Johnny Rivers

Secret Agent Man

The year was 1955 when Baton Rouge High School freshman Johnny Ramistella attended a country music revue at his school that featured an up and coming artist by the name of Elvis Presley. “Elvis played two songs—That’s All Right, Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky. He didn’t even have a drummer. It was just Elvis with his guitar and a bass player,” recalled Johnny in a 2007 interview. (1) It was a moment that put him on his career path.

Ramistella, whose father played both mandolin and guitar, was a natural who started playing guitar under the watchful eye of his father at the age of 8. While still in his freshman year of high school, he started his entertainment career by sitting in with local groups at the age of 13 before starting his own band, The Spades. “When I started out, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t even exist,” he said. “In those days we played blues and R&B, songs by Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, people from around New Orleans and Baton Rouge who you’ve never heard of.” (1)

Born in New York City and living there the first five years of his life, Johnny returned to visit his aunt in 1958 when he set out to meet Alan Freed, at the time the most influential DJ in the country. The fifteen-year old met Freed and Freed’s manager, Jack Hooke outside the WINS studio near Columbus Square. “My name’s Johnny Ramistella,” he said. “I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I have a band. I play and write and I’d like you to hear my music.” Incredibly, Freed handed him his business card and told him he had an office in the Brill Building on Broadway. “Why don’t you come down tomorrow afternoon?” he said. He did go, of course, and played several songs for Freed and Hooke. Hooke called George Goldner, owner of the Gone and End record labels, to set up a recording session.

Songwriter Otis Blackwell, who wrote Don’t Be Cruel for Elvis and Great Balls of Fire for Jerry Lee Lewis, arranged Johnny’s debut single Baby Come Back b/w Long, Long Walk. The record didn’t sell, but it is significant in that as it was being prepared for release, Freed suddenly turned to the youngster. “Your name,” he said. “You need to come up with something a little more musical than Ramistella.”            

“We were discussing it,” Rivers said, “and I said something about how I grew up in Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River and somehow Rivers came out of that. It was the first time I used that name.” (2)

Now performing and writing as Johnny Rivers, he made his living from 1957-1960 with his band and singing demos for Hill & Range Publishers in the style of Elvis. It was in 1958 when he met famed guitarist James Burton. “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.” (3)

Burton was not only recording with Nelson but also appeared on The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet clips when Rick sang on the 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 Burton. “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.” (3)

Nelson did record I’ll Make Believe and placed it on his LP More Songs By Ricky in 1960. Rivers, who had come a long way in the space of four years, achieved much but still didn’t have a hit record. He moved to Los Angeles in 1961 and worked as a studio musician, songwriter and a producer. Working those late-night shifts in the early 60s, he often stopped at an Italian restaurant-bar that stayed open late and featured a jazz trio. One night in 1963, the jazz trio on the bill didn’t show. Bill Gazzarri, the restaurant’s owner, asked Rivers, who was anything but a jazz musician, to fill in until he could find another band. Rivers agreed and hired drummer Eddie Rubin, thinking the gig would be just 3 or 4 nights.

Rivers performing in the mid-60s.

No photo credit found.

Suddenly, Rivers and Rubin caught the attention of the late-night Hollywood crowd. Word spread and soon the restaurant was packed nightly waiting to hear Rivers brand of rock and R&B at what was previously a jazz venue. With his club rocking, profits climbing and Rivers ready to leave, Gazzari appeased Johnny and let him hire bassist Joe Osborne, a full-fledged member of LA’s Wrecking Crew, to fill out the sound. Pondering his future, Rivers was approached by a rival club owner with bigger ideas.

“There was another club prior to that which had been the hot spot called P.J.’s. Trini Lopez had recorded a live album there. We started cutting into their crowd and business. Elmer Valentine, an owner of P.J.’s, came in one night,” Rivers recalled.

On break, he approached Rivers. “Listen, there’s a place up on Sunset called The Party, and it’s not doing well. We (the ownership group) have a chance to take it over. If you’re interested, we’ll pay you a lot more than you’re making. We want to call it Whisky A Go Go.”

Valentine had just got back from a vacation in Europe. He told Rivers there was a popular club in Paris and all they did was play records while people danced. It was a discotheque of the same name. Valentine set the hook. “My concept is, if you’ll sign for a year, we’ll let you play three sets a night, 45-minutes each, to keep the dance thing going. And I’d like to have gals – go-go girls - playing records in-between,” explained the club owner.

With a big offer on the table, Rivers approached Gazzarri about a pay raise. “He gave me this poor mouth story about how there were lots of people in his club when we played, but that they weren’t spending any money,” Rivers recalled. “On November 22, when [John] Kennedy was assassinated, I was upset and called Gazzarri to tell him I wouldn’t be in that night. He wanted me to go in and play anyway! That made my mind up not to stay with the jerk,” Johnny said.

