standards of the day, climbing into the Top 50 and occasionally much higher.
For Rivers' studio recordings, Adler assembled a core band of top talent, drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Larry Knechtel, and Joe Osborn on bass, who together went on to become one of the top studio bands in Los Angeles, backing the Mamas & the Papas, Scott McKenzie, and other Adler-produced acts as well as playing on many of the records of the Carpenters, among many others.
It was out of the success of Rivers' Liberty recordings that Adler was able to found Dunhill Productions, initially as a management, production, and publishing company, which soon after became Dunhill Records, one the most successful independent labels of the mid-'60s, with artists including Barry McGuire, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Grassroots. Within two years of its founding, Adler had sold the new company to ABC Records for millions of dollars, which allowed him to form Ode Records, which, in turn, became the home of Carole King.
Meanwhile, Rivers kept generating new hits, including one totally unexpected soundtrack success. In late 1964, the CBS network scheduled an hour-long British television espionage series called Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan. Rechristening it Secret Agent in America, the network and the British producers sought out a new theme song. Adler and Rivers decided to try and deliver one, written by the composer-producer team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Rivers recorded it for the opening credits of the show, running scarcely a minute, which went on the air in the spring of 1965. That was the last anyone involved thought of it -- the song ran less than a minute, after all -- until Liberty began getting requests for "Secret Agent Man" from radio stations and asked for a single, which required new verses. "Secret Agent Man" became a number three single in America in mid-1966 and, for years, was one of those basic songs -- alongside standards by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly et al. -- by which aspiring guitarists learned to play. The song is the most familiar in Rivers' output, partly thanks to its fairly regular revival on radio and occasional runs of the series, and something of a pop-culture touchstone (indeed, in 1984-1985, the all-gay gender-balanced New York-based rock band Lowlife used it as one highlight of their shows, playing a hard-rocking version of it as a commentary on the AIDS crisis -- if you listen to the lyrics carefully, it works).
Rivers' commercial career peaked in 1966 with a further Top 20 single of "(I Washed My Hands in) Muddy Water" and his number one hit, "Poor Side of Town," which was also unusual as an original song. Although he'd aspired to a career as a songwriter early in the 1960s and had seen some success in that field, once his career at Liberty took off, Rivers quickly recognized at his shows that his own songs didn't go over as well as his covers of others' songs. "Poor Side of Town" was the exception and also one of his very few singles of this period to have a very produced sound, a ballad, featuring overdubbed strings and a chorus. That decision was Rivers' own, against the advice of Adler and his record label, who didn't think the public would appreciate a change in his basic sound -- instead, it was a breakthrough and marked a change in his approach to music.
That same year, Rivers heard a demo of a song called "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," written by a little-known songwriter named Jimmy Webb, and was impressed enough to put it on his Changes album in a gorgeous pop-soul rendition. An advance copy of the album, brought to Capitol Records, got the song placed with singer/guitarist Glen Campbell, who recorded a version very similar to Rivers' and enjoyed a huge hit with it and, in the process, put Webb on the map as a composer. In 1966, Rivers also formed his own label, Soul City, to which he signed a soul quartet that took the name the Fifth Dimension -- they, in turn, began a string of successes (initially with Jimmy Webb as composer and arranger) that would carry them and the company into the early/mid-'70s as regular denizens in the upper reaches of the charts.
Rivers enjoyed a number three hit with his slow, intense version of "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" in early 1967 and a number ten hit with "The Tracks of My Tears" that spring. He and Adler also played a central role in helping to organize the Monterey Pop Festival, where he was one of the featured performers, though Rivers is usually overlooked in favor of flashier participants such as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Janis Joplin.
By this time, rock & roll had evolved into rock and Rivers ran the risk of seeming increasingly out of step, musically and in terms of his image. His sound had evolved from its basic guitar-bass-drums configuration into more elaborate, though fairly restrained, productions, in which his voice was featured in an honest, white soul mode. He took steps to keep his music in touch with the current charts -- the Realization album featured Rivers in a slightly more sophisticated soulful vein, covering songs like "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Summer Rain," which became a number 14 hit in 1968.
Cutting edge musicians by then were looking and sounding a lot shaggier than they had in 1964, however, and Rivers' commercial appeal gradually slackened through 1969. Somehow, he couldn't catch a break in those days, and while his music and image did change -- Rivers let his hair grow longer and grew a beard -- he seemed on the wrong end of the music world, even in his strategy of covering good songs by other composers. He inadvertently went head to head with James Taylor with his version of the latter's "Fire and Rain" which got out first, but stalled when Warner Bros. got Taylor's own recording out as a single.
He soldiered on, returning to his Lousiana roots with a version of the old Frankie Ford hit "Sea Cruise" in 1971, which heralded his number six single "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," part of his highly acclaimed L.A. Reggae album. He charted yet again in 1973 with "Blue Suede Shoes," a killer rendition of the Carl Perkins classic that made it to the lower reaches of the Top 40. Rivers left United Artists (which had absorbed Liberty Records) in 1973 and spent the next two years bouncing between Atlantic and Epic Records, cutting a new version of the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" with Brian Wilson singing backup for the latter label. Rivers enjoyed his last chart hit to date in 1977 with "Swayin' to the Music," which got to the number ten spot nationally on his own Soul City label.
By 1983, he had ceased recording, following the release of Not a Through Street, but Rivers never ceased concertizing, performing regularly on several continents into the 1990s and beyond. The early 1990s saw the release of Rhino Records' Anthology, 1964-1977, presenting many of the highlights of Rivers' '60s and '70s output and Capitol reissued four of his middle/late-'60s albums in a series of two-on-one CDs. In 1998, Rivers himself returned to recording for the first time in 15 years with Last Train to Memphis. That same year, the British BGO label began undertaking the re-release of his classic '60s and early '70s albums in England.