By Chris M. Junior
Many musicians have performed at the Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, Calif., prior to achieving national stardom.
That lengthy list starts with Johnny Rivers, who was onstage when the Whisky first opened its doors in February 1964.
Rivers’ road to his now-legendary Whisky residency can actually be traced back to New York City. That’s fitting, given that Rivers was born in Manhattan and lived in the Bronx prior to relocating as a child to Baton Rouge, La. (where he started his music career in his teens).
The journey started circa the late 1950s at the Forest Hotel, a New York establishment “where all the wannabe actors, musicians and songwriters kind of lived and hung out — along with a bunch of hookers, of course,” Rivers recalls.
One day, Rivers crossed paths with two fellow singers, Jimmy Bowen and Buddy Knox, in the hotel lobby. At the time, Bowen was best known for “I’m Stickin’ With You,” while Knox had an even bigger hit to his name, “Party Doll.”
“They were on Roulette Records, and they had come to New York to try and get their royalties from Morris Levy, who was notorious for not paying anybody,” Rivers says with a laugh.
Flash forward to the early 1960s: Rivers is in Los Angeles. So is Bowen, who had found work as a producer, and Rivers was lending him a hand in the studio on a regular basis.
“So pretty much every night, we would get through about 11 or 11:30,” Rivers says. “We would go over to this little restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard that stayed open and served food until 1 o’clock in the morning. It had a teeny little dance floor and a little jazz band playing soft cocktail music.”
One night, they showed up to find the guy in charge, Bill Gazzarri, in a bad mood because he needed to find a replacement pronto for his regularly scheduled jazz band.
“So he asks, ‘Do you guys know a jazz band?’ And we say, ‘No, man, we don’t know anything about jazz,’” Rivers remembers. “And he turns to me, because I had told him in prior conversations that I was a musician and I’d done gigs here and there, and says, ‘You’re a musician. Why don’t you come in and help me out for a couple of nights?’ I said, ‘Bill, you don’t want the kind of music in here when people are trying to eat.’ And Bill says, ‘I don’t care what you play — just don’t play too loud.’
“I go in there, and I’m playing the stuff I play: Chuck Berry and this and that, just me and Eddie Rubin on drums — we didn’t have a bass player. I’m playing rhythm guitar with my [Gibson] 335 and my little amplifier. And people started dancing — they kind of dug it.”
On Rivers’ third night at Gazzarri’s club, actress Natalie Wood showed up, and her appearance was noted in the Hollywood trade papers.
“And the night after that, you couldn’t even get in the door,” Rivers says. “So Bill Gazzarri is on cloud nine, the place is packed — and now we’re started to play louder, and he doesn’t care.”
Meanwhile, nearby club owner Elmer Valentine deeply cared about losing potential patrons to Gazzarri’s, so he decided to check out the young performer who was the big draw. Not long after meeting Rivers, Valentine made him an offer: a one-year contract to play at a Sunset Boulevard club he had his eye on, and the venue’s new name would be the Whisky A Go Go.
Rivers said he’d think about it, but in the meantime, he asked Gazzarri for a raise.
“Bill gave me this typical old gangster poormouth story: ‘Well, there’s a lot of people in here, but they’re not spending any money,’” Rivers says.
Even more offensive to Rivers was Gazzarri telling him the club would be open for business the night of President John F. Kennedy’s death — and that he still wanted Rivers to perform as scheduled.
“That made my mind up,” Rivers says. “I called Elmer and said, ‘You still want to do that thing with that club up on Sunset?’ ‘He goes, ‘Sure.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I went [to Gazzarri’s] the next day, I played the gig and I gave Bill my notice. I said, ‘Bill, I’m going back to Baton Rouge for the Christmas holidays. And that’s it — you’ll have to find another band.’ In the meantime, I cut my deal with Elmer Valentine and signed with him for a year.”
And during that year, Rivers found national fame with a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that was recorded live at the Whisky. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 on May 30, 1964, and would eventually peak at No. 2.
Chances are Rivers will perform “Memphis” along with his other signature tunes Sept. 28 at Manhattan’s B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, his first New York City gig in a long time. Visit www.bbkingblues.com for more information.