The Four Preps maintained a busy touring schedule during summer 1957. The Music Corporation of America booked them into the Ohio State Fair which ran August 22-29 in Columbus and drew more than 300,000 people. The Fair organizers were pleased to book Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Lennon Sisters as the headliners. But when the Lennon Sisters were unable to convince Lawrence Welk to release them from his Saturday evening show, Ricky Nelson was signed to give four performances over two nights. The Four Preps soon became good friends with Nelson, who was hugely popular with the teen crowd and less threatening to adults than Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Little Richard. Nelson was a successful recording artist for Imperial Records and star of the show Ozzie and Harriet still going strong in its fifth season on ABC-TV. Also appearing at the Ohio Fair were James Arness, who played Sheriff Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, and canine television star Rin-Tin-Tin. Arness and the pooch were featured the first two nights with the Holmes Rodeo Company, a popular attraction since Roy Rogers razzle dazzled them at the Fair a year earlier.
From Ohio, Ricky Nelson and the Four Preps traveled to Minneapolis to appear at the Minnesota State Fair on August 26. They drew an estimated 20,000 kids to a special morning grandstand performance credited with raising “the noon kid day attendance to a record 60,000.” As Ricky headed home to California, the Preps appeared with Brenda Lee at the 20th Allegheny County Fair in Pittsburgh along with the television stars Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Jay Silverheels (Tonto), and Lassie as himself. Moore was taking a victory lap of sorts as the final new episode of The Lone Ranger had just shown June 6. A total of 221 episodes had aired since the popular western debuted in 1949. On September 13, the Four Preps were back in California, appearing with Ricky Nelson at the Santa Clara County Fair in San Jose.
But while the Preps were honing their skills as live performers, their last four singles had tanked. They desperately needed a hit as Capitol was beginning to lose faith in their “jolly juveniles.” Belland proposed recording a song he and Larson composed, but Capitol didn’t see it as the way out of their commercial doldrums. But Belland was convinced it was a hit because whenever they performed it live locally the response was enthusiastic. At a spring break party for the Tiara’s, a girl’s club at University High School in Los Angeles, everyone was singing the tune by the end of the night. One of the Tiara’s was seventeen-year-old Nancy Sinatra whose name and personal endorsement eventually helped convince Capitol to allow the guys to record the song.
The song had its roots in Belland’s childhood growing up in Chicago. As a youngster, he remembered sitting in a darkened theater watching movie reels of the Chicago Cubs’ spring training on Santa Catalina Island off the California coast. “I would sit there in the dark and stare at those palm trees waving in the background and wonder ‘How can it be that warm anywhere in the world when it is so cold here in Chicago?’” He got a little closer to this seemingly exotic island when his family moved to California and he soon started attending Hollywood High. Then, in 1951, when he was 15, he fell off his bicycle and broke his ankle. It was an accident that changed his life forever. While recuperating, he was given a ukulele to help alleviate the boredom. He learned some basic chords and composed what would become the introduction to the song. After his ankle healed, he was body surfing at Will Rogers State Beach when a buddy pointed out that he could see Santa Catalina 26 miles away. “That’s where it came from,” recalled Belland. “It’s really like 22.3 miles, but you try singing that. Think about that meter!”
By fall 1957, as the Preps considered their next single, Capitol Records was concentrating its efforts on a major marketing campaign to promote the original cast album for The Music Man, a new musical scheduled to open in the Majestic Theater on Broadway December 19. In order to secure the rights of the new musical, Capitol had guaranteed a number of their artists would record songs from the show. Original cast albums were a dicey proposition for any record company. If the show was a hit, the album sold well and was a tremendous source of revenue. But if the show bombed, you couldn’t give the album away.
Capitol had mixed results with original cast recordings. Their first real hit came in 1953 with Cole Porter’s Can-Can. Original film cast recordings of three Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I) had each earned gold albums for the label. But they also had their share of bombs as when they invested in Phil Silvers’ ill-fated musical Flahooly in 1950 (the show was doctored and emerged as Top Banana). But Capitol had its eye on the phenomenal success Columbia Records had with My Fair Lady the year before.
Columbia was known for exceptional production of cast recordings that fully captured the experience of a Broadway show for millions of listeners who would never have the opportunity to see the show performed live. Under the innovative eye of engineer Goddard Lieberson, Columbia assembled the musicians and casts in their studios (a converted church) on 30th Street in New York. The facility’s acoustics and Lieberson’s astute microphone placement gave the recordings an airy, expansive feel. In 1956, Lieberson persuaded CBS to fully finance My Fair Lady thereby ensuring CBS and Columbia Records the exclusive rights to the original cast recording and subsequent film and television rights. Of course, the gamble paid off as My Fair Lady opened March 15, 1956, and ran until September 29, 1962, after 2,717 performances. The cast album reached #1 in Billboard and remained on the chart for an astounding nine years.
