The southern tone in much of Rivers' music was authentic. John Henry Ramistella was born November 7, 1942, in New York City. When he was about five, his father wound up out of work. The Ramistella's moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where an uncle, head of the Louisiana State University art department, got John's dad work painting houses and antiquing furniture. John's first musical inspiration was his father.
"My dad and uncle used to get together and play these old Italian folk songs on mandolin and guitar." As John started playing, he listened to R&B on the late-night radio, megawatt stations like WLAC in Nashville. However, R&B was a way of life in Baton Rouge. "When I went to Baton Rouge Junior High, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed and guys like that used to play at our dances," Rivers says.
By junior high, he was sitting in with various local bands, including one led by Dick Holler, who later wrote "Abraham, Martin And John." Holler's guitarist was the still-unknown Jimmy Clanton. Holler, Rivers says, "introduced me to a lot of R&B artists and opened up a whole new world for me." Johnny formed his own band The Spades in 1956. "We played all Fats' tunes... Little Richard, Larry Williams, Bobby Bland," Rivers says. "We became the hot little band around Baton Rouge. Then Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis hit so I took on a little touch of rockabilly."
Johnny and The Spades toured Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. His first recording, "Hey Little Girl," was released by the Natchez, Mississippi-based Suede label, and sold well on The Spades' touring circuit.
In 1957, John flew to New York during a school vacation and stayed with an aunt there. He wanted to meet Alan Freed. And he did. "It was like a scene out of an Alan Freed movie," Rivers says. He was at WINS in Columbus Circle. "I stood in front of the radio station. It was freezing cold and he came up with Jack Hooke who was his manager. I said 'My name's Johnny Ramistella. I'm from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I have a band. I play and write and I'd like you to hear my music.' Alan gave me his card and said 'We have an office down at the Brill Building on Broadway. Why don't you come down tomorrow afternoon?' I went down and Jack Hooke was there and I played four or five songs."
Hooke called George Goldner, owner of Gone and End records, whose office was also in the Brill. Legendary songwriter Otis Blackwell, author of "Don't Be Cruel" and "Great Balls Of Fire" arranged John's debut single "Baby Come Back" b/w "Long, Long Walk." Freed also gave Johnny a new name. "I was sitting around with Jack and Alan and they were gettin' ready to release the record," John remembers. "Alan (said) 'Your name... you need to come up with something a little more musical.' We were talkin' about where I grew up on the Mississippi River and somehow Rivers came out of that, That was the first time I used that name."
"Baby Come Back" was released in March 1958. His New York contacts also led to releases like "Your First And Last Love" on the Dee Dee label, issued that August, and "You're The One" on the Guyden label, released in March 1959. None were hits.
Back in Baton Rouge, Rivers began touring as a solo act with innovative Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner. At a show in Birmingham, Alabama, he met Hank Williams' widow Audrey, who brought him to Nashville around 1959 and got him a contract with Cub, a subsidiary of MGM Records. He cut two singles for Cub backed by some of Nashville's best session players: Floyd Kramer, Buddy Harman, Bob Moore, and Hank Garland, who became a close friend. Johnny also hung out with Roger Miller, then a promising songwriter at Tree Music, Roger's publishing company.
Rivers credits his uncanny gift of finding good songs and writers to his New York and Nashville experiences. "I learned that the song was everything from hangin' out at the Brill Building and in Nashville around Tree Music," he says. "I used to cut demos for Hill and arrange songs when I was in New York, Guys like Otis Blackwell would come in with a new tune and they'd get me to do the Elvis Presley sound and cut demos for them. 25 bucks a demo."
Around 1960, as Johnny alternated between Nashville and Baton Rouge, Merle Kilgore, then a deejay at KWKH in Shreveport, got him a spot on the Louisiana Hayride. He also introduced him to Shreveport guitar legend James Burton, home on vacation from working with Ricky Nelson in California. Burton took a tape of Johnny's song "I'll Make Believe" back to California. Within a month, he called to tell Johnny that Rick would record it. The song wound up on Nelson's 1960 Imperial LP More Songs By Ricky.
