He is one of popular music's most deeply revered figures, the main creative force behind some of the most cherished recordings in rock history. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to call Brian Wilson one of the most influential composers of the last century. Wilson’s remarkable journey began in a modest Hawthorne, California home that was filled with music. His mom and dad both played piano, and as a young “boy soprano,” Brian’s vocal gift was immediately evident. He had also started singing harmonies…literally “in their room”…with his two younger brothers (Dennis and Carl). As a teen in the 1950s, he became obsessed with the harmonic blend of groups like the Four Freshmen, and then, in the early 1960s, inspired to combine multi-part vocal harmony with the rock rhythms of Chuck Berry, Brian found his place in the musical sun. He was barely out of his teens when he began to create some of the most beloved records ever... nine consecutive “gold” albums that featured such classics as "Surfer Girl," “In My Room,” “I Get Around,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” "Fun, Fun, Fun," “Help Me Rhonda” and "California Girls"...just to name a handful of the more than two dozen Top 40 hits Brian co-wrote, arranged, produced and performed on with his family band, the Beach Boys.
By 1966, though, glorious harmonies, ingenious hooks and four years of virtually uninterrupted creative growth and commercial success was no longer enough to satisfy Wilson, and as his artistic horizons expanded dramatically, he produced three records in that landmark year that forever changed the course of popular music.
Brian, children and grandchildren on Father's Day, 2014.
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The first was Pet Sounds; the emotional autobiography of its 23-year old “auteur,” it is considered by many to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In the process of bringing it to life, its composer, arranger and producer (that is, Mr. Wilson) rewrote all the rules of what a record could be; as one observer noted, its release was “Independence Day” for rock ‘n’ roll. Primarily working with a new collaborator (lyricist and songwriter Tony Asher), the album featured a dozen originals (including two astounding instrumentals); Pet Sounds was a musical canvas as boundless as Brian’s heart. (Ironically, when you hear the lost innocence in the wail of “Caroline No,” you realize that Pet Sounds not only heals our broken heart but Brian’s too.)
On the charts in America, the album reached #10 and featured four hit singles (including two Top 10 hits, a reworking of the folk standard “Sloop John B” [#3] and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” [#8] as well as two others that cracked the Top 40---“God Only Knows” and “Caroline No”). The former is considered by many, including Sir Paul McCartney, to be one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded; the latter was released as a solo single under the name “Brian Wilson”. (NOTE: It would be twenty years before there would be another Brian Wilson solo single.)
Brian’s second studio masterpiece in 1966 was a track that he first cut during the Pet Sounds session, but it wasn’t included on the album because it was not only unfinished but destined for a different kind of greatness. As spring turned to summer, as Brian repeatedly “tracked” different arrangements and pieces of it, he began to close in on completing what he once called “the biggest production of our lives.”
Over more than a dozen sessions, the Pet Sounds outtake began to take shape as the next Beach Boys single, and when it was unleashed on the world forty years ago in the fall of ’66, it stunned everybody. It was not just the Beach Boys’ first million-selling, worldwide #1 but an absolute milestone in recording history. "Good Vibrations” was a record that the legendary publicist Derek Taylor called a “pocket symphony”; given its kaleidoscopic movements, it was an apt description, as Wilson demonstrated the breadth of his musical vision as well as how the recording studio could be both an artist’s garret and a key instrument in creating his art.
Everybody in the industry was asking “How did he do it?” and “What is he going to do next?” The answer would take shape through a new collaboration, this time with an inspired poet, a young studio musician and burgeoning songwriter, Van Dyke Parks.
And so as “Good Vibrations” headed from final mix to master to pressing plant, Brian and Van Dyke began work on his third major production of ‘66, an album Brian believed would be “a teenage symphony to God.” Smile was to feature such Wilson/Parks songs as “Heroes & Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” “Wonderful,” “Cabin Essence” and the wordless a cappella marvel, “Our Prayer.” Those who heard the “work in progress” were hailing it as the cutting edge of a “new” sound. A suite of songs that combined classical composition, multi-part harmonies, rock rhythms, wondrous wordplay and an avant-garde sensibility, it was somehow going to be both ahead of its time and timeless. Smile quickly became one of the most anticipated works of the rock era.
In the meantime, the 1966 combination of Pet Sounds [which reached #2 on the UK chart] and “Good Vibrations” [#1 both stateside and in England] was so potent that when the Beach Boys arrived in London for a fall tour, they were greeted with a mania worthy of England’s most famous musical export. And from London to Los Angeles, those two records…one a “long-player” that lasted less than 40 minutes, the other a single that at the time of its release was one of the longest #1 hits ever…set the stage for what was seen by Brian as “the next step.”
