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Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer who co-founded the Beach Boys. Often called a genius for his novel approaches to pop composition, extraordinary musical aptitude, and mastery of recording techniques, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the 20th century. His best-known work is distinguished for its high production values, complex harmonies and orchestrations, layered vocals, and introspective or ingenuous themes. Wilson is also known for his formerly high-ranged singing and for his lifelong struggles with mental illness.
|Brian Douglas Wilson
| (1942-06-20) June 20, 1942 (age 81)
Inglewood, California, U.S.
|Hawthorne, California, U.S.
Raised in Hawthorne, California, Wilson's formative influences included George Gershwin, the Four Freshmen, Phil Spector, and Burt Bacharach. In 1961, he began his professional career as a member of the Beach Boys, serving as the band's songwriter, producer, co-lead vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, and de facto leader. After signing with Capitol Records in 1962, he became the first pop artist credited for writing, arranging, producing, and performing his own material. He also produced other acts, most notably the Honeys and American Spring. By the mid-1960s he had written or co-written more than two dozen U.S. Top 40 hits, including the number-ones "Surf City" (1963), "I Get Around" (1964), "Help Me, Rhonda" (1965), and "Good Vibrations" (1966). He is considered among the first music producer auteurs and the first rock producers to apply the studio as an instrument.
In 1964, Wilson had a nervous breakdown and resigned from regular concert touring to focus on songwriting and production, leading to works such as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and his first credited solo release, "Caroline, No" (both 1966), as well as the unfinished album Smile. As he declined professionally and psychologically in the late 1960s, his contributions to the band diminished, and legends grew around his lifestyle of seclusion, overeating, and drug abuse. His first comeback, divisive among fans, yielded the would-be solo effort The Beach Boys Love You (1977). In the 1980s, he formed a controversial creative and business partnership with his psychologist, Eugene Landy, and relaunched his solo career with the album Brian Wilson (1988). Wilson disassociated from Landy in 1991 and went on to tour regularly as a solo artist from 1999 to 2022.
Heralding popular music's recognition as an art form, Wilson's accomplishments as a producer helped initiate an era of unprecedented creative autonomy for label-signed acts. The youth culture of the 1960s is commonly associated with his early songs, and he is regarded as an important figure to many music genres and movements, including the California sound, art pop, psychedelia, chamber pop, progressive music, punk, outsider, and sunshine pop. Since the 1980s, his influence has extended to styles such as post-punk, indie rock, emo, dream pop, Shibuya-kei, and chillwave. Wilson's accolades include numerous industry awards, inductions into multiple music halls of fame, and entries on several "greatest of all time" critics' rankings. His life was dramatized in the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy.
1942–1961: Background and musical training
Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942, at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, California, the first child of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Wilson, a machinist who later pursued songwriting part-time. His ancestry includes Dutch, Scottish, English, German, Irish, and Swedish origins. Wilson's two younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, were born in 1944 and 1946. Shortly after Dennis' birth, the family moved from Inglewood to 3701 West 119th Street in nearby Hawthorne, California. Wilson, along with his siblings, suffered psychological and sporadic physical maltreatment from their father. His 2016 memoir characterizes his father as "violent" and "cruel"; however, it also suggests that certain narratives about the mistreatment had been overstated or unfounded.
From an early age, Wilson exhibited an unusually high aptitude for learning by ear. His father remembered how, after hearing only a few verses of "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along", the infant Wilson was able to reproduce its melody. Murry was a driving force in cultivating his children's musical talents. Wilson undertook six weeks of accordion lessons, and by ages seven and eight, he performed choir solos at church. His choir director declared him to have perfect pitch. When Wilson was 12 years old, his family acquired an upright piano, and he then shifted his focus from accordion. He began teaching himself to play piano by spending hours mastering his favorite songs. He learned how to write manuscript music through a friend of his father.
I got so into The Four Freshmen. I could identify with Bob Flanigan's high voice. He taught me how to sing high. I worked for a year on The Four Freshmen with my hi-fi set. I eventually learned every song they did.
Wilson sang with peers at school functions, as well as with family and friends at home, and guided his two brothers in learning harmony parts, which they would rehearse together. 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. Moreover, Wilson owned an educational record titled The Instruments of the Orchestra and was a regular listener of KFWB, his favorite radio station at the time. Carl introduced him to R&B, and their uncle Charlie taught him boogie-woogie piano. Both brothers would frequently stay up listening to Johnny Otis' KFOX radio show, deliberating over its R&B tracks and incorporating them into their musical lexicon. Carl remarked that by the age of 10, Wilson "could play great boogie-woogie piano!"
