Saturday, August 29, 2009

April 1965, Whisky A-Go-Go, San Francisco, CA: Johnny Rivers

The world-famous Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood opened on January 11, 1964, with the then unknown Johnny Rivers as the featured act for much of the year. By the end of 1964, Rivers was a successful recording artist (his big hits were "Secret Agent Man" and "Memphis"), his hit album recorded live at the Whisky A Go Go, and the Whisky was a National sensation. The Whisky's special ingredient was pretty girls dancing in cages elevated above the crowd, dancing to a happening live band.

In early 1965, Whisky owner Elmer Valentine appears to have formally or informally licensed the Whisky name to other operators. There had been other clubs named Whisky A Go Go (in Chicago disco in 1958 for example), but the Hollywood Whisky invented its own formula. there are only traces of the various clubs, and my own research seems to be one of the few attempts to make sense of the San Francisco operation. It appears there was more to Elmer Valentine's club than just pretty girls, and it was not so easily copied.

This promotional photograph of Johnny Rivers is from the Oakland Tribune of April 18, 1965. It is the earliest notice or advertisement I have seen for the San Francisco Whisky. Although I know no more than the fact that Johnny Rivers was playing the SF Whisky in April 1965, we are able to glean a number of important conclusions from this shred of information.

  • The San Francisco Whisky was newly opened in April 1965, and in fact I would not be surprised to find out that Johnny Rivers was the first performer, as he had opened the Hollywood Whisky.
  • Johnny Rivers was a very big recording star in April 1965. "Secret Agent Man" had been a local hit (it would be a National hit in 1966, reaching #3), his cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" had reached #2, "Maybelline" went to #12, "Mountain Of Love" to #9, and "Midnight Special" had gone to #20. He had also recorded a number of successful live albums at the Hollywood Whisky. Elmer Valentine was not Rivers's manager, but whoever was must have been tied into the finances of the San Francisco Whisky, because getting Johnny Rivers to open your club was quite a coup.

I have not been able to determine much about the other Whisky franchises, but I would not be surprised to find out Johnny Rivers opened those venues too. I have seen other ads and notices for the SF Whisky in Bay Area papers from 1965 to 1967, but Rivers is far and away the biggest name to have played the venue until the abortive Doors/Peanut Butter Conspiracy shows in February 1967 (The Doors canceled after two days).


  1. It's not clear if you're aware of this but the Grateful Dead played the SF Whiskey from 3/10-16/67 - or at least there's a poster for it, you can see it at

    I love your blog - thanks so much!

  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    I can't believe I forgot to mention the Grateful Dead shows at the SF Whisky, although I am fairly certain they never occurred. I definitely need to do another post, and I will explain the peculiar history of The Love Conspiracy Commune.


  3. I know Johnny Rivers was at the Whiskey, San Francisco in 1965 and possibly 1966. I was there on my first date with the man I was eventually married to from 1966 to 1995. St the time Maybelline was a big hit.