ONE of the sunniest songs about Southern California began in frosty Chicago where a 10-year-old Cubs fan named Bruce Belland watched the movie reels about his team’s spring practices on distant Santa Catalina Island. “I would sit there in the dark and stare at the players and 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?’ ”
A year later Belland’s family moved west, and he ended up at Hollywood High. At age 15, he tumbled from his bike and broke an ankle, which led to a long, boring recuperation with his foot propped up. He got a gift to help pass the time: A ukulele. He learned four chords that would change his life. “Those chords would be the opening of ’26 Miles,’ ” Belland recalled. The chorus came to him later in the year, though, when he was bodysurfing at Will Rogers State Beach. A pal pointed to the horizon and said he could see Catalina 26 miles away. “That’s where it came from. But those words would haunt me. It’s really like 22.3 miles, but you try singing that. Think about that meter!”
The lyrics may not represent maritime precision, but they took the musical postcard to No. 2 on the charts.
Twenty-six miles across the sea / Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance / A tropical heaven out in the ocean
Covered with trees and girls / If I have to swim, I’ll do it forever
Till I’m gazin’ on those island pearls
Another Prep, Glen A. Larson, had helped with the verses and shares the songwriting credit. (Larson would go on to TV success as a producer of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Knight Rider.”) Looking back, there was no reason to think the song would float. The Four Preps had recorded eight singles for Capitol Records, but each had tanked. The label also had no interest in teen singer Belland as a songwriter.
But Belland was invited to a spring-break party for a high school girls club called the Tiaras. By the end of the night everyone knew the words to “26 Miles.” One of those Tiaras was Nancy Sinatra, and her last name and endorsement helped make the song the B-side of the Four Preps’ single “It’s You.”
The B-side became the surprise hit with its odd, wavering vocals. “That was all a mistake too,” said Belland. “When we cut the record, the drums were too loud, you couldn’t hear the vocals. 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 underwater grotto.”
The song’s trade-wind tingle and clambake frolic echoed in the ears of Brian Wilson, who has cited it as a major influence, and Jimmy Buffett, who even named a chapter of his autobiography after the hit. It took Belland far too. He estimates that the group traveled to nearly 30 countries to harmonize about island romance. In 1962, the hit also took Belland and his mates on a shorter trip, somewhere between, oh, say 20 and 26 miles. “I never made it to Catalina until then. That was the first time. It took me five years to get to the island after we helped make it famous. And it was everything I expected.”
Belland will mark the hit’s 50th anniversary by singing it at 2 p.m. today at Catalina’s Descanso Beach Club.