Carl remembered the numerous years when Wilson's life revolved solely around listening to Four Freshmen records and playing the piano for extensive periods. Dennis portrayed his elder brother as a "freak" who preferred listening to records over activities like baseball. One of Wilson's first forays into songwriting, penned on paper when he was nine, was a reinterpretation of the lyrics to Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susannah". In his 1991 memoir, he recalls writing his first song for a 4th grade school project concerning Paul Bunyan. In a 2005 interview, he said that he began composing original music in 1955, when he was 12.
High school and college
In high school, Wilson played quarterback for Hawthorne High's football team, played baseball for American Legion Ball, and ran cross-country in his senior year. At 15, he briefly worked part-time sweeping at a jewelry store, his only paid employment before his success in music. He also cleaned for his father's machining company, ABLE, on weekends. Wilson auditioned to sing for the Original Sound Record Company's inaugural record release, "Chapel of Love" (unrelated to the 1964 song), but was deemed too young. For his 16th birthday, he received a portable two-track Wollensak tape recorder, allowing him to experiment with recording songs, group vocals, and rudimentary production techniques. Wilson involved his friends around the piano and would most frequently harmonize with those from his senior class in these recordings.
Written for his Senior Problems course in October 1959, Wilson submitted an essay, "My Philosophy", in which he stated that his ambitions were to "make a name for myself [...] in music." One of Wilson's earliest public performances was at a fall arts program at his high school. He enlisted his cousin and frequent singing partner Mike Love and, to entice Carl into the group, named the newly formed membership "Carl and the Passions". They performed songs by Dion and the Belmonts and the Four Freshmen, impressing fellow classmate and musician, Al Jardine.
Fred Morgan, Wilson's high school music teacher, noted his aptitude for learning Bach and Beethoven at 17. Nonetheless, he gave Wilson a final grade of C for his Piano and Harmony course due to incomplete assignments. Instead of a 120-measure piano sonata for his final project, Wilson submitted a shorter 32-measure piece, earning an F. Reflecting on his last year of high school, Wilson said that he was "very happy. I wouldn't say I was popular in school, but I was associated with popular people."
In September 1960, Wilson enrolled as a psychology major at El Camino College in Los Angeles, also pursuing music. Disappointed by his teachers' disdain for pop music, he withdrew from college after about 18 months. By his account, he crafted his first entirely original melody, "Surfer Girl", in 1961, inspired by a Dion and the Belmonts rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star". However, his close high school friends disputed his claim, recalling earlier original compositions from him.
Formation of the Beach Boys
I wasn't aware those early songs defined California so well until much later in my career. I certainly didn't set out to do it. I wasn't into surfing at all. My brother Dennis gave me all the jargon I needed to write the songs. He was the surfer and I was the songwriter.
The three Wilson brothers, Love, and Jardine debuted their first music group together, called "the Pendletones", in the autumn of 1961. At Dennis's suggestion, Wilson and their cousin had co-written the group's first song, "Surfin'". After practicing in the Wilsons' music room, the group secured Murry Wilson as their manager and prepared for their initial studio session.
Produced by Hite and Dorinda Morgan on Candix Records, "Surfin'" became a hit in Los Angeles and reached 75 on the national Billboard sales charts. However, the group's name was changed by Candix Records to the Beach Boys. Their major live debut was at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance on New Year's Eve, 1961. Just days before, Wilson had received an electric bass from his father, quickly learning to play with Jardine switching to rhythm guitar.
When Candix Records faced financial difficulties and sold the Beach Boys' master recordings to another label, Murry ended their contract. As "Surfin'" faded from the charts, Wilson collaborated with local musician Gary Usher to produce demo recordings for new tracks, including "409" and "Surfin' Safari". Capitol Records were persuaded to release the demos as a single, achieving a double-sided national hit.
1962–1966: Peak years
Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We're his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything.
