On a trip to New York City in 1958, John became acquainted with Alan Freed, and he changed his name to that suggested by the celebrated disc jockey: Johnny Rivers. Freed was instrumental in securing a recording contract for Johnny with Gone Records in the late 50's. Although he had no big hits on the Gone label, it was a significant boost to Rivers' career.
Johnny moved to the West Coast in the early 60's 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 the 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 act 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 number 12 on the LP charts and a single from the album, a spirited, live cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis", reached number two on the pop charts. Johnny 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", which he followed with "Mountain Of Love" and "Midnight Special". In 1965 he scored hits with a cover of a song that had been written by blues artist Willie Dixon, "Seventh Son", and with Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone".
In 1966, Rivers wanted to try something different and came up with his biggest hit ever, "Poor Side Of Town", which would be his only number one record. He also started his own label and called it Soul City Records. One of the artists that signed with Soul City, James Hendricks, wrote a song that Rivers recorded and turned into the hit, "Summer Rain".
Johnny then did the theme from a TV show and turned "Secret Agent Man" into another hit, capitalizing on the then-current fascination with foreign espionage.
The 5th Dimension signed with Soul City Records and eventually recorded two number one hits on Rivers' label, "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In" and "Wedding Bell Blues".
Johnny continued to put up more hits, including two more top ten records in 1967 with "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" and a cover of the Miracles' "The Tracks Of My Tears". Rivers had a successful number five album on the LP charts with "Realization" in 1968; it marked a subtle change in his musical direction, with more thoughtful types of songs.
Johnny continued to record more songs and issue more albums in the early 70's 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".
Imperial became United Artists and Johnny Rivers continued churning out albums. He also recorded for other labels, including Atlantic, Epic and Big Tree. Occasionally one of his tracks would reach the top forty, such as his cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1973 or the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" in 1975, on which Brian Wilson helped with backup vocals. His last entry on the charts was "Swayin' To The Music", a top ten hit in 1977.
Johnny Rivers managed to put seventeen songs in the top forty, ten of which were top ten, from 1964 to 1977. In total, he has sold well over 25 million records. He was versatile enough to do folk songs, blues, covers of old-time rock-and-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 80's and although his music hasn't reached the best seller charts for quite a while, he is still a much sought after live act and still tours to-day, doing 50 to 60 shows a year.
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 and continued to tour America into 2012.
Johnny Rivers' Biggest Hits:
1964-Memphis - #2
1964-Maybellene - #12
1964-Mountain Of Love - #9
1965-Midnight Special - #20
1965-Seventh Son - #7
1965-Where Have All The Flowers Gone - #26
1966-Under Your Spell Again - #35
1966-Secret Agent Man - #3
1966-Muddy Water - #19
1966-Poor Side Of Town - #1
1967-Baby, I Need Your Lovin' - #3
1967-Tracks Of My Tears - #10
1967-Summer Rain - #14
1972-Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu - #6
1973-Blue Suede Shoes - #38
1975-Help Me Rhonda - #22
1977-Swayin' To The Music - #10