Johnny Rivers’ huge American success of the 1960s and 70s may not have been fully reflected around the world. But that should take nothing away from the Brooklyn-born artist’s contribution to pop culture. Not only did Johnny place 29 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 over a lengthy 13-year span, he scored nine Top 10 hits and 18 chart albums. His biggest hit, “Poor Side Of Town,” entered the US chart on on September 17, 1966.
The versatile Rivers has always represented the best virtues of American pop music, both on original songs and some incredibly wide-ranging cover versions of rock’n’roll, blues, folk, country, and soul favorites. Before he was even 15, in 1957, he was recording with the Spades for the Suede label, when he was still going by his birth name of John Ramistella.
Twelve labels in six years
The following year, famed rock’n’roll DJ Alan Freed renamed him Johnny Rivers, and he paid his dues by recording for no fewer than a dozen different labels over the next six years. Finally, in 1964, came his breakthrough on the Imperial label, with a brace of tributes to Chuck Berry: a No.2 US smash cover of “Memphis,” and a No.12 follow-up in “Maybellene” (spelt “Maybelline” on his version).
Unlike other US solo male performers, such as Del Shannon, Rick Nelson and Bobby Vinton who found it increasingly hard to compete once the group era ushered in by Beatlemania really took hold, Rivers blossomed. He made the Top 10 again with “Mountain Of Love” and then with a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son.”
He visited the folk scene to take the Kingston Trio’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” back into the American Top 30. Rivers showed his country influences for chart revivals of Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again” and Stonewall Jackson’s “(I Washed My Hands In) Muddy Waters.” In between, he made the Top 3 with “Secret Agent Man,” his theme for the TV series Secret Agent, starring Patrick McGoohan.
The right side of town
Then came Rivers’ biggest-ever single, the great “Poor Side Of Town,” composed with Lou Adler. After its Hot 100 debut in mid-September 1966, it became a US No.1 for a week in November. Big hits continued with impressive regularity, including the Motown revivals “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “The Tracks Of My Tears.” His pop style kept pace with the times to embrace mildly psychedelic pop, social conscience and more album-oriented music, including covers of Van Morrison and James Taylor.
Listen to the best of Johnny Rivers on Spotify.
Late in 1972, Johnny scored his biggest hit for some years with the rock’n’roll revival “Rockin’ Pneumonia – Boogie Woogie Flu,” and he was still making the Top 10 as late as 1977 with the ballad “Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin’).” Three of his albums were certified gold, two of them compilations; his most recent studio album was 2009’s Shadows On The Moon. With career sales of some 30 million, this American pop treasure continued to entertain audiences with songs from his vast catalog, before announcing his retirement. “I got started when I was 15 years old,” he wrote, ”so it’s time to sit back and enjoy the grandkids.”