Bruce Gerald Belland was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 22nd, 1936, the second son of Dr. Stanley G. Belland, a prominent Protestant Minister with a thriving congregation on the city’s Northwest side, and his talented young wife Hertha… a Gospel radio singer, voice coach and choir director.
Bruce sang his first solo in a morning worship service at age 4. The song was “God Bless America” for which he was rewarded with a standing ovation… and a stick of chewing gum.
The gum, and all the hugs, praise and adoration showered on him by the congregation, convinced him, right then and there, that he wanted to be a singer.
Not a fireman. Not a fighter pilot.
Not even shortstop for his beloved Chicago Cubs.
His mind was made up at age 4 and he never wavered from pursuing that dream.
Throughout his childhood, he spent long hours singing along with Bing Crosby on the radio or at the piano being coached by his supportive and always encouraging Mother “while supper burned on the stove.”
The possibility of a musical career drew closer when he was 10 and his family moved to Los Angeles, where his Father assumed the Ministry of the West Hollywood Community Church in a blue collar, working class community just blocks off the Sunset Strip and immediately adjacent to up-scale Beverly Hills.
During his adolescent years, Bruce developed his vocal skills by singing at countless funerals conducted by his Father.
As Bruce puts it: “Other Fathers took their son fishing or to a baseball game. Dad and I buried people.”
Still, he told himself, it was a kind of “performing” and would have to do… for now.
As a star-struck 15-year-old, he delivered newspapers to dozens of world-famous celebrities “across the tracks” in Beverly Hills… Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Durante, Danny Kaye, Ira Gershwin, Danny Thomas, Harpo Marx, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Burns and Rosalind Russell, which further fueled his fantasy of a show business career.
On his delivery route through the elite streets of Beverly Hills, he began to experience firsthand encounters with world-renowned celebrities, something he did his best to bring about at every opportunity.
One famous Oscar winner actually took the time to show him the correct way to fold and throw a newspaper.
Another beloved old radio star in his bathrobe and slippers, would chat with him when he came out to fetch his paper.
Then more show biz elements came into play at school.
He attended Emerson Jr. High in West L.A. where his classmates included future star Robert Redford, Doug McClure and newly honored Juvenile Oscar winner at the time, Bobby Driscoll, Hollywood’s biggest child star since Shirley Temple.
And excitement radiated from the chic, Sunset Strip night clubs mere blocks from his family’s modest parsonage. And as a teenager, he would sneak out of the house after his parents had gone to bed and charm his way backstage at the various showrooms along the Strip.
He soon became a “mascot” to the tech crews at each club and stood backstage night after night witnessing the performances of many of the great night club entertainers of the time.
Nat “King” Cole, Jimmy Durante, The Andrews Sisters, Tony Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Billy Daniels, Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, Danny Kaye and Martin & Lewis with Jerry’s madcap comedic style greatly influencing Bruce’s early onstage antics.
It would prove an invaluable education for what lay ahead.
He was now singing along with The Four Freshmen on the radio and becoming more and more enamored with voices blending in harmony.
After sneaking backstage one night at Ciro’s and hearing his idols the Mills Brothers harmonize, his ambition soon focused on pursuing a recording career in a close harmony vocal group.
He was now also beginning to compose songs and poems of his own for various church functions.
In 1952, he enrolled at Hollywood High, something he had dreamed of since moving from Chicago as a ten-year-old.
A show biz fanatic, he was well aware of the school’s unique history. Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Lana Turner all attended there as did Bruce’s older brother Stanton, one of his earliest heroes.
Hollywood High School was destined to become the birthplace of a collaboration between four gifted and driven young men with a common goal… make a hit record and “become somebody.”
Many fellow students were already embarked on successful show business careers. One pretty blonde classmate left campus early each day to portray Gordon MacRae’s daughter in the film musical “Carousel” and a gymnast/dancer buddy of his took days off to film his scenes in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
Future recording star, and member of the legendary Wrecking Crew studio band, Nino Tempo, a junior, would conduct sizzling jam sessions in the gym at lunchtime.
