Born Brian Douglas Wilson on June 20, 1942, Ingelwood, CA; son of the late Audree Neva (Korthof) and the late Murry Gage Wilson; older brother of Dennis and Carl; married Marilyn Rovell, December 7, 1964 (divorced 1979); married Melinda Ledbetter, 1995; children: (with Marilyn) Carnie (born April 29, 1968) and Wendy (born October 16, 1969); (adopted with Melinda) Daria, Delanie. Education: Attended El Camino Junior College. Addresses: Record company--Nonesuch Records, 590 5th Ave., Ste. 600, New York, NY 10036. Website--Brian Wilson Official Website: http://www.brianwilson.com.
Brian Douglas Wilson is widely recognized as the founding force behind the California "surfin'" singing style of the Beach Boys, a rock and roll band dating back to the 1960s. Wilson is revered by his contemporaries as a genius of the American popular music scene. He was largely responsible for composing and producing the Beach Boys' numerous hit songs and albums.
Wilson was born in Ingelwood, California on June 20, 1942. Wilson's father was an abominably abusive man and his mother, an alcoholic, was ineffectual and complacent. The elder Wilson beat and defamed his own children regularly with little protest or interference from his wife. After the birth of Wilson's brother, Dennis Wilson, in 1944, the family moved to Hawthorne, California. Carl Wilson, the youngest of the three siblings, was born in 1946. As a result of the persistent abuse, Brian Wilson and his brothers developed a mutual inability to communicate effectively among themselves, even into adulthood when they earned renown as the Beach Boys.
Wilson's musical ability surfaced in infancy, when his father, a frustrated songwriter, noticed that Wilson could hum entire tunes from memory, even before he was old enough to walk. He wrote his first song at age five, in part as an attempt to emulate his father. Although Wilson is deaf in his right ear he taught himself to play the piano by watching his father play, and by observing the patterns and chord progressions that were involved. He also had the ability as a child to play songs from memory upon hearing them only once, as was discovered by his music teacher during a short-lived stint of accordion lessons. As Wilson approached adolescence he used his music increasingly as an escape. He played the piano at home to drown out the bickering among his parents and his brothers; he also used music as a means to avoid social situations. Although he played some sports in high school, overall he withdrew into music. Wilson was especially inspired the first time he heard the Four Freshmen singing on the radio. It was their harmony that "struck a chord" with Wilson.
The evolution of the Beach Boys began during Wilson's senior year at Hawthorne High School. After graduation in 1959, he first began singing at social affairs with his cousin, Mike Love. The two assembled a larger group consisting of Wilson and Love, Wilson's two siblings (Dennis, and Carl) and Wilson's college football teammate, Al Jardine. The five musicians originally billed themselves as the Pendletones. Their first recording session, held on October 3, 1961, resulted in the hit single "Surfin'" which was released on December 8, 1961. It was not until after the record's release that the Pendletones discovered that record distributor Candix Records had renamed the group and called it the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys' "Surfin'" single made the local top 40 charts in the Los Angeles area during the first month after its release. The song peaked eventually at number 75 on the Billboard chart in February of 1962. The hit single is associated with the start the California "surfin' sound" in pop music of the early 1960s.
The Beach Boys' then signed with Capitol Records. Their first release with Capitol was "409"/"Surfin' Safari" on June 4, 1962. That single sold nearly one million copies and peaked on the charts at number 14; and the Beach Boys swiftly rose to become one of the most popular bands in Southern California. Brian Wilson's Beach Boys realized their first top-ten record in May of 1963 with "Surfin' U.S.A." The Beach Boys' Concert album released late the following year was the first Beach Boys album to reach the number one position on the charts. In 1970, the Beach Boys released, Sunflower, their first album under the Warner Brothers label.
Depression and Drugs
By 1965, Brian Wilson was absorbed with the pressures of success and became increasingly apprehensive about traveling and touring. His unfounded fear, in retrospect, was a precursor to the onset of a severe mental breakdown. Wilson's condition was manifest through extended bouts of depression and paranoia, and episodes of drug addiction, gluttony, and chain smoking which lasted on and off for approximately 20 years. Wilson's phenomenal catapult to fame as a teen-ager was more than he could manage. He was drinking heavily by the age of 20.
