Johnny Rivers Interview
The first time I ever heard the term “House Rockin” the person I thought of was Johnny Rivers! What about Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino? Believe me, those people can rip a house down board by board, but as far as all night, good time House Rockin goes, it’s gotta be Johnny Rivers. It’s a given that no matter where he appears it’s gonna be a great show! Rivers has been providing his service to fans of good times n’ good tunes Houston for some thirty years.
Before writing hits like “The Poor Side of Town” and “Slow Dancing” Johnny Rivers was the king of covers, attaching his own groove to them and scoring top ten hits with songs like “Memphis”, “Mountain Of Love”, etc….songs that were just on the charts by the original artists not long before Johnny Rivers put them back on the charts…an amazing talent in itself! River’s unique vocal style gives him the ability to make any song he sings his own. Always having one hand in performing and the other in business, Rivers, along with producer Lou Adler, co-founded Dunhill Records. That brought us performers like The Mamas and Papas, Three Dog Night, Barry McGuire, The Grassroots, etc… And later, Johnny Rivers went on to start Soul City Records where he helped develop acts like The Fifth Dimension, and Al Wilson. He also helped put together the first big outdoor rock concert, The Monterey Pop Festival, during the ‘Summer of Love’. I got the chance to speak with Johnny Rivers about his beginnings in the music biz, his career, and his new CD “Back At The Whisky”.
SE: You grew up in Louisiana?
JR: Baton Rouge. That’s right.
SE: Alot of music in that area.
JR: Well, especially Blues, and Cajun, Zydeco…R&B was my main influence, and of course country music. But, it was a good place to grow up especially at that time for anyone that was really interested in the Blues and Rock n Roll because, I mean, that was pretty much the cradle of it.
SE: So were you in Louisiana during the time that you recorded your first singles for Capitol?
JR: Yeah. I was in Baton Rouge at the time. Actually my first single was with a company from Natches, Mississippi. Suede Records.
SE: And you did a couple of singles for some major labels also right?
JR: I did some things for MGM, on Cub Records. I did something for Gone Records which was Gone and End Records out of New York. Gone Records was the deal that Allan Freed got for me.
SE: Then when you hit it big on Imperial, all of those singles came out on different budget LPs…
JR: Aw, Yeah. All that shit came out of the woodwork. Plus I never got paid for any of that.
SE: Yeah. What was the deal on those…?
JR: Oh, who knows.
SE: Today, if you find unearthed tracks, the companies try to get the most they can out of it. Back then they would sell albums of unreleased or hard to find tracks by major artists for $1.97. Was that so when you attempted to sue them they wouldn’t have any money to show for it or something?
JR: I don’t know. We didn’t even bother with them.
SE: Did you have contacts with many musicians in L.A. before you got to L.A.?
JR: The first time I came to L.A. was in 1958. I was only 15 years old. I had written a song that James Burton… who was playing for Ricky Nelson…. and
he brought the song back out here to L.A. and Ricky liked it and decided to record it. And James called me in Baton Rouge, so I saved up my money and flew out here and hung out here for about a month. And of course, I knew James, Joe Osbourne, and all those guys that were playing for Ricky Nelson. So they were the first guys I met out here.
SE: Were folks catching on pretty quickly when you started playing your gigs out here?
JR: Well, I didn’t really play any gigs back then. I came back out here in the 60’s, ‘61 or ‘62 or whatever, and then played around here and played some gigs in Las Vegas. That was when the Twist was first hitting (laughs)… or something.
SE: So you recorded that “Live At The Whisky” album in what..1963?
SE: And you did that even before you had a label?
JR: Yeah. We recorded it first. I paid for it actually. (Laughs)
SE: So you own the masters?
JR: No I don’t. I should! (Laughs)
SE: Yeah. It would seem so.
JR: Well, you know, you live and learn. That was done through a company called Dunhill Productions which became Dunhill Records eventually with The Mamas and Papas and all that stuff. But we did that in the early part of ‘64 and by the summer of ‘64 “Memphis” and the album were already on the charts.
SE: From what I’ve always heard you were bringing it around shopping it and most of the labels were passing on it, which I can’t believe just from hearing the audience reaction on the tape.
JR: Well, we were the hottest thing in town, but people just didn’t believe that a three piece, live album could really do any good nationally.
SE: There weren’t too many singers strumming electric guitars at that time besides maybe Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, and Trini Lopez.
JR: There was a few…I mean, you know, Ritchie Valens, guys like that. Alot of guitar players back where I came from. I mean, everybody down there played a guitar. (Laughs)
SE: Yeah, but front guys in the early 60s were mainly basically singers. Guys like Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydel, Bobby Vee, Bobby whoever.
SE: They weren’t ever really holding an axe….
JR: Right. And if they did they weren’t really players.
SE: Yeah. So were there any tracks left off of that “Live At The Whisky” album?
JR: You mean the first album?
