Sunday, April 14, 5p
The Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of James Rivers’ career as a crowd-pleasing front man. A remarkably versatile entertainer, he sings and plays tenor, alto and soprano sax, flute, harmonica and bagpipes. Rivers’ shows typically feature jazz, blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, country music and—performed with his bagpipes—the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”
When Rivers was a young musician in the 1950s, he wanted to play modern jazz. “But when I saw some of the great jazz players, they might have ten people in the house,” he remembered. “So, I learned a lesson a long time ago. If you’re going to make music for a living, like I do, you better play for the people.” But pleasing people doesn’t mean he plays music he’d doesn’t like. “I like everything I do,” Rivers said.
From New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, Rivers first appeared on local and national bandstands when he was a teenager. In the late 1950s, he performed with the Eddie Bo and Huey “Piano” Smith bands and played recording sessions for such classics as Bo’s “Every Dog Got His Day,” Al “Carnival Time” Johnson’s “Carnival Time” and the Smith-composed Frankie Ford hit “Sea Cruise.”
After stints with Bo and Smith, Rivers stayed with Deacon John Moore and the Ivories for a decade. In 1970, when Moore dropped the horns to play Jimi Hendrix–style rock, Moore suggested Rivers lead his own band. “I really thank Deacon John for suggesting that,” the irrepressible Rivers said.
A 12 year association with movie star Clint Eastwood may be Rivers’ biggest claim to fame. In 1984, when Eastwood was filming the crime thriller Tightrope in New Orleans, the actor-director saw Rivers’ show at Tyler’s Beer Garden.
“When he came in, everybody said, ‘Ooh. Clint Eastwood!’” Rivers said. “I went to meet him but the people had surrounded him. So, I just went to the bar. And then I get a tap on the shoulder. I turn around and it’s Clint. He said, ‘I like what you’re doing.’”
Eastwood phoned Rivers two months later. “So, boom, we started doing the music to Tightrope,” Rivers said. “And Clint let me write a song for the movie. I got a royalty check from that the other day.”
Rivers’ tenor and alto saxes, flute and harmonica are all in Tightrope. He also played soprano sax for the movie’s Eastwood-composed theme. His subsequent soundtrack work for Eastwood includes Ratboy; the Charlie Parker biopic Bird; A Perfect World and, featuring his cameo appearance on a nightclub bandstand, The Bridges of Madison County. In 1996, he participated in the all-star Eastwood After Hours concert at Carnegie Hall.
Rivers will turn 82 on April 18. “I think 82 is the new 50,” he said.