On the Road of Life
Johnny Rivers sat behind the desk in the study of his spacious hilltop home. Between sips of orange juice, he spoke about a recent press conference in Nashville.
“I was being interviewed by Christian reporters,” he said, “and I had the feelings that I was being tested. Was I a legitimate Christian, or was I just trying to use the Christian market as a vehicle to sell records?”
The singer pointed to a copy of his new release, Not a Through Street. “Using the Christian market to sell my record isn’t my goal at all. In fact, this album wasn’t really recorded for Christians. It’s really for those who don’t know the Lord and love outside the Christian circle.”
One of pop music’s mainstays, Johnny Rivers helped shape the course of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s. Though the singer-musician still holds an important place in music today, he’s now moving into a more open expression of his dedication to Christ.
“I was always very close to Christianity. The only thing I hadn’t really done was make that serious commitment to live as a Christian and take the Bible literally,” Rivers explained. “I always thought that the Bible was a book of symbols, that everything had some heavy meaning you had to try to figure out through something like Eastern teachings. So, I embarked on a journey to interpret what it meant. Later on after studying, reading, and talking to various people, it started becoming obvious that it wasn’t really a book of symbols. It was actually literal…that God didn’t put His Word here as some maze you had to try to figure out. That realization also helped strengthen my faith in Christianity.”
As a teenager growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Rivers showed an early inclination towards music and gained notoriety in a local band. During a brief vacation in New York, he met with disc jockey Alan Freed, who was instrumental in Rivers signing his first recording contract. Freed, credited with coining the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll,” suggested that Johnny Ramistella change his last name to Rivers. “He said if I’m going to put out a record, I ought to have a shorter name,” the singer recalled. “Most people in the music business did it in those days, especially when they started out with long Italian names before settling on something simpler like ‘Bobby Darin’ or ‘Dion.’”
Rivers released several records, and soon the demands of his career required a move to Hollywood. He began making a name for himself on the West Coast. He landed a recording contract with a bigger label, and suddenly he found himself in the national spotlight with his Top Ten smash, “Memphis.” Then came a string of hits, including “Secret Agent Man.”
“Memphis” was the first of 29 chart singles, a figure almost matched by Rivers’ string of hit albums. In the late ‘60s he recorded Realization and Slim Slo Slider, albums with several inspirational songs, and he began moving into a new musical direction. “I started becoming introspective and searching for God around ’67 or ’68,” Rivers recalled. “I had joined some yoga groups and was studying a lot of Eastern teachings. I was caught up in that whole movement and I guess it came out in my music. But my serious commitment came around 1980. I was just at a point in my life where I really needed a change.
“I was suppose I was being influenced subconsciously by things around me, like Bob Dylan’s conversion and his Slow Train Coming album. I also had friends who investigated Christianity and started going to church and rededicating themselves. I could see the change in them, and of course that had an influence on me as well.”
Rivers continued, “I had attained material success on just about every level and was at a point where I needed some new stimulation in my life, something that was real this time. I think a lot of it has to do with one’s age,” he observed. “After going through so many experiences and being disillusioned, you say it’s time to figure out what really is truth…what can I use the rest of my life? That led me to Christianity.”
Since making his commitment there years ago, Rivers has spent considerable time attending church, studying the Scriptures, and putting together an album to express how he feels. Released in February by Priority Records, Not a Through Street marks his first all-inspirational recording. “It’s not a gospel album in the traditional sense,” says Rivers. “I think it could probably be successful in the Christian market, but I also feel it could be successful with a secular audience. Hopefully, through that it would draw some people to Christianity…or at least give them something to think about,”
The album cover shows Rivers standing on Los Angeles’ famed Sunset Boulevard, a 25-mile long string, with an obviously misplaced sign bearing the message, “Not a Through Street.” “I was searching for a title,” he explained. “After doing something like 23 or 24 albums, I wanted to come up with a name that was different, but still related to the theme of the album. The first instinct of a record company is to name an album after on of the songs on it. In my case it could’ve been ‘Reach Out’ or ‘Turning Point.’ But I thought those were trite Christian titles and sure it had been done before.”
Rivers continued, “I live on a private road, and a storm had blown down this particular street sign. Somehow it started connecting as a great title for an album.”
Rivers felt it was symbolic from a Christian standpoint. People take different roads in their lives, and some learn that what appears to be an open road turns out to be dead-end… “not a through street.”
The album of 12 songs includes one of Rivers’ own compositions, “Nowhere Else to Go,” inspired by the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. “I think the highlight of the picture was when one of the cadets confronted the drill instructor who was about to throw him out of the academy. The cadet says, ‘Don’t do it, because I have nowhere else to go.’”
The album also features several updated rock tunes with an unusual twist. Pop music fans will immediately recognize titles like “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Stand By Me,” and “How Sweet It Is,” popularized by the Four Tops, Ben E. King, and Marvin Gaye. But Rivers’ versions offer a different perspective. He explains, “The chorus is ‘reach out, He’ll be there. With ‘How Sweet It Is,’ the original lyric was ‘I wanna stop and thank you baby,’ and I said ‘I wanna stop and thank you Jesus.’ They’re simple, one-word changes. The rest of the song if perfect just the way it was written.”
The album is the first that Rivers has released in several years, and he attributes his rejuvenated interest in music to his faith. “I’m very excited about my music now and performing again,” he revealed. “I feel that turning to Christianity has given me a new purpose in life, more so than anything else.”
In a time when many people are running into road blocks and don’t know where to turn, Johnny Rivers has found a way to overcome the obstacles. He’s discovered the path to his through street…and he’s staying right on course.
A CCM Selected Discography
Borrowed Time, RSO RS1-3082, ’80
Not A Through Street Priority BJU 38439, ’83
Johnny Rivers previously recorded several albums with small amounts of ccm material.