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A chat with the legendary Johnny Rivers: Back at the Whisky a Go Go

Johnny Rivers and Jimmy Webb play Saban Theatre Jan. 15.
Johnny Rivers website

Long before some brilliant programming director even dreamed up a certain beloved family of dynastic quackers, some pretty extraordinary entertainment was oozing from the Louisiana bayou – to the tune of 30 million records, 29 chart hits, 17 Gold records and two Grammys.

To say that John Ramistella’s move from New York City to Baton Rouge was a triumph for the young man would be akin to saying that Eric Clapton can play the guitar or The Beatles sold a record or two.

And uh, about the Fab Four…in 1964, when the British Invasion was in progress and American rockers were next to impossible to find on the U.S. pop charts, Ramistella – make that Johnny Rivers – was one of the first to regain a foothold. And to prove it, his first Top 10 record came right in the midst of Beatlemania.

Over the next four years his funky, go-go rock gave him an endless stream of Top 10 smashes, including “Memphis,” “Mountain of Love,” “Midnight Special,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Poor Side of Town,” “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’,” “Tracks of My Tears” and – did I mention endless?

The legendary rocker took the time to chat with me as he prepared for his extraordinary Jan. 15 Saban Theatre gig to celebrate the anniversary of his show to open L.A.’s iconic Whisky a Go Go exactly 50 years ago.

The Whisky was a smash from opening night, thanks to Rivers and his famous red Gibson ES-335 guitar symbolizing the Sunset Strip's new youth-oriented atmosphere. And with celebrated songwriter Jimmy Webb joining Rivers for the exceptional show, you can expect the Saban Theatre performance to be nothing less than a smash.

Jimmy Webb and I are coming together to do this 50th Anniversary thing at the Saban Theatre,” declared Rivers. “And it’s really exciting for me because I haven’t worked with Jimmy for a long time. He and I have a long history going back to the ‘60s.”

“He recorded for my Soul City Records. We worked on the Fifth Dimension ‘Up, Up and Away’ album together using several of his songs. And we won seven Grammy’s that year with that – Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and on and on. Plus, I published several of his big songs, including ‘Up, Up and Away.’”

“And I recorded ‘(By The Time I Get To) Phoenix first. That’s when I first met Jimmy. That was the first song I did and then I didn’t release it because at the time we had ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ and we thought it sounded a little too much like it. We put out ‘Baby, I Need Your Lovin’’ instead, which was a huge hit.”

“But I knew I had this hit song so I called Al De Lory because I already knew Glen Campbell. ‘Gentle On My Mind’ was just coming off the charts. I called Al De Lory who was his producer over at Capitol. I said, ‘Al, I think I’ve got a good song for Glen.’”

“So he came over to my little office at Liberty Records and I gave him my pressing on that record. He walked out of there with it under his arm and about two and a half or three weeks later, I hear Glen Campbell’s version of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix,' which was an exact copy of mine, note for note and same arrangement, everything. And it became his first number one record.”

“That really got Jimmy Webb going. Then everybody jumped on it. And then ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was one of the most recorded copyrights of all time. Everybody did it, including Frank Sinatra.”

“Jimmy, of course then had ‘Galveston’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’ and so many great, great songs and he’s still great. His new album is terrific. ‘Sound of My Voice’ – he got a Four-Star Review in Rolling Stone.”

“Jimmy is going to come out and play his great songs on his grand piano just like Elton John does. Take a little break, I'm gonna come out with my band and then Jimmy’s gonna join us again. It should be a really nice evening.”

“We wanted to do it in a nice concert environment and that’s a beautiful theater. It’s got state of the art sound and lights. We’re gonna have a screen with a little film we’ve put together with stills and film of me on the Ed Sullivan Show doing a Hollywood talents with Judy Garland and this and that, and Red Skelton and a bunch of old stuff, a recording with Carl Perkins and stuff like that. It’s gonna be cool.”

Ah, there’s the master of understatement once again. The special Saban show is a fundraiser for Rivers’ John H. Ramistella Foundation. “We do a ‘Music in Schools’ program where we get together with various artists,” said Rivers of the Foundation’s purpose.

“I just did one last month in November outside of New Orleans at the Riverside Academy with Deacon John Moore. And then we did one up in Baton Rouge there at McKinley High School with Herman Jackson who was B.B. King’s drummer and went to that school.”