In late 1966, the music world and such iconic figures as Leonard Bernstein (who featured Brian playing “Surf’s Up” on a 1967 CBS news special about the musical revolution that Brian was leading) believed that Wilson was, for the third time in one year, again rewriting the "rulebook” on what a pop record could be.
Having just succeeded with "Good Vibrations," Smile was to be an entire album written and recorded in that same style...what might be called "modular" music. Brian was nearly done with Smile when a combination of circumstances (record industry pressure, technical challenges, personal issues, internal group dynamics, etc.) forced him to shelve it.
Everybody, especially the Beatles, had been watching and waiting to hear how Brian would follow-up “Good Vibrations.” As their producer Sir George Martin regretfully noted, “We waited in vain.” During the subsequent 37 years, Smile became the most famous unfinished, unreleased album ever.
Yet, throughout the years, even as Wilson battled his personal demons and rode the roller coaster of professional ups and downs, he continued to produce intimate musical gems, continued to make beautiful music. There were entire albums (1968’s jazzy Friends, 1977’s cult favorite Love You) and tracks ("Time To Get Alone", "This Whole World", "Add Some Music To Your Day", "’Til I Die", "Marcella" and "Sail On Sailor") that let us know that his compositional and arranging magic was still intact. Extended pieces such as 1973’s “Mt. Vernon & Fairway” indicated that the quirky brilliance that had been at the hallmark of SMiLE was still in play.
Sadly, for a long while the music took a back seat as Wilson struggled, in the words of the Pet Sounds song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” to find a place to fit in, to survive. His journey back to music took place in fits and starts.
In 1988, Wilson finally released his first solo album, which featured “Love and Mercy,” the beautiful “message” song that often ends his concerts, vintage compositions (e.g. “Melt Away,” “There’s So Many,” “Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long”) as well as his first extended piece since the SMiLE era, a “modular” suite called “Rio Grande”.
In 1990, the reissue of Wilson’s glorious 1960s Beach Boys productions was highlighted by the debut of Pet Sounds on CD, earning that album the recognition that had often eluded it, bringing a new generation to the music and pushing it to gold and then platinum status. 1993’s “Good Vibrations” 5-CD collection (which included the first official release of outtakes from the SMiLE sessions) was a stunning career overview and 1997’s The Pet Sounds Sessions box set earned Wilson a Grammy nomination, his first since “Good Vibrations.” Those retrospectives fueled a major reassessment of Wilson’s artistic contribution.
In 1995, after Brian married Melinda Ledbetter, he at last had what he called “emotional security,” which gave him the confidence to return full-time to music. Reuniting with his old friend, SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Brian sang the lead vocals and multi-part background harmonies for the acclaimed Orange Crate Art. Next, in 1998, came his second solo album, Imagination. Filled with solid Wilson originals and extraordinary layered harmonies, Wilson’s shockingly strong vocals were, for many, the highlight of Imagination.
As the 20th century came to a close, one of its most beloved composers began one of the most improbable artistic reinventions ever---Brian became a concert performer. Conquering his legendary stage-fright, Wilson went on his first solo tour in 1999, taking center stage at a series of concerts which finally gave his fans the opportunity to return the love they’d received from his music.
In the summer of 2000, Wilson began a series of “dreams come true” events when he kicked off his acclaimed Pet Sounds symphonic tour, taking that studio creation to concert halls around the world (from the Hollywood Bowl to London’s Royal Festival Hall to the Sydney Opera House), giving audiences the opportunity to experience Wilson’s production masterpiece as a living, breathing work of art. Those shows received more than a few reviews calling it “the best concert ever”. With good reason. Few had believed that Pet Sounds would ever be performed live, let alone with its creator infusing compositions like “Don’t Talk” and “Caroline No” with the kind of passionate performances that on some nights actually exceeded the record.
Welcomed back to the world of music (through such honors as induction into the “Songwriters Hall of Fame”), Wilson was feted in 2001 at “An All Star Tribute” at Radio City Music Hall. Sir Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, David Crosby, Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb and Sir George Martin were some of the greats who assembled to honor Brian on that rainy March night. In addition to a generous sampling of Wilson’s Beach Boys song catalogue, the evening included a start-to-finish performance of the entire Pet Sounds album by the assembled cast.
