Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) is an American musician, best known as the leader and chief songwriter of the group The Beach Boys. On stage, Wilson provided many of the lead vocals, and often harmonized with the group in falsetto. Early during his on-stage career, Wilson primarily played bass on stage, but gradually transitioned to primarily playing piano/keyboards. Besides being the primary composer in The Beach Boys, he also functioned as the band's main producer and arranger. After signing with Capitol Records in mid-1962, Wilson wrote or co-wrote more than two dozen Top 40 hits including "Surfin' Safari", "Surfin' USA", "Shut Down", "Little Deuce Coupe", "Be True to Your School", "In My Room", "Fun, Fun, Fun", "I Get Around", "Dance Dance Dance", "Help Me Rhonda", "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations".
In the mid-1960s, Wilson used his increasingly creative ambitions to compose and produce Pet Sounds, considered one of the greatest albums of all time. The intended follow up to Pet Sounds, SMiLE, was cancelled for various reasons, including Wilson's deteriorating mental health. Wilson's contributions to The Beach Boys diminished and his erratic behavior led to tensions with the band. After years of treatment and recuperation, he began a solo career in 1988 with Brian Wilson, the same year that he and The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since then, he has toured for the first time in decades with a new band and released acclaimed albums, including a reworked version of SMiLE in 2004, for which Wilson won a Grammy Award for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire)" as Best Rock Instrumental.
In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine published a list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time", and ranked Wilson number 52. He is an occasional actor and voice actor, having appeared in television shows, films, and other artists' music videos. On December 16, 2011, a 50th Anniversary Reunion was announced and Brian returned to The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson remains a member of the Beach Boys corporation, Brother Records Incorporated.
Wilson was born on June 20, 1942 at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, California, the son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. He was the eldest of three boys; his younger brothers were Dennis and Carl. When Brian was two, the Wilson family moved from Inglewood to 3701 West 119th Street in nearby Hawthorne, California.
Brian Wilson's father told of Brian's unusual musical abilities prior to his first birthday, observing that the baby could repeat the melody from "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" after only a few verses had been sung by the father. Murry stated, "He was very clever and quick. I just fell in love with him."
At about age two, Brian heard George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", which had an enormous emotional impact on him. A few years later Brian was discovered to have extremely diminished hearing in his right ear. The exact cause of this hearing loss is unclear, though theories range from Brian's simply being born partially deaf, to a blow to the head from Brian's father, or a neighborhood bully, being to blame.
While father Murry was ostensibly a reasonable provider, he was often abusive. Murry Wilson, a minor musician and songwriter, also encouraged his children in this field in numerous ways. At an early age, Brian was given six weeks of lessons on a "toy accordion", and at seven and eight sang solos in church with a choir behind him. Brian was on the football team as a quarterback, played baseball and was a cross-country runner in his senior year. He sang with various students at school functions and with his family and friends at home. Brian taught his two brothers harmony parts that all three would then practice when they were supposed to be asleep. He also played piano obsessively after school, deconstructing the harmonies of The Four Freshmen by listening to short segments of their songs on a phonograph, then working to recreate the blended sounds note by note on the keyboard. Brian received a Wollensak tape recorder on his 16th birthday, allowing him to experiment with recording songs and early group vocals.
First steps: Carl and the Passions
Wilson's surviving home tapes document his initial efforts singing with various friends and family, including a song that would later be recorded in the studio by The Beach Boys, "Sloop John B", as well as "Bermuda Shorts" and a hymn titled "Good News". In his senior year at Hawthorne High, in addition to his classroom music studies, he would gather at lunchtime to sing with friends like Keith Lent and Bruce Griffin. Brian and Lent worked on a revised version of the tune "Hully Gully" to support the campaign of a classmate named Carol Hess who was running for senior class president.
Enlisting his cousin and often-time singing partner Mike Love, and Wilson's reluctant youngest brother Carl Wilson, Brian's next public performance featured more ambitious arrangements at a fall arts program at his high school. To entice Carl into the group, Wilson named the newly-formed membership "Carl and the Passions". The performance featured tunes by Dion and the Belmonts and The Four Freshmen ("It's a Blue World"), the latter of which proved difficult for the ensemble to carry off. However, the event was notable for the impression it made on another musician and classmate of Brian's who was in the audience that night, Al Jardine, later to join the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love in The Beach Boys.
