Born John Henry Ramistella in New York in November 1942, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where – influenced by the distinctive Louisiana musical style – John began playing the guitar at the age of eight, taught by his father and uncle.
Ramistella formed a group called The Spades and made his first record at the age of 14, while he was a student at Baton Rouge High School.
On a trip to New York in 1958, he met Alan Freed, who advised him to change his name to “Johnny Rivers” (after the Mississippi River, which flows through Baton Rouge) and helped him gain several recording contracts.
Rivers broke through in 1964 with a cover version of Memphis Tennessee, although his biggest hit was a song he had written with Lou Adler, Poor Side Of Town – his only #1.
He began the following year with singles of two of the great Motown songs: The Miracles‘ classic Tracks of My Tears and the timeless soul ballad Baby I Need Your Lovin’ which had launched The Four Tops’ career two years earlier.
By the time Rivers’ album Realization was released in 1968, he was a big star in America and had formed a collaboration with singer and songwriter, James Hendricks.
In the late 60’s he formed his own label, Soul City, but his own success centred around live work, bolstered by a scattering of infrequent hits. Rivers continued releasing material into the 1980s although his recording career was winding down as he turned to Christianity.
Rivers reactivated his Soul City Records label in 1998 and released Last Train to Memphis. In early 2000, he recorded with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney on a tribute album dedicated to Buddy Holly‘s backing band, The Crickets.