The following year, Wilson was the only American rocker at the Queen’s Jubilee, sharing the backyard stage at Buckingham Palace with, among so many others, Sir Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. These events led to a series of appearances at charity concerts (Brian joined Sir Paul for a landmine benefit; Mr. Clapton took to the stage with Brian at a concert that raised money for cancer research) and studio collaborations that were featured on Wilson’s third solo album, 2004’s Gettin’ In Over My Head.
Yet, throughout all of this, Brian never lost sight of the music that had become “the holy grail” of pop---SMiLE. Inspired by the Radio City tribute, where he performed “Heroes & Villains” for the first time in decades, Wilson began to add SMiLE songs to his live sets. Then, in 2003, the day after receiving the UK’s prestigious Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement, Wilson announced the impossible. Against all odds and in the face of enormous expectation, Wilson and Van Dyke Parks reunited and with the able assistance of key band member Darian Sahanaja, set out do a version of SMiLE.
Adding a new layer of surprise to the SMiLE story, SMiLE, which had been conceived as a revolutionary studio record, would come to life “live on stage.” In February 2004, Brian Wilson’s version of SMiLE was revealed to the world in a week of dramatic “dream-fulfilling” SRO concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall, where it was greeted with ecstatic response from fans, rock royalty and assembled music media from around the globe.
After an extended tour of the UK and Europe, Brian and his band recorded an all-new studio version of SMiLE, and completed an acclaimed U.S. tour (which included two-night stands at America’s twin peaks of concert stages, Carnegie Hall in New York and Disney Hall in Los Angeles). BRIAN WILSON presents SMiLE was released in September, 2004. Like the concerts, the album exceeded expectations and was received with unbridled joy and thrilling reviews. It topped many “Album of The Year” lists, went “gold” in the UK and earned Wilson his first Grammy Award. A two-disc Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE DVD set, released in 2005, garnered Wilson yet another Grammy nomination.
In the midst of all the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE success, Wilson was honored by his peers in 2005 at a NARAS’ “MusiCares Person of the Year” tribute featuring Barenaked Ladies, Jeff Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Legend, Darlene Love, Michael McDonald, Billy Preston and Neil Young. Later that year, Brian and his band were among the headliners at the legendary Glastonbury Festival and also played at “Live Eight,” making Brian one of the very few artists to appear at both that event and “Live Aid.”
In the fall of 2005, What I Really Want For Christmas, Brian’s first solo album of holiday music, was released by Clive Davis’ Arista label. And in the fall of 2006, Wilson took time out from his composing work to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Pet Sounds with complete performances of the album at a handful of concerts. Then, it was back to the piano, to put the finishing touches on his first all-new full-length work in years. “That Lucky Old’ Sun,” his musical tribute to California, premiered in London last September at a series of sold-out concerts at Royal Festival Hall, the venue that had commissioned the piece as part of the celebration of its grand re-opening.
At the same time London critics and audiences were being thrilled by these new sounds, Wilson was receiving word that he was going to receive America’s highest artistic tribute---The Kennedy Center Honor. In December, 2007, Wilson, his family and friends gathered in Washington, D.C. where he joined fellow honorees including Martin Scorcese and Diana Ross at a gala event at the Kennedy Center.
Wilson, the father of seven, including daughters Carnie and Wendy from a previous marriage and Daria, Delanie, Dylan, Dash and Dakota Rose spends his time juggling activities with his kids while jumping back into the studio. In 2008 Wilson returned to Capitol Records and released the critically acclaimed “That Lucky Old’ Sun” that Rolling Stone Magazine praised as “Brian’s strongest new work in years.” Brian and his band toured the album of what many are proclaiming his latest…and perhaps most joyous…masterpiece.
In 2009 Wilson announced his next project, a groundbreaking collaboration with one of his musical heroes George Gershwin. With the blessing of the Gershwin estate he was able to complete 2 unfinished fragments of music by the late composer. This historical moment in music history will be released in 2010 on Walt Disney Records. The album will also include Wilson’s versions of his all time favorite Gershwin tunes.
If you’ve seen Brian in concert, you’ve already witnessed the magic and the celebration. If you’ve heard his records, you know why he’s been called the Mozart of Rock, the Gershwin of his generation. In a culture where trends change overnight, Wilson has gone the distance. It’s been said that if music is math, then Wilson just might be Einstein. But no comparisons are really necessary; he’s Brian Wilson, an American composer, arranger and producer whose work has proved to be as powerful as faith, as timeless as love and as heartfelt as mercy.