Just three days before The Beatles hit the U.S. charts with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” bringing along with them the British invasion, a musical revolution of its own began on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Johnny Rivers opened the famed nightspot the Whisky a Go Go 50 years ago on Jan. 15, A month later, as the Fab Four made their big splash in America on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the singer-songwriter-guitarist released his debut album, “Johnny Rivers at the Whisky à Go Go” produced by Lou Adler. It went gold.

 

Rivers' route to the Whisky was an unexpected one, with some strange twists, including his refusal to play on the night of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. As it turned out, though, the performer found himself at the forefront of a new era on the Sunset Strip.

Little more than a year later, The Byrds had already taken flight, and it wasn't long before such seminal rock groups as The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, Love, the Seeds, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas and the Papas became part of the crazy scene. Even the Grateful Dead moved from the Bay Area for a while to play the Strip in order to secure a record label.

 

Within a couple of years, the 1.7-mile, then-unincorporated area that connects Hollywood and Beverly Hills had become a mecca for the 1960s counterculture. Due to a curfew imposed by local businesses to suppress the “hippies,” the Sunset Strip riots erupted on Nov. 12, 1966. The melee, which included actor/protesters Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, inspired the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It's Worth,” written by Stephen Stills.

That there was a crackdown was somewhat ironic, considering that the Sunset Strip always seemed to have a dual personality. Once a Native Indian trail, the area was built up in the Prohibition Era with casinos and night clubs, where the anti-liquor law wasn't as strictly enforced as other places. Though it also became known for its high-class restaurants and hotels, over the years, the Strip has been home to gangsters, strippers and some rather nasty behavior.

 

Sporting short skirts and bare midriffs, three girls are seen dancing in a cage suspended from the ceiling at the nightclub Whiskey A Go Go, in Hollywood,
Sporting short skirts and bare midriffs, three girls are seen dancing in a cage suspended from the ceiling at the nightclub Whiskey A Go Go, in Hollywood, Calif., on January 25, 1965. (AP Photo)

The area had once been a favorite of the Rat Pack crowd, but by the late 1950s, Las Vegas had become the place to go and most of the clubs were losing business. By the time the Whisky opened, the Strip was ripe for change.

In 1963, Rivers, a young songwriter and studio musician, was in Gazzarri's — not the night spot that would later appear on the Strip, but a small jazz club on La Cienega Boulevard.

When the owner, Bill Gazzarri, asked him to fill in while his house band was on the road, “I told him ‘I don't think I play the kind of music you want hear,' ” says Rivers, who is performing a concert with his friend songwriter Jimmy Webb on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of that first night at the Whisky.

 

Gazzarri told him he didn't care what he played, as long as it wasn't too loud. Rivers then called Eddie Rubin, a jazz drummer he knew, and the duo played the rock, blues and R&B that the guitarist had been weaned on growing up in Louisiana.

Rivers had only expected to play three or four nights, but by the second evening, crowds were dancing. A couple of nights later, actress Natalie Wood came in with friends and they started dancing. The little club became so cool, Gazzarri had to hire a man for the door.

 

Rivers had been there a few months when another club owner, Elmer Valentine, said he was opening a new place on the Strip named after the Paris hot spot called Le Whisky a Go Go, where people danced to records. But Valentine wanted Rivers' live sound and offered him more money. The performer told him he'd think about it and tried to get a raise fromGazzarri, who turned him down.

Then the day Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963, Rivers called Gazzarri to tell him “there was no way in hell” he was playing that night, angering the club owner.

 

“I called Elmer Valentine the next day and told him I'd do the Whisky,” says Rivers, adding that the full story of how he got to the Whisky isn't often told.

When he made his debut at the new club, Rivers' fans followed him from Gazzarri's, and the Whisky became an instant hit, kicking off the discotheque craze and getting national coverage. Valentine had go-go dancers in cages above the stage and records were played between live performances to keep the crowd dancing.

