Q&A: Johnny Rivers
Johnny Rivers played Las Vegas before he made the big time as the first rock ’n’ roller headlining the Sunset Strip, but between his first show at The Thunderbird Hotel and his engagement at the Golden Nugget on Feb. 26, his story intertwined with pop music history. Known primarily as the singer of a string of ’60s and ’70s hits beginning with his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” Rivers has never stopped recording and touring with the energy that led him out of Baton Rouge and drove him to success. He recently spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
A few months ago, I saw the documentary (about L.A.’s premier ’60s session musicians) The Wrecking Crew, and they talked about how you were one of the first people a few members of the Wrecking Crew had played for, and …
No, that was not completely accurate. First off, the group that I played with—which was Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine—was not called The Wrecking Crew. The Wrecking Crew was prior to that with Tommy Tedesco, Carole Kaye on bass and Hal Blaine on drums, but that was not the group I worked with. Joe Osborn was my bass player, and he joined those guys. That actually was the first time Joe, Larry and Hal came together—my session for “Mountain Of Love.”
So that documentary was not totally accurate. As a matter of fact we met with Tommy Tedesco’s son, who I guess directed and produced that thing. Joe Osborn and I had lunch with him a long time ago—10, 12 years ago—and we told him clearly that Joe was not part of the Wrecking Crew and that I never really worked with the group that was basically known as the Wrecking Crew. So anyhow, but that’s how those things go. I understand it was a good documentary, but I haven’t seen it.
I think the guys you worked with (in the studio on “Mountain of Love”) became known as The Hollywood Golden Trio.
Yeah, it was called “The Big Three” or something. Hal, Joe and Larry. I used them on my record, then Lou Adler used them on the Mamas and the Papas and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and on from there. Bones Howe, who was our engineer and produced The Association, he used them on that. Then everybody used them. They started working with Simon and Garfunkel, and this and that. Everyone who recorded on the West Coast used them as their rhythm section.
Yeah, I think the track they’re most famous for is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
It was Larry playing piano on that, yeah.
The movie introduced me to the pivotal roles you played, directly and indirectly, in so many aspects of music history.
One of the important things was when I when I opened Whisky a Go Go—and prior to that the original Gazzarri’s, which was a small little restaurant on La Cienega in ’63. No one was playing rock ’n’ roll in LA. There was nothing happening. So basically I brought South Louisiana blues and rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry rock ’n’ roll, to the Sunset Strip and got the whole thing started. We started a generation called “The Go-Go Generation.” Then, of course, the Beatles hit. I think that’s the main contribution. We started a 10-year period, basically ’64 to ’74, known as The Go-Go Generation, which even included … The Eagles formed in ’72. I feel that was the important contribution there.
It was basically ground zero for everything that came afterward on the Sunset Strip.
Exactly. The Whisky, we were playing there a few months, and there was a little club a few doors west of The Whisky on the same side of the street called The London Fog, and there was a little group in there who had their own little following. Their ambition was to one day be able to play the Whisky a Go Go, and they were known as The Doors.
Did they play Gazzarri’s too? The second one, I mean.
They didn’t. They never played Gazzarri’s. They played The London Fog and then they played The Whisky. Jim Morrison pulled his pants down onstage and Mario, who was the manager of the Whisky, threw him out just like in that movie.
One of the things that’s interesting is you made Gazzarri’s popular, then brought that over to the Whisky.
Don’t confuse the Gazzarri’s I originally played at with the Gazzarri’s that opened on Sunset Boulevard. That was in order to compete with The Whisky. The original was on La Cienega down near Beverly Boulevard, and it was just a small little restaurant. And it was kind of an accident how it happened. He had a jazz trio playing there and he served Italian food until like 12:30, one o’ clock in the morning, so a lot of musicians or people recording after hours would go there on their way home and get a nice dinner, a late supper or whatever. I was working with Jimmy Bowen at the time, who was producing records for Frank Sinatra’s new Reprise Records. I was his assistant in the studio, and we would go in there from time to time and get a late supper. We went in there one night and Bill Gazzarri was a big Frank Sinatra fan, and he would ask all these questions about Frank Sinatra. Jimmy would go, “Listen, I hardly ever see Frank.” He was working with Dean Martin at the time. He wound up producing “Everybody Loves Somebody” and then eventually “Strangers in the Night” with Frank Sinatra.
One night we go in there and Bill was all bummed out because he had lost his jazz group and he couldn’t find anyone to replace them. They had left town or something, and he asked Jimmy, “Do you know a little jazz trio that I can get to help me out until I can find a permanent group?” And we said, “Nah, we don’t know anybody.” He looked at me and Jimmy told him I was a rock ’n’ roll musician from Louisiana, and he said, “Well, can you come in here for a few nights and help me out?” I said “You don’t want the kind of music I play in here while these people are eating supper late at night.” And he said, “I don’t care what you play. Just don’t play too loud.”
