The Rivieras


Ryden Larimore, Reporter

Probably the most famous band from South Bend appeared around 60 years ago at South Bend Central High School. For perspective, that school closed 53 years ago. The Rivieras are so old that their biggest hit “California Sun,” a frat-rock cover of a Joe Jones song, competed against The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for #1 in the National Charts. The band got their name from an old Buick model, and there’s nothing more rock’n’roll than that. 

In the 60’s, people wanted to hear one thing pretty exclusively, and that is rock. Rock was still young, and everything seemed to be an attempt to copy Chuck Berry. At first, even The Beatles had adopted that style. But the bands that provided that sound were not so common anywhere other than California and New York, so South Bend having their own group of jolly, teen, frat dudes with the same haircut that wanted to spread rock to Northern Indiana was a gift. 

Like most other Beatlemania bands, The Rivieras stayed true to their sound and only really experimented with an organ. They mostly played covers and rock standards, which was all people wanted at the time. Marty “Bo” Fortson had a voice that fit the style beautifully, with the exact rough edges and rockstar attitude that a band like them needed. Backed by Jim Boal’s surf guitar, Willie Gaut’s vocal interjections and rhythm guitar, Otto Nuss’ bluesy organ, Doug Gean’s bass, and Bobby Wantuch’s rock drumming, they had the sound people wanted. 

Their claim-to-fame album, released in 1964, is named after an Elvis Presley song “Let’s Have a Party.” It opens with “California Sun” which subbed Joe Pennel in on lead guitar. Wantuch is not present on the album, but his backup, Paul Dennert, has a genuinely impressive sound (not common for a 60’s contemporary rock band). In the track “Killer Joe,” Fortson is off of lead vocals and replaced by Gaut, who has a distinct sound that sounds a lot like Wreckless Eric. Gean provides the bass that makes a rock band rock. 

The band broke up in ‘66, but got back together in 2000, renaming themselves after another Buick model, the Wildcat; It’s even more rock’n’roll the second time. The reason for their first breakup was likely that the sound was played out after a few years of every music chart being dominated by frat-boys covering motown artists (the real heroes of rock). Their revival lasted a decade, making it a total of 14 years as an active band. Two of the original members, Fortson and Pennel, have passed away, but their 2 hit albums are still available and continue to preserve their music. The Rivieras are a notable part of the early rock period, and South Bend is proud to be their home.