The Carl Parker Center at Lamar State College-Port Arthur will be rocking April 26, when rock & roll superstar Johnny Rivers takes the stage to entertain patrons of the 11th annual “Gulf Coast Gala.”
Lamar State’s first gala was developed in 2004 to benefit cultural and visual arts at the Museum of the Gulf Coast, and to provide support for the college’s “Discovery” youth program, Alumni Fund, athletic scholarships, musical and theatrical productions and a variety of special projects, such as Lamar State’s July 4 celebration and the Regional Citizen Bee.
Rivers has had nine Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 17 in the Top 40 from 1964 to 1977. In total, he has sold well over 30 million records and collected 17 gold records, 29 chart hits and two Grammy Awards. He has many other accomplishments and has made significant contributions to the history of rock ‘n roll.
Known for his famous red Gibson ES-335 guitar, Rivers earned his stardom with hits such as “Memphis”, “Mountain of Love”, “The Seventh Son”, “Secret Agent Man”, “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”, “Summer Rain” and “Poor Side of Town”, which was a No. 1 hit in the United States. In 2014, the singer/songwriter/producer continues to perform before sellout crowds worldwide.
LSC-PA president Dr. Sam Monroe said the Gala, which is co-sponsored by the Port Arthur Higher Education Foundation, provides support for many programs that “enhance career potential, broaden intellectual horizons and enrich the quality of life for people in the area.”
“The gala has grown each year. We’ve had some wonderful entertainers,” Monroe said. “And we’re really looking forward to an exciting performance from Johnny Rivers at this year’s gala.”
The formal event, which includes dinner and entertainment, begins with a 6 p.m. reception. Dinner will be served at 7 p.m., followed by the entertainment.
Four levels of sponsorships are available to help the efforts of the college. Individual tickets are $125 per person.
For sponsorships, tickets or information, call Donna Schion at 984-6101.
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In 1964, when the British Invasion was in progress and American rockers were tough to find on the U.S. pop charts, Johnny Rivers was one of the first to regain a foothold; his first Top 10 record came right in the midst of Beatlemania. His formula was much the same as the British style vintage American rock n’ roll and R&B played with a verve and simplicity that gave his music a contemporary edge. Over the next four years his funky, go-go rock gave him a steady stream of Top 10 records. His first No. 1 record came when, against the advice of the record company, he abruptly switched gears and began cutting ballads.
The southern tone in much of Rivers’ music was authentic. John Henry Ramistella was born Nov. 7, 1942, in New York City. When he was about five, his father wound up out of work. The Ramistella’s moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where an uncle, head of the Louisiana State University art department, got John’s dad work painting houses and antiquing furniture. John’s first musical inspiration was his father.
“My dad and uncle used to get together and play these old Italian folk songs on mandolin and guitar.” As John started playing, he listened to R&B on the late-night radio, megawatt stations like WLAC in Nashville. However, R&B was a way of life in Baton Rouge. “When I went to Baton Rouge Junior High, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed and guys like that used to play at our dances,” Rivers says.
By junior high, he was sitting in with various local bands, including one led by Dick Holler, who later wrote “Abraham, Martin And John.” Holler’s guitarist was the still-unknown Jimmy Clanton. Holler, Rivers says, “introduced me to a lot of R&B artists and opened up a whole new world for me.” Johnny formed his own band The Spades in 1956. “We played all Fats’ tunes... Little Richard, Larry Williams, Bobby Bland,” Rivers says. “We became the hot little band around Baton Rouge. Then Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis hit so I took on a little touch of rockabilly.”
Johnny and The Spades toured Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. His first recording, “Hey Little Girl,” was released by the Natchez, Mississippi-based Suede label, and sold well on The Spades’ touring circuit.
