California in Song: Tuning-In to the Golden State

Sacramento, California - California. The name itself has a musical lilt to it. Beyond the name though, it’s hard to imagine another place in the entire country that has inspired so many lyrics and musical musings as the Golden State.

Spanning decades, genres and singers from crooners to punk rockers, California has figured in the lyrics of both mega-hit songs and undiscovered gems. What they all have in common is that the songwriter was inspired by the state so much, they felt compelled to immortalize it in song. So whether you’re listening to a global standard like Tony Bennett’s rendition of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” or a cool alt acoustic number like Wilco’s “California Stars,” chances are wherever you are in the world at this minute, there is a song about California playing on your radio (or computer).

When you’re ready to come to the source, here are the personalities, spaces and places summoned in the songs that have traveled the world singing the praises of California.

California Places

Often when singing about California, artists are moved to call out the actual places that inspired them, whether it’s a specific beach, city or street. If you are traveling California on a few tunes a day, here are some great stops to make along the way.

Big Sur: Home of twisting US Highway 1, towering redwood trees and jaw-dropping views, bands including the Beach Boys and The Thrills have penned tunes about Big Sur such as the Beach Boys’ classic “California Saga: Big Sur.”

California Desert: Singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman renders a saxophone-fueled ode to party-time in the desert with “California Desert Party.”

Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco: Home of the ballroom where Tony Bennett first crooned the global standard “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” live in 1962.

Oakland, San Diego, LA, Long Beach and other “Cali” locales: All get major props in Tupac Shakur’s hip hop classic “California Love”.

Kern River: Merle Haggard sings about a beautiful Central California river with treacherous currents in a song of the same name.

Hollywood: There are dozens (if not hundreds) of songs about Hollywood, but Kool & The Gang’s 1973 dance floor hit “Hollywood Swinging” is definitely the funkiest.

Route 66: Historic Route 66 was immortalized in what is now a pop standard “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” first sung by Nat King Cole and encouraging listeners “to make that California trip.”

San Diego: Bruce Springsteen recommends a “pretty little place in Southern California down San Diego way” in his rocking tune “Rosalita.”

Sunset Boulevard: The famous Billy Wilder film inspired an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that has toured extensively around the world.

Southern California: Tammy Wynette & George Jones sing about couple breaks up over her desire to start a new life in the Golden State in “Southern California.”

Mt. San Jacinto: Peter Gabriel offers up a mystical sonic exploration of the Southern California desert’s highest peak in “San Jacinto.”

California Hit List

This is such a tough one. By very definition, it’s nearly impossible to list all the great songs written about California. Here is our attempt to at least highlight the most widely know and loved songs about California spanning multiple genres from Big Band to hip hop.

“I Left My Heart In San Francisco” – Tony Bennett. A global standard for over 50 years that conjures misty-eyed longing for the Golden Gate and other San Francisco icons.

“Going to California” — Led Zeppelin. A rocking, head-swaying standard from the Seventies about a “girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.”

“California” — Joni Mitchell. A tuneful love song Ms. Mitchell serves up from lonely, cold Paris that was an anthem for a generation.

“California Dreamin” — The Mommas and the Poppas. A Sixties classic that’s a paean to the sunshine and warmth of the Golden State.

“California Love” — Tupac Shakur. In this hip hop classic, 2pac raps about the “Best Coast… where you never find the dancefloor empty.”

“California Girls” — The Beach Boys. The song that launched a thousand beach parties is the famous ode to the ladies of California.

“Hotel California” — Eagles. A sing-along anthem known by millions where the platinum-selling artists describe a place “you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.”

“I Love LA” — Randy Newman. A hit song expounding the virtues of high and low culture in sunny LA that became a virtual theme song for the city.

“I’m Headin’ For California” — Glenn Miller. A big hit in the late 1940’s that sent legions of former GIs packing for the Golden State at the end of World War II.

“LA Woman” — The Doors. This rock classic has Jim Morrison singing about Hollywood bungalows and the LA ladies.

“Los Angeles” — X. No it isn’t always a perfect sunny day in LA, but even when it’s edgy, LA’s cool shines through in this punk classic by LA’s X, one of the most famous bands in the genre.

California’s Undiscovered Gems

Everyone has their favorite song about California. But with enough tunes about the state to fill bins and bins of record racks at a famous music emporium like Hollywood’s Amoeba Music, it’s certain you’ve missed some good ones. Here’s a list worth checking to discover a new addition for your California hit list.

“A Friend In California” — Merle Haggard. A South-of-the-border-flavored country tune about separated lovers.

“California Blue” — Roy Orbison. Early rock ‘n roll crooner Roy Orbison longs for a California sweetheart.

“California Stars” — Wilco/Billy Bragg. A dreamy, slide guitar-fueled remake of an old classic written by Woodie Guthrie.

“California Man” — Cheap Trick. These New Wave rockers released this rollicking tune about hard partying in 1978.

“California Soul” — Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell. Soulful R&B duet about California’s undeniable attractions.

“Here in California” — Dave Alvin. Roots rocker and Californian Dave Alvin sings about love and California.

“Save Me, San Francisco” — Train. A bluesy rocker about a special someone left behind in the City by the Bay.

“LA” — Elliot Smith. A song about rebirth by the late, much-loved alt rocker.

“Promised Land” — Chuck Berry. A Golden Age of rock ‘n roll ripper by Chuck Berry.

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