In 1955, when Johnny Rivers was a junior at Baton Rouge High School, Elvis Presley played a gig in the gym. “It was a country music revue,” Rivers says, “and Elvis played two songs—‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ He didn’t even have a drummer. It was just him and his guitar and a bass.”
In a telephone interview this week, Rivers recalled that experience as a watershed. “When I started out, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t even exist,” he said. “In those days we played blues and R&B, songs by Fats Domino, Jimmy Reid, people from around New Orleans and Baton Rouge who you’ve never heard of.”
Rivers (then Johnny Ramistella) immediately struck out to conquer the new world of rock ‘n’ roll with the band he had started when he was 14. At 15 he had a record deal, and he cut his first single when he was 16. Six years later, when he was all of 22 years old, he finally made it big with the release of Johnny Rivers Live at the Whisky a Go Go.
If the only thing he had ever done was write and record the 1966 hit “Poor Side of Town,” Rivers would be a rock ‘n’ roll hero in my book. A perfect romantic ballad that tells a sad yet hopeful story in less than three minutes, it’s a classic period piece, awash in strings and surging background vocals and punctuated by a piercing little twangy-guitar riff. I seem to remember getting choked up hearing it on the AM radio when I was 11.
As it happens, “Poor Side of Town” is far from Johnny Rivers’ greatest accomplishment. By the time that song made it to number one, he’d already had seven hits on the national charts, and that same year, he’d already produced two other Top 10 hits.
He is universally remembered for one of those 1966 hits—the blistering “Secret Agent Man.” Again, that song alone would be enough to guarantee his heroic stature.
All told, Rivers charted 29 hit singles. He has 17 Gold Records to his credit. He won two Grammy Awards. Over the course of his career as a recording artist, he showed unusual range, striking gold with versions of ’50s-era B-sides (Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”), then-obscure blues tunes (Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”) and would-be Motown classics (Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears”), in addition to a few great originals.
Remarkably, that is only half of the story. Rivers started his own label (Soul City) in 1966, and as a producer, he was responsible for such diverse superstars as the Fifth Dimension and Glen Campbell. And he was one of the four executive producers of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
Rivers (who has maintained a home in Big Sur since the late ‘60s) will return to Monterey this weekend. He says that it will be a return to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when things were simpler.
“On all my old records, it was just a trio—bass and drums and me on guitar,” he says. “My band now also has a keyboard player, plus sometimes I’ll bring along an extra guitar guy.” He laughs when asked what they will play. “We’ve got a lot of songs,” he says. “I don’t know—maybe we’ll play ’em all.”
JOHNNY RIVERS performs at 8pm Saturday at the Rock & Rod Festival, Monterey Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Rd., Monterey. $30 includes the all-day event; music starts at noon. 649-0102.