Johnny moved to the West Coast in the early 1960s and was asked to fill in one night at an L.A. nightclub called Gazzarri's. He really had no act and no band at the time. He just sat on a stool, playing his guitar and singing, with a drummer as his only accompanist. Within three nights, the line-up to see Johnny Rivers went around the block. In 1963 he was offered a chance to play and record at the Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. He was the headline act and played covers of some catchy tunes from the not too distant past. His act was similar to one that had been made popular by Trini Lopez, the main attraction at PJ's in Los Angeles. Rivers signed with the Imperial label and recorded an album in 1964, "Johnny Rivers Live At The Whiskey A Go Go". It reached #12 on the LP charts and a single from the album, a spirited, live cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis", reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 that Summer. Rivers had his first big hit and had made the successful transition from nightclub entertainer to chart-busting Pop singer.
His next success was another Chuck Berry cover, "Maybelline" (#12), which he followed with "Mountain Of Love" (#9) and "Midnight Special" (#20). In 1965 he scored hits with a cover of a song that had been written by Blues artist Willie Dixon, "Seventh Son" (#7), and with Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" (#26). After "Under Your Spell Again" stalled at #35 in early 1966, Johnny jumped on the then-current fascination with foreign espionage, and released the P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri composition, "Secret Agent Man". The song was used as the theme of the American broadcast of the British spy series Danger Man, which aired in the U.S. as Secret Agent from 1964 to 1966. The song itself peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
With a long string of up-tempo rockers to his credit, Rivers decided to take a chance on a slow ballad that he and producer Lou Adler had written, "Poor Side Of Town". Released in late 1966, the record made a steady climb up the Billboard Hot 100 until it finally reached #1 on November 12th. Flying in the face of the British Invasion, Johnny continued to rack up more hits, including two more Top Ten records in 1967 with "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" (#3) and a cover of The Miracles' "The Tracks Of My Tears" (#10). Rivers also had a successful #5 album on the LP charts with "Realization" in 1968 that marked a subtle change in his musical direction, with more thoughtful types of songs like "Summer Rain", which reached #14.
By 1970 Imperial became United Artists and Johnny Rivers continued churning out albums in the early '70s which were a success with music critics, but did not sell as well as some of his earlier hits. One of these albums, "L.A. Reggae" in 1972, dented the LP charts as a result of the Top Ten Pop song that had been included on it, a cover of Huey Smith & the Clowns 1957 R&B record "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu", which brought Johnny back into the U.S. Top Ten for the last time when it went to #6. Staying with the cover song formula, he added two more hits to his already impressive collection with "Blue Suede Shoes" (#38 in 1973) and "Help Me Rhonda" (#22 in 1975). Johnny's seventeenth and final Billboard Top 40 hit came during the Summer of 1977 when a cover of the Funky Kings' tune "Swayin' To The Music (Slow Dancin')" rose to #10.
In total, Rivers has sold well over 30 million records. He was versatile enough to do Folk songs, Blues, covers of old-time Rock 'n' Roll songs, and some original material, all of them in his own unique style. He was also adept as a songwriter, guitarist and producer. He continued recording into the '80s and although his music no longer reached the charts, he was still a much sought after live act.
In 1998 Rivers reactivated his Soul City Records label which he had founded in 1966, and released the album, "Last Train to Memphis" which contained several original songs as well as cover tunes. The effort proved that his voice was still as strong and pleasant as it had been during his hit making years. In early 2000, Johnny recorded with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney on a tribute album dedicated to Buddy Holly's backup band, The Crickets. On June 12th, 2009, Johnny Rivers was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. His name has been suggested many times for induction into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he has never been selected. Rivers, however, was a nominee for 2015 induction into America's Pop Music Hall of Fame.
He continued to perform for enthusiastic audiences across America and beyond in support of his 2013 album, "Live At Cache Creek". On April 9, 2017, he performed at Chuck Berry's funeral in St. Louis, Missouri.