Johnny Rivers is best remembered for the rollicking "Secret Agent Man" even though "Poor Side Of Town" charted higher (#1). Though both songs were originals, Rivers was generally a covers artist - that's how his career began and ended.
Born in New York, John Henry Ramistella grew up in Baton Rouge. In '61, Rivers met infamous DJ/promoter Alan Freed who suggested Ramistella become Rivers (a reference to his bayou home) and got him signed to Gone Records. When the Gone deal was… gone, Rivers headed west. He recorded a cover of "Blue Skies" for Chancellor Records in L.A. The record failed to chart. But Rivers was able to get some local club work.
By early '64 he'd moved to the legendary Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip (West Hollywood). His oldies show was popular and got him signed with Imperial Records. "Johnny Rivers At The Whiskey A Go-Go" was notable for a pair of Chuck Berry covers, "Memphis" which reached #2 and "Maybelline." Rivers' take on the '60 hit "Midnight Special" nicked the Top 20 but got no further.
'65 was a busy year. Rivers released three albums, "Johnny Rivers In Action," "Meanwhile Back At The Whiskey A Go-Go" and, taking a swing at Folk, "Johnny Rivers Rocks The Folk." He also spun Willie Dixon's "Seventh Son" to #7. But it was a gig at a high school stadium in Lynn, MA, that stood out. Rivers was an opening act for the Rolling Stones who were playing their first U.S. show.
Rivers released "Secret Agent Man," the theme song (and title) of the British T.V. spy series starring Patrick McGoohan, in '66. The track made it to #3. At that point, Rivers' label pushed out "Johnny Rivers' Golden Hits." But Rivers was far from done. "Poor Side Of Town" hit later in the year.
While everybody else was going psychedelic, '67 was Rivers' Motown year. He scored Top 10 hits with covers of the Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" (#3) and the Miracles' "Tracks Of My Tears" (#10). Rivers had a hand in organizing the Monterey International Pop Festival (which featured The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Janis Joplin -fronting Big Brother & The Holding Co.) and was an opening day performer.
The "Summer Of Love" must have had a profound effect since Rivers went nostalgic the following year with "Summer Rain" which referenced The Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" released only seven months earlier. Regardless, the song proved to be Rivers' last Top 20 hit for a while as he kept occupied with his music publishing business and record producing.
Rivers covered Huey "Piano" Lewis and took "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu" to #6 in '73. Though is version of Carl Perkins' classic "Blue Suede Shoes" and the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" (with Brian Wilson singing backing vocals) charted they failed to do much else. "Swayin' To The Music (Slow Dancing)," a '77 release and yet another cover, proved to be Rivers last major hit.
1964 In Action
1965 Johnny Rivers Rocks The Folk
1970 Slim Slo Slider
1971 Home Grown
1972 L.A. Reggae
1973 Blue Suede Shoes
1974 The Road
1975 Help Me, Rhonda ("New Lovers And Old Friends" in the UK)
1975 New Lovers And Old Friends
1976 Wild Night
1978 Outside Help
1980 Borrowed Time
1983 Not A Through Street
1998 The Memphis Sun Recordings
1998 Last Train To Memphis
2004 Reinvention Highway
2009 Shadows On The Moon
Rhino Records put together an excellent compilation "Johnny Rivers: Anthology 1964-1977." It's the one to get.