Rivers’ decision was clear. “I called Elmer and said I’d do the Whisky thing. I just brought my following up from Gazzarri’s to the Sunset Strip. (4) The opening of the Whisky A Go Go was on January 15, 1964 and it was a rousing success. Among those many people in the crowd was producer Lou Adler. Observing the excitement of the crowd and the electricity Rivers created, it was Adler who came up with the idea of recording Rivers’ performance for a live album. Lou presented the idea to an enthusiastic Rivers, who still hungered for a hit record.

Fans wait around the block to hear Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go in 1964.

Photo courtesy Julian Wasser.

Inside the Whisky A Go Go during a Johnny Rivers engagement.

Photo courtesy of whiskyagogo.com

Adler and Rivers had to borrow money from another club owner to rent a three-track remote recording unit housed in a truck. “We recorded this album two nights in a row and Lou took it to every record company in town. None of them wanted it,” Rivers stated. At least not until Liberty Records executive Bob Skaff appeared. Skaff convinced Liberty president, Al Bennett to release the LP on Imperial Records, now a subsidiary of Liberty. With Imperial being run as a small label, Adler and Rivers, now operating as Dunhill Productions, saw many advantages. “It gave Lou and me the autonomy to choose our own singles and work closely with the promotion men and marketing people,” Rivers said. “I think that had a lot to do with why we had so much success.” (5)

Indeed, the first live Rivers album, Johnny Rivers At The Whisky A Go Go, was quite a rookie sensation. Entering the Billboard album chart on June 20, 1964, the LP stayed 45 weeks reaching #12 in the process. (6) Johnny also scored his first hit single with his rendition of Chuck Berry’s Memphis. The 45 hit the chart on May 30, 1964 and peaked at #2. (7) Rivers was pragmatic about his hit single. "That record took me from $350 a week to $5,000 a night." (8)

Rivers success in 1964-1965 continued with Maybelline (#12), Mountain Of Love (#9), Midnight Special (#20), Cupid (#76), Seventh Son (#7), Where Have All The Flowers Gone (#26) and Under Your Spell Again (#35). (7) Rivers string of hits shouldn’t be underestimated as this happened at a time the charts were filled with British acts.

In early 1965, Rivers recorded a 40-second opening theme for the hit British TV series Danger Man that would be used for the U.S. airings. The original show aired in England for two seasons in 1960-1962. CBS ran the series for a few months in 1962. The show was revived in England in the fall of 1964. Johnny and Lou were touring Europe and met with the shows producers during the British leg of the trip when asked if they would come up with a new theme for the American re-release.

“We thought it’d be great to have a theme on a TV series,” Johnny recalled. “P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri came up with it. It wasn’t a complete song. They just had one verse and the chorus.” (5)

Sloan, composer of Eve Of Destruction, who passed away on November 15, 2015 at the age of 70, had this to say about the theme from the British TV import in a September, 2014 interview. “Originally the song was called Danger Man, because that was the name of the TV show. And basically all they wanted was 40 seconds, so I wrote a riff and I wrote a lyric that went, Look out Danger Man, look out Danger Man, and sent that in to them. They said, ‘Hey, we're changing the name of the show to Secret Agent.'

That was magical. That changed everything. The lyric just came together in no time at all. It just worked immediately. So Danger Man was holding the song back, and when they called it Secret Agent, it all came together with a new opening riff by Johnny.” (9)

The song ran during the opening credits of the TV series Secret Agent in the spring of 1965. That was the last anyone thought of it— until Liberty Records began to get requests for it. “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,’ Rivers recalled.

Rivers continued his narrative. “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 recorded it. After that initial success (with Memphis), 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.” (3)

Secret Agent Man entered the Billboard chart on March 19, 1966 where it stayed for 11 weeks climbing the top ten to #3. (7) Later, in 1966, Rivers switched gears from live performances to studio recordings featuring covers of current ballads. His first studio album Changes featured a Rivers-penned ballad Poor Side Of Town, which became his only #1 record. When the dust settled, Rivers had placed 29 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1964-1978. (7) During that same period, the album charts list 16 of his LP’s—three of them reaching gold status. (6)

This is the opening to the TV series Secret Agent.

Judy Garland introduces Johnny Rivers on the May 26, 1966 appearance on The Hollywood Palace.

1) Johnson, Eric, Monterey County Weekly, Johnny Rivers created a lot more than ‘Secret Agent Man,’ April 12, 2007. Link.

2) Aswell, Tom, The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, Johnny Rivers biography, Link.

3) Hazen, Cindy, Vintage Guitar Magazine, A Conversation With Johnny Rivers, June and September 1998, Link.

4) Clash, Jim, Forbes, Johnny Rivers On Whisky A Go Go Club, Bob Dylan As First Rapper, May 16, 2015, Link.

5) Kienzle, Rich, Liner Notes from Johnny Rivers Anthology 1964-1977. Rhino Records, Inc., 1991.

6) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2000, Page 738.

7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, Pages 594-595.

8) Lewis, Randy, Los Angeles Times, Johnny Rivers: the 'Secret Agent' of rock 'n' roll, January 14, 2014, Link.

9) MacIntosh, Dan, Songfacts interview with P.F. Sloan, Link.

Photo courtesy of johnnyrivers.com.

Copyright  2009