Johnny Rivers managed to put seventeen songs in the top forty from 1964 to 1977. He was versatile enough to do folk songs, blues, covers of old-time rock-and-roll songs, and some original material, all of them in his own unique style. He was also adept as a songwriter, guitarist, and as a producer.
His name at birth in New York City in 1942 was John Ramistella. His family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and he was raised there. John began to perform as a teenager with his group, the Spades, and some of his material was recorded on the Suede label as early as 1956. On a trip to New York City in 1958, he became acquainted with Alan Freed, and he changed his name to that suggested by the celebrated disc jockey: Johnny Rivers. Freed was instrumental in securing a recording contract for Johnny Rivers with Gone in the late 50's. Although he had no big hits on the Gone label, it was a significant boost to Rivers' career.
Johnny Rivers moved to the West Coast in the early 60's and by 1963 found himself playing at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. He was the headline act, and played covers of some catchy tunes from the not too distant past. His act was similar to one that had been made popular by Trini Lopez, the main act at PJ's in Los Angeles. Rivers signed with the Imperial label and recorded an album in 1964, Johnny Rivers Live At The Whiskey A Go Go. It reached number 12 on the LP charts and a single from the album, a spirited cover of Chuck Berry's Memphis, reached number two on the pop charts. Johnny Rivers had his first big hit and had made the successful transition from nightclub entertainer to chart-busting pop singer.
His next hit was another Chuck Berry cover, Maybelline, which he followed with Mountain Of Love and Midnight Special. In 1965 he had hits with a cover of a song that had been written by blues artist Willie Dixon, Seventh Son, and with Pete Seeger's Where Have All The Flowers Gone.
In 1966 Rivers came up with his biggest hit ever, Poor Side Of Town, which would be his only number one record. He also started his own label and called it Soul City Records. One of the artists that signed with Soul City, James Hendricks, wrote a song that Rivers recorded and turned into a hit with Summer Rain. Johnny did the theme from a TV show and turned Secret Agent Man into a hit. The 5th Dimension signed with Soul City Records and eventually recorded two number one hits on Rivers' label, Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In and Wedding Bell Blues. Johnny continued to put up more hits, including two more top ten records in 1967 with Baby I Need Your Lovin' and a cover of the Miracles' The Tracks Of My Tears.
Rivers had a successful number five album on the LP charts with Realization in 1968; it marked a subtle change in his musical direction, with more thoughtful types of songs. He recorded more songs and issued more albums in the early 70's which 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, dented the LP charts as a result of the top ten pop song that had been included on it, a cover of Huey Smith & the Clowns 1957 R&B record Rockin' Pneumonia - Boogie Woogie Flu.
Imperial became United Artists [it is now EMI] and Johnny Rivers continued recording albums. He recorded for other labels, including Atlantic, Epic and Big Tree. Occasionally one of his tracks would reach the top forty, such as his cover of Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes in 1973 or the Beach Boys' Help Me Rhonda in 1975, on which Brian Wilson helped with backup vocals. His last entry on the charts was Swayin' To The Music [Slow Dancin'], a top ten hit in 1977. He continued recording into the 80's.
Johnny Rivers had a total of nine top ten hits from 1964 until 1977. The mark he made on the recording industry is significant.
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