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This is the unlikely musical tale of a 1950’s Italian kid from New York City not named Dion DiMucci. We’re talking about John Henry Ramistella. This artist has been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame but the big door prize still eludes him. It’s possibly the contention that a career delivering mostly vivid, colorful cover versions of brilliant material makes him a melodic figure of less import. I vigorously disagree. He was a different kind of pioneer and If anyone belongs in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s Johnny Rivers. The omission is glaring.

His family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the influences in that swampy, bluesy air created a Rock and Pop record selling machine we would come to know as Johnny Rivers. It was actually Alan Freed, the man credited with popularizing the term Rock and Roll, who gave Johnny his now famed and copy written name. Freed also introduced him to 50’s indie label owner George Goldner who signed him to his Gone Records enterprise. But alas these rockabilly oriented 45’s did not fare well in the age of Elvis. Johnny then wrote a tune in ‘59 titled “I’ll Make Believe” and teen idol Ricky Nelson put it on wax. Doors were opening. But it was not until 1964 that the rivers began rising. Sunset Strip Whisky A Go Go owner Elmer Valentine signed Johnny to a one year contract and the 22 year old found his tributary of talent flowing nicely. The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had just entered the Top 100 as the British Invasion began to knock American cats right off the roofs of Rock Radio. Johnny was a gleaming exception. When legendary Los Angeles producer Lou Adler signed JR and released “Live At The Whisky A Go Go” everything changed. These beautifully crafted and vital sessions produced a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that outsold the original. The guitar work and vocal were simply perfect within that very “alive” club setting. Unfortunately, this success was inspired by Elvis Presley’s version of the tune and when Johnny released his first, The King threw the new kid in town out of his court permanently. But that’s show biz, as the recording began a stream that formed 9 Top 10 hits on the Billboard 100 and 17 in the Top 40 from 1964 to 1977, including the P.F Sloane and Steve Barri penned “Secret Agent Man”, “Poor Side Of Town”, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “Summer Rain”. The man sold over 30 million records when that number really meant something.

There has been a sincerity and heart felt genuineness in all of his efforts which continues through the concerts he performs to this day. Johnny Rivers managed to adjust to all contemporary changes right through the release of “Slow Dancing” in 1977. Albums such as “Changes” (1966) “Rewind” (1967) and “Realization” (1968) confirm an intuitive ear enhancing an ocean of musical change. Johnny is certainly one of the great interpreters of Rock and Pop visons our culture has encountered. His reverence for Van Morrison was on full display when he titled his 1970 LP and final album of the Imperial Records years, “Slim Slo Slider” and performed tunes by Van, Gram Parsons, Tony Joe White, James Kendricks, John Fogerty and Scott McKenzie.

After 1977, the changes the business of music embraced became irrelevant to him. At that point Rivers just followed his soul with his label Soul City Records. His 2001 release “Last Train To Memphis” on that trademark is an overlooked gem.

On April 9, 2017, Rivers performed a song at the funeral for Chuck Berry in St. Louis, Missouri. 53 years after arriving in “Memphis”, John Henry Ramistella’s path went full circle as he praised and hailed the root of it all.

By Rich Buckland 10/23/2019 06:56 PM

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