#1001: California Dreamin’ by The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, in 1942. In biographer Peter Ames Carlin’s book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, he relates that when Brian Wilson first heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” it had a huge emotional impact on him. As a youngster, Wilson learned to play a toy accordion and sang in children’s choirs. In his teens he started a group with his cousin, Mike Love and his brother, Carl. His named the group Carl and the Passions in order to convince his brother to join. They had a performance at Hawthorne High School, where they attended. Among the people in the audience was Al Jardine, another classmate. Jardine was so impressed with the performance that he let the group know. Jardine would later be enlisted, along with Dennis Wilson to form the Pendletones in 1961.
The first song Brian Wilson wrote would become “Surfer Girl”. A demo of the tune was made in February 1962 and would go on to be a Top Ten hit when it was released a year later in 1963. However, their first recording was a doo-wop-surf tune called “Surfin'” in October 1961. It was released in November ’61 on the Candix Enterprises Inc. label. The surprise for the group was that the record label had changed the group’s name from the Pendletones to the Beach Boys. Consequently, as each time the record was played by a DJ in America, radio listeners were being introduced to the Beach Boys. The name Pendletones was now history.
In 1962, neighbor David Marks joined the group for their first wave of hits with Capitol Records, leaving in late 1963. In 1965, Bruce Johnston joined the band when Brian Wilson retired from touring to focus on writing and producing for the group. The Beach Boys signed with Capitol Records in July 1962 and released their first album, Surfin’ Safari, later that year. The album spent 37 weeks on the Billboard album chart, launching the young group known for its shimmering vocal harmonies and relaxed California style into international stardom. The Wilson/Love collaboration resulted in many huge international chart hits. Under Brian Wilson’s musical leadership, the band’s initial surf-rock focus was soon broadened to include many other themes, helping make The Beach Boys one of America’s most successful bands of the 1960’s.
The Beach Boys charted 13 Top Ten hits into the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’60’s. This began with “Surfin’ USA” in 1963. The only American pop group in the 1960’s who had more songs chart into the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100 was The Supremes, who had 18 singles reach that threshold. Though, in Vancouver, The Beach Boys had 23 songs chart into the Top Ten while The Supremes charted 18 songs into the Top Ten in Vancouver on either CKLG or CFUN, making The Beach Boys the top charting American band in Vancouver during the decade.
Among the Top Ten hits The Beach Boys charted in Vancouver were “I Get Around” (#3) “Don’t Worry Baby” (#3), Help Me, Rhonda” (#2), “Sloop John B” (#2), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (#1), “Good Vibrations” (#1) and “Barbara Ann” (#2). As “Barbara Ann” dropped from #2 to #7 on the February 5, 1966, CKLG chart, one of the songs leaping into the Top Ten that week was “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & The Papas which peaked at #4 in the USA and #1 in Vancouver.
In a 2002 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Michelle Phillips of the The Mamas & the Papas explained how “California Dreamin'” came about. It was 1963, and she was newly married to John Phillips. They were living in New York City, which was having a particularly cold winter, at least by Michelle’s standards as she was from sunny California. John would walk around the apartment at night working out tunes, and one morning brought the first verse of the song to Michelle. It was a song about longing to be in another place, and it was inspired by Michelle’s homesickness.
Michelle enjoyed visiting churches, and a few days before, she and John visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which inspired the second verse (“Stopped into a church…”). John hated the verse, as he was turned off of churches by unpleasant memories of parochial school. Poor John had been sent of to Catholic military school when he was just 7 years old, so he didn’t like the religiosity of it. But he couldn’t think of anything better so he left it in. One of the more misheard lyrics comes in that second verse. “You know the preacher likes the cold” is often mistaken as “the preacher lights the coals.”
When The Mamas & the Papas was just starting out in 1965, their friend Barry McGuire helped them get a contract with his record label, Dunhill Records. McGuire recorded the first version of the song with The Mamas & the Papas as his backing band and a harmonica solo instead of a flute. It was going to be used as the follow-up single to his hit, “Eve Of Destruction”. The Mamas & The Papas then decided to record it on their own, with Denny Doherty (the other Papa) singing lead and some chord changes he came up with after consulting the session guitarist, P.F. Sloan, who had him listen to “Walk – Don’t Run” by The Ventures. The results were impressive, and Dunhill Records agreed to use it as their first single, holding off on McGuire’s version so there wouldn’t be competition from an established artist.
“California Dreamin'” was a song The Beach Boys loved. Twenty years later, in 1986, The Beach Boys made a cover of “California Dreamin'” and released it as a single.
The Beach Boys chose to record “California Dreamin'” in conjunction with their 1986 greatest hits compilation Made In U.S.A. which went double platinum. The song has been covered by many other recording artists including Jose Feliciano, George Benson, Bobby Womack and many others. In 2016 the German DJ Freishwimmer had a #1 international dance club hit with “California Dreamin’“. The original version by The Mamas & The Papas has been featured in at least ten films including Forrest Gump.
This was not the first time The Beach Boys had covered another recording artists’ original song. They had a #5 hit in the USA in 1974 with a remake of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music“, and a minor hit in 1978 with a cover of “Peggy Sue”, a late 50’s hit for Buddy Holly. In 1982 the surfing sound group had a Top 20 hit with a cover of the 1957 hit for the Del-Vikings called “Come Go With Me”.
In 1987 The Beach Boys with The Fat Boys did a remake of the Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Wipeout”. In 1988 the group had their first #1 hit in 21 years titled “Kokomo“. It would be The Beach Boys last appearance in the Top 40.
September 8, 2017
The Beach Boys – About, The Beach Boys.com.
Mamas & The Papas, “California Dreamin’,” Forrest Gump, Paramount Pictures, 1994.
Susan Stamberg, California Dreamin’, Present at the Creation, NPR, Washington D.C., July 8, 2002.
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.