Wilson, Brian Douglas

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WILSON, Brian Douglas

(b. 20 June 1942 in Inglewood, California), rock and roll composer and vocalist who was the musical genius behind the Beach Boys band and whose music was a major artistic force that fueled the surf music craze of the 1960s.

Wilson was the oldest of three children. His parents, Murry, a leaser of heavy machinery, and Audree Neva (Korthof) Wilson, a homemaker, moved to Hawthorne, California, after the birth of their second son, Dennis, in 1944. A third son, Carl, was born in 1946. Murry Wilson was an amateur songwriter himself and ultimately managed the Beach Boys' career.

Wilson graduated from Hawthorne High School in 1960 and enrolled briefly in a psychology and music curriculum at a local community college, El Camino. He never earned a degree, however. Although deaf in one ear, he was a self-taught pianist, enamored of popular music and the works of George Gershwin. Wilson also nurtured a fascination for the vocal harmonies popular in the 1940s and 1950s. He and his cousin, Mike Love, began performing as vocalists at local parties, and by 1961 they had added Wilson's two younger brothers on drums and guitar along with a schoolmate, Al Jardine, on electric bass, to form a quintet called the Pendletones. Under that name they taped their first single, a song called "Surfin'." Candix Records picked up the recording and released the song two months later, billing the five musicians as the Beach Boys. "Surfin'," which was written by Wilson for a high school music project, was released on 8 December 1961; it achieved Top Forty play in the Los Angeles area by January 1962 and peaked at number seventy-five on the Billboard chart in February. Wilson and the band signed a recording contract with Capitol Records and released a double-sided single, "409"/"Surfin' Safari," four months later. They first penetrated the Top Ten chart with a Chuck Berry adaptation, a single called "Surfin' U.S.A.," in May 1963. A number-one hit album, Beach Boys' Concert, was released in 1964. By the end of the decade, the Beach Boys were a well-established chapter in the annals of rock and roll.

Wilson, because of his partial deafness, was classified as exempt during the Vietnam draft. As a result he found the time to compose over 120 songs from 1962 to 1968. He arranged the unforgettable harmonies for the group, produced fourteen albums, and contributed a distinctive falsetto to the Beach Boys sound in the early 1960s. After suffering an emotional breakdown in 1964 and two relapses within sixteen months, Wilson ceased appearing in live performances with the Beach Boys. He was replaced by a succession of vocalists, including Glen Campbell and Bruce Johnston. Despite these setbacks, Wilson composed a number-one single in 1965, "Help Me, Rhonda," and other classic hits, including "California Girls" and "I Get Around," each of which has aired millions of times on radio. With his episodes of breakdown interspersed by marijuana-and LSD-induced intoxication, Wilson entered an introspective era of soul-searching, an attitude that emerged visibly in his work. As he descended into this unabashed, psychedelic period in his life, he ordered yards of sand to be brought into his living room, which he converted into a sandbox. There he kept his piano, which he played barefoot. In this unusual mental state, Wilson began work on an ambitious album called Smile but eventually scrapped the project. A drastically diluted version of Smil e, called Smiley Smile, appeared in 1967, taped with studio pianist and lyricist Van Dyke Parks.

According to many critics, Wilson's creative genius is most evident on a 1966 album called Pet Sounds. The recording, conceived as a cohesive entity, featured tunes of alienation, analytical in their perspective of love. Because of a series of marketing miscalculations, Pet Sounds in its initial release failed to achieve the success of Wilson's other projects with the Beach Boys, and fewer than one million copies were sold. The album's "Sloop John B," however, an adaptation of "The Wreck of the John B," was selected for prerelease as a single in December 1965 and appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on 3 April 1966. Another track, called "Caroline No," was positioned as the closing track on the completed album and appeared as a prerelease single in March 1966. This ill-fated single was credited to Brian Wilson, without mention of the Beach Boys, a decision that proved unfortunate because Wilson at that time lacked name recognition as a solo artist apart from the Beach Boys. "Caroline No," as a result, barely made an appearance on the Top Forty chart, peaking at an unimpressive number thirty-two. Regardless, Pet Sounds appeared in its entirety in the spring of 1966 and entered the Billboard Hot 100 in August, rising to number ten on that chart.

Earlier, in February 1966, Wilson directed the Beach Boys in recording a song called "Good Vibrations," which was released the following October after dozens of retakes. "Good Vibrations" was hailed as Wilson's finest single effort, a seemingly endless blend of juxtaposed rhythms and harmonies. The song, according to Timothy White of Billboard magazine, "Was the biggest selling number 1 hit … it became the variegate but coherent statement that Brian had endeavored to make with the self-conscious Pet Sounds. "

Wilson by 1968 was also addicted to cocaine. Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" notwithstanding, the members of the Beach Boys had become annoyed by the psychedelic undertones and liberal profanity that characterized his compositions in the mid-1960s; they placed a strain on his relationship with the band. He settled with his wife of four years, Marilyn Rovell, into an historic Bel Air, California, mansion once owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs; there the couple set out to raise their two daughters. Wilson ebbed quickly from professional prominence; he owned and operated a health food store from 1969 to 1970 and became a pupil of the Eastern mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The 1970s for Wilson was a blur of drugs and ineffectual rehabilitation. His wife divorced him in 1979.

After being ejected from the Beach Boys organization in 1982, Wilson underwent intensive rehabilitation therapy and embarked on a solo career, releasing albums in 1988 and 1998. He married Melinda Ledbetter in 1995; the couple adopted two daughters.

Wilson's autobiography, written with Todd Gold, is Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story (1991). Composer Paul Williams pays tribute to Wilson with a series of short essays in Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys: How Deep Is the Ocean? Essays and Conversations, (1997); Timothy White chronicled Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience (1994).

Gloria Cooksey

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