The Rivieras were the last teenage band to score a hit with pure American rock 'n' roll before the British Invasion took over the charts. They were formed in the fall of 1962 in South Bend, Indiana, by five attendees of South Bend Central : Marty Fortson (born 1945, vocals and rhythm guitar), Joe Pennell (lead guitar), Doug Gean (bass), Otto Nuss (organ), and Paul Dennert (drums). Originally the group was called the Playmates, but as there was already a group with that name (best known for their Top 5 hit "Beep Beep"), they soon decided to rename themselves after the Buick Riviera. In 1963, 21-year old Bill Dobslaw became their manager and booked an hour of session time in Chicago's Columbia Recording Studios. In three takes, the Rivieras had "California Sun" (a # 89 hit for Joe Jones in 1961) in the can. Also cut as this session was "Played On", the intended A-side. Only a thousand copies were pressed on Dobslaw's Riviera label and one of these found its way into the hands of a DJ named Art Roberts, who liked the "California Sun" side and played it repeatedly on the mighty station WLS. Dobslaw secured a national distribution deal with the U.S.A. label, a small independent in Chicago. The group wanted to save "Played On" for later release, so they cut a new flip, the instrumental "H.B. Goose Step" (dedicated to record promoter Howard Bedno). By this time Marty and Joe had enlisted in the Marines, on the "buddy plan". Filling in for them were Jim Boal (lead guitar) and Willy Gaut (vocals, rhythm guitar), while the lead vocals were taken over by Dobslaw.
"California Sun" entered the Billboard charts on January 25, 1964 and went on to peak at # 5. Not bad in the very midst of the earliest stages of the British Invasion. The follow-up, featuring manager Bill on vocals, was "Little Donna" (# 93, a blatant rip-off of "Sweet Little Sixteen") coupled with "Let's Have A Party" (# 99), the latter a remake of the Wanda Jackson hit. Their final hit came in Setember 1964 when their cover of "Rockin' Robin" (Riviera 1403) clocked in at # 96. By this time, a few more group members had left the group under parental pressure, to clean up their educational act. This left Bill, Doug, Otto, and various replacements to carry on with that crude but distinctive Midwestern surf 'n' party sound. Two LP's were released in 1964, "Campus Party" and "Let's Have A Party", and a few more singles, but by June 1965 it was all over.
Otto Nuss blamed Dobslaw in an interview with "Kicks" magazine. "Bill Dobslaw couldn't sing. And he was not very honest. We didn't get our money. We would probably have been much hotter if Joe and Marty had stayed. There were shenanigans, with Bill sending out other groups as us. We were stupid and naive." Otto, Doug and Marty reformed the Rivieras in 1980. In 1987, to commemorate their 25th anniversary, they recorded 10 tracks for a vanity album sold at appearances.
The Rivieras' time in the spotlight was brief, but their one big hit continues to define for future generations everything that was great about American teen-band rock n roll.
CD's : Norton reissued their two LP's on one CD in 2000 as "The Best Of the Rivieras". That same year Norton also released "Let's Stomp With the Rivieras : Unissued 1964 Recordings" (22 tracks).
Acknowledgements : Wayne Jancik, The Billboard Book Of One- Hit Wonders (2nd ed. 1998), page 168-169.
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