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Jewish World Review June 7, 1999 /23 Sivan 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Take a guess where "California Sun" is from

(JWR) ---- (
I DON'T KNOW why this seems to be such a great story of optimism and hope -- it's just the story of a song that lasts less than three minutes -- but I love it.

Maybe it's because it represents what can happen to any bunch of kids growing up in the landlocked middle of the country, thinking that all of the good and glamorous things are happening to people living in glitzier places.

If summer is hope, then maybe this story is the hopeful summer story of all time. Just ask the Rivieras.

Name sound familiar? If should, if you are of a certain age. Their song -- "California Sun" -- is probably the best feel-good, California-is-heaven song ever made.

You know the song. The unforgettable opening guitar lines: Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh." Echoed by the organ lines: Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh." And the words, made to perk up any summer day:

Well, I'm goin' out west where I belong,
Where the days are short and the nights are long."
It was a huge national hit in the summer of 1964 -- an anthem of California life, an irresistible call to come out to California and join in the great times:

Well, they're out there havin' fun, In that warm California sun. All these years later, "California Sun" still is an emblem of all that California and summer symbolize. It has been used for California tourism commercials, it is still heard daily on radio stations all across the U.S. -- "California Sun" might as well be the official song of California.

And the Rivieras? Who sang it?

South Bend, Ind.

Yep. Few people ever knew it, but the Rivieras were Indiana kids -- five high school boys who had never been to California, who never performed there even after the song came out, who were the ultimate small-town one-hit wonders. Out there havin' fun in the warm California sun? The summer the Rivieras recorded "California Sun," they were playing teen dances for 75 cents a ticket in LaPorte, Ind., just down the road from their homes.

"Yes, it was recorded by Indiana boys," Bill Dobslaw said the other day. He was the fellow who booked the Rivieras into the Tipton Terrace dance hall in LaPorte. "The song might have been about life in California, but when the band left the dance hall at night, all we saw were the bungalows in the neighborhood. The homeowners would yell, 'Hey, quiet out there.' Not exactly ocean breezes."

Dobslaw still lives in South Bend; so do the Rivieras, except for one, who lives in Indianapolis. Marty Fortson, the lead singer ("Well, the girls are frisky in old Frisco, a pretty little chick wherever you go") manages a South Bend furniture store. He left the band after recording "California Sun," before it became a hit -- to join the Marines.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time," he said the other day. "I was in Vietnam, and I kept hearing 'California Sun' on Armed Forces Radio. 'Out there havin' fun in the warm California sun'? Try the warm Vietnam sun."

"California Sun" had been a rhythm-and-blues song that wasn't going anywhere, but that had been a moderate hit in northwest Indiana when sung by a man named Joe Jones. The Rivieras gave it a rock beat, threw in lyrics about dance steps ("They twist, and I'll twist, They shimmy, and I'll shimmy") and tried it out for the kids at the Tipton Terrace. Who seemed to like it.

They weren't the only local band who sang it. "The Princeton Five, up in Benton Harbor, played it at teen dances, too," said Paul Dennert, who was the drummer for the Rivieras and is now a retired pipefitter in South Bend. "We heard the Princeton Five might cut a record of it, but we beat them to it."

The Rivieras recorded "California Sun" in a sound studio in Chicago. At the same session, the band recorded a song called "Church Key" -- not about religion, but about a beer can opener.

Anyway -- after getting a good sales start at the Kresge's store in South Bend, "California Sun" went all the way to No. 5 nationally. It still means California to millions of people around the world -- people who have no idea that it came out of South Bend and LaPorte.

Which is just as well. That's where the dream comes in -- five high school kids in Indiana making a record that still has the power to make people lust for California. "Everyone probably thought the Rivieras were sitting around the pool at their mansions in Beverly Hills," Bill Dobslaw said. "I'm afraid we never got there."

The best touch of all:

If you look at the Rivieras' album that featured "California Sun" -- on the cover of which the Rivieras posed next to a Buick Riviera -- move your face close to the cover photo, and look at the license on the front of the car.

Illinois plates.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


06/03/99: Of summer days, summer nights and pebbles in a jar
06/01/99: Putting your money where their mouths are
05/27/99: Pressed between wooden covers, the summer of her life
05/25/99:The lingering song of a certain summer
05/24/99:We could all use a return to the Buddy system
05/20/99: Now, this is enough to make James Bond double-0 depressed 05/17/99: It's midnight -- do you know where your parents are?
05/13/99: And now even saying "thank you" creates a problem
05/11/99: The answer was standing at the front door

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