Johnny Rivers

Johnny RiversFrom: New York City, NY, USA

Born John Henry Ramistella in 1942, Johnny Rivers is an American rock and roll singer, guitarist, songwriter, and producer. Rivers delved into folk, blues, and even some garage rock. He had his greatest success as a musician in the mid-to-late 1960s with a collection of hits, including the #1 “Poor Side of Town.”

When Johnny was still young, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when his father lost his job. Johnny began playing guitar without any formal music lessons, learning from his father and uncle at the age of eight. Ramistella was heavily influenced by the distinctive music of Louisiana. In junior high school, Ramistella sat in with a band called the Rockets led by Dick Holler. Johnny soon formed his own band, the Spades, making his first record at age 14. Some of the Spades music was recorded on the Suede label in 1956.

In 1958, Johnny made a trip back to New York where he met Alan Freed who advised him to change his name. Ramistella had the Baton Rouge attorney Arthur J. Cobb change his name to Johnny Rivers after the Mississippi River which flows through Baton Rouge. Freed was also able to land Rivers some recording contracts on the Gone label. Between March of 1958 and 1959, Rivers released three records which did not sell well.

Rivers decided to return to Baton Rouge in 1959. One evening in Birmingham, Rivers met Audrey Williams, the first wife of Hank Williams. Audrey took Rivers to Nashville, where he recorded two more records, both of which were unsuccessful. Rivers stayed in Nashville as a songwriter and demo singer, making $25 per demo. During this time, Rivers worked with Roger Miller. After a while, Rivers began to lose confidence, thinking he would never become a successful singer, and moved more towards writing than singing.

The turn of the decade was a lot better for Rivers. In 1960, he met James Burton, the guitarist for Ricky Nelson. Burton recommended Rivers’ “I’ll Make Believe” to Nelson, who went on to record the song. Rivers moved to Los Angeles in 1961 to work as a songwriter and studio musician. Johnny Rivers finally made his big break in 1963 when he temporarily filled in for a jazz combo at Bill Gazzarri’s nightclub. This gig ended up becoming long-term, thanks to positive customer response.

Later in ’63, Rivers recorded the theme song for the American broadcast of a British television series, “Danger Man.” Initially, Rivers thought of this as a sign that he would never make it on an international label. However, the American version of the show, “Secret Agent,”  featured Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1966, selling one million copies and achieving gold disc status.

Elmer Valentine offered Rivers a one-year contract to open his new nightclub, Whiskey a Go Go in 1964. The Whiskey a Go Go opened just three days before the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” entered the Hot 100 and the British Invasion completely dominated the charts. However, Rivers was so popular that producer Lou Adler issued the album Johnny Rivers Live At The Whiskey A Go Go. The album reached #12 on the charts, and the single “Memphis” reached #2. Apparently, Elvis Presley played Rivers a demo of “Memphis” that he had planned to record. Next thing Presley knew, Rivers recorded and released the song, using the same arrangement and everything.

Johnny Rivers continued to record a number of songs in 1964-1965, most of which were live Go Go-style pieces. In 1966, Rivers began recording ballads, producing such hits as “Poor Side Of Town” and “Secret Agent Man.” Rivers continued to find success recording covers, landing more Top 10 hits. In 1968, Rivers released the album Realization which went to #5 on the album charts.

Johnny Rivers continued recording through the 1970s and 1980s, and still performs today. On June 12, 2009, Rivers was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Artist information sources include: Wikipedia

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Tracks played on Psychedelicized…

From the 1968 album Realization
Realization

  • Positively 4th Street

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  • ‘Realizations’ 7 LP Promo Spot