Initial compositions and the Pendletones
Wilson enrolled at El Camino College in Los Angeles, majoring in psychology, in September 1960. He continued his music studies at the college as well. At some point in the year 1961 he wrote his first all-original melody, loosely based on a Dion and the Belmonts version of "When You Wish Upon a Star". The song would eventually be known as "Surfer Girl". Although an early demo of the song was recorded in February 1962 at World-Pacific Studios, it was not re-recorded and released until 1963, when it became a top ten hit.
Brian and his brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson along with Mike Love and Al Jardine first appeared as a music group in the summer of 1961, initially named the Pendletones. After being prodded by Dennis to write a song about the local water sports craze, Brian and Mike Love together created what would become the first single for the band, "Surfin'". Over Labor Day weekend 1961, Brian took advantage of the fact that his parents were in Mexico City for a couple of days and intended to use the emergency money they had left for the boys to rent an amp, a microphone, and a stand-up bass. As it turned out, the money they had left was not enough to cover musical expenses, so Al Jardine appealed to his mother, Virginia for assistance. When she heard the group perform, she was suitably impressed and handed over $300 to help out. Al promptly took Brian to the music store where he was able to rent a stand-up bass. After two days of rehearsing in the Wilsons' music room, Brian's parents returned home from their trip. Murry was irate, until Brian convinced him to listen to what they'd been up to. His father was convinced that the boys did indeed have something worth pursuing. He quickly proclaimed himself the group's manager and the band embarked on serious rehearsals for a proper studio session. Recorded by Hite and Dorinda Morgan and released on the small Candix Records label, "Surfin'" became a top local hit in Los Angeles and reached number seventy-five on the national Billboard sales charts.
Dennis later described the first time Brian heard their song on the radio as the three Wilson brothers (and soon-to-be-band member David Marks) drove in Brian's 1957 Ford in the rain: "Nothing will ever top the expression on Brian's face, ever ... THAT was the all-time moment."
However, the Pendletones were no more. Without the band's knowledge or permission, Candix Records had changed their name to The Beach Boys.
First performances and the quest for a major label
Brian Wilson and his bandmates, following a set by Ike and Tina Turner, performed their first major live show at The Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance on New Year's Eve, 1961. Three days previously, Brian's father had bought him an electric bass and amplifier; Brian had learned to play the instrument in that short period of time, with Al Jardine moving to rhythm guitar.
Looking for a followup single for their radio hit, Brian and Mike Love wrote "Surfin' Safari", and attempts were made to record a usable take at World Pacific, including overdubs, on February 8, 1962, along with several other tunes including an early version of "Surfer Girl". Only a few days later, discouraged about the band's financial prospects, and objecting to adding some Chubby Checker songs to The Beach Boys live setlist, Al Jardine abruptly left the group.
When Candix Records ran into money problems and sold the group's master recordings to another label, Murry Wilson terminated the contract. Brian, worried about The Beach Boys' future, asked his father to help his group make more recordings. But Murry and Hite Morgan (who at this point was their music publisher) were turned down by a number of Los Angeles record companies.
As "Surfin'" faded from the charts, Brian, who had forged a songwriting partnership with Gary Usher, created several new songs, including a car song, "409", that Usher helped them write. Recruiting David Marks, who had been playing electric guitar (and practicing with Carl) for years, Brian and the revamped Beach Boys cut new tracks at Western Recorders including an updated "Surfin' Safari" and "409". These songs convinced Capitol Records to release the demos as a single; they became a double-sided national hit.
The Beach Boys and first success with Capitol Records
Recording sessions for the band's first album took place in Capitol's basement studios (in the famous tower building) in August 1962, but early on Brian lobbied for a different place to cut Beach Boy tracks. The large rooms were built to record the big orchestras and ensembles of the 1950s, not small rock groups. At Brian's insistence, Capitol agreed to let The Beach Boys pay for their own outside recording sessions, to which Capitol would own all the rights, and in return the band would receive a higher royalty rate on their record sales. Additionally, during the taping of their first LP Brian fought for, and won, the right to be in charge of the production- though his first acknowledged liner notes production credit did not come until the band's third album Surfer Girl, in 1963.
In January 1963 The Beach Boys recorded their first top-ten (cresting at #3 in the United States) single, "Surfin' USA", which began their long run of highly successful recording efforts at Hollywood's Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard. It was during the sessions for this single that Brian made the production decision from that point on to use doubletracking on the group's vocals, resulting in a deeper and more resonant sound.
