Revised December, 2016Peter Abberley bass guitar, vocal
The Californians, like The Montanas, were one of the best known Wolverhampton recording groups during the 1960s. They were very much influenced by American harmony groups such as The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, and The Association. The Californians went through a number of line-up changes but still managed to preserve their distinctive sound.
Robbie Trevis who was drummer/vocalist in The Californians has supplied much information about them and I'm grateful for his assistance in preparing the story of The Californians as follows:
The origins of The Californians can be traced back to the "skiffle" era in Wolverhampton. A group called 'The Black Diamonds' had local success in the late 1950s and early 60s to become well known throughout the area. The Black Diamonds line-up had gone through several changes since their formation so by the time the group visited Germany, the line up consisted of Peter Abberley, Roger Clarke, Keith Evans, Pete Spooner and female lead vocalist Sheila Deni. The group by this time were managed by Roger Allen.
There was little doubt that Sheila Deni was the focal point of The Black Diamonds so her departure to go solo in May of 1966 left the future of the group uncertain. Pete Spooner left too but fortunately, the remaining members had good voices so it was decided to carry on as a four-piece harmony group.
A new group name "The Californians" was chosen to reflect the American West Coast harmony sound of groups such as The Beach Boys which they hoped to imitate. The line-up was now Peter Abberley (bass guitar/vocal), Roger Clarke (lead guitar/vocal), new lead vocalist John O'Hara, and Keith Evans on drums.
Hard work and perseverance resulted in The Californians becoming extremely popular locally and they soon gained a large following of fans. 'N Between Times author Keith Farley said: "From the start the group was very popular in the local area because of its clean-cut image and because they made a very pleasing sound." The group also did a lot of touring but it was their manager Roger Allen who eventually brought The Californians to the notice of CBS Records. Roger had just landed a recording contract for The Montanas and then went to CBS saying he had another talented band - "The Cali's".
The Californians first single release in early 1967 was certainly adventurous. The B-side 'Little Ship With A Red Sail' was appealing commercial pop for the period showcasing the groups' strong vocal harmonies. The A-side however, entitled 'Golden Apples' sounded something like 'Bonanza meets Alladin' with its curious mix of wild-west and middle eastern rhythms along with echoey vocal effects. This was certainly 'mind-blowing' for its time!
The CBS press release for the Californians 45 is worth reading; "A new group from the Midlands with the west coast of America sound and appropriately called THE CALIFORNIANS debut on CBS with GOLDEN APPLES. And they will be taking their sound around the country shortly on the new Walker Brothers tour. They are a group who enjoy life to its full. "We really enjoy playing our own music" says vocalist John O'Hara, 21, from Wolverhampton, "and when we are not working we go swimming and skin diving" !!
Chosen for The Californian's second single was a cover of then-unknown American songwriter Warren Zevon's 'Follow Me' with the B-side consisting of 'What Love Can Do'. All these commercial-sounding tracks were well-produced (some would say over-produced) by Irving Martin and again displayed the group's talent for fine vocal harmonies. Unfortunately, even with airplay and promotion, neither of the first two Californians singles released in 1967 made it into the national U.K. record chart despite selling well locally.
Irving Martin would also produce records by other West Midlands groups including Finders Keepers, Sight And Sound, and The Royalty. Lead vocalist John O'Hara's recollection of The Californian's recording sessions (From Keith Farley's book 'N Between Times') is worth repeating here as follows:
John; "Going into a studio was amazing. It was like entering another world. You lost all sense of time and space. You could be in there for hours, even days, and you would have no idea when you came out if it was going to be day or night or what day it was. I loved it!"
"Decca No.1 studio was as big as the Civic Hall. It could house orchestras of 40 or 50 players. I've been in there laying a backing track for a record for hours. It all had to be done live because of Musicians' Union requirements. Once you got the nod that that was a take, the musicians would leave and then you would carry on with the engineers for more hours. It was quite exhausting but also exhilarating."
For the third Californians single release, the record company took no chances so had the group record a cover of the 'Spanky and Our Gang' big U.S. hit 'Sunday Will Never Be The Same'. Decca spared no expense in providing a full orchestral backing on the record's A and B sides and with strong promotion and airplay how could an already proven hit fail? Sunday Will Never Be The Same was indeed another big seller in the West Midlands where the group had their fans but unfortunately sold poorly elsewhere. It seemed the rest of the country did not share the same enthusiasm for the American West Coast sound.
A real gem of a track recorded by The Californians during this time was the radical 'Cooks Of Cakes And Kindness', composed by the Ivy Leagues' John Carter. This record was given a full-blown "psychedelic" production reminiscent of The Beatles 'Magical Mystery Tour' set with echoey horns, drums and organ along with electric 'fuzz' guitar. This was indeed a contrast to most of their other "pop" sounding discs!