Early productions and freelancing
As a member of the Beach Boys, Wilson was signed by Capitol Records' Nick Venet to a seven-year contract in 1962. Recording sessions for the band's first album, Surfin' Safari, took place in Capitol's basement studios in the famous tower building in August, but early on Wilson lobbied for a different place to cut Beach Boys tracks. The large rooms were built to record the big orchestras and ensembles of the 1950s, not small rock groups. At Wilson's insistence, Capitol agreed to let the Beach Boys pay for their own outside recording sessions, to which Capitol would own all the rights. Additionally, during the taping of their first LP, Wilson fought for, and won, the right to helm the production — though this fact was not acknowledged with a production credit in the album liner notes.
Wilson remarked, "I've always felt I was a behind-the-scenes man, rather than an entertainer." He had been a massive fan of Phil Spector — who had risen to fame with the Teddy Bears — and aspired to model his burgeoning career after the record producer. With Gary Usher, Wilson wrote numerous songs patterned after the Teddy Bears, and they wrote and produced some records for local talent, albeit with no commercial success. Wilson gradually dissolved his partnership with Usher due to interference from Murry. Wilson's first record that he produced outside of the Beach Boys, albeit uncredited, was Rachel and the Revolvers' "The Revo-Lution", written with Usher and issued by Dot Records in September.
By mid-1962, Wilson was writing songs with DJ Roger Christian, whom he had met through either Murry or Usher, and guitarist Bob Norberg, who became Wilson's roommate. David Marks said, "He was obsessed with it. Brian was writing song with people off the street in front of his house, disc jockeys, anyone. He had so much stuff flowing through him at once he could hardly handle it." In October, Safari Records, a label created by Murry, released the single "The Surfer Moon" by Bob & Sheri. It was the first record that bore the label "Produced by Brian Wilson". The only other record the label issued was Bob & Sheri's "Humpty Dumpty". Both songs were written by Wilson.
From January to March 1963, Wilson produced the Beach Boys' second album, Surfin' U.S.A.. To focus his efforts on writing and recording, he limited his public appearances with the group to television gigs and local shows. Otherwise, David Marks acted as Wilson's substitute on vocals. In March, Capitol released the Beach Boys' first top-ten single, "Surfin' U.S.A.", which began their long run of highly successful recording efforts at Western. The Surfin' U.S.A. album was also a big hit in the U.S., reaching number two on the national sales charts by July. The Beach Boys had become a top-rank recording and touring band.
Against Venet's wishes, Wilson worked with non-Capitol acts. Shortly after meeting Liberty Records' Jan and Dean (likely in August 1962), Wilson offered them a new song he had written, "Surf City", which the duo soon recorded. On July 20, 1963, "Surf City", which Wilson co-wrote with Jan Berry, was his first composition to reach the top of the US charts. The resulting success pleased Wilson, but angered both Murry and Capitol Records. Murry went so far as to order his oldest son to sever any future collaborations with Jan and Dean, although they continued to appear on each other's records. Wilson's hits with Jan and Dean effectively revitalized the music duo's then-faltering career.
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Around the same time, Wilson began producing a girl group, the Honeys, consisting of sisters Marilyn and Diane Rovell and their cousin Ginger Blake, who were local high school students he had met at a Beach Boys concert during the previous August. Wilson pitched the Honeys to Capitol, envisioning them as a female counterpart to the Beach Boys. The company released several Honeys recordings as singles, although they sold poorly. In the meantime, Wilson became closely acquainted with the Rovell family and made their home his primary residence for most of 1963 and 1964.
Wilson was for the first time officially credited as the Beach Boys' producer on the album Surfer Girl, recorded in June and July 1963 and released that September. This LP reached number seven on the national charts, with similarly successful singles. He also produced a set of largely car-oriented tunes for the Beach Boys' fourth album, Little Deuce Coupe, which was released in October 1963, only three weeks after the Surfer Girl LP. Still resistant to touring, Wilson was replaced onstage for many of the band's live performances in mid-1963 by Al Jardine, who had briefly quit the band to focus on school. Wilson was forced to rejoin the touring line-up upon Marks' departure in late 1963.
Towards the end of 1963, Wilson formed a record production company, Brian Wilson Productions, with an office on Sunset Boulevard, and a music publishing company, Ocean Music, for songs he wrote for other artists. Excepting his work with the Beach Boys, for the whole of 1963, Wilson had written, arranged, produced, or performed on at least 42 songs with the Honeys, Jan and Dean, the Survivors, Sharon Marie, the Timers, the Castells ("I Do"), Bob Norberg, Vickie Kocher, Gary Usher, Christian, Paul Petersen ("She Rides with Me"), and Larry Denton ("Endless Sleep").
