The Ramistella family moved from New York to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when Johnny’s father lost his job while Johnny was still young. Without any formal music lessons, he began playing guitar, which he learned from his father and uncle, at the age of eight, and was influenced by the distinctive music of Louisiana. While in junior high school he started sitting in with a band called The Rockets led by Dick Holler who later wrote a number of songs including “Abraham, Martin and John” and “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron”.
Ramistella formed his own band, The Spades, in junior high school and made his first record at age 14, while still a student at Baton Rouge High School. Some of their music was recorded on the Suede label as early as 1956.
On a trip back to New York in 1958, he met Alan Freed who advised him to change his name, so Johnny Ramistella had the Baton Rouge attorney Arthur J. Cobb change his name to Johnny Rivers after the Mississippi River that flows near Baton Rouge.Freed also helped Rivers score some recording contracts on the Gone label.From March 1958 to March 1959, Rivers released three records which did not sell well.
In 1959, Rivers returned to Baton Rouge. While playing throughout the American South along side Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner, one evening in Birmingham, Rivers met Audrey Williams, the first wife of Hank Williams and she took Rivers to Nashville, where he recorded two more records. They were not successful either, but Johnny stayed in Nashville as a songwriter and demo singer for $25 a demo. While in Nashville, Rivers worked alongside Roger Miller. By this time, Rivers’ self-esteem about his singing diminished, and he thought he would never make it as a singer, therefore writing, and not singing, moved to the forefront
In 1960, Rivers met fellow Louisianan James Burton, the guitar player for Ricky Nelson. Burton later recommended one of Rivers’ songs to Nelson, who went on to record it. In 1961, Rivers went to Los Angeles to meet Nelson, and then relocated there, working as a songwriter and studio musician. In 1963, River’s big break came when he temporarily filled in for a jazz combo at Bill Gazzarri’s nightclub; the temporary gig became long-term due to positive customer response.
In 1963, Rivers recorded the theme song for the American broadcast of a British television series, “Danger Man,” which starred Patrick McGoohan. At first, Rivers balked at the idea, feeling that he did not have the talent to make a record on an international label, but he eventually relented. The American version of the show was titled “Secret Agent”, and the song “Secret Agent Man” reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1966. It sold one million copies, achieving gold disc status.
In 1964, Elmer Valentine gave Rivers a one-year contract to open in his new nightclub, Whisky a Go Go, on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. The Whisky a Go Go opened three days before The Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the British Invasion knocked almost every American artist off the top of the charts. But Rivers was so popular that producer Lou Adler decided to issue Johnny Rivers Live At The Whisky A Go Go. The live album reached #12 on the charts and the single “Memphis” reached the US Hit Parade #2 spot in July 1964. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. According to Elvis Presley’s friend and employee Alan Fortas, Presley played his friend (Rivers) a test pressing of “Memphis” that Elvis had made but not released. Rivers was impressed and, much to Presley’s chagrin, Rivers recorded and released it, even copying the arrangement (Fortas writes: “After that, Johnny was on Elvis’s shit list” and was persona non grata from then on). Rivers’ version far outsold the Chuck Berry original from August 1959 which stalled at #87 in the US. (Lonnie Mack’s 1963 instrumental version of “Memphis” reached the US Hit Parade top five in July; the Chuck Berry original and its British rival cover version fought it out in the UK Hit parade in November 1963).
Rivers made a successful transition from nightclub entertainer to chart-busting pop singer and had created the “Go Go sound”, part of a scene which included Go-Go dancers. In 1964 and 1965, Rivers continued to record mostly live, Go-Go style records including “Maybellene” (another Berry cover), after which came “Mountain of Love”, “Midnight Special”, “Seventh Son” (written by Willie Dixon) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (written by Pete Seeger), all of which were hits.
Rivers wanted to try something different; he switched gears in 1966, and began to record ballads characterized by his smooth, soulful voice, and background vocalists (mostly women), producing such successful hits as “Poor Side Of Town, which would be his biggest chart hit and his only number one record. Another hit was “Secret Agent Man”, the theme from the Secret Agent television series (written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri). He also started his own record company, Soul City Records, where he won a Grammy Award as the producer of The 5th Dimension, which eventually recorded “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, two number-one hits with River’s label. Rivers is also credited with giving songwriter Jimmy Webb a major break, when the 5th Dimension recorded Webb’s song “Up, Up, and Away”.
Rivers continued to record more hits, including “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” (cover of the Four Tops) and “The Tracks of My Tears” (cover of the Miracles), both went Top 10 in 1967. In 1968, Rivers released Realization, a number-five album on the LP charts that included the #14 pop chart single “Summer Rain”, written by a former member of The Mugwumps, James Hendricks (not to be confused with Jimi Hendrix). The album included some of the psychedelic influences of the time and marked a subtle change in his musical direction, with more thoughtful types of songs, included such ballads as “Look To Your Soul” and “Going Back to Big Sur
In the 1970s, Rivers continued to record more songs and albums that were a success with music critics, but did not sell as well as some of his earlier hits. One of these albums, L.A. Reggae in 1972, reached the LP charts as a result of the #6 hit “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”, a cover version of the Huey “Piano” Smith And The Clowns song. The track became Rivers’ third million seller, which was acknowledged with the presentation of a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America (R.I.A.A.) on January 29, 1973.Other hits at that time were “Blue Suede Shoes” (cover of Carl Perkins), in 1973, which would reach the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Help Me Rhonda” in 1975 (cover of The Beach Boys) on which Brian Wilson helped with backup vocals. His last Top 10 entry was “Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancing)” (cover of the Funky Kings), which reached #10, followed by his last Hot 100 entry, “Curious Mind (Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um)” (cover of Major Lance), both from 1977. He also sang the title song to the late night concert influenced TV show The Midnight Special.
1980s to current
Rivers continued recording into the 1980s (e.g., 1980s Borrowed Time LP), although his recording career decreased. Despite his music not having reached the best seller charts for quite a while, Rivers is still touring, doing 50 to 60 shows a year. Increasingly he has returned to the blues that inspired him initially.
In 1998, Rivers reactivated his Soul City imprint and released Last Train to Memphis.
In early 2000, Rivers recorded with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, and Paul McCartney on a tribute album dedicated to Buddy Holly’s backup band, “The Crickets”.
In all, Rivers had nine Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 17 in the Top 40 from 1964 to 1977. In total, he has sold well over 30 million records.
Rivers is one of a small number of performers such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd (from 1975′s Wish You Were Here onward), Queen, Genesis (though under the members’ individual names and/or the pseudonym Gelring Limited) and Neil Diamond who have their name as the copyright owner on their recordings. (Most records have the recording company as the named owner of the recording.) This noteworthy development was spearheaded by supergroup The Bee Gees after their successful $200,000,000 lawsuit against RSO, which remains to this day the largest successful lawsuit against a record company by an artist/group.
On June 12, 2009, Johnny Rivers was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.wikipedia