The song, adapted from (and eventually entirely credited to) Chuck Berry, is widely seen as emblematic of the early 1960s American rock cultural experience. The Surfin' USA album was also a big hit in the United States, reaching number two on the national sales charts by early July 1963. The Beach Boys had become a top-rank recording and touring music band.
Brian became known for his unique use of vocal harmonies and incessant studio perfectionism. Early influences on his music included not only the previously mentioned Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry, but also the work of record producer Phil Spector, with whose production technique Wilson became obsessed for years. He later considered The Beatles to be his chief rivals, and they in turn would cite his work as a major influence. Wilson also produced records for other artists, but to much lesser success, with the exception of Jan and Dean, for whom Wilson co-wrote several hit songs. Following a nervous breakdown onboard a flight from L.A. to Houston in 1964, Wilson stopped performing live with the Beach Boys in an effort to concentrate solely on songwriting and studio production. Glen Campbell was called in as his temporary stand-in for live performances, before Bruce Johnston replaced him. In late 1965, Wilson began working on material for a new album after hearing the Beatles' 1965 album Rubber Soul.
As he began work on the new project, Pet Sounds, Wilson formed a temporary songwriting partnership with lyricist Tony Asher. Wilson, who had recorded the album's instrumentation with The Wrecking Crew, then gathered with The Beach Boys to record vocal overdubs, following their return from a tour of Japan. Upon hearing what Wilson had created for the first time in 1965, the group, particularly Mike Love, was somewhat critical of their leader's music, and expressed their dissatisfaction. At this time, Wilson still had considerable control within the group and, according to Wilson, they eventually overcame their initial negative reaction, as his newly created music began to near completion; "They thought it was too far-out to do, you know?... But then when it was all done, they liked it. They started liking it." The album was released May 16, 1966 and, despite modest sales figures at the time, has since become widely critically acclaimed, often being cited among the all-time greatest albums. Although the record was issued under the group's name, Pet Sounds is arguably seen as a Brian Wilson solo album—Wilson even toyed with the idea by releasing "Caroline, No" as a solo single in March 1966, reaching no. 32 on the Billboard charts.
During the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson had been working on another song, which was held back from inclusion on the record as he felt that it was not sufficiently complete. The song "Good Vibrations" set a new standard for musicians and for what could be achieved in the recording studio. Recorded in multiple sessions and in numerous studios, the song eventually cost $50,000 to record within a six month period. In October 1966, the song was released as a single, giving The Beach Boys their third U.S. number-one hit—alongside "I Get Around" and "Help Me, Rhonda"—and it sold over a million copies.
Smile, group tension and Brother Records
With the universal success of "Good Vibrations", Capitol Records had no choice but to back Wilson up for his next project, originally called Dumb Angel but soon re-titled SMiLE, which collaborator Van Dyke Parks would describe as a "teenage symphony to God". "Good Vibrations" had been recorded in modular style, with separately written sections individually taped and linked together, and Wilson's concept for the new album was was more of the same, representing a departure from the standard live-taped performances typical of studio recordings at that time. Having been introduced to Van Dyke Parks at a garden party at Terry Melcher's home, Wilson liked Parks' "visionary eloquence" and began work with him in the fall of 1966. The pair collaborated closely on "Heroes and Villains", "Surf's Up", "Wonderful", "Vegetables" and "Mrs. O Leary's Cow" and Wilson recorded backing tracks, largely with session musicians, through the winter. However, over Christmas 1966 conflict within the group and Wilson's own growing personal problems threw the project into terminal disarray. Originally scheduled for release in January 1967, the date was continually pushed back until press officer Derek Taylor announced its cancellation in May 1967.
Among the factors distracting Wilson and deflecting the project was The Beach Boys' corporate decision at this time to file a lawsuit against Capitol Records for unpaid royalties and start their own label, Brother Records. Allegedly, Wilson was also deterred by news of The Beatles' progress on their own radical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. On a visit to Los Angeles in April, Paul McCartney played Wilson a song from the album, "She's Leaving Home"; later Wilson was said to be "deeply affected" by hearing a tape of another song, "A Day in the Life." Directly afterward, Smile was abandoned, and Wilson would not return to complete it until 2004, when it was released as a Brian Wilson album of the same name. Van Dyke Parks later noted, "Brian had a nervous collapse. What broke his heart was Sgt. Pepper." Writing for The Guardian in December 1999, journalist Will Hodgkinson offered his own version of the eventual demise of Wilson's most ambitious project:
- [A] combination of factors, including litigations against the record company and increasing animosity between Wilson and the rest of the band, meant that in May 1967 Wilson pulled the plug on the record... [Mike] Love had already dismissed "Good Vibrations" as "avant-garde shit" and objected to the way Wilson, Parks and a group of highly skilled session musicians were creating music way beyond his understanding... By March 1967, the bad feeling got too much for Parks and, having no desire to break up The Beach Boys, he walked out.
