There are perhaps a handful of guitar riffs so distinctive they become indelibly associated with an artist. For Johnny Rivers, the opening of “Secret Agent Man,” which he wrote with P.F. Sloan, insured his place among the greats of the guitar. Yet, it was just one of a string of ’60s hits in a decade in which he sold more than 20 million records, formed his own label/publishing house, won two Grammy awards for his production work, and discovered some of the greatest talent in the industry. Despite his incredible success, Rivers continued a heavy tour and recording schedule. To date, he’s barely slowed his pace. When Vintage Guitar spoke with him recently, he had just released his new CD, Last Train To Memphis, and launched his own website.
Vintage Guitar:Your music has always reflected your southern roots. What was it like, musically, growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?
Johnny Rivers: It was a real interesting time because of the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll, with artists like Fats Domino. I got to see all these incredible blues players, like Jimmy Reed. One of the guys I started jamming with was Jimmy Clanton, who was a very good guitar player and a singer who had a couple of hit records in the ’50s. He had a song called “Just A Dream,” which was a big hit. The country guys were really popular – guys like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. I like that fingerpicking style. Actually, my dad played a guitar, too, which made it kind of interesting. He had a gut-string guitar. My first really good guitar was a Gibson J-45.
How did you learn to play the guitar?
Mainly watching my dad play. I learned some chords and I started watching anybody I could, once I really got into it. Anybody who played a guitar, I’d sit there and watch them and get them to show me something, like how to make a certain chord.
What kind of music did your dad play?
He played a lot of Italian folk songs and some classical kind of stuff, but no blues or rock and roll.
Your musical education included stints in New York and Nashville, and you’ve said those experiences taught you the importance of a good song.
The first time I went to New York, I met Alan Freed. I had just started writing some songs. I hadn’t written that many, but I had been playing around Baton Rouge with my band. I think this was probably 1957. Alan’s publishing company was in the Brill Building, and of course, the Brill Building was where all the songwriters hung out because that’s where all the publishers were. Guys like Otis Blackwell and Bobby Darin, and all the guys who were writing songs for Elvis at the time, just hanging around, writing songs, talking about music.
That’s when I really learned the importance of a song. Everybody knows about Nashville and music and songs, especially. So I got quite an education there, as well. But I always loved songs with great lyrics. Even the early Hank Williams stuff. His lyrics were so powerful.
How did you get to Nashville?
The first time I went to Nashville I met Audrey Williams, Hank Williams’ widow, and she saw me playing at a club in Birmingham, Alabama, with a comedian named Brother Dave Gardner. She knew him and had gone there to see him. She invited me to Nashville, so I went and spent a little time. That’s when I met Phil Everly and Roger Miller, who was still working for Tree Publishing Company and just starting to write some songs. I went back and forth from Baton Rouge to Nashville several times.
Wasn’t James Burton instrumental in your move to California?
I met James at the Louisiana Hayride in 1958, when I was collecting Ricky Nelson records mainly because of the guitar work on them. I had written a song called “I’ll Make Believe,” and everyone I played it for said it sounded like a Ricky Nelson song. So I told James, “I wrote this song everyone seems to think is a good song for Ricky.” He said, “Well, here’s my address. I’m going to be here about another week and a half, then I’m going back to Hollywood.”
He was not only recording with Ricky, but he was doing those appearances on the “Ozzie and Harriet Show.” I sent him the tape with my address and phone number. I never thought I’d hear anything back on it. About a month later the phone rang at home and my mother says, “Johnny, somebody says he’s calling you from Hollywood.” I went, “Yeah, sure.” I thought it was one of the guys from my band playing a joke. I get on the phone and it’s James Burton.
“Yeah, you know that song you sent me? I played it for Ricky and he really likes it,” he said. “He’s going to record it,” I went, “You’re kidding.”
I got his phone number in L.A. and his address and everything, and I started thinking about it. I started saving my money and I booked as many gigs as I could get down there, then I bought a plane ticket. That was the end of ’58. I hung out around here almost a month, then I got the California bug. I knew I would come back some day.
I went back and played around Baton Rouge with my band, went back to school, and then went to Nashville for awhile. Then, in ’61 or ’62, I came back out here and pretty much stayed. I was rooming with Jimmy Bowen at the time, doing some gigs, then I went back to New Orleans and played there in ’62. I met Louis Prima down there. He got me a gig at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe playing in the lounge, so I went up there for awhile. And then, I just kind of hung around L.A., working with Jimmy.
How did the gig at the Whisky A Go-Go come about?
