He only had one number one hit—his evocative original “The Poor Side Of Town” in 1966—but Johnny Rivers had plenty of others (including the Top 10s “Secret Agent Man,” “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Seventh Son,” “Mountain Of Love,” “Memphis,” “Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu” and "Swayin' To The Music (Slow Dancin')"), covering a wide variety and standing him well apart from the rest of the male vocalists of his era.
It was probably his background.
Born John Henry Ramistella in New York City, he moved with his family to Baton Rouge, thereby adding the Louisiana music gumbo to his Gotham music roots. He started playing in junior high (in a band with “Abraham, Martin And John” writer Dick Holler), made his first record at 14, was convinced back in New York to change his name by legendary rock ‘n’ roll DJ Alan Freed, then moved to Nashville with Hank Williams’s first wife Audrey Williams and worked with Roger Miller.
He also hooked up with guitar great and Ricky Nelson sideman James Burton, who brought one of his songs to Nelson, and Rivers was off to Los Angeles, first working as a songwriter and studio player, then lucking into a regular nightclub gig leading to classic live albums and singles like Johnny Rivers Live At The Whisky A Go Go, which included his hit cover of Chuck Berry’s classic "Memphis.”
His own legendary rock ‘n’ roll career was underway, and if only The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon (not to be confused with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) had been built long ago, Johnny Rivers would have been inducted into it long ago.
The good thing, though, is that the demand for Rivers’ induction has only mounted over the years, no more so than for music historian/independent vendor Chris Capece. Yes! The same Chris Capece that gave us the fab compilation Off Seasons: Criminally Ignored Sides From Frankie Valli & The 4 Seasons!
One of the most knowledgeable music/records guys around, Chris is also not only a big fan of Johnny Rivers, but a great friend of The Panth! But Chris, we’ve known you for 30 years now, and we still don’t know how to pronounce your name!
And all this time we’ve been saying, ‘ca-PEES’! So sorry!
“That’s okay. Everyone gets it wrong.”
Not anymore! But please, Mr. Ca-PEES-see. What, in your authoritative words, distinguishes Johnny Rivers from the rest?
“Before anyone was tossing such historical terms about, the music of Johnny Rivers seamlessly and confidently blended a Brill Building pro’s ear for a great song with an L.A. hipness and Southern swagger--and his band could stand head-to-head with any ‘invaders’ from Britain! Just look at the numbers: Twenty-five charted recordings between 1964 and ’73--with nine of them Top 10 and 17 Top 40. And this was during a major period in rock ‘n’ roll history.”
Indeed, Chris. And what about those recordings?
“His first recording was made at the legendary New Orleans hit factory of Cosimo Matassa, and he later ignited the A Go-Go scene as the first artist contracted to residency at The Whiskey in L.A.--and the live records he recorded there. And he clearly recognized the value in the American music catalogs of both his own generation and roots masters.”
How do you mean?
“His ‘Memphis’ outsold Chuck Berry’s! His cover of ‘Positively 4th Street’ was cited by Bob Dylan himself in his Chronicles memoir as his favorite version. His self-penned ‘Poor Side Of Town’ got as deeply soulful as a white artist could get, and the breadth of the cover versions he charted with--hits by Huey Smith to Leadbelly to the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson to the Beach Boys--was simply amazing!”
Don’t forget his Soul City Records label!
“I was just going to say that! Besides his own records he put out the 5th Dimension’s….”
And Jimmy Webb getting his start….
“Let me finish! Johnny helped give Jimmy Webb his start as a hit songwriter when as head of his own Soul City label, he paired Webb with the Fifth Dimension, giving them the hits ‘Up, Up And Away,’ ‘Paper Cup’ and ‘Carpet Man.’ And he himself was bold enough to leap from his go-go years to tackle grown-up standards and would-be standards—like Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phooenix’ on his Changes album of 1966--to the lush and psychedelically-flavored growth of his Rewind and Realization albums from 1967 and 1968. The man was fearless…."
And you know, Chris, his show last year at B.B. King’s was really great!
“Please! You’re stepping on my lines!”
So sorry! You were saying….
“And as recent performances prove—like the one at B.B. King’s, thank you--he’s stayed 100% true to his rock ‘n’ roll soul. I know as many people who picked up a guitar because of Johnny as any other artist out there! That he’s up to now seemingly been an asterisk to many loudly celebrated artists of his era is undeserved, and I’m beyond delighted that The Pantheon has stepped up to recognized his importance as an artist.”
And that’s why we have The Pantheon, Chris! Thanks so much for being a part of it by doing such a yeoman’s job on inducting Johnny Rivers for us—and sorry for our interruptions. We got too excited!
Let’s have a big round of applause for Chris Ca-PEES-see, and for Johnny Rivers, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon Hearty Handclasp!
Previously inducted into The Rock 'n' Roll Pantheon:
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