“We go in and we teach the kids that are interested in music the roots of music, which is 12-bar blues. We teach them that’s the roots and that’s the structure of all music. Everything comes from that. And we talk to them. They ask us questions and it’s great.”

“At Riverside, there was this kid that played guitar. He was a good player and he’d never really played with a band before. He was really good. So that probably changed that kid’s life. He’s gonna go out and start his own band now because he got to play with Johnny Rivers and Deacon John Moore (laughing). That’s what the Foundation does.”

“We just go in one afternoon and bring everybody into the auditorium with a little sound system and do this thing. It takes about an hour really. And we do a question and answer and it’s just really interesting. Kids get a lot out of it.”

“We just started it last year. It’s just like Tony Bennett’s foundation for performing arts. But the main thing we concentrate on is the ‘Music in Schools’ program. Because I really feel that the younger generation needs to know the roots of everything. You can't just go in and start listening to rap music – the one note thing. The 12-bar blues is the roots of everything.”

“We explain to them that music is like this fruit tree that bears all different kinds of fruit. But down in the ground, the root is the 12-bar blues. Everything else comes from that. You can elaborate on that and augment it and this and that but the roots of it all is the 12-bar blues.”

“It’s good because it’s like handing on what you know to the next generation. One of the mission statements with the Foundation is the ‘education and preservation of original America music.’”

“When you think about what originated here in the United States, it was blues, jazz, R & B, country music, bluegrass. But that was all branches of blues. And that’s what it is. We just want to hand it on to the next generation.”

Rivers certainly remembers being a part of the “next generation.” In 1957 while visiting an aunt in New York, Rivers met famed DJ Alan Freed. Rivers – still Ramistella at the time – boldly explained to Freed and his manager Jack Hooke that he played and wrote music for a band.

Freed gave Ramistella his card and said “We have an office down at the Brill Building on Broadway. Why don't you come down tomorrow afternoon?” The young performer played a few songs for Hooke and Freed, Hooke called George Goldner, owner of Gone and End Records, and the rest they say is history.

Freed also gave Johnny a new name. “I was sitting around with Jack and Alan and they were gettin' ready to release the record. Alan (said) 'Your name... you need to come up with something a little more musical.' We were talkin' about where I grew up on the Mississippi River and somehow Rivers came out of that. That was the first time I used that name."

Record buyers over the years have certainly used Rivers' name. An upcoming artist today might not have the same access to an industry superstar as Rivers did over a half century ago. Rivers was quick to point out that he benefited from working with other hitmakers of the day.

“Well I don’t know. First of all, Alan Freed wouldn’t be around (laughs). But my thing with Alan Freed was just one of those things that just happened. I was fortunate enough to time it just right and stuff.”

“I waited in front of WINX over there at Columbus Circle where he was broadcasting, just about a half hour before he goes on the air. I figured maybe he’ll show up about a half hour before and sure enough he did. But he could’ve shown up two hours before and I would’ve missed it.”

“The Freed thing was very good for me but it wasn’t the total thing. I already had a record out in South Louisiana that was on the charts in Louisiana, Mississippi and East Texas. So I already kind of had my own thing going. And then Ricky Nelson recorded a song I wrote.”

“I was fortunate enough to get invited to sing on the Louisiana Hay Ride in Shreveport and James Burton happened to be there. He lived in Shreveport but was also playing for Ricky Nelson at that time.”

“I had written this song (‘I'll Make Believe’) that everyone said would be a good song for Ricky Nelson. So when Merle Kilgore introduced me to James Burton backstage after we did our two songs on the Hayride, I said, ‘You know, I've got this song.’ And he said, ‘Well, I'm staying at my mom’s house and I'm going back to Hollywood to work with Ricky and do some more recording. Why don’t you send it to me?”

“I raced back to Baton Rouge and went to the radio station; the DJ let me use their tape recorder. I made a little tape of this song with my acoustic guitar and mailed it to James Burton's mother’s house in Shreveport with my phone number on it, never thinking I’d ever hear anything else about it.”

“About a month later or so, I heard the phone ring. My mom answered the phone and she said, ‘Hey, some guy’s on the phone. He said he’s calling from Hollywood.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah sure.’ I thought it was one of the guys in my band just trying to play a joke.”