The Music Man featured music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, and starred Barbara Cook and Robert Preston. Ironically, Cook was in the cast of two of the biggest original cast recording flops, Candide for Columbia Records (1956) and Plain and Fancy for Capitol (1955). In fact, Capitol had not released an original cast album since Plain and Fancy failed to chart. But The Music Man had done brisk box-office with advance ticket sales through March 1958 so Capitol pushed forward.
In an unprecedented move, Capitol arranged to record and release songs from the show nearly six weeks before it opened. It was the first original cast recording made in the new Capitol Tower. Capitol’s marketing plan called for a total of nine singles and a special “Broadway Preview” EP containing four songs. Capitol was convinced the Four Preps could have a hit with a tune called “It’s You” that opened the second act of the show. Voyle Gilmore and the Preps entered the studio October 9 and, as a concession to Belland, Capitol approved the recording of his song, now called “26 Miles (Santa Catalina),” as the B side. With its infectious melody and pretty vocals, the romantic ballad extols the virtues of an island paradise. Dick Clark reportedly referred to it as the first surf song. Belland recalled that the vocal effects on the record were a happy mistake. “When we cut the record, the drums were too loud, you couldn’t hear the vocal. Capitol didn’t want to put any more money into it. They made us go back and sing all four parts over the original recording. It gave the song this washy sound. It was like you were hearing the song echo in an underground grotto.”
During the first week of November 1957, Capitol released the “Broadway Preview” EP and three singles—“It’s You” by the Four Preps, “Til There Was You” by Nelson Riddle with a vocal by seventeen-year-old Sue Raney, and “70 Trombones” by Billy May. The EP packaged these three plus “Lida Rose” by Guy Lombardo (Capitol EAP 1 957). On December 13, Capitol got a sales boost when Julius LaRosa guested on the ABC-TV The Patrice Munsel Show and the two performed tunes from the show a week before it opened. Billboard reported, “Neither artist conveyed the sock emotional impact that the music has on stage. Robert Preston, who doesn’t have any more voice than Rex Harrison, also possesses Harrison’s ability to sell a song via faultless timing and sheer personal magnetism.”
Capitol had gambled successfully. The New York theater critics were unanimous in their praise for The Music Man.
Writing in The New York Times, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called it “a marvelous show rooted in wholesome and comic tradition.” Another critic wrote “it deserves to run at least a decade.” The public loved it to the tune of 1,375 performances. It captured five Tony Awards including best acting in a musical awards for Preston and Cook, and an impressive win over West Side Story for best musical. When it was made into a film in 1962, Capitol re-released the album and slashed the price by one dollar. The lads from Liverpool did a version of “Till There Was You” on their debut Capitol album simply because Paul McCartney loved the song. Meredith Wilson’s widow told The New York Times that his estate made more money from the royalties of the Beatles cover than the play itself.
On December 26, 1950, Capitol hosted a party at Sardi’s in New York to celebrate the show’s second anniversary and present Meredith Wilson with a gold record award for surpassing the million dollar sales mark. At that time, the Broadway run had grossed more than $7 million and, when coupled with the national touring company, neared $10 million. Capitol’s experience with The Music Man was so financially lucrative they jumped at the chance to finance Wilson’s next musical. In spring 1960, Capitol invested $220,000 (more than half of the show’s $400,000 capitalization) in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Glenn Wallichs, Capitol’s president, invested $20,000 of his own money. Meanwhile, The Music Man had recently celebrated its 1,000th performance and the original cast recording surpassed the one million dollar sales milestone. Capitol’s move signaled the industry they were willing to slug it out with Columbia and RCA Victor in bidding for new Broadway properties.
Ironically, while the Capitol original cast recording of The Music Man was a huge success, not one of the singles released from the show was a hit, including “It’s You” by the Four Preps. Now their last five singles had not done well. But in early January 1958, the Preps received the type of vinyl miracle that had rescued so many great songs of the rock and roll era. A disc jockey somewhere turned their record over and discovered “26 Miles (Santa Catalina).” Listener response was enthusiastic and the single moved up the chart carrying “It’s You” as the B side. On March 23, 1958, the Four Preps performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show. Billboard reviewed their performance and thought they “had just enough amateurishness in their staging to have strong appeal.” The song remained at #2 for two weeks and became their best-selling record.
The Preps continued their friendship and professional relationship with Ricky Nelson, appearing several times on The Ozzie and Harriet Show. On December 1, 1958, just as they kicked off a tour together, LIFE magazine put Ricky on its cover with the caption “The Teen-Agers Top Throb.”
Geoffrey Boucher. “The SoCal Songbook: 26 Miles (Santa Catalina), The Four Preps,” The Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2007.