The music came from Brian Wilson's first psychedelic experience. He's quoted saying in 1986, "[The song was] something I’m very proud of in a sense because it represents the Beach Boys really greatest record production we’ve ever made. It goes back to 1965 when I was sitting in my apartment, wondering how to write a song about girls, because I love girls. I mean, everybody loves girls." He added in 2007, "I was thinking about the music from cowboy movies. And I sat down and started playing it, bum-buhdeeda, bum-buhdeeda. I did that for about an hour. I got these chords going. Then I got this melody, it came pretty fast after that." The next day, he and Mike Love finished off the remainder of the song.
The track was produced by Brian, who intended to encapsulate the feel of the Drifters' version of "On Broadway". The instrumental was made on April 6, 1965 at United Western Recorders, requiring 44 takes before Brian could deem a satisfactory performance. Vocal overdubs followed on June 4 at CBS Columbia Square. "California Girls" was the first Beach Boys recording to feature vocals from Bruce Johnston, who had joined the group to substitute for Brian Wilson on concert tours. Bruce's vocals can be heard at the end of the song.
In addition to reaching #3 in the US, other countries where the single was popular include Canada (#2 in RPMs national chart), Rhodesia (also #2), and Sweden (#6). It peaked at #8 in Australia, and in South Africa it made one of the Beach Boys' best-ever international showings, staying six weeks at No. 1. Radio plays of the song in the United States alone are said to total between four and five million to date, thus making it the Beach Boys' biggest royalty earner.
The song has been prominently referenced by other artists on more than one occasion. The Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." homages the song.Strawberry Alarm Clock, which toured with the Beach Boys in 1966–67, segues into the intro and first line of the song at the end of their song, "Small Package", on their fourth and final album, Good Morning Starshine (1969). This fadeout was keyboardist Mark Weitz's idea.
The song was a strong inspiration for Katy Perry's hit 2010 song "California Gurls". Katy's song initiated controversy about its use of the lyric "I wish they all could be California girls"; this lyric was used as the chorus for The Beach Boys' song, but was also featured in Katy Perry's version towards the end of the song. Additionally, the word "girls" was intentionally misspelled. Perry's manager requested that the song name be compatible with the 1970s hit "September Gurls" by Big Star.
Rush Hour 2 (2001), where main characters Lee (Jackie Chan) and Carter (Chris Tucker) sing along to the song as it plays on the radio. In Rush Hour 3 (2007), Lee uses it as his ringtone when Carter calls him at the beginning, and later on in the movie a French performer sings the song on the street where Carter is eating dinner.
The music video for the cover, directed by Pete Angelus and Roth, was released in February 1985. Roth stars as a tour guide, showing tourists the beach and swimsuit models. One of the tourists is played by Jane Leeves, who went on to play Frasier 's Daphne Moon. The female bodybuilder featured in the video is Roth's personal fitness trainer, Kay Baxter. The scenes follow the lyrics with bikini-clad women from all regions of the United States. An oft-imitated scene has Roth dancing down a sidewalk bordered by models frozen in mannequin poses. It was nominated for several 1985 MTV Video Music Awards. In an interview with Howard Stern, Roth explained that he edited the video while wearing thick skiing goggles which greatly impaired his vision. Each time the editor would increase the red saturation, Roth would tell him to turn it higher, until finally proclaiming, "Now THAT'S red!" The video was parodied in the video for The Dresden Dolls' "Shores of California".