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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Story of Jack Rivers

Western Swing, Texas Tornadoes, and Rainier Beer - The Story of Jack Rivers

A steady performer from the 1930s until the 1960s, Jack Rivers is not exactly a household name in country music history. Although he left behind a wealth of recordings - solo and as part of background bands - he never found much acclaim outside western swing lovers and historians.

Born Rivers Lewis on December 16, 1917, he was the half-brother of James "Texas Jim" Lewis. Their father, James Augusta Lewis (born 1888 in Ochlocknee, Georgia; died 1978 in Tampa, Florida) first married Elizabeth Malissa "Betty" Lisenby, who gave birth to Jim in 1909. When his first wife died in 1916, James Augusta wed an unknown woman, who was the mother of Rivers and Madelyn Jo Lewis. The couple, however, divorced again and James Augusta married a third time, Lillian Baines May.

James Augusta Lewis was a US Marshal and an old-time fiddler, so the Lewis family was musically inclined. In 1919, when Rivers Lewis was about two years old, his father moved the family to Fort Myers, Florida. Given that Rivers was born in 1917, it seems probable he was born still in Georgia. By 1928, his falf-brother Jim had left Florida for Texas, where he began his career as a singer and soon earned his nickname "Texas Jim." In the meantime, the Lewis family had moved to Detroit, where Rivers began his professional career as a musician. The exact point when he started out his unclear, however. Rivers stated that he began appearing in Detroit with a mouth harp player named Bob Richardson. He claimed it was 1932, when he was twelve years old, which must be incorrect. Since Rivers was born in 1917, he either began his career in 1929 or he was already around 14 years old. Rivers later remembered this time: "[...] we were making $ 5.00 each night we played. The places would be raided and the police would get me out the back door with 'don't ever let me catch you here again!'"

Around 1930, his brother Jim had also moved to Detroit and both joined forces and began singing together around Detroit. They founded a band with Kenneth Mills on fiddle and Eugene "Smokey" Rogers (with whom Rivers had performed earlier) on banjo with Rivers, nicknamed "Jack," on guitar and Lewis probably on guitar and vocals. The quartet played rough bars and clubs around Detroit and also had a 15 minutes radio show on WMBC. 

Rivers' father moved the family to Toledo, Ohio, eventually, where Rivers didn't found as much work in clubs as before in Detroit. He took a job with a local Hawaiian group and gave some music lessons at the Honolulu Conservatory of Music. At the age of 16, Rivers moved to Middletown, Ohio, where he worked as a truck driver. However, his employment there didn't last too long as his parents had earned him a spot at local Toledo radio station WSPD as a member of Roy Smith's band. The group also worked at a local club at night.

Brother Jim had stayed in Detroit but was living in New York City by 1936. He had founded his first own band, Texas Jim Lewis and the Lone Star Cowboys, and recorded his first session for the American Record Corporation that same year. On this first session, Rivers was not part of that group. As band mate Smokey Rogers seeked for a more solid and quiet living, Rivers replaced him in the group and moved to New York. There, he performed steadily with his brothers group over radio and such places as the Village Barn.

He changed his name legally to "Jack Rivers" but it is unknown at which point this ocurred. The popularity of the Lone Star Cowboys increased and through their appeatances, the group eventually ended up in California. On August 23, 1940, Lewis and his band were back in the studio, this time in Los Angeles for Decca Records. Part of the line-up was also Rivers as a guitarist - it was his first recording session.

Rivers recorded with the Lone Star Cowboys well into 1942. Their last session took place on July 23 in Los Angeles. Texas Jim Lewis was then drafted into the military. Rivers also joined the troops and on his account, he served three years in the military. However, he found enought time to continue his work as a musician and that year, he took part in the filming of "Laugh Your Blues Away," which premiered on November 12, 1942. In the movie, he played the role of a musician named "Jack Rivers Lewis."

Rivers had joined Jimmy Wakely's Oklahoma Cowboys by 1944 and appeared in the movie "Montana Plains" that year as part of Wakely's band. Up to 1948, Rivers would appear in seven more B western movies with Wakely. Again, it is unclear if Rivers already recorded with Wakely at that time or if he took up recording with him at a later point (it is assured that Rivers recorded with Wakely by 1947). Wakely recorded for Coral and Decca at that time and even cut a session with Texas Jim Lewis for Decca on December 10, 1945, in Hollywood.

By mid 1946, Rivers was back in the studio. First as a part of Tex Russell's Hollywood Cowboys, a band that recorded one single for the Aladdin label ("Texas Tornado" b/w "What It Means to Be Blue", Aladdin #508), and then with his own group for Trilon Records. Trilon had been started that same year by Renee LaMarre in Oakland, California, and is today better known for its jazz and blues output. Rivers cut a session in Hollywood that produced four titles: his version of Jimmy Wakely's "Texas Tornado" and "If I Knew What It Meant to Be Lonesome" (Trilon #124) as well as "Playing Games with Me" and "Blue Blue Eyes" (Trilon #125).  The unknown backing group was mentioned as "The Texas Tornadoes." Either this very same session or a second one for Trilon produced another two fine singles, the first of them being River's rendition of the big hit "Detour" and "At Least a Million Tears" (Trilon #18575). The second coupled "I've Found Somebody New" and "Sargent's Stomp" (Trilon #18576), the latter showcasing Tommy Sargent's abilities on the steel guitar. This time, the background music was credited to the "Muddy Creek Cowboys."

