If Brian Wilson was the mind and creative spirit of the Beach Boys, and his brother Dennis its carefree spirit, then their younger sibling Carl Wilson was the heart and conscience of the legendary pop...
If Brian Wilson was the mind and creative spirit of the Beach Boys, and his brother Dennis its carefree spirit, then their younger sibling Carl Wilson was the heart and conscience of the legendary pop-rock band for over four decades. Recruited at 14 to play lead guitar in the band, Wilson grew into a talented musician and songwriter in his own right, as well as the group's chief vocalist after Brian stopped touring with them in 1966, most notably on such classics as "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations." Wilson eventually took over as the leader of the Beach Boys following the aborted Smile album, which divided the band into camps over its esoteric content and sent Brian Wilson into a drug-fueled tailspin. Carl eventually became the group's foundation, writing, singing and producing some of its best songs of the late 1960s and 1970s, including "I Can Hear Music," "Wild Honey" and "Darlin'." However, he was unable to halt their creative decline, leading to a brief departure from the group to strike out as a solo artist. Wilson returned to the band in the early 1980s, and maintained their artistic legacy by keeping their best achievements a vital part of a stage show that was dominated by nostalgia. His death in 1998 deprived the music industry of one of its most underrated and generous figures, as well as one of rock's purest and most moving vocal talents.
Born Dec. 21, 1946 in Hawthorne, CA, Carl Dean Wilson was the youngest of three sons by Murry Wilson, a frustrated songwriter and producer, and his wife, Audree. Like his older brother, Brian, Carl Wilson developed an interest in music at an early age after seeing Western swing guitarist Spade Cooley on his weekly television variety series, "The Hoffman Hayride" (KTLA, 1948-1957). He received his first guitar at the age of 12, and soon began working on basic rock-n-roll chords while experimenting with Brian on rudimentary recordings in their shared bedroom. In 1961, the 14-year-old Wilson reluctantly became the lead guitarist in a pop-rock group organized by Brian that included their brother Dennis on drums, cousin Mike Love on vocals, a school friend named Al Jardine on stand-up bass, and the Wilson's neighbor, 13-year-old David Marks, who handled rhythm guitar. The group, which was initially known as Carl and the Passions to preserve the younger Wilson's interest, and later as the Pendletones, recorded - without Marks, who would move in and out of the group until departing in 1963 - their first single, "Surfin'," which was released under the Beach Boys' moniker in 1961. Though raw in construct, the mellifluous harmonies of the Wilson brothers with Love and Jardine won them a contract with Capitol, where they recorded their first album, Surfin' Safari, in 1962. Wilson's talents on guitar developed rapidly, and within a few years, he was laying out crisp, competent licks in a Chuck Berry style that came to define the early Beach Boys sound.
Though Brian Wilson was the band's primary songwriter, Carl Wilson began contributing his own compositions as early as 1962. His first song for the Beach Boys was an instrumental titled "Karate," which was later re-dubbed "Beach Boys Stomp," but went unreleased. As time passed, his contributions became more consistent; Wilson's lead vocals were featured on at least one song on each album, and he scored his first Top 10 single with "Dance, Dance, Dance," a collaboration with Brian in 1964. The following year, Brian Wilson announced his retirement from touring, citing his interest in devoting his full attention to the band's recorded work, though a breakdown onboard a flight to Houston in 1964 also contributed to the decision. Carl Wilson soon became the Beach Boys' de facto leader, both onstage and off. In the years that followed the band's inception, he had developed into both a talented guitarist and an extremely capable singer with a range that approached Brian's multi-octave skills. He became his brother's most trusted interpreter, bringing a soulfulness to pop tracks like 1965's "Girl Don't Tell Me" and an undeniable purity to his more inspired ballads, most notably the achingly lovely "God Only Knows" from the 1966 landmark album Pet Sounds. Wilson was also the sole member of the Beach Boys to play an instrument on post-1965 recordings, which largely replaced the group with a team of ace studio musicians known in music circles as "The Wrecking Crew."
More importantly, Wilson became the glue that held the Beach Boys together in the late 1960s, when Brian Wilson's increasingly experimental compositions divided the band into two camps. Both Carl and Dennis Wilson, as well as Bruce Johnston, who became Brian's touring replacement before joining the group fulltime in 1966, were openly supportive of the new material, including the revolutionary 1966 single "Good Vibrations," which was anchored by Carl Wilson's angelic tenor. But Mike Love and, to a lesser extent, Al Jardine were wary of the new direction, citing concerns that it would alienate their fanbase. These tensions reached a boiling point during the recording of the sprawling, sonically ambitious Smile, which resulted in the album being shelved for nearly four decades and Brian Wilson retreating into a self-imposed exile marked by mental illness and rampant drug abuse.