I said, “Let me see what I can do.” So I called Eddie Rubin, who was a jazz drummer playing with Don Randi in another club in town, who I knew because I would sit in with them and sing some blues songs. He said, “Let me talk to Don,” and Don said “OK, you can do it for three or four nights.” After a few nights, people started getting up and dancing. The dance floor was about the size of a postage stamp, but on the third or fourth night we were there, Natalie Wood came in with her little group, her entourage and the paparazzi was following her around, and it got in the trades the next day. The night after that you couldn’t get near our door. It was just jam-packed. People were lined up down the street trying to get in there; you know how it goes in Hollywood. That’s how the Gazzarri thing got started, but not the Gazzarri’s on Sunset Boulevard.
Then you brought that to the Whisky.
Let me tell you how the Whisky came about. There was another club that was the hot spot in town called PJ’s. Trini Lopez was playing there and he recorded that live album with “If I Had a Hammer.” Eddie Cano had a Latin-jazz group playing in there. It was a hot spot in town, but we started cutting into their business because at Gazzarri’s you could get up and dance, and at PJ’s, you didn’t have a dance floor. Prior to that a guy named Lou Adler walked in there, who was going next door to a place called Snake Brothers to see Don Rickles (laughs), and he saw a line going down the street, and he could hear me playing. So he forgot about Don Rickles and worked his way in there. He introduced himself, and he had just left Screen Gems—Don Kirshner’s music publishing company.
So he would come hang out and we would talk on our breaks, but one night this guy walks in—when I was in there with Lou—from PJ’s whose name was Elmer Valentine. Elmer Valentine comes in and he says “Listen, there’s a place on Sunset Boulevard there called The Party. Me and my partners want to take it over and we want to call it the Whisky a Go Go.” I said, “What kind of name’s that?” He said, “Well, I just got back from a vacation in Europe and in Paris there’s a small little club there and all they do is play records and people dance. It’s the hottest club in Paris and they call it a “discotheque.” I said, “What does that have to do with me?” and he said “I’d like to sign you for a year and have people play records in between your sets so people can keep dancing.”
So he offered me a lot more money than Gazzarri’s. I was hardly making any money at all, and Jimmy Bowen was pissed off at me because I wasn’t showing up at the studio to help him out. I went to Bill Gazzarri and I said, “Bill I need a raise. I can’t make it on what you’re paying me. I lost my gig with Jimmy Bowen here.” I didn’t tell him about Elmer Valentine approaching me on the deal. So he gave me this poor man story: “Ah, there’s a lot of people but they’re not spending any money.” So I said, “Bill, you think about it.” I figured he'd think about it for a few days and give me a raise, but he never did.
The thing that made my mind up about taking this new deal was on Nov. 22, 1963, the phone rang while I was there with my girlfriend. “Johnny, get up, President Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas.” And I go, “What?” and we turn on the TV. Everybody’s crying and everybody was in a daze, and so I called Bill Gazzarri and I said, “Bill, you know, I won’t be coming in tonight, and he said, “Well, what do you mean? We’re open!” I said, “Nobody’s open tonight!” so that made my mind up—this insensitive bastard. So I called up Elmer and I said, “Elmer, you still want to do this thing on Sunset?” and he goes, “Sure.” I said, “Well, let’s do it.” Bill’s wanting me to work the night Kennedy got assassinated made my mind up to take the new deal, so basically I did and that’s how it came about.
I went home to Baton Rouge for Christmas. I gave Bill my notice. I said “Bill, go get another group because I’m leaving.” I didn’t even tell him about the thing on Sunset. When I came back, Joe Osborn joined us because up to that period I didn’t even have a bass player. It was just me on guitar and Eddie on drums. They PR’d the thing really big and opening night at The Whisky was like a Hollywood opening, man. A premiere. They had klieg lights out front and this and that, movie stars. People had lined up, up the street.
I had never heard that part.
That was Jan. 15, 1964. That night there was nobody at Gazzarri’s. All of them following down there followed me up to the Whisky a Go Go (laughs). Bill Gazzarri realized he had screwed up by not giving me that little raise I wanted, and also wanting me to work the night Kennedy got shot. So, that did it. Bill was so pissed off that eventually months later he leased that place on Sunset to compete with the Whisky, but it never was the Whisky. Yeah, groups like Van Halen started there and stuff, but The Whisky was the place. I remember one night Elmer called me and said, “You gotta hear this new group!” Me and (songwriter) Jimmy Webb, who I was working with, and Larry Knechtel go in there to listen and it’s the Buffalo Springfield. On and on like that, one incredible group after another. My off-night player when we first opened was a guy named J.J. Cale, who wrote “After Midnight” and all the songs for Eric Clapton, and after he left Dobie Gray came that was my off-night guy. After “Memphis” hit and my album, Elmer would let me out to do one-nighters around the country, and concerts. For a long time you’d find acts like Three Dog Night in there, Steppenwolf. Everybody. On and on and on, the list is endless. But that’s how it started.
