Johnny Rivers follows musical roots to Ventura County blues fest

What’s Johnny Rivers -- the Brooklyn-born, Baton Rouge, La.-reared rocker who put 32 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1964 to 1977 -- doing headlining the Ventura Country Blues Festival on Saturday?

“I grew up in south Louisiana,” Rivers, 70, said earlier this week. “If you think about it, all of my hits, except maybe ‘Memphis,’ were rooted in the blues. When I was at the Whisky [in the mid-1960s], I was playing Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed songs. I was doing John Lee Hooker songs in 1964, long before George Thorogood came along. Who was doing John Lee Hooker in 1964?”

His just-released live album, “Johnny Rivers Live at Cache Creek,” includes recent performances of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” which was Rivers’ first chart hit, and reached No. 2 on the heels of the Beatles’ arrival in the States. Other tracks include “Secret Agent Man,” “Seventh Son,” and his biggest hit, “Poor Side of Town,” which made it to No. 1 in 1966.

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“People don’t realize how much my music is rooted in the blues, because my records all hit pop,” he said. “That’s the way you had to do it, because a straight blues record wouldn’t even get played on the radio at that time. ‘Midnight Special’ — that’s a blues. Even ‘Secret Agent Man’ is just a minor-key blues.”

Rivers played a crucial role in getting L.A.’s blossoming rock music scene on the national map a half-century ago through a string of hit singles and albums, many recorded live during his breakthrough engagement as the house band when entrepreneur Elmer Valentine opened the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip.

“He was a great performer,” Valentine once said, according to a book Rivers is writing about his storied career. “And he had the best rock and roll beat there was. Let me tell you something — without the Whisky a Go Go, there would still be a Johnny Rivers. But without Johnny Rivers, there would be no Whisky a Go Go.”

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As a kid in Baton Rouge, which was on the Southern circuit of country and blues performers that coalesced into rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, Rivers got a first-hand introduction to that musical revolution.

“I saw Elvis Presley at my high school, with Minnie Pearl and Jimmy Dickens,” Rivers recalled. “She introduced him, ‘Here’s the new sensation,’ and out he comes, with Bill and Scotty” — a reference to Presley’s original bandmates, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore — “and he’s got this pink suit on and starts singing ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ I remember thinking ‘Hey man, that’s that song we like from the radio!’”

Rivers wrote his biggest hit, “Poor Side of Town” (which is co-credited to new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Lou Adler), but most of his successes came in interpreting other writers’ songs, including Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment he’s ever received for his interpretive skills came from no less an authority than Bob Dylan.

“Of all the versions of my recorded songs,” Dylan wrote in his 2004 autobiography “Chronicles, Volume One,” “the Johnny Rivers one was my favorite…. When I listened to Johnny’s version of ‘Positively 4th Street,’ I liked his version better than mine. I listened to it over and over again.

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“Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but [Rivers’] version had the mandate down — the attitude and melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it,” he wrote.

Rivers’ love for country as well as blues and R&B; shows up on the new album’s bonus track, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” an old folk song that became a pop hit for Ricky Nelson in 1958. Rivers assembled a bluegrass band for that track, including veteran folk-country musicians Herb Pedersen, Bill Bryson and Lynn Coulter. Rivers is releasing it as a single.

He said he plans to do “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” at this weekend’s festival, which also features Savoy Brown, Kenny Neal and Michael John & the Bottom Line. He’s also likely to pull out a straight blues number from the new album, “Rooster Blues.”

But all in all, “I’m not going to come out and just sing a bunch of blues songs — I’ll let the other bands do that. I’m going to do what I do. People want to see Johnny Rivers,” he said.

More than a half-century into his career, Rivers said of performing, “It’s a blessing.... To still be able to make a living at it, to go out to a merchandise table and sign CDs and shake hands. One of the best things anybody ever said to me was at a show recently where a woman came up to me after and said ‘I just want to thank you -- you made me feel like a teenager again.’”


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