Rivers flew to L.A., met Rick and the band, and relocated to L.A. around 1961. "I was thinking of producing records," he says. "I was starting to give up on the artist idea. I'd kicked around for so long I was starting to look in other areas. Then I met a producer named Nick Venet and wound up doing some stuff for Capitol." The 1962 Capitol sides, including a cover version of Lefty Frizzell's country hit "Long Black Veil" didn't sell, but Rivers' contacts gained him work as a writer and producer.
Rivers returned to the stage in 1963, almost by accident. He was a regular customer at Bill Gazzari's club on La Cienega Blvd. in L.A. for some time. "Hangin' out in the studios, bein' a musician, I was always up late, so I wound up goin' by there quite a bit," Rivers says. "It was a little Italian restaurant that usually stayed open until four in the morning. When the clubs closed at two, everyone that was still hungry would go get some good food. He had a jazz trio there."
One night Johnny found Gazzari forlorn because his house band was leaving. "Bill said, 'You're a musician. Can't you come in and help us out for a few nights until I can find somebody?' I said, 'I play funky rock 'n' roll. I don't think that's what you want in here.' He begged me, 'Please come in and play your stuff until I find another jazz group."'
Johnny devised a formula: "Trini Lopez had been playing over at PJ's, doin' this slap rhythm thing. I said, 'I can do that kind of stuff.' I didn't have a band so I called Eddie Rubin, a jazz drummer. He wasn't gigging at the time, so he and Eddie went into Gazzari's together (just guitar and drums) and played what we thought was going to be a three- or four-day gig." To everyone's surprise, huge crowds gathered to hear Johnny and Rubin play rock and R&B hits. Gazzari's profits soared, and when Rivers was ready to leave, Gazzari offered him more money and let him hire a bassist. Joe Osborn, just starting to become an L.A. studio legend, joined Rivers and Rubin.
Rivers also met two men at Gazzari's who would play major roles in his career: Lou Adler, who became his producer, and Elmer Valentine, who was opening an L.A. version of the Paris Whisky A Go-Go club on the Sunset Strip. Valentine offered Rivers a year's contract to appear at the new club. On January 15, 1964, he opened. Three days later The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" entered the charts.
"The Whisky was a smash from opening night," Rivers says. I brought my following from Gazzari's." Rivers and his famous red Gibson ES-335 guitar symbolized the Strip's new youth-oriented atmosphere. They weren't at the Whisky long when he and Adler thought of cutting a live album. Another L.A. club owner loaned Rivers and Adler money to hire Wally Heider's remote recording unit. "We recorded this album two nights in a row and took it to every record company in town. None of them wanted it," Johnny recalls.
Liberty Records executive Bob Skaff liked the tape and convinced reluctant Liberty President Al Bennett to release it on Imperial Records. Bennett had purchased Imperial from founder Lew Chudd, and ran it as a small, semi-independent label. To release Rivers' recordings, he and Adler formed Dunhill Productions with Bobby Roberts (an ex-member of The Dunhills, a tap dancing group that inspired the name) and Pierre Cossette (now producer of the Grammy Awards show). This eventually evolved into Dunhill Records, home to L.A rock legends The Mamas & The Papas, The Grass Roots and Steppenwolf.
Adler and company were disappointed that the album would appear on what they considered a secondary label. But not Johnny. "When they said 'Imperial Records.' I just jumped up and went 'YEAH! YEAH!' Because I grew up with nothing but Imperial Records, Bobby Mitchell, Fats Domino, and Ricky Nelson, and I thought 'What a cool label!'" Both Rivers and Adler came to see Imperial's smallness as a plus. "it gave Lou and me the autonomy to pick our own singles and work closely with the promotion men and marketing people," Rivers says. "I think that had a lot to do with why we had so much success, because we had a real good handle on it."