I love doing a little digging to find out what kind of connection Elvis had with other rock & rollers.  In the case of Johnny Rivers, it goes all the way back to early 1955, before Elvis was a big star, and before Johnny Rivers was Johnny Rivers.  At that time, he was Brooklyn-born John Ramistella, a twelve-year-old growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


He and a buddy went to the local high school to see a country concert starring Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens.  Opening the show was some unknown kid named Elvis Presley.  Minnie Pearl introduced him as “The Hillbilly Cat,” and he came out wearing a pink suit and white buck shoes.  Elvis sang only two songs, “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  Rivers recalls, “All that sexual energy up there on stage, people didn’t know what to make of it.”


Young Johnny did.  He said to his buddy, “Wow.  This guy’s really cool.”  Within a year, Johnny was playing guitar in local groups, and by age fourteen, he was fronting the band “Johnny and the Spades.”


Young Johnny got a second look at Elvis after that high school concert. He went around behind the auditorium and saw Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black loading their gear in a trailer pulled by a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.  Actually, Scotty and Bill were doing the loading.  Elvis was talking to some of the country acts.  Johnny remembers this about Elvis: “He was bouncing around, he couldn’t stand still.  I’m thinking this is the coolest guy I ever seen.”


In 1957, Johnny recorded his first record, ‘Hey Little Girl,” and a local newspaper article about him led to his next Elvis connection – performing at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.  It was there in 1958 that he met James Burton, who would later play guitar with Elvis, but back then was the guitarist for Ricky Nelson.  Burton was responsible for taking a demo Johnny had written and delivering it to Nelson, who liked the song and recorded it for his huge album “Rick at 21.”


Later in 1958, Johnny traveled to New York to seek work in recording studios.  It was there he met legendary disc jockey Allen Freed, who convinced him to change his name to Johnny Rivers.


After he graduated from high school, Rivers moved to Nashville, where he teamed up with another young hopeful singer, Roger Miller.  They wrote songs together and made a little money singing demonstration tracks for Elvis and Johnny Cash.  The next few years saw Rivers move to New York City and then to Los Angeles.  In 1963 Rivers and his group began an extended stay as the house band at a local nightclub.  This led to a lucrative offer to open the new discotheque Whiskey A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip.  Soon, his first album Johnny Rivers at the Whiskey A-Go-Go was released, and it quickly sold a million copies.  Johnny Rivers’ career was on a roll.


With his newfound wealth, Johnny Rivers moved into a mansion in exclusive Trousdale Estates, and regularly drove his maroon Jaguar over to Elvis’ place in Bel Air for weekend football games, with other stars like Pat Boone and Jan and Dean.


Johnny Rivers and Elvis had one other interesting connection – the song “Memphis” written by Chuck Berry.  Elvis recorded it during a two-day session in Nashville in May 1963 that produced fourteen songs.  Time constraints limited “Memphis” to just two takes, and Elvis was not happy with either one.  So, on January 12, 1964, Elvis went back in the studio to re-record “Memphis” and one other song.  He wanted a more exciting, modern sound, because he planned to release “Memphis” as his next single.  Elvis was dedicated and focused.  He was in good voice, and he loaded up the studio with three guitar players and two drummers.


Elvis left the studio very pleased with the results, but “Memphis” was never released as a single – and Johnny Rivers was the reason.  He and Elvis had jammed together on the song back in Bel Air.  Rivers liked it so much he incorporated it into his repertoire at the Whiskey.  In May 1964 a live version of the song hit the market and quickly went to #2 on the charts.  That killed any chance of “Memphis” ever being an Elvis single.


There is one last Elvis/Johnny Rivers connection.  I would strongly recommend the 1991 Rivers CD The Memphis Sun Recordings.  Rivers recorded it at Sun Studios, with James Burton and Carl Perkins as special guests.  It contains cover versions of four Elvis songs and three Perkins hits, plus others by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich.  It’s a terrific CD, and I play it a lot, including twice while writing this article.


©  2007   Philip R Arnold   All Rights Reserved   www.elvisblog.net

10 responses to “ELVIS AND JOHNNY RIVERS

  1. Rebecca Hammer

    When Johnny Rivers covered Memphis, he had no way of knowing that it would zoom to #2 on the charts, so I don’t think what he did was as sinister as it sounds. After all, he had no prior hits. I love Elvis but, the first time I heard Memphis by Johnny Rivers it gave me shivers and I was hooked on his music from that day forward. Rivers should definitely be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because his music should live on for future generations.

    • Hi Rebecca: Like you, I am a big Johnny Rivers fan. Last April, I wrote an article suggesting singers that Graceland might book, and Johnny Rivers was one. Check it ou. In that article, I lamented the fact that he is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

      Phil Arnold

      • Rebecca Hammer

        Hi Phil,
        I just read a statement Johnny Rivers made about the Memphis recording. He had been playing Memphis for years before his first album was recorded at the Whiskey ‘a Go-Go and Memphis as a single was released subsequent to the album, a decision made by producer Lou Adler. If Elvis had been as angry over Johnny’s release of Memphis as the Memphis mafia have suggested, I don’t think he would have played football with him after that. Johnny entertained the groups in Vietnam. He was so much a part of the fabric of our society and culture. I’m wondering if there is something we can do to get Johnny inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at this late date.

        I have six Johnny Rivers cd’s in my car at the moment and really enjoy the Sun Studios recordings. Actually, I have enjoyed everything he has ever recorded, even the Pickwick 33 recordings that predated the Whiskey ‘a Go-Go album.

        I will check out your article and thanks for your reply!
        Rebecca Hammer

  2. Elvis was such a kind, forgiving and loving person, I am sure he may have been disappointed if this is what indeed happened with Johnny Rivers taking the song “Memphis”, but I am sure Elvis got over it quickly and moved on, Elvis didn’t need one song to win his place as the King of Rock and Roll, which he will always be, and remember, he also forgave Red West.

    Mary Alice Pena-Lopez San Antonio,Tx

  3. Paulo Nobre Palmeiras

    Until ‘Bossa Nova’ has recorded. with hits such as Do you Wanna Dance, If I Were A Carpenter, Baby I Need Your Lovin ‘, Secret Agent Man, Summer Rain, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Johnny Rivers became the PopStar in level of Beatles and Elvis in Brazil of more than 200 million people!

  4. Hello,
    I recently started plating hits from Johnny Rivers on guitar and heard about this Memphis connection. Some articles say Elvis let Johnny Rivers listen to am arrangement of Memphis and then shortly after Johnny released it .. and Elvis was “persona non grata” ever since .. Did Johnny Rivers “steal” this arrangement from Elvis? Did they jam on this version together? Since it was “cover” song did it matter who released it? Did Johny rivers need permission form Elvis to release this version? Actually, the versions are very different. .. Elvis did release Memphis .. was this the version he wanted to release? They did not sound like they had the same arrangements at all. Johnny Rivers had a knack for playing covers like they have never been played before … that much is true! I’m wondering if Elvis turns over in his grave every time Memphis by Johnny Rivers is played. I have heard they were not friends after the Memphis incident.
    Thanks, very interesting,

  5. Johnny Rivers is my favorite singer. Elvis is tremendous. As a big “Country Music” fan, Roger Miller is a favorite also. All of these facts are informative, and appreciated… Thank You, Johnny Boy

  6. Pingback: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees

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