The surf music of the Beach Boys made California the dream destination of young people in the 1960s. But not all of the music was produced on the West Coast. One of the era’s identifying characteristics songs, “California Sun,” was first recorded in 1961 by New Orleans R&B singer Joe Jones, who is known for his Top Ten hit, “You Talk Too Much.”
Written by Henry Glover (with Roulette Records president Morris Levy credited as co-writer), “California Sun” was recorded by Jones in a New Orleans R&B style backed by a honking horn section. “California Sun” didn’t succeed as a follow-up to “You Talk Too Much,” only reaching number 89 on the charts. But the song did unprotected to some popularity in South Bend, Indiana, where high school classmates performed it with their group, the Playmates.
The Playmates were bassist Doug Gean, rule singer and guitarist Marty “Bo” Fortson, guitarist Joe Pennell, drummer Paul Dennert and Otto Nuss on organ. When they learned that the Playmates name was already taken by a 50s group that had had a hit with “Beep Beep,” they became the Rivieras. Instead of the French coastline, they were named for the stylish Buick Riviera.
The Rivieras went into Chicago’s Columbia Recording Studios in 1963 and cut “California Sun” in three takes, replacing Jones’ horn section with a guitar and organ trading riffs. The track was supposed to be the B-side to “Played On,” which was also recorded at the session.
But WLS DJ Art Roberts recognized the possible of “California Sun” and it became the A-side. Roberts’ exposure of the song attained it national attention, reaching number 5 on the Billboard charts in 1964.
However, Fortson and Pennell never enjoyed the fruits of the song’s success; they left the group to join the Marine Corps shortly after the recording session.
The song was rarely out of the public’s consciousness; a important of oldies radio, it was used in California tourism commercials and movies like Good Morning, Vietnam and Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
But the mid-seventies brought the song a new life. go into the Ramones, the group considered by many to be the first punk rock band. The group would record surf rock songs like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Rockaway Beach” and in 1977 covered “California Sun” for their LP Leave Home.
The Ramones took “California Sun” to another size; though the lyrics stayed the same, distortion was additional and the song’s speed was ramped up to warp excursion. As exciting as the punk rockers made the track, the Rivieras’ version remains the best known and loved.