Lou Adler (in John Gilliland’s The Pop Chronicles interviews recorded in the late ’60s) said you were the most professional artist he ever worked with and the first artist to get adults dancing. If you see footage from the ’60s you only see teenagers dancing up to a certain point, then all of a sudden adults are on the dance floor.
Yeah, probably. Adults were dancing but they weren’t dancing to rock music and blues. They’d go dancing to Lawrence Welk or something like that. I was the first guy to play Chuck Berry, and at the end of my set—and this was in 1964, think about this—I would do a song called “John Lee Hooker.” It was a John Lee Hooker rhythm, and at that time no one knew who John Lee Hooker was. I knew him because the guys I studied in my band in Baton Rouge in the ’50s and stuff was all the old blues guys—Jimmie Reed, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and all of them—which became really hip later on when Bonnie Raitt started doing it, but in ’64 … I remember this one guy, because we used to play this long John Lee Hooker riff at the end of the night, and everybody, for about 15 or 20 minutes, would freak out. It’s actually on my first album. They called it “Whisky a Go Go” instead of “John Lee Hooker.” I recorded that song so many times. That riff is actually all it is with a bunch of jiving and talking.
Anyhow, I remember one night a guy came up and said, “Pay that song ‘Join Me Hooker.’” I said, “Yeah, man, ‘John Lee Hooker,’” and I’d play that song for 20 minutes. People would flip out, and that would be our closing song. So I was probably the first guy that brought South Louisiana blues and real rock ’n’ roll to the Sunset Strip, to L.A.
I never thought of that as an influence on Creedence Clearwater Revival.
That was so far before Creedence Clearwater. Stephen Stills, one time I ran into him and we were talking. He goes, “Man, we used to come in and listen to you play because you had that rhythm. John Fogerty stole your rhythm thing” (laughs). You listen to my rhythms from the albums at The Whisky, way before Creedence Clearwater, and you can hear it’s the same rhythm. He just … well, you know. It’s fine, but it’s a certain style.
What kind of people did you see out in the audience?
Even opening night there was people like Jayne Mansfield and Gina Lollobrigida, Cary Grant, people like that. Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen wrote the liner notes on my third album, and the back of the album. He and I became friends, and I’d ride motorcycles with him on Sundays in the afternoon. We had a little group of bike riders and we’d all go riding around L.A.
Do you think the style you came up with at the Whisky was an influence on Elvis Presley’s later Vegas set?
I don’t know about that. Elvis? No, because Elvis’ things was his songs—I thought were too uptempo. They didn’t have a groove to them. They were just frantic, showbiz frantic, and because it was Elvis everybody thought it was great. My rhythm, if you listen to it and Creedence Clearwater’s, makes it fun to dance to because it has a certain groove to it that Elvis didn’t have. Chuck Berry had it to a certain extent in his stuff. Trini Lopez actually had it on some of his early stuff with “If I Had a Hammer” and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, Trini’s drummer, when Eddie Rubin didn’t want to go on the road, Mickey Jones joined me. He then became Bob Dylan’s drummer, because Bob Dylan used to come into the Whisky when we first opened and hang out. He would come upstairs to our dressing room. He was really kind of quiet, and everybody … he was known as that guy that wrote that song for Peter, Paul and Mary, “Blowing in the Wind.” He was known in the folk world but now in the pop-rock world, until he did “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Your career on the West Coast kind of paralleled Dylan’s on the East Coast—fast sudden development after struggling for a while.
I played around, until my album At the Whisky hit, all over the country. I was in New York and Nashville. First time I went to L.A. was late 50s when Ricky Nelson recorded a song I wrote, then I went back to Louisiana and stuff. I bummed around all over the place trying to get stuff going. I had seven years of paying my dues before the Whisky thing happened.
At what point did you play Vegas?
I played Vegas way before the Gazzarri’s thing, like about ’62. I played Vegas with a little twist kind of band at The Thunderbird Hotel from midnight until six in the morning. I was switching off with Dinah Washington, and Louis Prima was playing next door at the Sahara, so I’d go over and see him. Later on, I played a place in New Orleans called The Dream Room on Bourbon Street and Louis came in there. He knew the two guys that owned that club down there, and got me a gig at the Sahara in Lake Tahoe. Louis was kind of an influence. I liked his showmanship. I learned a lot watching him onstage interacting with the audience.
