A Nation In Mourning: The Story Behind “The Warmth of the Sun” by The Beach Boys

On November 22, 1963, the world changed. When shots rang out on Dealey Plaza in Dallas and President John F. Kennedy was killed, the nation went into mourning. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. The Beach Boys, who had success with songs about surfing and girls, were evolving as songwriters Mike Love and Brian Wilson were exploring different introspective themes. Songs like “In My Room” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” were much different territory than “Surfin’ Safari” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And so too was “The Warmth of the Sun.” Let’s look at the story behind the song.

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What good is the dawn
That grows into day
The sunset at night
Or living this way

A Girl Named Georgia

Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love spent a weekend in Hawaii in 1963 and met a young woman. When he returned to Los Angeles, he wanted to see her again, but she sent him a letter to tell him she didn’t feel the same way. Even though he barely knew her, he was disappointed. When Brian Wilson played the chords and sang the melody of a new song he was working on, Love knew it wasn’t a song about a cheerleader or the beach. He thought about the girl in Hawaii named Georgia and how a lost love can linger positively. Love compared how she had made him feel to the “warmth of the sun.”

For I have the warmth of the sun
(Warmth of the sun)
Within me at night
(Within me at night)

“We Interrupt This Program …”

At about 1:40 p.m. ET on November 22, 1963, CBS interrupted the daytime soap opera “As the World Turns” for an audio-only news bulletin in which news anchor Walter Cronkite told the country President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, along with Texas Gov. John Connally. Their conditions at the time were unknown.

Cronkite returned on camera about an hour later with the news no one wanted to hear: “President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Time, some 38 minutes ago.” He appeared to tear up as he removed his glasses; the whole country was in shock. Connally would survive the shooting.

After the tragedy of the day, the song “The Warmth of the Sun” took on a whole new importance.

In 2016, Love wrote in Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, “I wasn’t terribly political, but this had nothing to do with politics. Something had been lost—call it innocence if you wish—and for a group of guys who had spent much of their time exalting sunny California pastimes, it defied all explanation.”

The love of my life
She left me one day
I cried when she said
“I don’t feel the same way

The Show Must Go On

The Beach Boys’ scheduled concert in Maryville, California, on the night of the assassination was suddenly in question. The band’s promoter, Fred Vail, called city officials to check if they should still perform, and everyone agreed to continue. After a moment of silence, the show went on as scheduled.

“I don’t recall much about the concert, but I do know that Brian and I were even more motivated to refine our new song,” Love continued. “The country had changed, and we somehow understood that this piece of music had assumed a different meaning. On January 1, we recorded “The Warmth of the Sun” in Western Recorders Studio 3, and Brian’s arrangement elevated the song to a whole other level. The wordless melody that began the song unfurled our voices, with Brian on top. The lyrics, as originally written and never changed, were about the loss of any loved one, but when we recorded the track, we were all thinking about the loss of President Kennedy. He may be gone, but his idealism, like any lost love, would linger forever. The studio was absolutely charged, and the vocals were filled with a depth of emotion rarely experienced in the life of any band.”

Still, I have the warmth of the sun
(Warmth of the sun)
Within me tonight
(Within me tonight)

A Personal Response

Wilson has a different memory of the timeline. In 2016, he wrote in his memoir I Am Brian Wilson, “When the shooting happened, everyone knew instantly. It was all over the TV and on every kind of news. I called Mike, and he asked me if I wanted to write a song about it. I said, ‘Sure.’ It seemed like something we had to think about, and songs were the way I thought about things. We drove over to my office, and in a half hour, we had ‘The Warmth of the Sun.’ We didn’t think of it as a big song. It was a personal response, but it got bigger over time because of the history linked to it.”

I’ll dream of her arms
And though they’re not real
Just like she’s still there
The way that I feel

Fred Vail

Promoter Fred Vail, who at the time of the assassination was 19, remembered that fateful night (via Forgotten Hits): “We headed back to the El Dorado Hotel [in Sacramento], excited about the success of the evening’s performance but still very mindful of the tragic events that had happened just 12 or 14 hours before. … It was probably about 1 a.m. when we got back to the rooms. … As we all began to wind down from the events of the day, I looked over at Brian and Mike as they began working on a song that they’d already started earlier that morning. They were in the corner of the small room, still tightening up lyrics, working on the melody, and humming and singing a few lines there. By about 2 a.m. or so, the song was nearly complete. It would be a special tribute to our 35th President.”

My love’s like the warmth of the sun
(Warmth of the sun)
It won’t ever die
(It won’t ever die)

“A Sonic Oasis”

Music can endure far beyond the moment. It can help us heal in a moment of despair. In 2008, Love told Uncut magazine, “I was looking for a silver lining in that cumulus nimbus, accentuating the positive. I wanted our music to provide a sonic oasis, a place where literally you could go, like in ‘In My Room,’ and tell your troubles to—or at least lose yourself in the music.”

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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