International success and first nervous breakdown
Throughout 1964, Wilson engaged in worldwide concert tours with the Beach Boys while continuing to write and produce for the group, whose studio output for this year included the albums Shut Down Volume 2 (March), All Summer Long (June), and The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (November). Following a particularly stressful Australasian tour in early 1964, it was agreed by the group to dismiss Murry from his managerial duties. Murry still had a subsequent influence over the band's activities and kept a direct correspondence with Wilson, giving him thoughts about the group's decisions; Wilson also periodically sought music opinions from his father.
In February, Beatlemania swept the U.S., a development that deeply disturbed Wilson. In a 1966 interview, he commented, "The Beatles invasion shook me up a lot. They eclipsed a lot of what we'd worked for. [...] The Beach Boys' supremacy as the number one vocal group in America was being challenged. So we stepped on the gas a little bit." Author James Perone identifies the Beach Boys' May single "I Get Around", their first U.S. number one hit, as representing both a successful response by Wilson to the British Invasion, and the beginning of an unofficial rivalry between him and the Beatles, principally Paul McCartney. The B-side, "Don't Worry Baby", was cited by Wilson in a 1970 interview as "Probably the best record we've done".
The increasing pressures of Wilson's career and personal life pushed him to a psychological breaking point. He had ceased writing surfing-themed material after "Don't Back Down" in April, and during the group's first major European tour, in late 1964, replied angrily to a journalist when asked how he felt about originating the surfing sound. Wilson resented being identified with surf and car songs, explaining that he had only intended to "produce a sound that teens dig, and that can be applied to any theme. [...] We're just gonna stay on the life of a social teenager." He later described himself as a "Mr Everything" that had been so "run down mentally and emotionally [...] to the point where I had no peace of mind and no chance to actually sit down and think or even rest." Adding to his concerns was the group's "business operations" and the quality of their records, which he believed suffered from this arrangement. On December 7, in an effort to bring himself more emotional stability, Wilson impulsively married Marilyn Rovell.
On December 23, Wilson was to accompany his bandmates on a two-week US tour, but while on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, began sobbing uncontrollably over his marriage. Al Jardine, who had sat next to Wilson on the plane, later said, "None of us had ever witnessed something like that." Wilson played the show in Houston later that day, but was replaced by session musician Glen Campbell for the rest of the tour dates. At the time, Wilson described it as "the first of a series of three breakdowns I had." When the group resumed recording their next album in January 1965, Wilson declared to his bandmates that he would be withdrawing from future tours. He later told a journalist that his decision had been a byproduct of his "fucked up" jealousy toward Spector and the Beatles.
In 1965, Wilson immediately showcased great advances in his musical development with the albums The Beach Boys Today! (March) and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (June). Campbell remained on tour with the band until he was no longer able to, in February. As a thanks, Wilson produced a single for Campbell in March, "Guess I'm Dumb", after which the band recruited Columbia Records staff producer Bruce Johnston as Wilson's substitute on tour. In February, March, July, and October, Wilson rejoined the live group for one-off occasions.
Growing drug use and religious epiphany
With his bandmates often away on tour, Wilson distanced himself socially from the other Beach Boys. Since the autumn of 1964, he had moved from the Rovells' home to a one-bedroom apartment at 7235 Hollywood Boulevard, and given his newfound independence, had begun forming a new social circle for himself through the industry connections he had accumulated. Biographer Steven Gaines writes, "Brian had total freedom from family restraints for the first time. [...] he was finally able to make a new set of friends without parental interference." By Gary Usher's account, Wilson had had few close friends and was "like a piece of clay waiting to be molded". By the end of the year, Wilson was one of the most successful, influential, and sought-after young musicians in Los Angeles. However, a wider public recognition of Wilson's talents eluded him until 1966.
Wilson's closest friend in this period was Loren Schwartz, a talent agent that he had met at a Hollywood studio. Through Schwartz, Wilson was exposed to a wealth of literature and mystical topics — largely of philosophy and world religions — that he formed a deep fascination with. Schwartz also introduced marijuana and hashish to Wilson, whose habitual use of the drug caused a rift in his marriage to Marilyn, further strained by his frequent visitations to Schwartz's apartment. Beginning with "Please Let Me Wonder" (1965), Wilson wrote songs while under the influence of marijuana.
