It was 55 years ago today (April 6th, 1965) that the Beach Boys began recording “California Girls.” The song, which was the group's most ambitious recording up until then, featured a soaring orchestral production by the group's leader and producer Brian Wilson, alongside lyrics co-written by singer Mike Love.
Wilson wrote the music to the chorus during a dinner party in early 1965, and then enlisted the help of Los Angeles' top session players rather than use the band on the recording, as he was becoming accustomed to doing. Although the Beach Boys' vocals wouldn't be added until June 4th, on April 6th, he led the “California Girls” session at Hollywood's Western Recorders. Wilson has stated numerous times over the years that the backing track to “California Girls” is his favorite of all his Beach Boys productions.
The track itself was a far cry from the group's first single, 1961's “Surfin',” which only featured a double bass, an acoustic guitar, and a trash can as percussion. “California Girls” utilized drums, piano, vibes, assorted percussion, three guitars, both an electric and a double bass, three saxophones, a trumpet, and an organ, not to mention six-part harmony vocals — all arranged by Wilson.
Shortly before his death in 2017, longtime fan Tom Petty explained that especially during his '60s heyday, Brian Wilson's musical vision in the studio was unparalleled in rock: “You really have to admire him as an artist for just having that kind of vision. 'Cause, it's y'know, anyone that makes records knows it's very hard to think that far ahead. Y'know, just to book all those guys for the session! Right? You're thinking pretty far ahead. You're really visualizing sound long before it's actually appeared if you call 19 guys down to the room.”
There is some debate as to whether Wilson composed the song's signature introduction, or its main melody, during his first LSD trip earlier that year. “California Girls” was Wilson's first major production since quitting the road the previous December, after he suffered a nervous breakdown while on tour.
Beach Boys historian Jon Stebbins who authored the definitive biographies on the group's Dennis Wilson and David Marks says that while on tour, the farther Brian Wilson was away from home and the recording studio, the more miserable he became: “Brian pouted the whole time. He didn't wanna be out there. Y'know Brian was really depressed when he was out on the road, and he was basically on the phone talking to his girlfriend back home all the time. While the rest of them were out having fun.”
The song marked the first vocal appearance of the group's newest member, Wilson's permanent on-stage replacement Bruce Johnston.
Mike Love told us that although the Beach Boys are frequently saluted for their progressive work on such studio albums as Pet Sounds, Smile, Sunflower, and Holland, it's their early pop hits that's remained their bread and butter: “Those are the pillars of our success. That's the basis of our popularity to today, because even if their parents hadn't met yet in the '60s, they'll still have the Beach Boys on their iPods. Groups like the Beatles and the Beach Boys — and maybe the Motown groups — I mean, that's some seriously great music.”
Nearly 20 years later, Wilson talked about “California Girls” in a 1993 interview with Capitol Records, recalling, “Everybody was up. The whole gang was there. It became my favorite session. The intro to this song is the greatest piece of music that I've ever written. I was looking for an introduction that would be totally different to the rest of the song, but would lead into it. The song was a big record for us, but I really never liked anything but the intro.”
“California Girls” was originally issued on the group's Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) album on July 5th, 1965, and was released as single on July 12th. “California Girls” eventually peaked at Number Three, kept from the Top spot by the other massive hits from the Summer of '65, Bob Dylan's “Like A Rolling Stone” at Number Two, and the Beatles' Number One “Help!”
“California Girls” went on to become the Beach Boys' signature song. Starting in the early '70s, the group regularly used it as their opening number at concerts. Both Brian Wilson's band — featuring Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — and the touring version of the Beach Boys featuring Mike Love and Bruce Johnston still include the song in every performance.