On November 25, 1946, Rivers was part of Johnny Bond's Red River Valley Boys that backed up Bond on a Columbia session at radio KNX. Rivers can be heard as a guitarist and duet vocalist on "Rainbow at Midnight." Rivers also worked with Stuart Hamblen and Gene Autry during this time on radio and in the recording studio. At some point between 1945 and 1950, Rivers also cut a session with an unknown band for C.P. "Chip" MacGregor's own MacGregor label. MacGregor's business was popular for its radio transcriptions but also released numerous 78rpm discs through the 1940s by western swing artists. Credited to "Jack Rivers Boys," Rivers and the band cut "Varsovienna," "Rye Waltz," "Schottische," and "Heel and Toe Polka." Rivers also cut several transcriptions for MacGregor that have been reissued by the British Archive of Country Music on CD.

Rivers, known as a talented guitarist back in the day, is sometimes also remembered today by guitar enthusiasts. He could have been the first guitarist to own a custom built Spanish guitar by Paul Bigsby, predating Merle Travis' exemplar by one year. Shaped as a lap steel guitar, the unusual looking guitar has several features it was built in 1947, either specifically made for Rivers or simply bought by Rivers from Bisgby. However, no photos of Rivers with this guitar have surfaced so far. The first known photo of it was taken in 1951, when guitarist Neil LeVang rented the guitar from Rivers as he went on tour with Texas Jim Lewis.  Rivers charged him $30 for the guitar, "an obscene amount of money at the time," as Neil LeVang was quoted by Deke Dickerson.

In 1948, Rivers recorded a couple of sides in Hollywood that were later leased to Capitol, which resulted in two singles on the label in 1948. They were followed by a string of singles for the Coral label, beginning in 1949 and ending in 1951. More or less simultaneously, Rivers also recorded several singles for the Hollywood based ABC-Eagle Records, another label that released several fine western swing and country singles.

Although blessed with musical talent and a master on the guitar, Rivers never went to stardom. He recorded for major labels but in some cases, the cause of failure in the music business can't be determined. It also requires to be at the right time at the right place, which Rivers apperently not was. Maybe due to this situation, he was looking for greener pastures and turned his back on California, relocating with his brother to Seattle, Washington, in 1950.

Moving to Seattle also meant leaving the metropolis of Los Angeles with its many clubs, movie studios, and record labels. Rivers simply founded a variety of his own labels, which included JR Ranch, Ranch, Lariat, Rivers, and others. Possibly the first disc from this era was, however, issued on Oliver Runchie's Listen label in 1952. Runchie operated the Electricraft Studio in Seattle, which was used frequently by Rivers for his recordings. The disc coupled "Navy Hot Rod" and "One Woman Man" (Listen #1441). Packed full of tremendous guitar licks by Rivers, "Navy Hot Rod" was only one of many "hot rod" saga songs back in the early to mid 1950s. Arkie Shibley had started this trend in country music in 1950, when his "Hot Rod Race" became a moderate hit and soon found imitators. Apart from Shibley himself, who cut a couple of follow-ups, also Paul Westmoreland and T. Texas Tyler ("Hot Rod Rag"), Johnny Tyler ("The Devil's Hot Rod"), and Charlie Ryan ("Hot Rod Lincoln") jumped on that train.

Rivers kept on recording extensively throughout the 1950s for small scale labels. While his brother Texas Jim Lewis became a regional star on KING-TV with his children show "Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction," Rivers decided upon performing at rough-and-ready roadhouses in the area, such as the Circle Tavern and Coe's Country Club. He also hosted his own local TV show, the alcohol-fueled "Ranier Ranch," which later became the "Raging Ranch Show" in KIRO-TV. On many of his gigs at the local dancehalls, Rivers was accompanied by his brother Jim. He even owned his own dancehall, the "JR Ranch," south of Seattle in Des Moines.

Jack and Randy Rivers on KTNT-TV, 1960s
from the collection of Deke Dickerson
Rivers performed with great success in the Seattle area until the mid 1960s. After he unsuccessfully candidated for the Washington House of Representives (he lost due to the League of Women Voters according to his own words). During the next years, Rivers lived at different places in the United States. 

In 1964, he moved to Riverview, Florida, where his parents also had settled but relocated to California again after the death of his mother in 1966. There, he resumed work with Jimmy Wakely for some time but also lived and worked in Buffalo, New York, and Wenatchee, Washington, in subsequent years. Music played an inferior role during this time in Rivers' life. In the 1980s, Rivers settled with his wife in Arizona, where he worked at the Grand Hotel in Apache Junction near Phoenix, where he would spent his last years.

Jack Rivers died on February 11, 1989, in Apache Junction at the age of 71 years. He was not the most prominent western swing musician but an integral part of the Texas Jim Lewis and Jimmy Wakely bands. He immortalized his guitar style on countless recordings as part of a group or on his own records.

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