Johnny Rivers

  • Rock singer, guitarist and songwriter born John Ramistella in New York New York in 1942.
  • As a boy, his family moved to Baton Rouge Louisiana, and the music of the area influenced his later work. In junior high school, he joined a band called the Rockets, and he soon formed his own band, the Spades. They recorded their first record, Hey Little Girl, when Ramistella was 14 years old. In 1958, he traveled to New York city on vacation and he met with disc jockey Alan Freed (see my August 5, 2017 post on Freed). He performed several songs for Freed, and Freed was impressed. Soon, Ramistella was recording songs for a record label based on Freed’s recommendation – his first solo single was Baby Come Back with Long, Long Walk as the B-side. Before its release, Freed insisted that he change his name, and they chose Johnny Rivers in homage to his history growing up on the Mississippi River.
  • Over the next year, several singles were released, none of which charted. He returned to Baton Rouge and toured as a solo act. In 1959, he met the widow of country music legend Hank Williams – this led to his relocation to Nashville in 1959, where he caught on as a songwriter and demo singer. In 1961, Rick Nelson recorded one of Rivers’ songs. This got Rivers to Los Angeles, where he became a session musician and songwriter.
  • In 1963, Rivers was asked to perform at a night club when the house band left the stage early. He was an immediate hit and the size of the crowds watching him perform grew. The following year, he was given a contract to perform at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, which had just opened. In February, a live album of one of his performances at the nightclub was released, and it reached #12 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It included a cover of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, and Rivers’ version went to #2 on the Hot 100 chart.
  • The success of the live album led to a flurry of studio and live albums between 1964 and 1969. During that time, he had ten songs reach the top 20 of the Hot 100. His biggest hits were Poor Side of Town, which topped the Hot 100, and Secret Agent Man and Baby I Need Your Lovin’, both of which peaked at #3.
  • From 1968 to 1971, Rivers had a hard time charting, but in 1972, he found another hit with Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu – the song reached #6 on the Hot 100. He released seven more singles during the 70s, reaching the top 10 for the last time in 1977 with Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’). He also performed the theme song Midnight Special to the television show The Midnight Special, the long running concert TV series which aired from 1973 to 1981. Rivers’ initially recorded the traditional folk song in 1965, and it peaked at #20.
  • He remained active in recordings and performing during the 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. His most recent CD, Land of Dreams, was released in 2020. He still looks and sounds good as he approaches 80 years old. He had a final tour planned in 2021, but it was scrapped due to COVID.
  • In 1966, Rivers started his own record company, Soul City Records. One of the first artists that he signed was The 5th Dimension, and their 1967 album Up, Up and Away and the single of the same name were huge hits. As Rivers was a producer for the album, he received two Grammy Awards – Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Single. Here’s a very 60s video of Rivers performing Secret Agent Man. 

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