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The California sun sets on Joe Pennell.

In Passing: Joe Pennell (1944-2011)

So who is this Joe Pennell who passed away at the age of 66? If you know the answer to that question you are probably of a certain age and either have a good memory or have an interest in what can be termed sixties frat-rock or surf music. Pennell was a founding member and lead guitarist of The Rivieras, who were formed during 1962 in South Bend, Indiana, by several high school friends.

The band would only have one notable song. “California Sun” was a cover of the 1961 Joe Jones R&B song, which was a minor hit. The Rivieras would speed up the tempo and combine Pennell’s guitar and Otto Nuss’ organ as the foundation for Marty Fortson’s vocals. It was simple, it was raw, and it was a memorable single that reached number five on the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles Chart during early 1964, just before The Beatles and the rest of The British Invasion.

Pennell would leave the group shortly after their one shining moment and the group would disband two years later. He would serve in The United States Marine Corps during The Vietnam War. Following his discharge he would not return to the music field, but became a painter for the rest of his life.

He is representative of tens of thousands of musicians who have formed high school bands, only to quickly disappear. His distinction was to leave behind the guitar work on one of the better singles of the early 1960’s.

So one last tip of the hat to an obscure guitarist who had one shining moment basking in the rays of the “California Sun.”

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