At the end of ’63, I remember I was playing there when John Kennedy got assassinated, I was working at a place called Gazari’s. It was just a small restaurant and had a little jazz band and a small dance floor. We had built up a big local following. It was a trio – Eddie Rubin was playing drums, Joe Osborn on bass. And that’s when we got approached on the idea of the Whisky A Go-Go. I went to Bill Gazari to tell him I really needed a raise ’cause this place was packed and we were the hottest thing in town and he gave me this big story about, “There’s a lot of people, but they weren’t spending any money.”
I called Elmer Valentine – he’s the one who approached me – and I said, “You know that idea you’ve got about that place, the Whisky A Go-Go?” I said. “I think that’s a good idea. I’ll do it.”
I signed a yearlong contract with them. On January 15 of ’64, we opened the Whisky and it was a smash from opening night. I just brought my following up from the other place. About two months into the Whisky, I borrowed some money and rented a remote recording truck. It was three tracks at the time – that’s all they had, three-track recorders. I cut everything we did for two nights and that’s where that first album, Live At The Whisky, came from, with “Memphis” and all that stuff on it. By June of ’64, “Memphis” was at the top of the charts and the album was like number one in L.A., and heading up the national charts.
You were 21 years old and playing to the hippest crowd in L.A. – Steve McQueen, Ann Margret, Lana Turner. What was it like to be Johnny Rivers then?
Well, it was pretty exciting. It was all like a fast-moving dream. I was just into the music. I loved playing and I was actually working two jobs. I was working at this club in downtown L.A. from four to eight at night, just Eddie Rubin, the drummer, and I. We didn’t even have a bass player down there. Then we’d pack up, get on the freeway, drive up to L.A., go to the Whisky, set up, grab some food, and play from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. It was pretty rough work, but it was fun and we were into it. We knew we had something going and there was a big buzz. It was pretty exciting. And all I was doing was playing all those funky blues tunes and rock and roll songs I’d played with my band back in Baton Rouge in the ’50s. No one was doing that around here. In L.A., the Beach Boys were just getting started and it was sort of that Jan and Dean/Beach Boys kind of surf music, real light kind of stuff. No one was playing get-down-funky blues or stuff like “Memphis.”
Were you playing “Memphis” in your Baton Rouge days?
No. Actually, when I was hanging out with Elvis out here in the early ’60s, just before I opened Gazari’s, I actually jammed on that song with Elvis up at his house in Bel Air. That was one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs. That, and I used do a song called “Hi- Heel Sneakers,” so what I did was actually adopted that feel from “Hi-Heel Sneakers” to Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” song. That’s where we really emphasized that lick.
What guitar were you using then?
In early ’57, I bought a Fender Telecaster. I had it for about six or eight months, then the store I used to hang out at in Baton Rouge got a Stratocaster, so I traded. Back then, we didn’t know any better, instead of keeping them. It was almost like a car – you couldn’t afford to keep just one guitar and go buy another one besides. I traded my Telecaster in on the new Stratocaster. And those Stratocasters became the most collectible guitars around. Some of those guitars you could buy back then for $170 became worth $45,000 or $50,000 in the last few years.
Did you keep your Stratocaster?
Nope (laughs). I traded it in 1962, in New Orleans. I was playing the Dream Room, on Bourbon Street. I had a sort of a twist blues band. I remember we had two girls dancing. I went to Werleins Music Store on Canal Street and I saw this beautiful red Gibson 335. I was playing a lot of rhythm guitar. I had the Stratocaster, which I liked, but it didn’t have a really great rhythm sound. It was more of a lead guitar whereas the 335 has a hollow body, so it gets a little more of an acoustic rhythm sound. It’s also a great lead guitar, but for the kind of slap rhythm I was playing, the 335 really had a nice resonance and a nice sound. Not knowing any better, instead of working out something and keeping both, I traded my Strat on the red 335, which is the guitar I wound up using on all those hits. It became my sound and it’s the one I used on “Memphis,” “Seventh Son,” “Secret Agent Man,” and all of that stuff. That was that red Gibson 335.
And you still use that guitar today?
I still have it. I don’t use it. The original one’s put away. It’s sort of in the archives. I have one like it that’s a ’65, actually a very great-sounding guitar. It sounds pretty close to the original, but I didn’t want to take the original on the road. In 1965, Gibson made the red one I use now, and a black one, which was the first black 335 they ever made. Now they’re mass-producing them. Up to that point they made blond, sunburst, and cherry red.
Didn’t they make an acoustic guitar for you?
