Born John Henry Ramistella, 7 November 1942, New York City, New York

Johnny Rivers was the first major discotheque star, with great chart success in the 1960s and 1970s, but before his breakthrough in 1964 he had already racked up an impressive pile of rock ’n’ roll recordings. This article will concentrate on the early phase of his career.

John Ramistella was born in New York City, but in 1948 his father moved the family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Taught by his father, John began playing the guitar at the age of eight and soon he developed a love for Louisiana R&B music, especially for Fats Domino. In 1956 he formed his own band, the Spades, with whom he cut his first disc, “Little Girl”/“Two By Two” in 1957. It was released on the Suede label of Natchez, Mississippi, under his own name, Johnny Ramistella. He was only 14 at the time, but sounded older. During a vacation in New York in late 1957 he succeeded in meeting top disc jockey Alan Freed, who gave him a new name, Johnny Rivers, and got him signed to George Goldner’s Gone label.

Four tracks were recorded for Gone in February 1958, but “That’s Rock 'n’ Roll” and “One Man Woman” remained in the can initially. Johnny’s sole Gone single coupled “Baby Come Back” with “Long Long Walk”. Both songs were presented as Rivers’ own compositions, though the top side was basically a non-seasonal rewrite of Elvis’ “Santa Bring My Baby Back”, while the melody of “Long Long Walk” owed a lot to “Ain’t I’m A Dog” (Ronnie Self). Still, the four Gone tracks show Johnny’s natural command as a bona fide first generation rocker. Next came singles on Guyden, DeeDee and the MGM subsidiary Cub. The two Cub singles (1959-60) were recorded in Nashville with the famed A-Team. Three Chancellor singles followed in 1961-62, the best of which was the first one. The Benny Joy composition “Knock Three Times” (previously recorded by Conway Twitty, whose version stayed unissued until 1985) got a surprisingly intense treatment from Rivers and the flip, a rocked-up version of Johnny Cash’s “So Doggone Lonesome”, wasn’t bad either.

None of these recordings met with any chart success and Johnny began to doubt if he would ever make it as a singer. Therefore he began to concentrate more on songwriting. His first taste of success came when Ricky Nelson recorded Rivers’ composition “I’ll Make Believe” in April 1961. It would be included on the hit album “Rick Is 21” (# 8). Johnny moved from Nashville to Los Angeles in 1962 and made an album for Capitol, “The Sensational Johnny Rivers”. The LP wouldn’t be released until 1964, but prior to that four of its songs were issued on two country-tinged singles. Johnny’s heart was still in ‘50s rock and roll, though. Soon an opportunity would arise that allowed him to follow his passion and perform the music he loved on a nightly basis, which resulted in a level of success beyond all expectations.

At the end of 1963 Rivers began performing a three-night stand at the L.A. club Gazzari’s, which was so successful it was extended for weeks. He then took up residency at the newly opened discotheque Whisky A Go Go (soon the most popular club in L.A.) where he was spotted by producer Lou Adler, who became his manager and signed him to the Imperial label. On May 15, 1964, Johnny recorded the live album “Johnny Rivers At the Whisky A Go Go”, which would spend 45 weeks on the album charts, peaking at # 12, while the single “Memphis” (a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”) reached # 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Charlie Gillett wrote in “The Sound of the City" : “At any other time, Rivers would have been regarded as just another bar-band singer whose repertoire was a bunch of old rock ’n’ roll songs. But the British groups were reawakening Americans to those songs, and here was an easy-going album of well recorded versions, with the added novelty of a ‘live’ back- ground ambience of an audience”.

“Memphis” was the first of 29 charting singles during the 1964-1977 period, mostly covers. There was Top 10 success for “Mountain of Love” (# 9, 1964), “Seventh Son” (# 7, 1965), “Secret Agent Man” (# 3, 1966), “Poor Side Of Town” (# 1, 1966, the only Top 40 hit that he wrote himself), “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” (# 3, 1967), “Rockin’ Pneumonia - Boogie Woogie Flu” (# 6, 1972) and “Swayin’To the Music” (# 10, 1977). Not surprisingly, almost all of his early R&R records were reissued in 1964, now that he was a national star.

In 1966, Rivers started his own label, Soul City Records, on which the vocal group The Fifth Dimension scored hit after hit, including two number ones in 1969. He also founded his own publishing company, Rivers Music ; the first writer he signed was Jimmy Webb. His recording career was winding down in the 1980s, but Rivers is still touring. In 2009 he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

More info :

Official website :

Discography :

CD : The early rock & roll recordings have been assembled on “This Could Be the One : The Early Sides, 1958-1962” (Jasmine JASCD 262, 2013, UK). 25 tracks.

Acknowledgements : Michael Jack Kirby, Billy Miller, Wikipedia.

YouTube :
Two By Two :
Long Long Walk :
That’s Rock ’n' Roll :
Baby Come Back :
Answer Me :
Knock Three Times :
So Doggone Lonesome :
Memphis :
Secret Agent Man / Seventh Son (live, 1985) :

Dik, April 2016

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

-- Return to "This Is My Story" Index --