Following the cancellation of SMiLE, The Beach Boys relocated to a recording studio within the confines of Brian Wilson's mansion, where the hastily compiled Smiley Smile album was assembled, along with a number of future Beach Boys records. This marked the end of Wilson's leadership within the band, and has been seen to be "the moment when the Beach Boys first started slipping from the vanguard to nostalgia."
With mental health finally on the mend, Wilson decided to complete the aborted SMiLE project from 1967. Aided by musician and long time fan Darian Sahanaja of The Wondermints, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson painstakingly completed work on the album, which was finally released in February 2004—37 years after it was conceived. Wilson debuted SMiLE at the Royal Festival Hall in London and subsequently toured the UK.
The debut performance at the Royal Festival Hall was a defining moment for Wilson. The documentary DVD of the event shows Wilson preparing for the performance and expressing doubts over the concept of putting this legendary work before the public, moments before taking the stage. After an opening set of Beach Boys classics, Wilson returned to the stage to perform SMiLE in its entirety. A 10-minute standing ovation followed the concert; the DVD shows several rock luminaries in the crowd, such as Roger Daltrey, Paul Weller, Sir George Martin and Sir Paul McCartney (although neither Martin nor McCartney attended the opening night, contrary to what the DVD implies).
SMiLE was then recorded through April to June and released in September, to wide critical acclaim. The release hit #13 on the Billboard chart. The 2004 recording featured his backup/touring band, including Beach Boys guitarist Jeff Foskett, members of the Wondermints and backup singer Taylor Mills. In this version, "Good Vibrations" features Tony Asher's original lyrics in the verses, instead of Mike Love's lyrics from the released 1966 version.
At the 47th Grammy Awards in 2005, Wilson won his only Grammy for the track "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" as Best Rock Instrumental. In 2004, Wilson promoted SMiLE with a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Europe. In December 2005, he also released What I Really Want for Christmas for Arista Records. The release hit #200 on the Billboard chart, though sales were modest. Wilson's remake of the classic "Deck The Halls" became a surprise Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit.
After 44 years, Wilson oversaw the official Beach Boys release of SMiLE, retitled The SMiLE Sessions. Released on November 1, 2011, the legendary album was made available as single CD, a 2 CD box-set, a vinyl double album, and a deluxe 5 CD/2 LP box set.
Post-SMiLE to That Lucky Old Sun
In February 2005, Wilson had a cameo in the TV series Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century as Daffy Duck's spiritual surfing adviser. He also appeared in the 2005 holiday episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, performing "Deck the Halls" for children with xeroderma pigmentosum (hypersensitivity to sunlight) at Walt Disney World Resort. On July 2, 2005, Wilson performed for the Live 8 concert in Berlin, Germany.
In September 2005, Wilson arranged a charity drive to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, wherein people who donated $100 or more would receive a personal phone call from Wilson. According to the website, over $250K was raised. In November 2005, former bandmate Mike Love sued Wilson over "shamelessly misappropriating... Love's songs, likeness, and the Beach Boys trademark, as well as the 'Smile' album itself" in the promotion of Smile. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on grounds that it was meritless.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, Wilson embarked on a brief tour in November 2006. Beach Boy Al Jardine accompanied Wilson for the tour.
Wilson then released That Lucky Old Sun in September 2008. The piece originally debuted in a series of September 2007 concerts at London's Royal Festival Hall, and in January 2008 at Sydney's State Theatre while headlining the Sydney Festival. Wilson described the piece as "consisting of five 'rounds', with interspersed spoken word". A series of US and UK concerts preceded its release.
On September 30, 2008, Seattle's Light in the Attic Records released A World of Peace Must Come, a collaboration between Wilson and Stephen Kalinich, originally recorded in 1969, but later lost in Kalinich's closet.