“So I got on the phone and it was James and he said, ‘Hey, yeah you know that song you sent me? Well, I just played it for Ricky and he really likes it and he’s gonna record it.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I mean that was really a big deal.”

Another understatement anyone? The southern tone in much of Rivers' music is authentic. When he was about five, the Ramistellas moved to Baton Rouge where Rivers’ unemployed father was able to get work through an uncle that was head of the Louisiana State University Art Department.

Rivers didn’t hesitate to credit the move – and his father – with musical inspiration. “One hundred percent! Because my father was a guitar player, I already knew some chords that he taught me and this and that, but I wound up in Baton Rouge. It was perfect timing, just the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll.”

“We moved there in 1953, so I got to hear all these great artists come through, the real architects of rock and roll; Little Richard and Fats Domino and the great New Orleans’ artists and the blues guys, B.B. King and Slim Harpo and on and on. Those guys would play around there all the time. That was the main influence on me. That’s all I heard. My main roots are blues and R & B. Plus I like country music as well. But it was real country music like Hank Williams.”

And there just might have been another important influence in there somewhere for Rivers. “Now this is important. It was a pivotal moment in deciding what I really wanted to do. My old high school, Baton Rouge High, this was the end of 1954 I believe. There was a country music show that came through town and we had a beautiful little auditorium there with a balcony and a nice stage. The tickets were like two dollars or something.”

Minnie Pearl was like the master of ceremonies for the show. And in the middle of the show she goes, ‘Hey we’ve got this new sensation from Memphis. We’re gonna bring him out, sing his new record. Here he is, Elvis Presley.’”

“Elvis comes out on stage with Scotty (Moore) and Billy (Black) – didn’t even have a drummer. He’s kind of wiggling around while they’re setting up the amp and the acoustic base and he says, ‘And here’s my new record.’”

“He goes into ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and I look at my friend and go, ‘Man, that’s that record we like from the radio!’ And that was it. He did two songs. He did that and the B-side of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’”

“After the show was over, we went back behind the auditorium there and they had a bus where all the country music guys were. Elvis had a 1954 Coupe de Ville Cadillac pulling a trailer and they were loading the stuff up in the trailer.”

“They were standing around there and he was talking to some of the country guys. They were talking about cars and stuff. And I'm looking up at this guy going, ‘This guy is really cool.’ It was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to do (laughing).’ Not many people got to do that.”

As influential as Rivers has been in the record industry – and as good as it has been to him – it hasn’t been without frustration. “The main frustration was what happened to the music industry.”

“Record companies really ran it into the ground by missing the boat and not keeping up with the times and just mishandling everything. They all got financial trouble. It’s not just with record industry. I guess that’s what’s happening with most industries. Everything’s getting absorbed and companies are combining and just buying the other one out.”

“My old catalogue was at Capitol EMI and they went under financially and they got absorbed by Universal. I used to have a little control over my catalogue at Capitol Records. Now, I don’t even know who to talk to at Universal.”

“The young people that are around at the record companies aren’t even aware of their catalogue. They don’t realize the value of it, of having great albums by great artists that you could repackage and make interesting. These young guys are always looking for the hot group, not the catalogue artists like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.”

“Glen Campbell and The Beach Boys and my stuff really kept the record company going. That was where the money was because those things constantly sold and they didn’t have to spend the money on recording and they were already done and paid for. What they would do is take the profits from the catalogue artists and spend them on speculating and put the fortune on new artists, most of which never panned out.”

About that catalogue…you’d think that 29 chart hits and over 30 million records would be enough to get Rivers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The oversight was the least of the confident Rivers’ concerns.

“It’s like everything else. It’s very political and I don’t care about it really. People ask me all the time, ‘How come you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’ And I go, ‘Just lucky I guess (laughing).’”

“If you think about it, half of the artists they’ve inducted don’t even play rock and roll. For me, rock and roll was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis. That was rock and roll.”

“Now you get these artists in there that just – who knows? It’s just like buying a star on Hollywood Boulevard. If you donate enough money to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, they give you a star.”

Just sit down sometime with a stack of Johnny Rivers’ remarkable collection of hit records and you’ll be as convinced as I am that they should be paying him for the star…

See you at the Saban! A few tickets are still available.