California Sun

The sunshine in California isn't so all-fired different from any other state's share of rays coming from our solar system's single, massive luminescent orb. It's just an image, really, that Cali (and Florida and perhaps a few other places) gets more than its share of Old Sol's glow over the beaches, mountains and valleys. Henry Glover certainly must have thought so; a songwriter for King Records artists like Bull Moose Jackson, Little Willie John, The Midnighters and "Butane" James Brown as well as less obvious stars like Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone and Joey Dee and the Starliters, producer of a decade's worth of hits and eventual owner of his own Glover label, he rolled up his sleeves for what must have been the better part of an hour and penned "California Sun," a minor hit around April 1961 for previous "You Talk Too Much" bemoaner Joe Jones. The lyrics suggested the sunshine took a back seat to many 'a pretty little miss...' in the third largest of our nation's 50 bordered regions: "I'm gonna go back out on the coast...where the California girls are really the most!'

Five high schoolers from South Bend, Indiana (about a hundred miles from Chicago around the other side of Lake Michigan) formed a band about a year after Glover's ode to sun, fun and girls had made its evanescent impression. They called themselves The Playmates, but that would be ditched once realization set in that a famous "Beep Beep" group had scored several hits under the same name. Lead singer Marty Fortson was a rhythm guitarist, Joe Pennell assumed lead axe duty, Doug Gean handled bass, Otto Nuss played organ and Paul Dennert provided the percussive backbeat. With help from the slightly older Bill Dobslaw they landed a steady weekend gig at Tipton Terrace, a dance hall in nearby La Porte, shortly after the start of the '62 school year.

As local popularity expanded they made the moniker switch to The Rivieras, this name inspired by General Motors' impressive new Buick Riviera, which hit showrooms toward year's end. Oops...someone overlooked the Rivieras vocal quartet from Englewood, New Jersey, who'd managed a few minor hits on Coed between 1958 and '60 (the biggest: "Moonlight Serenade"). This time the come-lately quintet kept the name...and, in a sense, made it their own. Dobslaw took the manager's reins and booked them into Chicago's Columbia studio in the summer of '63, where they recorded "Played On" (an original ballad by Fortson) and a quickie remake of "California Sun" ('...the girls are frisky in ol' Frisco'...but had they ever been there?); U.S.A. Records (mainly a blues/R&B label) took on distribution, creating Riviera, a "vanity" label of sorts for the band. "Played On" didn't get played but its flip was picked up by Windy City radio powerhouse WLS around the first of December and shot into its top ten.

Joe Pennell, Paul Dennert, Marty Fortson, Otto Nuss, Doug Gean

A new flip side was pressed on later copies: "H B Goose Step" (check the credits before you tell someone it's a Johnny and the Hurricanes tune), an instrumental homage to Howard Bedno (co-founder of R&B label Cobra in the mid-'50s and a colorful local record promoter in subsequent years), was sort of a "Please work your magic with our song" move...that worked! Early in '64, "California Sun" spread to west and east coasts and just about everywhere in between, hitting the national top ten as the quintet's frantic-paced celebration of illumination became a smash nearly three years after Jones' prototype. Keyboard man Otto Nuss has claimed the record would have made number one if The Beatles hadn't stormed Billboard's top ten and taken the top four slots about the time his group was gaining steam. Actually, the number five hit would have mustered a third-place showing right around leap week.

Gradual dissolution began shortly afterwards. Fortson and Pennell joined the Marines and were replaced by guitarists Jim Boal and Willy Gaut, neither a noteworthy the unthinkable got thunk, Bill Dobslaw's ego took hold and he appointed himself as Marty's successor, serving up a whinier equivalent to E-1 Fortson's default lead vocal sound...after all, who was going to say he couldn't? "Little Donna" (its melody ripped straight from the strains of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music") was backed by "Let's Have a Party" (Jessie Mae Robinson's gift to Elvis in '57 that Wanda Jackson significantly shrieked into hit status in 1960) and both tracks scraped the Hot 100 in May. A near-identical raging-surf take on Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin" made a similar stand in the chart's lower ten in September.

Rock remakes (Little Richard's "Rip it Up," Big Maybelle and Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin'"), sun-and-fun originals ("Let's Go to Hawaii"), skating-rink-worthy instros ("Bug Juice") and at least one hit-potential, garage-leaning vocal track ("Somebody New") made up the bulk of their '64 -to-'65 output. Members defected throughout this time (pressured by parents to "grow up" and attend college or follow the band's framers into the military?) and The Rivieras of Indiana were washed up after eight singles on their eponymous label (a unique accomplishment, actually). The five original members, at various times, took part in band revivals starting in the 1980s...and why wouldn't they? Meanwhile, the sun's still out there, 93 million miles away, just the right distance to keep the California coast all sunny and warm.

- Michael Jack Kirby


California Sun