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin and the Disney Songs (2009–2011)
In 2009 Wilson's workload increased when he signed a two-record deal with Disney. In summer 2009, Wilson was approached by the Gershwin estate to record an album of his interpretations of classic Gershwin songs, and to assess unfinished piano pieces by Gershwin for possible expansion into finished songs. After extensive evaluation of a vast body of Gershwin fragments, Wilson chose two to complete. The resulting album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, was released on August 17, 2010 on Disney's Pearl label. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin achieved Number 1 position on the Billboard Jazz Chart, and had sold 53,000 copies by August 2011.
Wilson's second album for Disney was In The Key Of Disney, a collection of classic Disney movie songs, which was released on October 25, 2011. This album was especially memorable for its inclusion of Wilson's take on "When You Wish Upon a Star", the song that had inspired his own first composition, "Surfer Girl".
Also in 2011 Wilson contributed a cover of Buddy Holly's "Listen To Me" to the tribute album, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly released on September 6, on Verve Forecast. Rolling Stone praised Wilson's version as "gorgeous", featuring "angelic harmonies and delicate instrumentation".
Beach Boys Reunion (2011–present)
In June 2010, the Las Vegas Sun reported that Brian Wilson would join The Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary. That July, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Jardine stated "we’re definitely doing at least one show" in 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the band. The reunion would feature all the surviving 1960s-era Beach Boys— Jardine himself, Wilson, Love, Johnston and possibly Marks. Jardine added that the tension between various former band-mates has been resolved. Regarding the various now-resolved lawsuits between them, he noted that "Once we finished our business, all the negativity was gone." Rolling Stone reported that Wilson's manager, Jean Sievers, is "unfamiliar with reunion plans", although the magazine stated "a source close to Love says there have been discussions for reunion concert, but nothing is set." There was also no confirmation of a location for the concerts.
Jardine joined the Beach Boys for the first time since 1998 at a tribute for Ronald Reagan on February 5, 2011. Wilson was invited to join as well, though he did not attend, as he was recording his Disney album.
On July 27, 2011, Love announced that, "Where we're at right now is Brian's written some songs, I've written some songs. We're talking very seriously about getting together and co-writing and doing some new music together [as a band].. ..He's been doing his own touring, we've been doing ours and so we haven't really been able to lock into that, but it looks like this fall we will. It just makes a lot of sense with a milestone such as 50 years to get together and do something."That day, Brian Wilson said the band is going to get back together to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Wilson added that he was at Capitol Records recently with Love and Jardine, but is still not exactly certain what the future holds: “We're going to get together a little bit before we do it.” To rehearse? “I assume so,” Wilson said.
In the Summer 2011 edition of the Beach Boys' fan publication, Endless Summer Quarterly, Love told editor David M. Beard, "We had a session at Capitol Records (with Love, Wilson, Jardine and Bruce Johnston). Brian was conducting the session. … At the end of the session Brian said, “I can’t believe a 70-year-old guy can sing that great!” [Laughs] It was really cute! It was cool. … It was something to prove that we can work together. There’s a lot of talk and conjecture both internally and externally. All I can say at the moment is I think it would be great to work with Brian and see what can come of it… I’m all in favor of a positive outlook towards that."
In October 2011, Jardine reported that the Beach Boys would reunite in 2012 for 50 U.S. dates and 50-60 overseas dates. Love stated that during the summer of 2011, the band reunited to re-record their hit, "Do it Again" which will be made into a music video to promote the world tour. Love had nothing but praise for Wilson saying "he sounds great, always coming up with chords, and his singing ability is still there. He hasn't lost the ability to do what he does best." Love even said he was more excited about what the future held and together with Wilson they were writing songs again with Beach Boys sessions veteran, Eddie Bayers for an upcoming Beach Boys reunion album. Bayers commented on the new songs by Wilson by saying "Brian's new creations are just unbelievable." Wilson, on the other hand, said he did not really like working with his former bandmates, though it all depends on how they feel and how much money is involved. He concluded by saying that money is not the only reason he made records, but it does hold a place in their lives.
The Beach Boys released their new album, That's Why God Made the Radio, on June 5, 2012. The album's title track was released as its first single in April 2012.
Happy Birthday, Brian! Today marks your 70th birthday, and to see you touring with the Boys and releasing a new LP on the band's anniversary is beyond thrilling! I give these events, collectively 27 zillion stars out a possible...this is not even possible, much less probable! Let's suffice it to say that this is history in the making, just like the Beach Boys' entire career!
RIP Carl and Dennis...we love you.
Tomorrow we return to the world of music and fun, fun, fun, so keep your woody waxed, tubes hot and antenna up! See you then!