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Johnny Rivers: the 'Secret Agent' of rock 'n' roll

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Johnny Rivers sits in a booth at the retro-themed Mel's Diner in Hollywood and marvels at the pace at which not just his career but pop music in general moved when he was getting started half a century ago.

Within a span of a few months in 1964, Rivers went from hustling modest-paying gigs at small local nightclubs to national fame with his recording of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," the rock 'n' roll tale of heartache sung from the perspective of a man who has seen his family torn apart.

"That's the difference a hit can make," Rivers, 71, said with a broad smile, part of an intensely energetic demeanor that dismisses any suggestion of a man who is slowing down entering his eighth decade. "It wasn't a big hit for Chuck," said Rivers, who took the song to No. 2 on the charts. "That record took me from $350 a week to $5,000 a night."

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Although it wasn't instantly apparent at the time, the New York-born, Louisiana-reared Rivers helped usher in a golden age of rock music coming out of Los Angeles, much of which was born or at least incubated at the Whisky a Go Go. First opening its doors 50 years ago this Wednesday, the Whisky did for L.A.'s blossoming rock music scene in the mid-'60s what the Troubadour had done for the decade's folk and folk-rock artists.

The Whisky's current owners didn't invite Rivers to be part of their monthlong celebration of the club's 50th anniversary, which focuses on the club's punk and metal years. So Rivers booked his own event across town.

A two-time Grammy Award winner, Rivers will be performing Wednesday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on a bill with his longtime friend, songwriter Jimmy Webb. Proceeds will go to Rivers' organization that supports music education in public schools, the John R. Ramistella Foundation (his given name).

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Rivers was the first act to play the Whisky after owner Elmer Valentine got the idea of re-creating something he'd seen on a recent trip to Paris: a discotheque called Whisky a Go-Go where female DJs were spinning records for dancers instead of relying on live music.

Valentine's idea was to combine that formula with the usual American nightclub format by having the female DJs spin the latest hits between sets by live bands — in part to keep clubgoers from leaving.

Barely three months earlier, Rivers had been dining at an Italian restaurant down La Cienega Boulevard owned by Bill Gazzarri, who later would open his own rock club on Sunset, Gazzarri's. Gazzarri asked Rivers to take over for a jazz act that didn't show, and soon crowds started lining up to hear Rivers' Southern-soaked brand of rock, rhythm and soul.

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Valentine quickly lured him away to open the Whisky, initially hiring him for a four-week stand but keeping him on to perform as the club's house band for nearly two years. Just two months in, Rivers recorded the first of what would become a string of five live albums that put both him and the club on the national map.

By May, Rivers' version of "Memphis" was a hit, and he followed with a string of successes including another Berry cover, "Maybelline," then "Seventh Son," "Secret Agent Man" and one of his own songs, "Poor Side of Town," which went to No. 1. For nearly seven years, Rivers' name was rarely off the pop charts.

Out of the gate, Rivers and the scene at the Whisky were so hot that after the Beatles played one of their Hollywood Bowl shows, John, Paul and George headed to the Whisky afterward, with Jayne Mansfield along for the ride.

"They didn't come to see the Whisky," Rivers said. "They came to see Johnny Rivers."

In 1966, Rivers launched his own Soul City Records label and production company and soon began working with the Versatiles, an R&B vocal group that had been languishing on Motown Records. He also hired budding songwriter Jimmy Webb.

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With Rivers producing, the Versatiles recorded Webb's "Up, Up and Away," changed their name to the Fifth Dimension and subsequently collected seven Grammy Awards, including record and song of the year.

"The longer I live the more I appreciate him," said Oklahoma-born-and-raised Webb, 67, from his home in New York. "He really did mentor me. ... Johnny was my connection to the big time. ... He always knew how to get things done. He still does."

All the while, Rivers was still playing at the Whisky, which had turned into a breeding ground for new acts. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, the Four Tops and numerous others played early shows at the Whisky.

"All the bands stopped at the Whisky in those days," Webb said. "Of course, Johnny was a legend at the Whisky. Something phenomenal happened there, akin to what happened at the Cavern Club in Liverpool — something really fantastic and inexplicable happened with Johnny's band and his career, and suddenly he took off."

Today Rivers continues to record and release new music periodically on his label and says that working with his foundation to teach young people about the roots of popular music gives him great satisfaction.

"You have to give something back — you can't just take, take, take," he said. "I always tell young people that the tree can have all kinds of branches, but first you learn about the roots, and that's the 12-bar blues. Everything else comes from that."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Twitter: @RandyLewis2

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