They made an acoustic 12-string for me in the ’60s, after I had a lot of record success. They made one for me at the custom shop. So I’ve got four 335s, and I have a Les Paul that I like. It’s just a little heavy for me to carry around on the road. The 335’s much lighter. Gibson made me a 335 electric 12-string I actually traded, which I shouldn’t have done. I didn’t need to. This guy I knew who had a music store talked me into trading it in for that Les Paul. I should have kept that one. That’s a really nice sound.
What kind of amps do you use?
The first amp I had back in the ’50s was a small Fender. The second was a Gibson Les Paul GA-40, which I still have. That’s the one I used on all the recordings, all that stuff at the Whisky. Les Paul wrote on it in gold. I did this special with him at the House of The Blues a couple of years ago. Everybody got up and did a song or two with him. So I brought it down there and he signed it to me in gold. It’s really funny, by the knobs it says “Les Paul,” with his signature, and on front he wrote with a big gold pen, and it’s exactly the same, so it looks cool! That had just one 12″ speaker in it.
In ’65, I got a couple Gibson recording amps. They didn’t catch on, but I managed to get two or three of them that I kept, and they sound really good. They are all-tube.
I’ve got a Fender Concert amp from the ’60s, the one Joe Osborn used. He played his bass through it. I got a Fender Princeton amp, and I got a couple little Fender Champ amps, which sound really good in the studio. And also I’ve got the reissue of the Fender Vibroverb. And on the road, I usually use two Fender Twin Reverbs, or two Fender Deluxes. I like the Deluxes in the smaller rooms.
You’ve got quite a few.
For all seasons, and sounds, and styles!
How did the song “Secret Agent Man” come about?
There was a television show called “Danger Man,” starring Patrick McGoohan. We were in London and my producer, Lou Adler, met the producers of that show. At that time it was a big show in Europe and they were getting ready to bring it over to the States, but they only had an instrumental theme to it.
One thing led to another and they asked if we would consider trying to come up with a theme song. I was really hot at the time. I was working with P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, a writing team that worked with Trousdale Music. So we came back and we told them the concept. You know, it’s a spy kind of thing; Danger Man. They came up with this song, “Secret Agent Man.” We worked out that guitar riff, which is a play off the James Bond theme, submitted it, and they really liked it. We only had one verse and one chorus. They wanted to use it to open the television show and so we worked out that deal. The show was an instant success here and people started calling radio stations to see if it was a record. Then the radio stations started calling the record company. We said, “It’s not a song, it’s only a verse and a chorus.” They said, “You ought to finish it and make it longer.”
We decided to record it because everybody was calling. Everybody thought it was a hit. So I went back to Sloan and Barri and said, “You’ve got to write some more verses.” They did and we went in and recorded it. I think I cut it live at the Whisky. After that initial success, every chance we got we’d hire that remote recording truck and just record stuff at the Whisky because it was so inexpensive. It was cheaper than going into a recording studio. We cut it at the Whisky and then we took it into the studio and added stuff to it. We redid my lead guitar part, doubled the riff and added hand clapping and all that stuff. And that became the record. We released it and it was a smash.
Eddie Van Halen has said he learned to play guitar listening to that.
Yeah, that’s what he said. When he was learning to play guitar he listened to a lot of my early records. A lot of people have told me that, a lot of guitar players I run into. Especially “Secret Agent Man” for some reason. It was a simple riff. And “Memphis.” I think that was one of the things that was so catchy about my early guitar riffs – any amateur could play them. The opening riff to “Mountain Of Love” started out on the bass but we worked it out on the guitar first. Then we decided to have the bass play it. On “Memphis” and “Seventh Son” the guitar riffs were real simple. I did a lot of those in open E, which is a real good, easy key for guitar players ’cause you can play a lot of open strings, which gives it a real funky sound.
Lou Adler produced all of these hits, didn’t he?
Yeah. We also started a company called Dunhill Productions, which became Dunhill Records, which premiered the Mamas and the Papas and Barry McGuire and a couple of other groups. The Mamas and the Papas were probably the most successful artists on that label. In ’67, we were approached by the people who do the jazz festival in Monterey on the possibility of performing at the festival. John Phillips and I discussed it and we said, “We really don’t feel that we belong at a jazz festival because we’re not really jazz artists.”
So one thing led to another and we kept talking to them and someone said something about why don’t we not do a jazz festival this year, let’s do a rock and roll/blues/pop festival. One thing led to another and we did a joint venture. I was on the board of directors. Me and Lou, John Phillips and Paul Simon each put up $10,000 to put it all together.
