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Johnny Rivers - Memphis

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Published on Aug 14, 2011

Johnny Rivers is a unique figure in the history of rock music. On the most obvious level, he was a rock star of the 1960s and a true rarity as a white American singer/guitarist who made a name for himself as a straight-ahead rock & roller during the middle of that decade. Just as important behind the scenes, his recordings and their success led to the launching, directly and indirectly, of at least three record labels and a dozen other careers whose influence extended into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.

Rivers was very much a kindred spirit to figures like Buddy Holly and Ronnie Hawkins, with all of the verve and spirit of members of that first wave of rock & rollers. He had the misfortune of having been born a little too late to catch that wave, however, and took until the middle of the next decade to find his audience. Born John Henry Ramistella on November 7, 1942, in New York, his family moved to Baton Rouge, LA, in 1948, and it was there that his musical sensibilities were shaped. His father, who played the mandolin and guitar, introduced him to the guitar at an early age, and he proved a natural on the instrument.

Meanwhile, Ramistella also began absorbing the R&B sounds that were starting to turn up on the airwaves at the dawn of the 1950s. Additionally, he got to see performers like Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed in person, and by the time he entered his teens, he was immersed in rhythm & blues. He was also good enough to start playing guitar in local groups and at age 13, he formed his own band, the Spades, playing New Orleans-flavored R&B and rock & roll, especially Fats Domino, Larry Williams, and Little Richard. Ramistella made his recording debut leading the Spades in 1956 with the song "Hey Little Girl," issued on the Suede label.

In 1957, he went to New York and wangled a meeting with Alan Freed, who was then the most influential disc jockey in the country. This led to a change of name, at Freed's suggestion, to the less ethnic, more American-mythic Johnny Rivers (which may also have been influenced by the fact that Elvis Presley had portrayed a character named "Deke Rivers" in the movie Loving You that same year), and to a series of single releases under his new name. Johnny Rivers' official recording debut took place with an original song, "Baby Come Back," on George Goldner's Gone Records label in 1958, arranged by renowned songwriter Otis Blackwell. Neither this number -- which sounds a lot like Elvis Presley's version of Blackwell's "Don't Be Cruel" -- nor any of Rivers' other early singles, recorded for Guyden, Cub, Era, or Chancellor, was successful. He made his living largely performing with the Spades and cutting demos of songs for Hill & Range, primarily in Elvis Presley's style.

It was as a composer that Rivers experienced his first taste of success off of the stage, when a chance meeting with guitarist James Burton led to one of his songs, "I'll Make Believe," finding its way to Ricky Nelson and ending up on the album More Songs by Ricky. By 1961, he was 18 years old and a veteran performer with six years' professional performing under his belt and relatively little to show for it except the experience; even a lot of the established figures in the business who'd tried to give him various breaks over the years, including Alan Freed and George Goldner, had fallen on hard times by then. He moved to Los Angeles and began aiming for a career as a songwriter and producer.

Fate played its hand in 1963, however, when a friend who ran a restaurant in Los Angeles appealed to Rivers for help when his house band, a jazz group, suddenly quit. He reluctantly agreed to perform for a few nights in a stripped-down version of his rock & roll act, with just his electric guitar and a drummer, Eddie Rubin. That was when lightning struck -- it turned out that audiences at the restaurant liked the way he sang and played, and soon the crowds were growing and his performing stint turned into an open-ended engagement. Bassist Joe Osborn was hired to join the combo and fill out the sound and suddenly seeing Johnny Rivers was becoming the thing to do. ~ Bruce Eder, All Music Guide

PLEASE NOTE: I divided my uploads among multiple channels, Bookmark this link in your browser for instant access to an index with links to all of John1948's oldies classics. LINK: http://john1948.wikifoundry.com/page/...

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