The map of Johnny Rivers‘ life and career is filled with many notable locations.
There’s Baton Rouge, La., where the singer and guitarist was living when he was exposed to the region’s blues and R&B music, which shaped his sound.
There’s West Hollywood, Calif., home of the Whisky A Go Go, where Rivers performed regularly in the early 1960s and recorded his early hit singles.
And then there’s New York City. Not only is it the birthplace and early home of one John Ramistella, but New York is also where he met legendary DJ Alan Freed, who gave the musician his professional surname.
The Southern California-based Rivers, who turns 70 in November, hasn’t played a New York City show in a long time. So in anticipation of his Sept. 28 gig at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, he recently talked about a few of his most important New York-related moments.
A Manhattan native (“That’s the little island I was born on,” he says with a laugh), Rivers lived with his family in an apartment on Ellis Avenue in the Bronx.
Johnny Rivers: “[We weren’t] far from Yankee Stadium, actually. I had two aunts there [in the Bronx] — one of them lived in the same building on the same floor! And then the other one was about three blocks away.
“My dad was a musician. He couldn’t make a living at it, but he was a really good musician. He played guitar and mandolin. I remember him getting together with his uncle, who also played guitar, on weekends. I’d sit there as a little kid and watch these guys playing old Italian folk songs.
“When I was about 8 years old, my father bought me a cheap little Stella guitar. I still have a picture of me and my brother at a birthday [party] in New York. We were still at the apartment in the Bronx, and I’m playing my little guitar. It was just a great time for me.”
Sometime in the early 1950s, Rivers’ handyman father found work at Louisiana State University, and that led to the family leaving New York and eventually settling in Baton Rouge.
Rivers: “It was an adventure for me. Quite honestly, the [Bronx] neighborhood I was in, it was a pretty tough little neighborhood. I was kind of a skinny little kid, and the bullies were always after me. I’m still running today: I’m a runner, and I started running back then because that was the only thing I had going for me — I could outrun these guys (laughs).
“[In Louisiana], I couldn’t understand what those kids were saying, and they couldn’t understand me. So I kinda started picking up on that Southern drawl, and eventually I acquired a Southern drawl, which I’ve now lost. I’ve kinda reverted back to my New York roots. But [the drawl] became part of my music, and you can hear it in my records — and when I sing, it’s there.”
In the late 1950s, the teenage singer/guitarist had a minor hit in the Baton Rouge area with “Hey Little Girl,” issued on the Suede label. A trip back to New York resulted in a new last name, as well as a new single on a different label.
Rivers: “I stayed at my aunt’s house in the old building where we moved from, just down the hall, so I was back in my old apartment building on Ellis Avenue.
“I caught a subway down to Manhattan. I knew that Alan Freed was broadcasting from WINS, and it was at Columbus Circle, across from Central Park. I knew his radio show started at 8 o’clock, so I kind of planned it out. I had my guitar, and I went down there. It was cold as hell. I stood in the alcove of the building. I figured, ‘Well, his show starts at 8 o’clock. So about 7:30, he’s probably going to come in this way.’ And sure enough, like a scene from a movie, up comes Alan Freed with his manager, a guy who ran his publishing company named Jack Hooke. I walk up and say, ‘Mr. Freed, my name is Johnny Ramistella. I’m from Baton Rouge. I’ve got a record out that’s doing really well down there.’
“I had the little record in my hand (laughs). He said, ‘I have to go up and do my radio show now, but here’s our card. We have an office in the Brill Building, so come on down there tomorrow and play me your songs.’ He gave me a time to be there.
“So the next day, I take the train back down [to Manhattan], and I go to the Brill Building and up to their office. Alan comes in, and I take out my guitar, and I play him some songs I had written. Jack and Alan are looking at each other and smiling, and Alan says, ‘Hold on.’ And he gets on the phone and calls George Goldner, who had two record labels: Gone Records and End Records. He had two big hits going: ‘Could This Be Magic’ by The Dubs on Gone Records, and on End Records, he had The Chantels with ‘Maybe.’
“So George says, ‘Send him on over,’ so I go down the street a few blocks to his office. I played him songs and let him hear my record that I had out on Suede. He gets on the phone and calls Otis Blackwell, who had written ‘Great Balls of Fire’ for Jerry Lee Lewis and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ for Elvis Presley. George said, ‘Otis, I want you to produce with this kid I have here in my office.’
“[I] recorded a single [as Johnny Rivers] called ‘Baby, Come Back’ and ‘Long Long Walk’ on Gone Records. … Alan Freed played my record a little bit, but it never really got going. But through George Goldner’s distributor in Philadelphia, I got on American Bandstand when it was in Philadelphia. I still have a great picture of me sitting there talking with Dick Clark after I was done lip-syncing my song on American Bandstand, which was a big break.”
— As told to Chris M. Junior
Photo by Guy Webster