What do you remember most about the festival?
What I really remember is that people camped out everywhere, and the fact everybody expected it might turn into a big nightmare with all sorts of hassles because back in those days everybody was smoking pot and taking acid. Actually, there was not one incident. There wasn’t one arrest and it all went real smoothly. Nobody got hurt or OD’d and there were people everywhere. They really had a nice thing worked out with the police and it was friendly. The whole community got behind it ’cause it was great for all the hotels and motels in Carmel, Monterey, and Pacific Grove. All those little towns benefited.
Do you remember Jimi Hendrix’s performance?
I remember Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. And Ravi Shankar. That afternoon was the first time I went to Big Sur. It was a rainy sort of drizzly day and everybody was sitting outside. Ravi Shankar played for five hours. He played all afternoon on Saturday. The thing went for three days. It was Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening. I performed the first night, so did Simon and Garfunkel. The Mamas and Papas wound up closing on Sunday night. I think Janis Ian was on it, Laura Nyro, so many groups really broke out of that thing. Otis Redding, I remember him too. He was fantastic! He came out with Booker T. and the MGs and just killed ’em. Everybody was trying to be a hippie with long robes and long hair and beards and here comes Otis Redding in this green suit and tie.
We didn’t realize how important it was until after it was all over. Then all the articles started hitting, and the news shows. We all just got caught up in it and we thought it was a fun three days. Actually, it was the first festival, and after that, they did Woodstock. Everybody who was a promoter wanted to do a festival. The idea was to do it bigger and better and it really didn’t work. Even Woodstock turned out to be a disaster. Everybody was stuck in the mud and people got sick. It was successful in terms of volume, but as far as really pulling off a smooth show with no incidents or anything, I think Monterey was probably the only one that ever came off really well. We put a lot of time and energy into planning it, working with the community and all the business people in the area and the people from the jazz festival, who had a lot of experience.
Not long before Monterey you recorded “Poor Side of Town.” As a ballad, it was a real stylistic shift for you. How was that song recorded?
We recorded that in the studio. I just cut it with the rhythm section. I was working with Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn, and Larry Knechtel was playing keyboards. We recorded it with the rhythm section and after we finished it, it sounded like you could hear the strings on it. We were trying to decide who we were going to get to do the arrangements. We talked about Jimmy Haskell and there was a guy who Phil Spector worked with a lot. We considered him. I said to Lou, “You know, I’ve always loved those Ray Charles records, especially that country and western album Marty Paich did the charts on.” He said, “Well, Marty’s available.” So we reached Marty and he said, “Yeah, why don’t you send me a tape of the song and let me listen to it.” We sent him a copy of me singing it with the rhythm section and he said, “Oh, I think this is great. I think I can do a really nice chart on this.”
We let him go ahead and write it. I’ll never forget going in there and listening to that. We used part of the L.A. Symphony orchestra and we put the tape up and he was conducting that orchestra and you could hear that sound. We had Buddy Collette, who was a jazz flute player, play flute on it and then we had these gals singing all the background parts and there it was, you could hear it. You went, “Yeah. Wow! A whole new sound.” So that was it. The record company wasn’t sure because it didn’t sound like any of the other things I had done, the up-tempo go-go Seventh Son/Mountain of Love/Secret Agent Man and all of that stuff, and they were kind of reluctant. They went “I don’t know, it sounds great but this is a big departure and we’re really taking a big gamble.” But Lou and I insisted on putting it out and it was a smash. Number one in like three weeks.
At about the same time you started your own record label and publishing company. You were 24, and had recorded eight albums in two years. What prompted you to become more involved in the business aspects of the industry?
Well, when my contract expired with Imperial we got into negotiating a new contract. When I came back to California in the early ’60s I was hanging out with Jimmy Bowen, Phil Spector, and I wanted to be a record producer and work with other artists. And I still had that love for that stuff. I just loved working with musicians. I really like working in the studio and creating, so as part of the deal to re-sign with them, I [asked for] my own label. We got them to put up the money and give us offices.
One of the first groups we signed was the Fifth Dimension. They were called the Versatiles and we decided they needed a new name. I had this vision of them being sort of the black Mamas and Papas. I made them go out and buy all these funky clothes, all dress differently – fringe and all of that stuff – because when we first met them they were sort of doing the Motown thing, dressing real clean in neat suits. And it really worked. They had the sound. As a matter of fact the first chart record was a John Phillips song off of one of the Mamas and Papas’ album called “Go Where You Want To Go.” Then we released “Up, Up and Away.” That was the second song we released. That’s the one we won two Grammys for. It was just so different. In the meantime, I had met Jimmy Webb and signed him and he knew the Fifth Dimension. Somehow, he had met them because he had done some work over at Motown and they had been auditioning over there.