Other classmates like Mike Farrell and Sally Kellerman would later go on to stardom as would Linda Evans, Stephanie Powers, John Phillip Law, Sara Jessica Parker and Jon Ritter.
And then there were classmates David and Ricky Nelson whose parent’s seminal TV sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was a new hit on ABC.
No one, not even Bruce the big dreamer, could foresee how his path would soon intersect with the Nelsons and further energize his young career.
It was at HHS in 1954 that Bruce convinced Glen Larson, a friend since grammar school, to co-found a vocal group and audition for that year’s student talent show, a hallowed school tradition attended by studio talent scouts and agents looking for promising young talent.
Bruce and Glen recruited two pals from the school choir for that first performance.
The group, featuring Bruce on Lead, sang a rousing version of the Crew Cuts hit “Sha Boom” and stole the show.
The reaction to their performance convinced Bruce and Glen they were on to something special and they now enlisted classmates - 6’4” bass and high school football star Ed Cobb and high tenor and former boy soprano in the famed Mitchell Boys Choir, Marv Ingram, to permanently fill the other two slots.
And so, The Four Preps were born.
Southern California in the early 50’s saw an explosion of social events and the fledgling foursome was soon in demand for all kinds of happenings from bar-b-ques to beach parties, hayrides to sock hops.
Acutely aware that four green teenagers needed musical guidance, Bruce convinced Hollywood High’s musical prodigy and aspiring classical pianist, Lincoln Mayorga, to become the groups’ accompanist, arranger, and conductor.
Lincoln signed on and that relationship would last for more than 13 years and earn Lincoln the affectionate sobriquet “the fifth Prep.”
(Mayorga would eventually go on to a distinguished concert and studio career.)
The 5 strivers began performing throughout Southern California, rehearsing late at night after their day jobs and polishing their Act while Bruce tirelessly prowled the office buildings all over Hollywood trying in vain to elicit interest in their audition tape at a record label.
Then, what Bruce calls “the Belland luck” came into play when Melville Shauer, a prominent personal manager (Les Paul & Mary Ford) whom he’d met strictly by chance, submitted their tape to a legendary producer at Capitol Records, Voyle Gilmore, (Sinatra, Judy Garland, Four Freshmen)
Gilmore, keenly aware of the rapidly expanding market of young record buyers, liked what he heard and, in 1956, signed the four teenagers to a long-term Capitol contract making them the youngest group ever to record for a major record label at the time.
Daily VARIETY quickly dubbed them “Capitol’s jolly juveniles” and a local columnist lauded them as “four clean cut, milk-fed kids from Hollywood High who are all the rage of late”.
“Dreamy Eyes”, their very first release in late 1956, briefly made it on to the Billboard charts at #56, but soon faded and was followed by 6 more single releases that garnered enormous airplay – the nation’s disc jockeys had “adopted” the Preps - but not many sales.
Then in early 1958, the Preps struck recording gold and became what NBC news would call “a household name.”
The song that spread their fame around the world was their first million-seller, “26 Miles Across the Sea (Santa Catalina)”, which was written by Bruce and Glen.
In the ensuing years, music historians have credited that landmark recording with introducing the world to what would become known as “the California sound.”
“26 Miles” would later be cited by Brian Wilson as a teenage favorite and his biography “The Nearest Faraway Place” describes a Preps performance at Brian’s high school as “a witty, off-handed show that lent a charge of inspiration to the material Brian was developing.”
That landmark recording also inspired Jimmy Buffett to name a chapter after it in his best-selling autobiography; “A Pirate Looks at Fifty”, and write
“Twenty-six Miles. It was California, the ocean, girls – hell, it was everything I wanted to be or do.”
Music lovers around the world agreed, and soon, Catalina, “the Island of Romance”, was welcoming a million visitors a year as NBC’s “Today Show” proclaimed, “26 Miles has put Catalina on the map.”
(Today, Bruce and “26 Miles” are immortalized in an exhibit in the main lobby of the new Catalina Island Museum in Avalon.)