Early in 1965, Wilson descended into a drug-induced depression. He stopped touring with the band, under the auspices of composing, arranging, producing, and singing at studio sessions, all of which he did. The band's subsequent hits, including the number one single, "Help Me, Rhonda," released in 1965, was written during the onset of Wilson's extended bout with narcotic drugs. He wrote "California Girls" in the "afterglow" of an initial experience with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Also, while Wilson was fully enamored with recreational drugs, the smash hit "Good Vibrations" was released on October 10, 1966--as was Pet Sounds, an album which received critical acclaim from Wilson's contemporaries. In 1968, he became addicted to cocaine. Years passed and Wilson's drug addiction went undiagnosed, while friends attributed his behavioral quirks to creative genius.
During the six years from 1962-68, Wilson produced 14 albums and wrote over ten dozen songs. In so doing he kept the Beach Boys in competition with recording legends such as Phil Spector and the Beatles. In all Wilson produced about one-half of the Beach Boys' single hits, three of which were number one sellers.
Early on, Wilson teamed up with Gary Usher, a veteran of the record trade in New York City, as a songwriting team on songs including "409," "In My Room," and "The Lonely Sea." Later he collaborated with a roommate, Bob Norberg, on some songs including "Your Summer Dream." Wilson collaborated with Los Angeles disc jockey Roger Christian for lyrics on a number of songs including "Little Deuce Coupe," and "Shut Down." He worked with Tony Asher on Pet Sounds and also wrote songs with Van Dyke Parks.
During the Beach Boys' climb to stardom in the early 1960s, Brian Wilson's father, Murry Wilson, became increasingly involved with the group as a self-appointed and controlling manager. Meanwhile Wilson formed Sea of Tunes Publishing Company, to hold the copyrights to his songs; and the Beach Boys together formed their own production company, Brother Records. By November of 1982, Wilson had lost control of Sea of Tunes Publishing, and he was subsequently fired by his own company, Brother Records, after years of turbulent relationships between himself and the rest of the band.
Family and Friends
Wilson's parents separated in 1964. Despite his unpleasant childhood, he said the divorce left him, "feeling like a ship whose anchor had disappeared." By the end of that same year, on December 7, 1964, Wilson married Marilyn Rovell, whom he had been acquainted with for several years. The marriage faltered quickly, in part because of Wilson's inappropriate affections for Rovell's sisters, and because of his worsening drug addiction, which began with the use of marijuana escalating to LSD experimentation during the first year of the marriage. In April of 1967, the Wilsons purchased a lavish and impressive 24-room Spanish style home in Bel Air, formerly owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The couple had two daughters--Carnie, born on April 29, 1968, and Wendy, born on October 16, 1969. At that time, Wilson admitted that he was ineffectual as a father; he was too involved in drug addiction and music production.
Wilson's private life deteriorated rapidly. Early in 1968, he was introduced by his brothers to and became enamored with Beatles' guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the transcendental meditation teacher considered by many to be a charlatan. Late in 1968, he was introduced to cocaine by a fellow musician and became addicted immediately. He had a brief stint as the owner of a short-lived health food store, the Radiant Radish in West Hollywood, in 1969-70, and the following years were a blur of drug parties and withdrawal from society. Eventually a man named Charles Manson befriended Dennis Wilson and began to frequent Brian Wilson's residence. Not long afterward, Manson was arrested and convicted for the grizzly Tate-LaBianca murders that shocked Hollywood during that time.
The close brush with Manson left the Wilsons unnerved. It was Marilyn Wilson, in 1975, who contacted the unorthodox clinical psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy, to treat Brian Wilson's drug abuse. By the summer of 1976, Wilson's level of rehabilitation permitted him to make public appearances on television's Saturday Night Live and the Mike Douglas Show. An unfortunate proliferation of overconfidence, however, led Wilson's family and friends to dismiss the therapist Landy prematurely and against the doctor's own advice. Almost immediately, during the early months of 1977, Wilson began a gradual regression into his former drug habit and mental illness. Once again, Wilson was chronically depressed and given to drug binges. He ignored his family and eventually topped the scales at 340 pounds and binged on literally thousands of dollars of heroin and cocaine on a regular basis. Marijuana, alcohol, and multiple packs of cigarettes figured prominently into Wilson's daily fare. By 1978, his life again was in shambles. On September 15 of that year he separated from his wife; they divorced in 1979.
As Wilson's personal affairs deteriorated, he developed an eccentric habit of misplacing huge royalty checks around the house. When the checks would eventually be located he used the money, thousands of dollars, to purchase drugs. The Beach Boys albums released during that era were relative flops, many were shelved by the promoters for lack of potential. In 1983, Wilson once again submitted to a long and intensive program of unconventional therapy under the direction of Dr. Landy. That second episode of treatments lasted longer and met with much greater success.