Even with your broadening interests in publishing and producing, you continued to release an album a year until the late ’70s. Looking back, what is your favorite of this period.
I think my favorite album was probably Realization. It was actually the first one I produced without Lou Adler. In fact, we’re planning to re-release it on CD.
Was there ever a time when you stopped performing live?
Well, yeah. I’d gone through periods where I didn’t work live performances for probably seven or eight months at a time. I always did shows and stuff. I think after 1970 or so, after I sold Soul City, I took off for awhile and didn’t do too many gigs. And when I came back I did the L.A. Reggae album with “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and all that stuff, which did really well. That was on UA because Liberty had been sold to Transamerica which owned United Artists pictures and records. So I wound up on that label. I wasn’t real thrilled with that. I actually fought with them to try to keep the Imperial label because I loved that company so much. It was the label Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson recorded for.
But they didn’t do it?
No. They should have. UA didn’t do well at all. It doesn’t even exist anymore as a record company.
I didn’t realize you sold Soul City.
Well, I didn’t sell the company. I kept the name and the corporation, but I sold the assets, which was mainly the Fifth Dimension agreements and masters and all that stuff because I was getting behind on my own product.
In 1991 you came to Memphis and recorded the Memphis Sun Recording. Tell us a little about that project.
I accepted an offer to do a concert for the reopening of the Mall of Memphis. While I was there the Chamber of Commerce approached me on doing a couple of bars of “Memphis” for their commercial. That night, Gary Hardy, who was running Sun Studio, called and said, “Hey have you been inside Sun Studio? Why don’t you come over.” So we went down there and he took us through the studio and we really liked it and I asked if he was set up to record. He said, “Sure. We cut stuff here all the time.” So, I said, “Well, you know I just got hit on to do this thing for the Chamber of Commerce. If you’re set up to record, why don’t we just do it here.”
I sent the road guy to get all our instruments and stuff. We went in and we just did it in like one take and he played it back and it sounded like those old Sun records. And we went, “Wow! What a cool sound!” That’s sort of where the idea came about to go back in and do an album, sort of a tribute to the early Sun artists. And we did. We set it up and went back and did it and it came off really good. Carl Perkins joined us. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lately you’ve been collaborating with Jack Tempchin.
Right. I’ve known Jack for a while. We wrote some songs together years ago. Jack wrote “Slow Dancing” among other songs. He wrote a lot of great songs for the Eagles. “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Already Gone,” and he wrote several of Glen Frey’s hits with him. He had a song on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album called “The Girl From Yesterday.”
Describe a typical songwriting session.
I don’t know if there’s a typical one. Jack and I usually get together and sit around in the afternoons and start throwing ideas around. He may have an idea already going or something or we’ll just sit around and play and jam and play some old songs. One thing will lead to another and somebody will come up with a riff or a line or something we build from. And then some days we just get together and nothing happens.
The song “Last Train To Memphis,” the title song on your newest CD, has a slight echo, reminiscent of the Sun studio records. How did you get that sound?
Well, we cut that here in L.A. I don’t know. We may have used a little delay or something on it. More than just the echo, I think, it’s pretty much just the instrumentation. I used a couple of acoustics and a slide. The only electric guitar on it is in the bridge of the song and I put that one with a tremolo. I wanted to get sort of that Roy Orbison sound on the bridge. I think more than anything that’s probably why it sounds that way. I tried to make it sound like one of those early Sun recordings, either a Johnny Cash or early Elvis, sort of a modern version of that anyhow.
The other cuts on the CD run the gamut from blues to rock to ballads. How would you describe this CD?
Well, it’s very eclectic. A lot of those songs I’ve been sitting on and recorded them over the last two or three years. It’s not a thing where I just said, “Oh, here’s 10 songs, let’s go in and cut them for this album.” It’s evolved. And I hope they sort of fit together.
Tell us about your web site.
The web site and the Internet are a whole new ball game. We’ve got audio where I talk about the making of all those hits, and we’ve got even more of the inside scoop on what the band is doing, new music, and memorabilia, my creative endeavors, tour schedules, personal photos, a chat room and ways to win free stuff! Check it out at www.Johnny rivers.com.
Photo courtesy of Johnny Rivers.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Jun. and Sept ’98 issues.