Growing up in Baton Rouge, Johnny Rivers baptized himself in the Southland’s blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. He later became one of the best-selling recording artists to ever emerge from Louisiana. From 1964 to 1977, Rivers propelled twenty-nine songs into Billboard’s Hot 100. Nine of those singles entered the Top 10, including “Poor Side of Town,” “Secret Agent Man,” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
Born in New York City, Johnny Ramistella—later renamed Rivers by the groundbreaking rock and roll disc jockey Alan Freed—was already singing and playing guitar when his family moved to Baton Rouge. A 1954 Elvis Presley performance Rivers witnessed at Baton Rouge High School, plus a riotous 1956 Fats Domino show at the city’s airport, fueled his existing fire.
After paying his dues for years, playing clubs and school dances in Louisiana and traveling between Baton Rouge, New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, Rivers hit the big time at the Whiskey a Go-Go in West Hollywood. He capitalized on that Sunset Strip success with an in-performance album, Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go. Even as British invaders ruled the American charts, “Memphis,” a single from the Lou Adler-produced Whisky A Go Go album, hit number two on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Following several more live albums, Rivers’ first studio-made hit, “Mountain of Love,” featured the inaugural studio collaboration of drummer Hal Blaine, bassist and Louisiana native Joe Osborn, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. They became essential players in the session-musician collective known as the Wrecking Crew.
Following the cancellation of Jerry Lee Lewis’ appearance at Jazz Fest, the festival replaced the ailing rock and roll pioneer with Rivers, another Louisiana artist who made a massive impact on popular music.
You moved to Louisiana and the South just in time for the rise of rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
I got to Louisiana just about the time of the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. Fats Domino and all those guys were recording at Cosimo Matassa’s studio down in New Orleans. I collected all of those records.
In the middle of the show Minnie Pearl says, “We have a special guest, this new kid who’s creating a lot of excitement.” And Elvis comes out with Scotty [Moore, guitar] and Bill [Black, bass]. He gets up there and he’s jumping and twitching around on stage. People laughed. They thought he was a clown act.
But you dug it?
When he started playing “That’s All Right,” me and my buddy said, “Hey, man, that’s that song we like from the radio!” And he did “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the B-side. Just two songs. After the show, we went around to the back of the school and Elvis was out there by a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. I’m looking at him going, “Wow. This guy is really cool.”
Who were some of the other artists who captivated you in the mid-’50s?
Jimmy Reed. I saw him play at Baton Rouge High. And I was friends with a DJ at a radio station. In those days, the record companies sent DJs several copies of the new singles. My DJ friend played nothing but the blues. So, I got records by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and, of course, Slim Harpo from Baton Rouge. I’d learned all that stuff.
And about that same time, you met Dick Holler, the bandleader and songwriter later composed the hits “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Dick and his band, the Rockets, played across the river at The Carousel. I begged them to let me sit in. Dick became my mentor. He turned me on to Ray Charles and lot of cool blues things.
When did you put your first band together?
In 1957. All the guys were older than me and married. We used to do all the Fats Domino stuff.
And you recorded your fist single—“Little Girl” and “Two by Two”—at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans, where Domino made his recordings.
I used the same band that Fats and Little Richard and all of them used. The guitar player on that record is Mac Rebennack [the future Dr. John].
Some good breaks came your way—your band played the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport and then, at the Hayride, you met James Burton, the guitarist for music and TV star Ricky Nelson’s band.
I’d been collecting Ricky Nelson records just to hear James Burton. I’d written a song that everybody said would be great for Ricky Nelson. Elvis was in the Army then, so Ricky Nelson was the man.
You pitched that song, “I’ll Make Believe,” to Burton so he could pitch it to Nelson?
I mailed a tape of “I’ll Make Believe” to James Burton at his mother’s house in Shreveport. About a month later, the phone rings and my mother answers. She says, “Johnny, there’s a guy who says he’s calling from Hollywood.” I thought it was the guys in my band playing a joke. But it was actually James Burton. He said, “Ricky is going to record your song.”
You flew to Hollywood and met Ricky Nelson. Later you flew to New York and met Alan Freed.
I played some songs for Alan Freed at his office in the Brill Building. He got on the phone with George Goldner [the producer, promoter and record label owner]. Goldner called Otis Blackwell [the composer of hits by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Willie John]. Goldner got me in the studio with Otis Blackwell, who produced my songs “Baby Come Back,” and “Long Long Walk.”
The records you made in New York weren’t successful, but you left with something else that helped your career, correct?
Back then, all the Italian guys shortened their last names. Frank Sinatra was the only Italian singer who didn’t. George Goldner and Alan Freed said we can’t use my Ramistella name. I was talking with them about where I grew up, on the Mississippi River. They said, “We’ll call you Johnny River.” And then it became Rivers.
You continued meeting important people in the music business, including Hank Williams’ widow, Audrey, and Jimmy Bowen, who later produced recordings by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, George Strait and Jimmy Buffett.
In L.A. in the early ’60s, I was Jimmy Bowen’s gofer guy in the studio while he was producing acts for Sinatra’s Reprise Records. I was also still trying to book little gigs around town—I wasn’t’ giving up on my music.
In 1963, you finally got some traction at Gazzari’s, a small Italian restaurant.
Jimmy Bowen and I went to Gazzari’s after we finished in the studio, because Gazzari’s served good Italian food until one in the morning. One night, Bill Gazzari says, “My jazz band left. I can’t find a group to replace them. Bill looked at me and said, “Why don’t you play a couple of nights?” I said, “Bill, I play rock and roll, Chuck Berry stuff.” He said, “Just don’t play too loud.” So, I played Bobby Darin tunes, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Jimmy Reed. About the third night we were there, Natalie Wood comes in with her entourage. She starts dancing and they’re having a rock and roll party. It gets in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The night after that hit the papers, you couldn’t get near Gazzari’s door.
Did Gazzari’s open the door to the Whiskey a Go-Go?
On November 22, 1963, someone calls me and says, “Johnny, turn on your TV! President Kennedy’s been shot!” I call Bill Gazzari to tell him I’m not coming in that night. He says, “You have to play!” I said, “Bill, there’s no way I’m playing tonight.” I’m thinking he’s being an insensitive bastard. So, I call Elmer Valentine [Whiskey a Go-Go’s co-founder] and ask him if he still wants me to play at that place on Sunset Boulevard. I signed up with him for a year starting in January 1964.”
How quickly did you catch on at the Whiskey a Go-Go?
Opening night at the Whiskey, people were lined up two ways from the door. Everybody was there. Steve McQueen, Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Cary Grant—the stars came in every night.
But you couldn’t find any takers for the album you and Lou Adler recorded at the Whiskey?
Nobody wanted it except Bob Skaff at Liberty Records. We put Johnny Rivers at the Whisky a Go Go out and it became a smash hit. I did a lot of live albums at the Whiskey, including the one with “Secret Agent Man.”
Your 1964 remake of “Mountain of Love” features the first joint studio appearance by three session musicians who became part of the Wrecking Crew—Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, and Larry Knechtel.
Hal Blaine played on more hits than anybody. Hal’s drum fills and rolls were perfect. His time was incredible. And I can’t think of a bass player who played on more hits than Joe Osborn. He’s on a bunch of my stuff, like “Summer Rain” and “Mountain of Love.” Joe had a knack for playing the right riff and the right feel on any song.
You released so many hits. Did you simply know how to pick a song and then get the most out of it?
That came from hanging out at the Brill Building and in Nashville, being around great songs and great songwriters. And if I didn’t feel I could perform a song as if I had written it myself, then I wouldn’t do it.