Saturday (December 21st) marks what would have been Beach Boys co-founder and guitarist Carl Wilson‘s 73rd birthday. Carl, who was known for his peaceful nature and flawless tenor vocals, died of cancer on February 6th, 1998 at the age of 51. Although the Beach Boys story is said to start with the Wilson brothers — Brian, Dennis and Carl — harmonizing with cousin Mike Love at family gatherings, it was Carl’s love for guitar-based R&B that separated him from his family. While barely a teen, Carl and fellow Beach Boys co-founder David Marks were taking lessons from local guitarist John Maus — later of the Walker Brothers — who himself had learned directly from Ritchie Valens.
It was Carl and Marks’ dual-guitar combo that took the Beach Boys beyond the intricate Four Freshman-style harmonies, which enthralled brother Brian, the casual doo-wop favored by Love, and the acoustic folk stylings of Al Jardine. When brother Brian quit the road after a nervous breakdown in December 1964, it was Carl who took over as the de-facto live bandleader. In the early-’70s when Brian eventually retreated from the recording studio, Carl again stepped into his brother’s shoes.
Carl was featured singing lead on many of the group’s greatest recordings — including “God Only Knows,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Good Vibrations,” “Friends,” “Breakaway,” “This Whole World,” “I Can Hear Music,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up,” “Only With You,” “Good Timin’,” and many more. Carl was also known for his raucous R&B vocals on such hits as “Darlin’,” “Wild Honey,” and “Marcella.” Carl Wilson co-wrote several classic Beach Boys album tracks, including “Long Promised Road,” “Feel Flows,” “All This Is That,” “The Trader,” “Angel Come Home,” and “Keepin’ The Summer Alive.”
Throughout the years Carl Wilson was a dominant force on stage, overseeing the show’s arrangements, and keeping the Beach Boys’ vocals well oiled and their stage band tight and rehearsed. Although he was never as prolific a producer or songwriter as his brothers, the Beach Boys were arguably Carl’s band, a role he carried out with pride and respect until he was finally too ill to take the stage any more.
Beach Boys historian Jon Stebbins, who’s chronicled the lives of the group in his Dennis Wilson biography The Real Beach Boy, as well as group’s co-founder-guitarist David Marks, in The Lost Beach Boy, says that it was 15 year-old Carl Wilson who pushed the band into becoming a tight, professional unit: [“Carl was really a pro. Out of all of them, as young as he was, Carl was the one who first got it. This was a ‘hail Mary’ pass (that) had been caught by the Beach Boys getting signed and becoming a hit act. And Carl was more about rehearsal, and getting everything right out there. Because he knew that this was something that could go away really easily.”] SOUNDCUE (:23 OC: . . . away really easily)
CARL WILSON REMEMBERED BY HIS FAMILY & FRIENDS
Carl Wilson’s cousin and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love remembers Carl: [“This is Carl Wilson’s birthday, ladies and gentleman, who sang on the Pet Sounds album ‘God Only Knows,” and sang it every night of our lives on tour, until he unfortunately contracted cancer and had to leave the tour. We’re dedicating it ‘God Only Knows’ — Happy Birthday, Carl. Wherever you are.”] SOUNDCUE (:19 OC: . . . Wherever you are)
Billy Hinsche (pronounced HIN-shee), who had been in the ’60s group Dino, Desi, & Billy, formally joined the Beach Boys backing band in 1972. Hinsche, who was also Carl’s brother-in-law, told us that he was at the group’s Brother Studio in Los Angeles and watched Carl help lay down the backing vocals to Elton John‘s 1974 Top Two hit, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”: [“Yeah, (producer) Gus Dudgeon brought the tracks down and they were not complete. It was Elton at the piano, drums, bass, guitar, tambourine; and then — based on Carl’s vocal — they built that whole arrangement around what Carl came up with in the studio (sings the part). They tailored that arrangement to Carl’s parts.”] SOUNDCUE (:23 OC: . . . to Carl’s parts)
