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John Henry Ramistella was born in New York City on November 7, 1942. The family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1948, and it was there that John's music career began.
Introduced to the guitar by his father, John was sitting in with local bands by junior high school, and had formed his own band, The Spades, by 1956. Originally focusing on rhythm and blues, the band became a regional sensation after it added rockabilly to its playlist. The band's records, released by Natchez, Mississippi-based Suede Records, sold well on the touring circuit, but none received national attention.
In 1957, John was vacationing in New York City when he met deejay Alan Freed, to whom he gave one of his records. Freed and his manager, Jack Hooke, subsequently arranged a session for John at Gone Records, which released "Baby Come Back"/"Long, Long Walk" in March 1958. It was at this time that John Ramistella became Johnny Rivers, a name inspired by his Mississippi River-based musical roots. His debut single was followed by "Your First And Last Love" and "You're the One." None of the records sold well.
Returning to Baton Rouge in 1959, Rivers began touring as a solo act with Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner. While in Birmingham, Alabama, Rivers met Audrey Williams, the widow of Hank Williams, who got him a contract with Nashville-based Cub Records. Rivers recorded two singles for Cub, neither of which charted.
In 1960, Rivers met guitarist James Burton, who often recorded with Ricky Nelson. Burton took a tape of "I'll Make Believe," written by Rivers, to Nelson, who subsequently recorded it as part of his More Songs By Ricky album. In 1961, Rivers moved to Los Angeles, where he spent the next two years working as a songwriter and studio musician. He also recorded a few songs for Capitol Records during this time, but none of them sold well.
Rivers' big break came in 1963, when he filled in for a jazz combo at Gazzarri's, a nightclub in Hollywood. Despite presenting a completely different style of music from the club's usual, Rivers was immediately popular with the audience and was soon drawing huge crowds. One of those crowds included Lou Adler, who subsequently became Rivers' producer. Another audience member was Elmer Valentine, who signed Rivers as the very first act at his new club, the Whisky A Go-Go, which opened on January 15, 1964.
As he had done at Gazzarri's, Rivers drew huge crowds to the Whisky A Go-Go, and that popularity led Adler and Valentine to record one of his sessions. Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go-Go, released by Imperial Records in May of 1964, reached #12 on the album charts, and its accompanying single "Memphis" peaked at #2 on the Hit Parade; the album went gold in June. By the end of 1967 Rivers had released a total of eight albums, almost all of which were recorded live at the Whisky A Go-Go. Singles released during this period included "Maybelline" (1964, #12), "Mountain of Love" (1964, #9), "Midnight Special" (1965, #20), "Seventh Son" (1965, #7), "Secret Agent Man" (1966, #3, originally recorded in 1965 as the theme song for the TV series "Secret Agent" and then expanded into a full single), "(I Washed My Hands in) Muddy Water" (1966, #19), "Poor Side of Town" (1966, #1, one of the very few hits he wrote himself), "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" (1967, #3), "The Tracks of My Tears" (1967, #10), and "Summer Rain" (1968, #14).
In 1966, Rivers launched Soul City Records. One of the label's first bands was The Versatiles, which became a disco-era sensation as The Fifth Dimension and earned Rivers seven Grammy Awards as a producer.
In the 1970's, Rivers continued to record songs and albums that were a success with music critics, but few sold as well as those of the previous decade. L.A. Reggae (1972) reached the LP charts as a result of the #6 hit "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," which went gold in January of 1973. His last hit was "Swayin' to the Music (Slow Dancing)," which peaked at #10 in 1977. He left the recording studio after the release of Not a Through Street in 1983, and did not return until reactivating his Soul City label for Last Train to Memphis in 1998. Although he has not recorded another original album since, Rivers continues to tour and draw crowds. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame on June 12, 2009.
Johnny Rivers' official website is www.johnnyrivers.com/.
Library >> Music >> Biography: Singers
This page was last updated on 11/06/2017.