I was wondering if you brought some of that showmanship with you. By 1964, you were primarily a performer.
When I was playing at the Whisky, I was playing on a stool on a teeny little stage. I wasn’t even standing up. Later on, when I started doing concerts after “Memphis” hit, I had to start moving around a little bit and performing, and doing some Chuck Berry duck walk and all of that stuff. At the Whisky I was just sitting on a stool. There was no showmanship involved. It was strictly music.
This is the first time I’ve heard that.
You can see it on some of those old albums. The bandstand was small. We could hardly get our trio on there: bass, guitar and drums.
I also read that you had a run at the Riviera.
We played there about a week or two with Nancy Wilson. We broke their all-time record. At that time I was the first rock ’n’ roll act to ever play Vegas. Prior to that it was Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, guys like that. Frank Sinatra was the thing. It worked: I opened the show, had charts and stuff like that, put on a tuxedo. People liked it, because I had several hit records, and Nancy was, of course, a great jazz singer. After that I went to the opening at the Sands when Frank Sinatra recorded that live At the Sands album with Count Basie and Quincy Jones conducting.
Jack Entratter (general manager) at the Sands picked up my tab because I had a No. 1 record at the time. “Poor Side of Town” was the No. 1 record. He sent me down to the health club. He said, “Go down and get a massage. It’s on us. Take a steam, you’ll feel great for the show tonight. I had my girlfriend with me and I go into the steam room and there’s this guy sitting in there with a towel around him. It’s all smoky, and he turns around to me and goes, “Hi, Johnny, welcome to the Sands,” and it’s Frank Sinatra. I’m in the steam room with Frank Sinatra and I’m in there by myself, and he goes, “You know I hear you did really well there up the street with Nancy Wilson.” I said, “Yeah, I didn’t know if they’d like my music here, Mr. Sinatra, but I guess it went well.” And he goes, “Say, Mo Austin and I want you to come over to Reprise Records. We’re going to make you a production deal.” My mind’s going 1,000 miles an hour because I had just re-signed with Imperial/Liberty Records for five years about two weeks before this, and I’m going, “How the hell do you turn down Frank Sinatra?” I said, “Gee, Mr. Sinatra, I wish I had run into you about three weeks ago. I just resigned with my old label for five years. He goes “Don’t worry about it. Just call Mickey Rudin. He’ll take care of everything.” That was his ... attorney in Beverly. I said, “I’m looking forward to your show tonight. I’ve got to get ready,” then I bowed out because I realized he set me all up because he wanted me to sign to his label. Anyhow, that’s my Frank Sinatra story.
You’re a really good storyteller.
I have a good memory.
I heard you have a book in the works, too.
I’ve got a first draft, and all of this is in there.
How likely is it you’ll return to it and knock it out?
I need to polish it a lot because all the facts and the datelines are right but it needs to be polished into an interesting … you know, how you write a book just like Dylan had somebody … speaking of books, Bob Dylan’s book, you know, Chronicles: (Volume) One, he wrote a whole paragraph on me and he said my recording of “Positively 4th Street,” of all the recorded versions of his songs, that was his favorite. You ought to look that up. It’s on page 61, I think. Read what he said. Everyone called me after that and said, “Wow, did you see what Bob Dylan wrote about you in his book?” It’s a pretty good compliment. There’s thousands of recordings of his songs. Everybody back in those days, especially in the ’60s, recorded at least one Dylan song on their album, even the jazz singers. So for him to say out of all of those recordings, mine was his favorite … I think he said he liked it better than his record, or something.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn you released “Fire and Rain” as a single before James Taylor did.
That’s what got Warner Brothers to release his. His album was dead, and someone brought it to me and said, “There’s a great song on here. You could do this.” I said “Yeah, OK.” We put it out and it started zooming up the charts. Warner Brothers went, “Holy crap. We’ve got a hot artist here with this James Taylor.” So, they pulled out all the stops and got the record promoters to put it on the radio. That’s what got his thing going. I did that with several artists. Jackson Browne, I recorded his songs before he ever had a record deal, on my Home Grown album. The engineer that engineered that album (Richard Sanford Orshoff) became the producer of his first album, the one with “Doctor My Eyes” on it.
That’s new to me, thanks for sharing that. And thanks much for your time.
You’ve got a lot of material there. Hopefully you can make it down to the Nugget. Last time I played the Nugget was a long, long time ago. At that time there was an entertainment director there named Steve Wynn (laughs). He booked Frank Sinatra in the Nugget and stuff like that, but I remember him. He booked me in there personally.