From an Elvis performance at his alma mater, to New York and Beverly Hills, Rivers’ career still going strong
When Johnny Rivers performs Saturday at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, he’ll be back in a place that inspired him to become the pop and rock ’n’ roll star he became in the 1960s.
Before Rivers released his many hits of the ’60s and ’70s — including “Memphis,” “Mountain of Love,” “Seventh Son,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Poor Side of Town,” “Summer Rain” and his huge remake of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rocking Pneumonia and the Woogie Flu” — he was a music-loving 14-year-old who saw Elvis Presley perform at the Baton Rouge High School auditorium.
In 1954, Rivers and a friend went to see a country music show at the school. The bill included country comedienne Minnie Pearl as emcee, Little Jimmy Dickens and a young fellow from Memphis who’d recently released his recording debut.
“Minnie Pearl said,” Rivers remembered, “ ‘Now we got a special guest, this new sensation from Memphis, Tenn. Here he is singing his new recording on Sun Records. Elvis Presley!’
“Out comes Elvis with Scotty Moore playing guitar and Bill Black with his acoustic bass,” Rivers said. “Elvis was jumping around. The people all around us were laughing at him, like he was a clown act. Because country shows used to bring out these comics dressed in funny outfits. But all of sudden Elvis started singing, ‘Well, that’s all right, Mama.’ ”
Presley sang only two songs that night, “That’s All Right” and, his record’s flip side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” But those few songs knocked Rivers and his friend out.
“We went, ‘Wow! That’s that song we really like from the radio!’ ” Rivers said. “We really dug that song.”
After the show, they went to the back of the auditorium and saw Presley again.
“He had like a ’54 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and he was pulling a little trailer behind it. Elvis was standing around talking to some of those country music guys about cars. I’m standing there with my buddy, looking up at this guy going, ‘Man, this guy is cool!’ ”
Seeing Presley at the dawn of his stardom inspired the aspiring young singer-guitarist.
“That was one of those things where you go, ‘Man, I want to be like that guy!’ It really got me going.”
Rivers, born John Ramistella in New York City, got a head start in music. His musically gifted dad played guitar and mandolin. Rivers knew a few guitar chords even before his family moved to Baton Rouge. He grew up hearing his dad and uncle (head of LSU’s art department) playing Italian folk songs. Rivers also was the perfect age to fall under the spell of 1950s rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll.
Armed with a Fender Telecaster guitar he bought with money earned from delivering The State-Times afternoon newspaper, Rivers won a series of talent shows at the Paramount Theater on Third Street. He soon led a local band, The Spades. In 1957, he released his first recording, a regional hit called “Hey Little Girl.”
Still a teenager, Rivers traveled to New York, Nashville and Los Angeles. His music business connections included Ricky Nelson, Nelson’s guitarist from Shreveport, James Burton, Hank Williams’ first wife, Audrey Williams, and songwriter Merle Kilgore.
“I was just driven,” he said. “I’ve always been that way.”
Rivers’ big break arrived on Jan. 15, 1964, with the opening of the Whiskey à Go Go on the Sunset Strip. He recorded his album, “Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey à Go Go,” which featured his first No. 1 song, a remake of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.”
Rivers is planning a 50th anniversary celebration of his bringing rock ’n’ roll to the Sunset Strip with an upcoming concert at The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
“I love it,” he said of his ongoing career. “We don’t work as much as we did, but I do one or two concerts a month, all over.”