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