JR: Oh, I don’t know. What we did was we recorded…we did three sets per night, so we recorded three sets for two nights and I think Lou Adler and I just went through and picked out what we thought was the strongest stuff, the best feels. We took it into the studio and I think I added some rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar on some of it, you know, just to beef it up. And we just did a little tweaking here and there. I fixed a couple of mistakes and stuff like that, added some hand claps on some of them that needed stronger…..you know, back then the miking system for the audience was really weak and we mainly concentrated just on the band. We had three tracks that you know, came…..that’s all we had in those days.
SE: Will there ever be a reissue of that album with bonus tracks?
JR: Naw, I won’t allow it. (Laughs) That’s one thing that I do have control over. They already tried to do that. They sent me stuff and I said, “No. We’ve already picked the best stuff out of that. Forget about it!”
SE: Was it your decision to do live albums as follow ups or was it the label’s idea of sticking to a formula?
JR: Well, it was a natural thing. I mean, sure we wanted to stay with the sound we had and that people dug and so we did it several times. I mean, I actually went back….I did about five or six albums out of The Whisky. As a matter of fact, I just went back last year and recorded again and that album is getting ready to come out.
SE: Isn’t it something that alot of artists who helped put The Whisky on the map are coming back there and performing there again?
JR: Well, the ones that are still around. (Laughs) Yeah. Alot of em aren’t not around anymore.
SE: What was all the controversy about your’s and Elvis’ version of “Memphis” coming out at the same time?
JR: Yeah. That was all bullshit! That was just some crap that Peter Gorelnik and some of the guys who used to work for Elvis came up with. It’s all bullshit. There was nothin to it. Everybody played that song. It was like a Chuck Berry standard.
SE: Right. Now at the top of your game you shifted gears a bit, with the appropriately titled “Changes” album. It was like your first non House Rockin record.
SE: What inspired you to make that change in your sound?
JR: I just wanted to do it. It was something that I’d wanted to do, but I wanted to do it at the right time when I had enough behind me, you know. Where if it didn’t work I could overcome it. (Laughs)
SE: (Laughs) Right. And the next few album titles sounded almost autobiographical. There was “Changes”, “Rewind”, “Realization”….
SE: How were the powers that be at Imperial dealing with those albums?
JR: Well, the powers that be really had no choice over it. I mean, we pretty much had total autonomy to do whatever we wanted. I mean, we were successful and they pretty much took whatever we delivered ’em.
SE: Was there a kind of different vibe around Imperial before they got bought up by United Artists?
JR: Imperial was originally owned by Lou Chudd. It was an R&B label. As a matter of fact, Ricky Nelson was on it. Fats Domino…alot of us South Louisiana acts actually…I don’t know how. But he wound up signing those guys up and it was a really good label. That’s why when I found out that I was actually gonna be on the Imperial label I was really excited because I had been collecting those records for years. A guy named Al Bennett owned Liberty Records and then he bought Imperial from Lou Chudd and he had two labels. Liberty was kind of his Pop label and Imperial was more of an R&B, Rock…a little grittier label. So, it was a good label, and alot smaller too.
SE: That’s kind of what gives labels their charm nowadays.
SE: Around the time you changed your sound, was that when you started getting into the business end of the music biz?
JR: Well, I mean I’ve always sort of been interested in the business end of it. Actually when I opened at this other place before I opened at The Whisky here in town…at Gazzari’s I was working with Jimmy Bowen as an assistant. He was a producer. He was working with Frank Sinatra who had just started Reprise Records. So I was kind of helping him out in the studio n’ stuff. I’ve always been interested in producing and working with other artists and stuff.
SE: Yeah. You developed Al Wilson, The Fifth Dimension…
JR: I actually signed The Fifth Dimension first at about the same time that I met Jimmy Webb and I signed him to my publishing company. So it was a very productive period there. I wrote “Poor Side of Town” and had a number one single with that and signed Jimmy Webb, and signed The Fifth Dimension, and produced for my Soul City label…all in the same year! We won two Grammys for the record of the year, and song of the year.
SE: Were there any artists then that…well even now, that you wanted to produce, but for whatever reason you didn’t get the chance to….
JR: Well, yeah, you know….There were several, but you know things happen. Managers sign with big labels because they give ’em the big money up front and we were in no position to do that. And then also I started getting behind in my own recordings n’ stuff. So Imperial Records was starting to put the pressure on me to turn all of that production over to someone else, which I did. I turned The Fifth Dimension over to Bones Howe, who did a very good job with them, and I went back into the studio and did my “Realization” album, which I produced.
SE: That’s got “Hey Joe” right?
JR: Mm Hmm. “Summer Rain” is on that album as well, which was a big hit single.
SE: I was just thinking that you are probably one of the few artists from the early 60s that was still producing hit singles from their albums in the late 60s. Especially when there was that big musical transformation in 1967, you know? I mean, if you look at people like The Beatles and The Stones, none of them were having any hit singles from their albums anymore.
JR: Yeah. Well, we did it on into the 70s too with “Rockin Pheumonia”.