In 1957, John flew to New York during a school vacation and stayed with an aunt there. He wanted to meet Alan Freed. And he did. “It was like a scene out of an Alan Freed movie,” Rivers says. He was at WINS in Columbus Circle. “I stood in front of the radio station. It was freezing cold and he came up with Jack Hooke who was his manager. I said ‘My name’s Johnny Ramistella. I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I have a band. I play and write and I’d like you to hear my music.’ Alan gave me his card and said ‘We have an office down at the Brill Building on Broadway. Why don’t you come down tomorrow afternoon?’ I went down and Jack Hooke was there and I played four or five songs.”
Hooke called George Goldner, owner of Gone and End records, whose office was also in the Brill. Legendary songwriter Otis Blackwell, author of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Great Balls Of Fire” arranged John’s debut single “Baby Come Back” b/w “Long, Long Walk.” Freed also gave Johnny a new name. “I was sitting around with Jack and Alan and they were gettin’ ready to release the record,” John remembers. “Alan (said) ‘Your name... you need to come up with something a little more musical.’ We were talkin’ about where I grew up on the Mississippi River and somehow Rivers came out of that, That was the first time I used that name.”
“Baby Come Back” was released in March 1958. Around 1960, as Johnny alternated between Nashville and Baton Rouge, Merle Kilgore, then a deejay at KWKH in Shreveport, got him a spot on the Louisiana Hayride. He also introduced him to Shreveport guitar legend James Burton, home on vacation from working with Ricky Nelson in California. Burton took a tape of Johnny’s song “I’ll Make Believe” back to California. Within a month, he called to tell Johnny that Rick would record it. The song wound up on Nelson’s 1960 Imperial LP More Songs By Ricky.
Rivers returned to the stage in 1963, almost by accident. He was a regular customer at Bill Gazzari’s club on La Cienega Blvd. in L.A. for some time. “Hangin’ out in the studios, bein’ a musician, I was always up late, so I wound up goin’ by there quite a bit,” Rivers says. “It was a little Italian restaurant that usually stayed open until four in the morning. When the clubs closed at two, everyone that was still hungry would go get some good food. He had a jazz trio there.”
One night Johnny found Gazzari forlorn because his house band was leaving. “Bill said, ‘You’re a musician. Can’t you come in and help us out for a few nights until I can find somebody?’ I said, ‘I play funky rock’n’roll. I don’t think that’s what you want in here.’ He begged me, ‘Please come in and play your stuff until I find another jazz group.”‘
Johnny devised a formula: “Trini Lopez had been playing over at PJ’s, doin’ this slap rhythm thing. I said, ‘I can do that kind of stuff.’ I didn’t have a band so I called Eddie Rubin, a jazz drummer. He wasn’t gigging at the time, so he and Eddie went into Gazzari’s together - just guitar and drums - and played what we thought was going to be a three- or four-day gig.” To everyone’s surprise, huge crowds gathered to hear Johnny and Rubin play rock and R&B hits. Gazzari’s profits soared, and when Rivers was ready to leave, Gazzari offered him more money and let him hire a bassist. Joe Osborn, just starting to become an L.A. studio legend, joined Rivers and Rubin.
Rivers also met two men at Gazzari’s who would play major roles in his career: Lou Adler, who became his producer, and Elmer Valentine, who was opening an L.A. version of the Paris Whisky A Go-Go club on the Sunset Strip. Valentine offered Rivers a year’s contract to appear at the new club. On January 15, 1964, he opened. Three days later ‘The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” entered the charts.
“The Whisky was a smash from opening night,” Rivers says. Rivers and his famous red Gibson ES-335 guitar symbolized the Strip’s new youth-oriented atmosphere. They weren’t at the Whisky long when he and Adler thought of cutting a live album. Liberty Records executive Bob Skaff liked the tape and convinced reluctant Liberty President Al Bennett to release it on Imperial Records.
“When they said ‘Imperial Records.’ I just jumped up and went ‘YEAH! YEAH!’ Because I grew up with nothing but Imperial Records, Bobby Mitchell, Fats Domino, and Ricky Nelson, and I thought ‘What a cool label!’” Both Rivers and Adler came to see Imperial’s smallness as a plus. “it gave Lou and me the autonomy to pick our own singles and work closely with the promotion men and marketing people,” Rivers says.