Johnny Rivers was born John Henry Ramistella on November 7, 1942. He is an American musician, songwriter, and record producer. He had a somewhat unusual start for a star–he got his big break playing guitar in the house band at El Monte Legion Stadium in Los Angeles (a venue where many future stars performed during their early careers). As Johnny Rivers, he made his first single “Poor Side of Town”/ “I’m A Drifter” with Bob Keene producing it for Crest Records in 1964. He charted during the 1960s and 1970s with several pops, blues, folk, and old-time rock ‘n’ roll hits. Johnny Rivers still tours and has released over 27 albums since 1964. With his songs listened to worldwide, Rivers has a pretty big following. He is a true inspiration to many artists and people from all walks of life. Now, let’s get to the 10 best Johnny Rivers songs of all-time:
10. Secret Agent Man (1966)
Written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, “Secret Agent Man” was a #2 Billboard Hot 100 hit for Johnny Rivers in 1966. It would also be his biggest international chart success and the track most familiar to those not around during the mid-’60s who may recognize it from its use as the theme song for the T.V. show “Mission Impossible.” The original recording went unreleased until 1965, when it appeared on his album “Rivers Is Back.”
9. Baby, I Need Your Lovin’ (1967)
This is a 1965 hit by the Four Tops, written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. In 1978 Johnny Rivers released his version as a single, reaching No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year. During an interview, Holland stated that he was always impressed with Rivers’ covers of their songs, saying, “I just knew that whenever I wrote something and ultimately got it to the artist – no matter who they were – if Johnny Rivers was going to do it or Solomon Burke or Wilson Pickett or anybody, they were going to make it their own.” Since its release, this version has been played at Riverfront Stadium before the Cincinnati Reds baseball games.
8. Midnight Special (1964)
Written by American folk singers Lead Belly and Norman Wilson, this was a 1958 hit for Johnny Rivers. It has been covered by many other artists and groups, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, The Animals, and AC/DC. This version received an award from BMI as one of the most played songs in 1965. In 2013 Rivers re-recorded a lyric from “Midnight Special” with his daughter Shelby Lynne for Still Warm.
7. Seventh Son (1965)
The song is an example of a riddle, in this case, a “seventh son” being a male born with extraordinary powers. This case refers to the seventh son of the seventh son possessing special abilities. The song was written and recorded by American folk-rock singer Mike Bloomfield and The Seventh Sons. It was first recorded as a single released by Vanguard Records in May 1965. The group disbanded that same year after an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, where they played “Seventh Son” and two other songs from their then-unreleased Vanguard debut album, which was not commercially available until it was issued on the Takoma label in 1967.
6. Summer Rain (1968)
“Summer Rain” is a song written by Johnny Rivers, which appeared on his 1968 album Realization. The song was also used in the movie Speedway starring Elvis Presley. It reached #20 on the U.S. “Billboard Hot 100”, #3 on the Canadian RPM Magazine charts, and #7 on the U.K. Singles Chart. The song’s writer Johnny Rivers played rhythm guitar on the recording and members of The Wrecking Crew: Glen Campbell, James Burton, Carol Kaye, Bill Pitman, Phil Spector, and Leon Russell.
5. Swayin To The Music (1977)
His voice may have lost a little something over the years, but Rivers’ charisma is still evident on 1977’s Swayin’ to the music. A mature, well-written song about a special place where all your dreams come true? Who’d think it would work as well as it does, but Rivers knows how to make the most of a seemingly corny idea? This song has an infectious groove, and Rivers’ emotive vocals add more than enough weight to send it over.
4. Maybelline (1964)
Rivers had a major hit with this Chuck Berry cover, and deservedly so. He didn’t exactly give the song his spin –- Rivers sings it as if he’s lived with it all his life. It is one of many songs that Rivers would cover over the years, and arguably one of the best at that. The song is all about Rivers’ swagger, and the way he sings it, with just a tinge of regret, almost makes you want to sing along.
3. Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (1972)
Although Rivers is best known for his early-’60s hits like “Memphis,” “Maybelline,” and the rest, he was still cranking out commercial records as late as 1972. The title track from Rockin’ Pneumonia is a prime example of how things had changed in those intervening years. Although it’s fairly upbeat, there’s darkness hovering over this song, especially when Rivers sings about how it feels to be sick. One of the best songs to come out of the ’70s, “Rockin’ Pneumonia,” is an overlooked classic.
2. The Poor Side Of Town (1966)
One listens to 1966’s “The Poor Side Of Town,” and it’s easy to understand why Rivers didn’t score a higher spot on the charts with the song. It begins as a fairly straightforward, poignantly sung tale of how Rivers can’t find anywhere to hang out but on “the poor side of town.” In his next breath, though, he tells us that he hears everything about his hometown “on the radio.” This seemingly incongruous image gives the song an added layer of meaning, and Rivers turns it into a chilling plea to let him in your car so he can escape from reality for a while.
1. Memphis Tennessee (1964)
Although American Graffiti would introduce Rivers’ music to a whole new generation more than two decades after this song was released, “Memphis Tennessee” is the tune that cemented Rivers’ place in music history. With its hypnotic beat and infectious melody, it’s easy to see why Rivers’ was so big at the time of its release. The song itself is fairly basic, but Rivers makes it work. He can say more with his voice than most singers do with an entire piece, and he manages to make “Memphis Tennessee” a classic.
Although Johnny Rivers may not have been the most prolific songwriter or the most experimental in his production techniques, he made a great body of work during his run in music. His hits from the mid-’60s are probably what best represents his sound — that classic, fun, and catchy pop/rock that was popular at the time — but Rivers was able to reinvent that sound with each passing decade successfully.