Born in El Reno, Oklahoma. Sam was born into a musical family- His grandfather was a minister & musician who published "A Collection of Revival Hymns & Plantation Melodies" in 1882. His father graduated from Fisk University, sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers & the Silverstone Quartet, while Sam's mother accompanied on piano for the latter. Sam sang in a family vocal group at age 5. He later studied violin, piano, trombone & switched to saxophone at age 13.
Sam's first professional experience came with Jimmy Witherspoon, during 3 years of Navy service. Attended Boston Conservatory in 1947 and became involved in the Boston jazz scene. There Sam played with students Jaki Byard, Serge Chaloff, Gigi Gryce, Ken Mc Intyre, Paul Gonsalves, Alan Dawson & others.
From 1955 to 1957, Sam moved to Miami, Fl. during which time he played with Billie Holiday. He returned to Boston in 1958, where he joined Herb Pomeroy's big band. During his second Boston tenure he hired a then 13 year old Tony Williams. Sam acted as music director for a number of R & B & blues acts such as Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Maxine Brown & T-Bone Walker. In 1964, during his time with Walker, Sam was offered the exiting George Coleman's saxophone position in Miles Davis Quintet. His stay with Miles yielded one Columbia Records release, 'Miles In Tokyo". After leaving that group, Sam moved to New York City, where he worked briefly in Charles Mingus' group & started playing with Andrew Hill, Mc Coy Tyner & Cecil Taylor.
During1964 to 1967, he recorded 4 Ips for the Blue Note label. Sam led the Harlem Ensemble & was composer in residence for the Harlem Opera Company. In 1969, Rivers became an associate professor & artist in residence at Weslyan University & Connecticut College. In 1970, Sam opened Studio Rivbea with his wife Beatrice as a living & rehearsal space for music & dance. Studio Rivbea became a prominent performance space in Manhattan until it's closing in 1979. The five album series "Wildflowers", documenting one week at the studio, was released in 1977 by Douglas Records. Starting in 1973, Sam became a roster artist for the Impulse Records label with 4 released full length releases. In 1979,Rivers moved to New Jersey, continuing to lead various ensembles, including Winds of Manhattan & the Rivbea Orchestra. During this period, Sam was an artist in residence at both Dartmouth University & Cornish College. During 1987, Rivers joined the Dizzy Gillespie quintet , big band & United NationsOrchestra for a total of 4 years. During a quintet performance in Orlando, Sam first became interested in moving to that area. Rivers permanently moved to Orlando in August 1991 to pursue a steady, working version of the Rivbea Orchestra to realize & perform a large number of compositions dating back to 1958. Many of the musicians that comprise the current Rivbea Orchestra are veterans of theme parks & related venues that flourish in the Central Florida area & many have been involved since the band's Orlando inception. The trio format ubiquitous to Sam's name has existed alongside the Orchestra, with bassist Doug Mathews & Anthony Cole holding the respective bass & drum chairs in both ensembles for over 6 years. In 1996, Rivbea Sound Companywas formed to release recordings by Sam Rivers. Rivbea Sound released it's debut- Sam Rivers "Concept", with Doug Mathews & Anthony Cole as sidemen. Sam Rivers' Rivbea Allstar Orchestra, comprised of Sam's regular rhythm section and augmented by members of his previous bands, recorded and released two cds for RCA-Victor- "Inspiration" and "Culmination"-both receiving Grammy nominations in 1999 and 2000, respectively. In November of 2000, Rivers' Orlando version of the Rivbea Orchestra performed for two evenings at Lincoln Center in New York City. The band is currently holding a weekly residency workshop, performing to the public at The Sapphire, in downtown Orlando.