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The most successful version of the song was released by the Rivieras in 1964 and became the group's biggest hit in their short career. This song was the result of their first recording session at Chicago's Columbia Recording Studios in 1963 (purchased by manager Bill Dobslaw). The lineup for this session included Marty Fortson on vocals and rhythm guitar, Joe Pennell on lead guitar, Doug Gean on bass, Otto Nuss on organ, and Paul Dennert on drums. The original single cut from this session included the song "Played On" as the A-side, with "California Sun" as the B-side and was released on Dobslaw's Riviera label in 1963. DJ Art Roberts ensured that the "California Sun" side saw significant airplay on WLS. In response to the growing success, Dobslaw got the band a national distribution deal with USA Records, and the song was adequately distributed with "H.B. Goose Step" as the B-side.
The song entered the charts on January 25, 1965 and reached No. 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, staying on the chart for 10 weeks. The song was further hailed as the last American rock and roll hit before the British Invasion. Shortly after the song's release, the band experienced internal problems as Fortson and Pennell enlisted in the Marines, in addition to various lineup changes afterwards. "California Sun" was eventually featured on the band's debut album Let's Have A Party. A later version was released later that year as "California Sun '65" on their second and final album, Campus Party.