Johnny Rivers Biography

John Henry Ramistella, 7 November 1942, New York City, New York, USA. Rivers enjoyed a succession of pop hits in the 60s and 70s, initially by remaking earlier R&B songs and eventually with his own compositions. His singles were spirited creations, some recorded live in front of an enthusiastic, hip Los Angeles audience.

The singer’s father moved the family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1945, where his son began playing guitar at the age of eight. By the age of 13, having become enamoured of the local rock ‘n’ roll and R&B artists, he was fronting his own group. In 1958, Ramistella ventured to New York to make his first recording. Top disc jockey Alan Freed met the singer and gave him his new name, Johnny Rivers, and also recommended to the local Gone Records label that they sign Rivers. They did, and his first single, ‘Baby, Come Back’, was issued that year. At 17 Rivers moved to Nashville, where he wrote songs with another aspiring singer, Roger Miller, and recorded demo records for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and others, including Ricky Nelson, who recorded Rivers’ ‘Make Believe’ in 1960. Rivers relocated to Los Angeles at that time. Between 1959 and his 1964 signing to Imperial Records he recorded singles for small labels such as Guyden, Cub and Dee Dee, as well as the larger Chancellor, Capitol Records, MGM Records, Coral Records and United Artists Records, none with any chart success.

In late 1963 Rivers began performing a three-night stand at the LA club Gazzari’s, which was so successful it was extended for weeks. He then took up residency at the popular discotheque the Whisky A-Go-Go, where his fans began to include such stars as Johnny Carson, Steve McQueen and Rita Hayworth. His first album for Imperial, At The Whisky A Go Go, was released in the summer of 1964 and yielded his first hit, Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’, which reached US number 2. Further hits during 1964-65 included Berry’s ‘Maybellene’, Harold Dorman’s ‘Mountain Of Love’, the traditional folk song ‘Midnight Special’, Willie Dixon’s ‘Seventh Son’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, each delivered in a rousing, loose interpretation that featured Rivers’ nasal vocal, his concise, soulful guitar-playing and sharp backing musicians. Relentlessly rhythmic, the tracks were produced by Lou Adler, working his way towards becoming one of the city’s most formidable hitmakers.

Rivers started 1966 with ‘Secret Agent Man’, the theme song from a popular television spy thriller. Later that year he achieved his only number 1 record with his own ‘Poor Side Of Town’ (co-written with Adler), an uncharacteristic ballad using top studio musicians such as Hal Blaine, James Burton and Larry Knechtal. Rivers also launched his own Soul City record label in 1966, signing the popular 5th Dimension, who went on to have four Top 10 singles on the label. Retreating from the party atmosphere of his earlier recordings for Imperial, Rivers had hits in 1967 with two Motown Records cover versions, the Four Tops’ ‘Baby I Need Your Lovin’’ and Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’. Following an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, another soulful ballad, the James Hendricks-penned ‘Summer Rain’, became Rivers’ last major hit of the 60s. The latter also appeared on Rivers’ bestselling psych pop collection, Realization.

Early 70s albums such as Slim Slo Slider, Home Grown and L.A. Reggae were critically lauded but not commercially successful, although the latter gave Rivers a Top 10 single with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu’. A version of the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ (with backing vocal by Brian Wilson) was a minor success in 1975, and two years later Rivers landed his final Top 10 single, ‘Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin’)’. Rivers recorded a handful of albums in the 80s, including a live one featuring the old hits. He relaunched his Soul City label in the late 90s for the release of Last Train To Memphis, an excellent new studio album. Further recordings for Soul City followed in the early 00s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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