Rivers laughs about his time there, saying, “Back then, the club was so hot that the doorman made more money than me. I was making about $350 a week there, but the doorman was being handed hundred-dollar bills by people wanting in,” he said.

 

The venue with its proximity to Hollywood became a symbol of hipness. Rivers would record several live albums there. Others — from Otis Redding to Alice Cooper to the Ramones to Soundgarden — also recorded live there.

It's estimated that some 30 clubs, including the Roxy, popped up around the Strip in between the '60s and '70s, including a newGazzarri's. Down the street from the Whisky was a spot called London Fog where aspiring artists did their time, including a young band called The Doors. The band was hoping to get big enough to play the Whisky.

 

The Doors eventually earned Whisky status and there became the house band until Jim Morrison got them thrown out. They would also playGazzarri's (where the The Key Club is now), as did Buffalo Springfield and later bands like X, Quiet Riot, Stryper, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Van Halen and Guns N' Roses.

The old Rat Pack haunt Ciro's was one of the few places on the Strip able to make the transition. The Byrds got their start there, and the crowd was often a strange mixture of young music fans and older Hollywood celebs like Zsa Zsa Gabor.

 

Meanwhile, Rivers' career was cruising. Not only did he have hit records, but he became a producer and publisher. In 1966, he heard about the an up-and-coming songwriter named Jimmy Webb. He listened to a tape of his songs — the last one being “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” — and decided to sign him to a contract.

At the time, Rivers was producing the 5th Dimension, and he thought that Webb's song “Up, Up and Away” would be a good fit. And it was, winning five Grammys for the recording including for Record of the Year, which went to Rivers as one of the producers.

 

Webb, who lived in Rivers' house for a while, remembers those heady days.

“Almost every night, we drove to the Whisky either in the car on a motorcycle to see the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, John Lee Hooker or Jimi Hendrix,” Webb said.

For Webb, it was quite a transformation from the Oklahoma flatlands where he had worked on his granddad's farm until he was about 16 years old. He had always wanted to be a songwriter and, even after his father had moved his piano to the garage, he kept at it. Rivers says he remembers the day “Jimmy came home from MacArthur Park and started playing that opening riff from the song on my piano in my living room.” (Richard Harris' version of the song, “MacArthur Park,” went to No. 2 on the charts in 1968; a decade later, Donna Summer's disco version went to No. 1.)

 

“Up, Up and Away” made Webb famous.

“I was one of the few members of my generation who achieved a certain amount of fame as a songwriter and not for being in Rolling Stone (magazine),” he says. “I had a Camaro convertible and I was making $100 a week, and it was all because of John.”

Webb, now 67, says he remains grateful to Rivers for his help and is looking forward to Wednesday's concert at the Saban Theatre in Hollywood, which is to benefit the John H. Ramistella Foundation's “Music in Schools” program.

 

Ramistella is Rivers' family name that he changed under the advice of famed rock DJ Alan Freed. The now 71-year-old Rivers says he uses the Ramistella name to honor his father, his first guitar teacher.

As part of the foundation's work, Rivers visits schools with some seasoned players and shows students the roots of the 12-bar blues. Rivers then does a question-and-answer session and invites some of the students up to perform with him.

While he will do a few new things for the concert, Rivers says he plans to mostly play his hits.

 

“You got to,” Rivers says.

Who will sing Webb's song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is an interesting question. It was a hit for Glen Campbell, though Rivers recorded a virtually identical version first. At the time, Rivers had had a string of hits and was coming off the No. 1 single “The Poor Side of Town,” which he and Adler wrote. “Baby, I Need Your Lovin' ” was already climbing the charts (it made No. 3) so Rivers decided to give the song to Campbell, and it became a No. 1 hit for him.

“It got him and Jimmy together with ‘The Wichita Lineman' and ‘Galveston,' ” Rivers says. “It's all worked out great for all of us.”

 

And where was Rivers when he got the idea to give the song to Campbell? Driving down Sunset, of course. It is, indeed, a long and winding road.

Steve Smith contributed to this report.