It wasn't long before The Californians' line-up changed again to include Mick Brookes from a group called 'The Cobras' who replaced Roger Clarke. There was also a new drummer/vocalist Robbie Trevis from a Dudley group called 'The Choice' who replaced Keith Evans. Robbie's story is as follows:
Robbie; "I got started in drumming after wrecking the first guitar my parents brought me for Christmas with knitting needles. I then progressed to ruining my parent's dining room chairs with the same needles plus my mom's saucepans. My first kit was a bass drum, snare drum, and high-hat with a pair of bongos and a cracked cymbal. I gave the cymbal to my dad to have a go at welding it. I must have been the only drummer with a wavy crash cymbal!"
"I loved to sing, always the first on stage at weddings and talent nights. My first pro group was a band from Dudley called The Choice. I then joined The Californians who were regarded at the time as Britain's Beach Boys. Four-part harmony from The Four Seasons, The Association, The Fifth Dimension, and of course The Beach Boys. Our set always started with George Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm', which was covered by 'The Happenings'. George Taylor of The Hedley Ward Trio arranged a fantastic opening version of this song as he did with a few of The Cali's songs."
"The Californians did many recordings for BBC radio programmes, like Jimmy Young, David Symonds, Terry Wogan etc. We would spend a day recording at Walker Hall which was housed in a former school in Edgbaston, Birmingham. At that time the music had to be recorded live, so we would go along and record about five numbers which would be played throughout the week on Radio 1. Walker Hall had recording equipment from about 1947 which hardly compared favourably with the equipment that the Cali's owned. Yet somehow it always seemed that everything came out okay".
Despite the lack of record success, the group's live performances were always met with enthusiasm from the audience. A newspaper review of a show they played in Jersey read as follows: "In two half-hour sets, the group practically brought the house down with applause. The Californians' full and powerful harmony sound filled the hall. They were happy, laughing and enthusiastic so not surprisingly, the audience reacted in the same way."
The Californians were chosen to support no less than Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdink, and The Walker Brothers on a major 'package tour' of the U.K. in 1967. Quite a bizarre line-up of talent "that you would never see today" remarked Robbie Trevis. His own recollections of that tour is as follows:
Robbie; "The tour went all around the U.K. When the tour hit Wolverhampton, The Cali's had a fantastic reception from all the local fans. After the show, most of the cast went to the 'Kingfisher' in Wall Heath, Kingswinford where Jimi Hendrix then got up to do a few numbers. Most people had no idea who he was. The equipment for the show was really poor but you couldn't hear what you were doing anyway."
"Talking of poor equipment, The Cali's were booked for a promotional gig at Birmingham Town Hall with many bands. The event was to promote the launch of local equipment manufacturer Park. Sadly, the sound that night was abysmal. I must say they tried so hard to get it right but in the end they gave up."
"The highlight of the evening was when Pete Abberley our bass player, who had the unenviable task of announcing why the event was taking place, bought the house down with "Sorry about the sound, but if you spell Park back to front that will explain why". This comment brought the house down! Mind you, we always toured with Park equipment and never had any problems with it."
The Californians continued to tour and release more great singles on both the Decca and Fontana labels including, rather strangely, a cover of Cliff Richard's number one hit 'Congratulations'. There were also a few more line-up changes. Geoff Parkes replaced John O'Hara and Adrian Ingram was added as an extra guitarist to fill-out the sound on stage. Adrian was a talented player and had played in Robbie Trevis' former group 'The Choice' as well as local groups 'Gilt Edge' and 'Evolution'.
Robbie; "The band continued to tour for years. During that time The Cali's played all the local pubs, clubs, casinos, and all the leading clubs in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. All Ma Regans' Plazas, the Rum Runner, Top Rank, Lafayette, The Cedar Club, Rebecca's, Abigail's, and Barbarella's. I remember The Cali's supporting at Barbarella's with an unknown act called "Joe Cocker Grease Band" who had just released 'With A Little Help From My Friends'. What an incredible night to remember that was! Packed out and all the audience wanted to do was dance. Great days".
All good things come to an end and unfortunately, the end of the 1960s saw the end on the horizon for The Californians. The group disbanded in 1970 after their final performance at the Grey Topper Ballroom in Nottingham. Their last single released in 1969 was a cover of Brum band The Fortunes 'You've Got Your Troubles' with the B-side 'Early Morning Sun' composed by guitarist Adrian Ingram. Variations of the line-up continued for a few more years during the 1970s. What became of the former Californians and what are they doing today you may ask?
Robbie Trevis; "The boys are still working the business. Pete is a solo act and working well on the cruises and touring the U.K. Mick and Roger have a music shop in Wolverhampton. John has retired. Geoff now lives in the U.S.A. and works the cruise lines out of Florida. Adrian has gone from strength to strength to become widely recognized today as one of the foremost authorities on the jazz guitar."
"And me, I live in West Wales. I'm still working and enjoying it every day. I think when you come through the 60's with all its hard knock and troubles but loads of exciting fun, somehow it never leaves you, always wanting to perform. Today I work under the name of Robbie Lee."
Many thanks to Robbie Lee (Trevis) for his assistance in preparing The Californians story and providing images of the group shown here.
You can visit Robbie Lee's web site at: www.robbielee.co.uk
Copyright © 2011 John R Woodhouse
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