JR: So, I don’t know… I mean these days singles aren’t anything. I don’t know what happened. It’s too bad because singles were really fun, and it was great to, you know…..if you cut a single record and you put it out and it did well, you would kind of do an album around it.
SE: Yeah. In the 70s you shifted back into re-doing the classics. Did you miss reworking some of the old songs?
JR: Naw. I mean, we just recorded stuff and whatever we felt was strong enough…And alot of these songs like “Rockin Pheumonia”, which we put on this album “L.A. Regaee” and it was part of it…Guys like Wolfman Jack jumped right on it cause he loved that South Louisiana sound. And that piano and stuff n’ whatever… and pretty much caused us to release it as a single.
SE: You played a set at The Monterey Pop Festival also, right?
JR: Yeah. Well, I was one of the guys that put that whole thing together. I was on the Board of Governers. And I also put money into funding it before it got started…me and Paul Simon, and Brian Wilson, and John Phillips.
SE: Will you ever release a video of your set from that show?
JR: Mmm. I don’t know. Ahh shit, I don’t even know where that is anymore. That kind of all got… who knows. I don’t think I’d wanna do that. I’d rather go into the studio and cut a new album. (Laughs)
SE: You must have some great memorable moments from that gig.
JR: Well, the whole thing was memorable. It was the first of all of that stuff. It’s what got all that stuff started. (Laughs) I mean, Woodstock and whatever were all copies of Monterey. It was the original one and I think probably the best too because it came off without any incidents, and it introduced probably more great artists than any of the other festivals combined.
SE: I really liked your version in 1975 of Jimmy Clift’s “Sittin In Limbo” that you had a hit with just as reggae was becoming the thing.
JR: Well, I don’t know if it was a hit. It got alot of airplay and stuff, but, you know, I liked reggae. I used to listen to that stuff quite a bit.
SE: Then in the 70s you seemed to rediscover your roots all over again.
JR: Well, I went back to the Sun studio and did that “Memphis Sun Recordings” CD. Carl Perkins played on it.
SE: Yeah, Great record.
JR: Yeah. That was fun. It was even kind of the thing I’ve always wanted to do.
SE: Who do you listen to today?
JR: I listen to alot of the new groups. The record companies seem to send me alot of their new releases and stuff. I like Edwin McCain’s new album…..uh, let’s see, who else?…..Well, alot of the gal singers too. Sarah McLachlan.
SE: So, you have a new album coming out?
JR: Well, like I said, we’re just puttin out this new Whisky album “Back At The Whisky”. That’s comin out and I’m gonna start writing…actually I’ve got some songs that I’ve already started and eventually I’ll go in and do another studio album. I’ve just been touring and that’s about it.
SE: You’re just nonstop, man I’ll tell ya!
SE: I remember the time I saw you in San Francisco. You seemed like you genuinely enjoy doing it.
SE: Which….alot of people get tired of doing it after awhile.
JR: No. I enjoy it. I’ve done it for a long time and …I mean, it’s all I’ve ever done. And I don’t do it to the extent where I get burned out. When we go out and do gigs we just mainly do Fridays and Saturdays and come home. So I do like four concerts per month or something like that. We’re still doing it. Actually, I’ve really been fortunate because now the crowds are bigger than they’ve ever been. I mean, we’ve gone into like three generations. The kids are into it too cause “Secret Agent Man” you know, was in “Austin Powers” and “Bowfinger”.
SE: Plus they run that video of you doing it every week on “American Pop” on AMC.
JR: Yeah. So it’s been a whole thing with the kids too, which is kinda cool.
SE: Are any of your kids getting into the music biz?
JR: Naw, I don’t think so, which is kind of good. I mean, the closest to it is my oldest son Michael. He’s an editor for the E Channel and CNN. He does stuff for them and he plays drums. My kids sing very well, but none of them I think have the ambition to really get into the business seriously.
SE: Sometimes that’s best.
JR: I think so. My daughter actually wants to be a journalist.
SE: So how was it recording “Live At The Whisky” again?
JR: The interesting thing about that is that there’s not too many clubs or venues in the country that have survived 35 years..or artists! (Laughs) The combination…I mean, the Whisky and Johnny Rivers basically have survived all this time which is kind of interesting just in itself. I think that’s one of the more significant things about the album, but also you’ll see the huge contrast between the first live album where it as only three pieces, bass, guitar, and drums, to where I go back in and I’ve got percussion, and some background singers with me and another guitar player, keyboards, all that stuff.
SE: I believe that when I saw you it was the stripped down band. Bass, guitar, drums and keyboards.
JR: Yeah. I still just use that on the road. I mean, that’s my basic show. But we used a few more pieces on this Whisky album and it sounds really good!
SE: Well, I’m glad that you kept your head straight and your nose clean throughout those wild 60s and 70s.
JR: Well, I am too! (Laughs)
SE: Which is probably a good reason why you’re still here.
JR: Yeah. It sure is and it paid off.
SE: Well, thanks so much for your time.
JR: Well, listen, I’ve enjoyed talkin to you.
Check out the website at www.johnnyrivers.com.