The year 1988 brought an upturn in Wilson's waning career. In January of that year, at the third annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards dinner, the Beach Boys were inducted into the Hall of Fame at a ceremony at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Later that year, the rehabilitated Brian Wilson embarked on a solo career beginning with the release of his album Brian Wilson, which received excellent reviews. Wilson published an autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice, in 1991, and in 1998 he released a second solo album, Imagination, with ten new songs. The sophisticated album, including nearly 100 tracks--all sung by Wilson himself--was greeted with praise.
In 1995, Wilson married Melinda Ledbetter. Soon after the couple adopted two daughters, Daria and Delanie. Wilson and his family make their home in suburban Chicago, in St. Charles, Illinois. Wilson's two older daughters, Wendy and Carnie, each developed careers as professional singers in their own right, and together as former members of the popular Wilson Philips trio.
In 2000 and 2002, Wilson, once the most reluctant of live performers, released Live at the Roxy Theatre and Pet Sounds Live respectively. "In truth," William Ruhlmann noted of Live at the Roxy Theatre in All Music Guide, "the old slogan 'Brian's back!' has been true for a number of years now, and though he remains an idiosyncratic frontman, this recording confirms it." The package was sweetened by the presence of a ten piece backing band, which included the Beach Boys' styled harmony of the Wondermints. Wilson's second live effort was built around the Beach Boys' classic album, Pet Sounds, and recorded live on his first solo tour of England and Europe in 2002.
In 2004 Wilson surprised long-time fans by returning to the "Smile" project, the most famous lost pop album of the 1960s. Reuniting with lyricists Van Dyke Parks, Wilson returned to the original tapes (recorded with the Beach Boys in 1967) in an attempt to recreate and finish the 37-year-old concept album. "Now Brian Wilson's late-life renaissance has led to his finishing SMiLE," wrote Peter Ames Carlin in American Heritage, "one of the most hotly anticipated pop albums of 1967 and 2004, a complex, symphony-length ode to America." At first Wilson began to add SMiLE era songs to his live sets, then he pieced them into a three section montage---Americana, Cycle of Life, and The Elements---for the revived project. While many worried that the re-imagined SMiLE could never live up to its "lost masterpiece" status, critics were enthusiastic. "Four decades is a long time to wait for anything," wrote Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, "but in this case it was worth every minute."
by G. Cooksey and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
Brian Wilson's Career
Founder and leader of the Pendletones, 1960-61; renamed the Beach Boys, 1961; recorded and toured as a Beach Boy 1962-65; recorded for Candix Records, 1961-62, Capitol Records, 1962-69, Warner Brothers Records, 1970-82; partner with Murry Wilson in Sea of Tunes Publishing Company, 1962-69; formed Brother Records Incorporated, 1966; owner/manager of the Radiant Radish Health Food Store, 1969-70; producer and songwriter for the Beach Boys, 1961-82; collaborated with lyricists Gary Usher, Bob Norberg, Roger Christian, Tony Asher, Van Dyke Parks; solo career, 1988-.
Brian Wilson's Awards
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Beach Boys, January 1988; Entertainment Weekly, Album of the Year for SMiLE, 2004; UK Metro, Comeback of the Year, 2004; Grammy Award, Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," 2004.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Brian Wilson 1988.
- I Just Wasn't Made for These Times MCA, 1995.
- Imagination Giant Records, 1998.
- Live at the Roxy Theatre BriMel, 2000.
- Pet Sounds Live Sanctuary, 2002.
- SMiLE Nonesuch, 2004.
- With the Beach Boys
- Shut Down Capitol, 1963.
- Shut Down, Volume 2 Capitol, 1964.
- All Summer Long Capitol, July 1964.
- The Beach Boys' Concert Capitol, 1964.
- The Beach Boys Today! Capitol, 1965.
- Summer Days (And Summer Nights) Capitol, June 28, 1965.
- Pet Sounds Capitol, 1966.
- Sunflower Warner Brothers, 1970.
- Endless Summer Capitol, June 1974.
- 15 Big Ones Warner Brothers, 1976.
- Wilson, Brian, with Todd Gold, Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story, HarperCollins, 1991.
- American Heritage, August-September 2004, p. 40.
- Newsweek, July 12, 2004. p. 62.
- "Brian Wilson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (October 22, 2004)