[In 1965] I had what I consider to be a very religious experience. I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can't teach you, or tell you what I learned from taking it.
Early in 1965, a few weeks after Wilson and his wife moved into a new apartment on West Hollywood's Gardner Street, Wilson took the psychedelic drug LSD (or "acid") for the first time, under Schwartz' supervision. In Wilson's words, "I took LSD and it just tore my head off. [...] You just come to grips with what you are, what you can do [and] can't do, and learn to face it." During his first acid trip, he went to a piano and devised the riff for the band's next single, "California Girls". He later described the instrumental tracking for the song, held on April 6, as "my favorite session", and the opening orchestral section as "the greatest piece of music that I've ever written." For the remainder of the year, he experienced considerable paranoia, which he attributed to his LSD consumption.
Following unsuccessful attempts to distance her husband from Schwartz, Marilyn separated from Wilson for at least a month. She later said, "He was not the same Brian that he was before the drugs. [...] These people were very hurtful, and I tried to get that through to Brian." The couple soon reconciled, and, in late 1965, moved into a newly purchased home at 1448 Laurel Way in Beverly Hills. The house was constantly occupied by visitors, a situation that he, in his words, "didn't mind" so long as he had space to "cop out and sit, thinking".
Pet Sounds, "genius" campaign, and Smile
Wilson recalled that after relocating to his Laurel Way home, he experienced an unexpected surge of creativity at his "big Spanish table", where he sat for hours developing ideas for new music. He said, "I was taking a lot of drugs, fooling around with pills, a lot of pills, and it fouled me up for a while. It got me really introspective". Over a period of five months, he planned an album that would reflect his growing interest in "the making of music for people on a spiritual level".
In December 1965, Tony Asher, a jingle writer whom Wilson had recently met, accepted Wilson's offer to be his writing partner for what became the Beach Boys' next album, Pet Sounds (May 1966). He produced most of Pet Sounds from January to April 1966 at four Hollywood studios, mainly employing his bandmates on vocals and his usual pool of session musicians for the backing tracks. Among the album tracks, he later described "Let's Go Away for Awhile" as "the most satisfying piece of music" he had made to date and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" as an autobiographical song "about a guy who was crying because he thought he was too advanced". In 1995, he referred to "Caroline, No" as "probably the best I've ever written".
The thing that I remember the most is that when Pet Sounds wasn't as quickly a hit or as huge or an immediate success, it really destroyed Brian. He just lost a lot of faith in people and music.
—Wilson's first wife Marilyn
Released in March 1966, the album's first single, "Caroline, No", marked the first record credited to Wilson as a solo artist. It led to speculation that he was considering leaving the band. Wilson recalled, "I explained to [the rest of the group], 'It's OK. It is only a temporary rift where I have something to say.' I wanted to step out of the group a little bit and, sure enough, I was able to." "Caroline, No" ultimately stalled at number 32. In the U.S., Pet Sounds faced similarly underwhelming sales. Wilson was "mortified" that his artistic growth failed to translate into a number-one album. According to Marilyn, "When it wasn't received by the public the way he thought it would be received, it made him hold back. ... but he didn't stop. He couldn't stop. He needed to create more."
Thanks to mutual connections, Wilson had been introduced to the Beatles' former press officer Derek Taylor, who was subsequently employed as the Beach Boys' publicist. Responding to Wilson's request to inspire a greater public appreciation for his talents, Taylor initiated a media campaign that proclaimed Wilson to be a genius. Taylor's prestige was crucial in offering a credible perspective to those on the outside, and his efforts are widely recognized as instrumental in the album's success in Britain. In turn, however, Wilson resented that the branding had the effect of creating higher public expectations for himself. The fact that the music press had begun undervaluing the contributions of the rest of the group also frustrated him and his bandmates, including Love and Carl Wilson.
For the remainder of 1966, Wilson focused on completing the band's single "Good Vibrations", which became a number-one hit in December, and a new batch of songs written with session musician Van Dyke Parks for inclusion on Smile, the planned follow-up to Pet Sounds. Wilson touted the album as a "teenage symphony to God" and continued to involve more people in his social, business, and creative affairs. Parks said that, eventually, "it wasn't just Brian and me in a room; it was Brian and me ... and all kinds of self-interested people pulling him in various directions." Television producer David Oppenheim, who attended these scenes to film the documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (1967), characterized Wilson's home as a "playpen of irresponsible people."