Carl’s younger son Justyn Wilson says that his father’s voice was indicative of the kind and pacific spirit he actually was: [“Y’know, his voice really touched people and was (laughs) such a beautiful voice. Y’know, you hear sounds and you hear tones, but there’s something more underneath it. That was one of the things with the Beach Boys and also with our dad, is that there’s a real spirit and a real powerful thing underneath the voice, or like driving the voice. And that’s why I think people. . . (why) you fall in love with that person.”] SOUNDCUE (:22 OC: . . . with that person)
Brian Wilson’s daughter Carnie Wilson recalled performing with her Uncle Carl and the Beach Boys as a kid: [“When we were young, about, well, starting probably about four or five years old, we used to go on tour with the Beach Boys and we would have this great need to join them onstage. It was like the show was not complete without the kids coming on, so we had a cue, it was during ‘Good Vibrations.’ Carl would look over and he would, y’know, nod and wave his hand motion to us to get on the stage, and it was so, it was that I was just waiting for that moment for Uncle Carl to tell us to come up on the stage.”] SOUNDCUE (:26 OC: . . . on the stage)
Sister Wendy Wilson recalled a special non-musical moment with her Uncle: [“When we were kids, I mean, he always took care of us and he was always a fun uncle. Y’know he always liked to have fun and make us do things that were kinda like, y’know, kinda like adult. Such as, he took us out driving, the four of us, the four cousins.” (Carnie): In his Bentley (Wendy): Right. In his Bentley. And he had us each drive, in his lap. We steered and everything, when we were like, under 10. So we loved that. We thought we were so cool.”] SOUNDCUE (:23 OC: . . . were so cool)
Recently released is the first biography written about Carl. The new book, Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul Of The Beach Boys – The Biography, by Kent Crowley. Crowley told us that Carl Wilson was quite possibly the most creatively altruistic musician of his day for the way he supported his brothers’ musical creations — even perhaps at the expense of his own music: [“He always saw himself as serving. Serving his brother, serving the music — which in Brian’s phrase was ‘the voice of God’ — serving the band, taking care of the family, taking care of — y’know, keepin’ the customer satisfied. And I really think, especially given the volume of work that he undertook, keeping the band in front of people — particularly during the ‘70s — doing the production and the time consuming stuff he had to do on production. I don’t think he ever really had the time to explore his songwriting. And, I don’t think within the band he ever got a lot of encouragement. After (the) Sunflower (album) came out, everybody was looking at Dennis to gradually supplant Brian as the creative force within the band.”] SOUNDCUE (:43 OC: . . . within the band)
David Crosby first met Carl Wilson in the mid-1960’s and was immediately aware of the role he played in the Beach Boys, both on the road and in the studio. Crosby recalled to us watching the Beach Boys’ entire set at every concert they opened during the 1974 Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young tour. He remembered Carl as one of the key components to the Beach Boys’ success: [“Very smart guy. Y’know, and he understood how it worked. He knew exactly how the Beach Boys should work and he knew to support Brian in every way and he was, y’know, he was one of the reasons it did work.”] SOUNDCUE (:13 OC: . . . it did work)
Al Jardine first met Carl when he was 17-years-old, and throughout the years performed thousands of shows with him: [“Whenever I visit the music, I hear Carl’s voice. And I hear his voice and I think about him and his generosity. Because he was always there. He was always there for you needed a voice or a helping hand, y’know, musically, and that really helped me through a difficult time.”] SOUNDCUE (:19 OC: . . . a difficult time)
Carl B. Wilson said that after his father Dennis’ death in 1983, his Uncle Carl made a concerted effort to spend quality time with him and his older brother Michael, sometimes even bringing them out on tour with the Beach Boys for weeks at a time: [“He was an amazing, amazing man. I was blessed to have him as an uncle. An amazing, amazing guy.”] SOUNDCUE (:06 OC: . . . amazing amazing guy)
After Carl’s death, his sons Jonah and Justyn launched the Carl Wilson Foundation (CWF) for cancer research and care. Over the years, most of the Beach Boys, along with Carl’s friends and fans, have performed benefit shows in Los Angeles for the foundation.