Interview- Johnny Rivers

Johnny Rivers – Secret Agent Man for the Ages

One of the greatest opening guitar licks ever came from Johnny Rivers. Known around the world for “Secret Agent Man”, Johnny Rivers was a bluesman from the swamps with an ear for a great pop sound and dedication to the craft of songwriting who represented a new generation of American music. Breaking out at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Hollywood the same week that the Beatles released their first hits, Johnny Rivers became the face of American music, and his hit live albums put the Whiskey on the map. LA and the Whiskey would become the breeding grounds of new music and it started with Johnny Rivers. He later went on to create Soul City Records and was a co-founder of the legendary Monterey Pop Festival.

We caught up with Johnny between gigs. He is busy and touring quite a bit but his guitar skills are better than ever. Let’s meet Johnny Rivers!

Chris Murphy: We are excited to have you play in Modesto. As you know Modesto is a music city too, home of American Graffiti and the Maddox Bros & Rose.
Johnny Rivers: I’ve been through Modesto a few times and have played there before. It is a good music city and I am looking forward to coming back to play.

CM: Were you inspired by 50’s rockabilly?
JR: I grew up in Baton Rouge and I was inspired by the music of the south, the swamp music. I was influenced by rockers like Chuck Berry and the Louisiana blues sounds. That has always been the basis of my music. I play a really choppy rhythm that gets it going, and the band is able to follow it and make a really good sound out of it.

CM: Right place, right time at the Whiskey. What was it like there in 1964 when the GoGo thing and the Beatles were starting to happen?
JR: This was not right place [at the] right time. This was planned. I was the headliner at another club called Gazzarri’s and had a big following. They signed me to the Whiskey to bring my crowds and get the place going. It was a great time when so much was happening. During that time I had my first big hit “Memphis”. It was so happening that even the Beatles hit the Whiskey when they were in town. The Beatles came to the Whiskey one night after their show at the Hollywood Bowl. John Lennon had Jayne Mansfield with him and it was a pretty crazy night.

CM: As a guitarist, I have played the lick of “Secret Agent Man” a million times, how does it feel to have something you created ingrained in pop culture?
JR: It is just a really cool basic lick. I have a lot of good opening licks on my songs. I usually work them out on my Gibson 335 and find something that really can start a song up.

CM: I’m a big Cleveland Rock and Roll history and Alan Freed fan. I love that story about how Alan Freed gave you the name Johnny Rivers.
JR: Alan did so much more for me than that, I went to New York looking for him in 1958. I stood outside the building at WINS and the Brill Building to meet him. I played my songs that I had recorded. He then helped me make my next record and publish my songs. I was performing under my own name Ramistella. Well back in those days, long ethnic names weren’t popular. Dion just used his first name, Tony Bennett shortened his name, Bobby Darin shortened his and we were talking about how I came from Baton Rouge with the Mississippi River and he suggested Johnny Rivers, and I had my songs recorded.

CM: What band or musicians inspire you now?
JR: Not many really. I am a real blues and rock and roll guy. People like the Stones, and Bob Seger are the people I listen to. There aren’t that many new bands that really practice the craft of songwriting that inspire me. I like the Black Crows and that guy who does the analog recordings with his band, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. I like that.

CM: Have you seen the show “Sonic Highway” where he goes city to city?
JR: I have seen some of those shows, and they are good. He has the right idea about this and showing the roots of music.

CM: Rock and Roll hall of Fame?
JR: I really don’t care about that. When people ask my why I am not in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, I answer “Just lucky I guess”. I am in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and that means the most to me.

CM: This is a great benefit show for Royal Camp, sending kids that are recovering from having been neglected or abused for a camping experience.
JR: We are really proud that we can lend a hand to this organization. I means a lot to us to be a part of this. I am very active in youth programs. (Chris’s note: Johnny has his own organization that supports music education in public schools, the John R Ramistella Foundation. Music in the schools is a key ModestoView as well.)

CM: Tell me about the band you are touring with and what we can expect at the Gallo Center.
JR: We have a great tight band, guys I have been playing with for a long time. Most of us have been playing together since the 80’s. My son Michael is playing drums and he is really good. The 12 bar blues are the roots of the music. People are going to enjoy a great night of solid rock and roll and some good memories.

About the event
Kids Camp Rocks with the Legendary Johnny Rivers
100% of the proceeds will benefit Royal Family Kids’ Camp
Gallo Center for the Arts
January 16, 8:00 pm
Tickets at:

Photo- Johnny Rivers, George Harrison, Al Wilson 1967 Courtesy Johnny



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About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.