California in songs

One of the longest posts I have ever read on Wikipedia is called List of songs about California.

I keep reading, I keep scrolling, my eyes start bulging, I can’t believe how long the list is. I have still not reached the end.  In fact when I get to ‘We don’t need another song about California’ by My Chemical Romance I start to feel that the list has become human and begun to read my mind.

It starts quite generally with the sub-category California, where you find hundreds of songs about or called California. The list goes on into Los Angeles and vicinity, San Francisco and the Bay Area, then into any other locations and streets.

Why did I read this list and, more importantly, why am I telling you about it?  I was sitting here listening to the Beach Boys one October day in South London as autumn finally turned to ‘boot and coat weather’, and found myself wondering at this place called California.  Thinking how funny it is that, so far away, and so different, I should know so much about it. Of course it’s from the films, it’s where Hollywood is, it’s where bands come from, it’s where dreams are made and of course it’s where dreams are broken.

I am one of the lucky ones and I have been to the hallowed place, indeed two regular and precious readers of this blog live there (one of them is even a bona fide California Girl) – hi Uncle Ray and Auntie Betsy!  But having only explored some of San Francisco and its surrounding area, I am really a right novice when it comes to California.  The people who have written and/or recorded songs about the place view it in quite different ways. Sunshine, love, soul, soulless.

One day I am going to get my kicks on Route 66, tour the locations of some of Hitchcock’s greatest films, look for bears in Yosemite National Park and taste wine in Lake Tahoe.  Right before I go shopping on Rodeo Drive, Beverley Hills, and partying in the hills above Hollywood. Just for starters. But until then I’m going to go all California on this misty London day and I’m going to share with you my favourite California songs.

Hold on to your hats, they span the decades and the genres and, unlike Wikipedia, I will post in date and not place order.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco written 1958, released 1962
Tony Bennett with special appearance by Judy Garland

I heard Tony Bennett interviewed recently, to promote his recent album of jazz standards with Lady Gaga. He referred to this as the song that changed his life, and it has become his signature song. It’s a cheesy performance (on Judy Garlands’s show) but this is where my list starts, plus it’s a BOGOF: you get two Italian-American legends for the price of one.

California Dreamin’  1965 onwards
Bobby Womack

I could basically do a whole post about the one song. Originally written in 1965 by John and Michelle Phillips, their group the Mamas and Papas released the song in 1965. There is a great clip of them singing this song with its great harmonies, and swaying in their kaftans, and it just feels so 1960s California. It’s a great song in my opinion. So many artists have done versions of it. I love Jose Feliciano’s version but ultimately I had to choose my absolute favourite for my playlist – in sad remembrance after Bobby Womack died this year.

California Soul  1967 onwards
Marlena Shaw

Again, a massive song, hard for me to choose the version as I was keen to include Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s last duet together (released 1970). The song was written by Ashford and Simpson, the husband and wife team who wrote some of the biggest Motown chart hits of the 60s and 70s and, later, performers in their own right. My chosen version comes from soul singer Marlena Shaw, whose version has become a rare groove staple in the UK. The orchestration and her voice just swing the song to a new level.

California 1971
Joni Mitchell

From her album Blue, here is Joni Mitchell singing live and playing the Appalachian dulcimer. I’m just comparing this type of talent with the manufactured ‘music’ you get today and I don’t think I need to say more.

I Left my Wallet in El Segundo  1990
A Tribe Called Quest

I’ve zoomed ahead by nearly two decades for a total change of style.  This is the debut release from A Tribe Called Quest’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, which signalled a new decade and a whole new world in hip hop back in 1990. Maybe this is Q-Tip and ATCQ’s answer to Tony Bennet’s I Left my Heart in San Francisco?  I’d love to hear the artists swap songs.

Californication and Road Trippin  1999
Red Hot Chili Peppers

I finish with a double whammy of RHCP from their album Californication. I love the eponymous song, which is a warts and all look at the seedier side of today’s California.

When I think of California I ultimately imagine taking a road trip down to Big Sur, and Road Trippin’ is my soundtrack for this. Let’s go get lost right here in the U.S.A.

So there’s my playlist. Of course there are tons of omissions. I am leaving out California Girls by the Beach Boys, and I am avoiding California Gurls, the ode by Katy Perry and Snoop Dog to their home state, with an extremely long barge pole.

So what are your favourite Cali-songs?  Do you have The Doors, Kings of Leon, Public Enemy, Dionne Warwick in your list? Maybe just the entire catalogue of Compton’s Most Wanted?

Ray and Betsy, comments please?

Thanks for coming on a lovely trip with me.  Now it’s back down to earth, and back to London on an autumn day.



4 thoughts on “California in songs

  1. Love your list and as a Joni Mitchell fan from day 1, it was a real treat to see the video for the first time. I’ll let the California native weigh in with her expert and encyclopedic knowledge. Mondo xox

      1. Hattie – Blue was definitely my all time fav. Saw her live twice – once early on, and once a few years back and her voice was still incredible.

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