In the wake of the Smile debacle, Carl Wilson fully assumed duties as the Beach Boys' leader, taking over lead vocals on their greatest singles of the late '60s, including "Wild Honey," "Darlin'," and a cover of the Jeff Barry-Elle Greenwich single "I Can Hear Music," which also marked his solo debut as producer. He would oversee most of the band's albums in the 1970s, including the underrated Sunflower (1970), Surf's Up (1971) and the nostalgically titled Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (1972), which frequently saw Wilson turn to his brother Brian and pull him out of his downward spiral to provide a new song. He also attempted to beef up the group's sound by adding Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin of The Flame, a South African group whose debut album Wilson had produced in 1970. These efforts briefly boosted the group out of its career doldrums, and for a period, the Beach Boys were commercially and culturally relevant, performing with the likes of Chicago, as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash and enjoying a No. 1 record with Endless Summer, a 1974 compilation of their early hits.
With the success of Endless Summer also came the end of Wilson's tenure as group leader. Love, and to a lesser extent, Jardine and Johnston, believed that the band's true popularity was with its roots, and pushed for a stage show built around their classic songs rather than newer material. Both Carl and Dennis Wilson opposed the idea, but with Dennis' increased drug and alcohol use, Carl found himself outmanned. He fulfilled his duties with the touring band while focusing his creative energies on providing guest vocals for other musicians, including on Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," Chicago's "Baby What a Big Surprise" and "Wishing You Were Here," and Warren Zevon's "Desperadoes Under the Eaves." By 1980, he had severed ties with the Beach Boys in order to establish himself as a solo performer.
Wilson released his self-titled solo debut in 1981, which received positive reviews from critics and spawned a modest hit with "Heaven," a Top 20 single on the Adult Contemporary charts. He toured briefly behind the album before commencing work on its follow-up, Youngblood, in 1983. Featuring an impressive array of guest performers, including Timothy B. Schmidt of The Eagles and the Guess Who's Burton Cummings, it generated a second chart hit with "What You Do to Me." But the album itself failed to generate much interest in Wilson's solo efforts, and by 1983, he was back in the Beach Boys fold. By then, the group was dominated by Love, who kept their live shows firmly rooted in their pre-1967 material. Wilson's brother Dennis had descended into a debilitating drug and alcohol addiction that contributed to his death by drowning in 1983.
Wilson would make attempts to gain control of the Beach Boys in the 1980s, most notably as producer of 1985's "Getcha Back," their first Top 40 hit since the mid-1970s. Wilson also contributed guest vocals to David Lee Roth's cover of "California Girls" in 1987, as well as a collaboration with the comedy-rap group The Fat Boys, which led to a resurgence of interest in the group. In 1988, he shared lead vocal duties with Mike Love on "Kokomo," their first No. 1 hit since "Good Vibrations" in 1966. His soaring falsetto breaks were a bittersweet reminder of the band's vocal prowess in its heyday, which by the late 1980s, was only a distant memory. That same year, he was present for the induction of the Beach Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wilson remained faithful to the Beach Boys in the 1990s, though a melancholic air marked his presence. At a 1993 party for the release of the box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, he remained in the parking lot of their old label, Capitol Records, ruefully noting that he was the only member of his family present at a celebration of the band that they had forged together. Two years later, he appeared opposite Brian Wilson and their mother Audree in a touching scene from Don Was' 1995 documentary in which all three harmonized on "In My Room." He also continued to contribute to Beach Boys records and performances, but in 1992, began working with a group featuring Gerry Beckley of America and Chicago's Robert Lamm. The trio collaborated on material for the next five years, eventually completing an album's worth of songs shortly before Wilson was diagnosed with both lung and brain cancer in 1997. Ever the faithful band member, Wilson completed the group's tour that year before being hospitalized in early 1998. On February 6th of that year, Wilson succumbed to his dual illness, leaving fans devastated the world over. His vocals would appear posthumously on Brian Wilson's 2004 solo album, Gettin' in Over My Head and Al Jardine's 2010 LP, A Postcard from California