When The Beach Boys First Hit

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, May 24, 2003 

If you were a high school boy in Sacramento in 1963, there were three basic student groups: the “frats,” the “hards” and the “surfers.”

Jeff Hughson was 13 and a student at Sacramento High School, and he was a surfer.

“Sacramento had a bunch of would-be surfers, we had a huge surf culture,” he says. “People drove woodies, lots of people dyed their hair blond, everyone listened to surf music … and the Beach Boys were our band.”

So perhaps it was not surprising that the Beach Boys should hit it big very early in Sacramento.

On the other hand, it was no accident that the L.A.-based Beach Boys played their first big concert – anywhere – at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium 40 years ago today, on May 24, 1963.

It happened because of a precocious promoter named Fred Vail, a 18-year-old Sacramento State College student who wanted to help his alma mater, El Camino High School, raise money for its graduation party.

Vail, who had been entertainment commissioner for El Camino, had stepped up the level of entertainment at the high school while he was there, bringing in acts such as Jan and Dean and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles instead of the jugglers, magicians and “Kingston Trio-wannabes” that had been the staple of school assemblies.

He had also developed quite a little career as a gofer, teen news programmer and then disc jockey at local stations KCRA-AM, KFBK-AM and KCNW-FM before he even left high school.

So when he heard that El Camino’s graduating class needed to raise money for its graduation party, Vail had an idea. Take the money they had raised, $750, and put on a concert to raise the rest.

And Vail knew just the band to do it.

“The faculty advisers thought I’d lost my mind,” says Vail by phone from Nashville, Tenn., where he owns a recording studio. “I was going to take all the money they’d raised and put it on the line with this unknown band and spin the roulette wheel.”

But Vail had a good track record, and the advisers relented. Vail called the William Morris Agency and asked to book the Beach Boys, whom the agents at Morris barely even knew about, having just signed the small, local group.

The band, managed by Murray Wilson, father of three of the band’s members, Brian, 20, Dennis, 18 and Carl, 15, had had two national hits in “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” It was earning $200 or $300 a gig in the L.A. area.

Vail booked the band for $750, out of which the band had to pay for its rooms (at the Mansion Inn, now the Clarion, on 16th Street) and its airfare. Vail paid for the stage hands, security and Memorial Auditorium, which cost $150 to rent for the evening.

Vail himself picked up the band at the old Sacramento Municipal Airport (now Executive) on Freeport Boulevard, driving his mom’s ’54 Chevy wagon. Bassist Brian Wilson had stayed home to write songs and work in the studio, and in his place was Al Jardine, 20. Dave Marks, 14, was on rhythm guitar, having replaced Jardine the previous year. Marks would soon be gone, replaced by Jardine.

When Vail picked up the young band, he recalls, they were nonplused by his youth.

“They thought I was just some kid who had been sent to pick up the band,” he recalls. “Carl (Wilson) asked me who they were opening for, and I said, ‘You’re the headliners.’ They all looked at me like, ‘What? We’ve never played anything like this.’

“Then they said, ‘Who’s promoting this thing?’ I told them I was the promoter. They said, ‘You can’t be a promoter, you’re just a kid like us.’ ”

But Vail had done his work well, and he told the band that he had already made enough to pay all his expenses – including the band’s $750.

Vail introduced the band, which launched into a 35-minute set that included its two hits, as well as “Farmer’s Daughter,” a couple of covers, including “Runaway,” a recent hit by Del Shannon, and a surf instrumental by Dick Dale.

“They went over great, the kids were screaming, they loved it,” reports Vail.

Jeff Hughson agrees. He saw the Beach Boys six times in the early years, and though he’s not sure whether he was at that first show, he remembers the Beach Boys shows at the auditorium well.

“It was absolute pandemonium at those shows,” he recalls. “People were jumping off the balconies, it was wild. The band rocked, everyone went nuts. They were high-energy shows.”

After talking the band into a second set, which was basically a variation on the first, with a couple of new songs, including the then-unrecorded “Surfer Girl,” Vail and the band and manager Murray Wilson returned to the Mansion Inn’s restaurant for burgers and shakes and fries.

Over the celebratory dinner, Vail recalls, one of the band members asked Murray Wilson how much they made. “He scribbled down the notes, deducted the airline tickets, the rooms, and said that they had made $52 a piece. And they were thrilled. Remember, gas was 19 cents a gallon, a movie was a buck, so $52 was a lot of money to a kid.”

But then, someone asked Vail how much he made.

“I said, ‘The class made $4,000’ … and their jaws just dropped, they were absolutely stunned. They said, again, ‘But you’re just a kid.’

“I told them, ‘There are going to be a lot of promoters who make a lot of money off you, because William Morris doesn’t know what they have.’ ”

After more discussion, it was concluded that Vail should become the band’s promoter, and he ended up working with the band for the next three years. He saw to it that the group returned to Sacramento many times in the subsequent years, even recording its first live album, “Beach Boys Concert,” at Memorial Auditorium in 1964. That’s Vail introducing the band.

He again worked with the band when he was asked to manage them at a critical junction in 1969 and had a hand in reactivating the band’s Brother Records before he left over a disagreement with the band’s business manager.

Through it all, he has remained friends with the band, even arranging their 1983 concert at the White House. But he remembers those days with special enthusiasm.

“They became icons,” he recalls. “But they weren’t then, they were just some other kids. It was a great time, very fresh and exciting, and I was fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall. And it changed the whole course of my life, professionally.

“It sure doesn’t feel like 40 years.”