February 6, 1998- Carl Dean Wilson was born on December 21, 1946 in Hawthorne, California. From his pre-teens he practiced harmony vocals under the guidance of his brother Brian, who often sang in the family music room with his mother and brothers.
Inspired by country star Spade Cooley, at the age of 12, Carl asked his parents to buy him a guitar, for which he took some lessons. In 1982, Carl remembered from this time: “The kid across the street, David Marks, was taking guitar lessons from John Maus, so I started, too. David and I were about 12 and John was only three years older, but we thought he was a shit-hot guitarist. John and his sister Judy did fraternity gigs together as a duo. Later John moved to England and became one of the Walker Brothers. He showed me some fingerpicking techniques and strumming stuff that I still use. When I play a solo, he’s still there.”
While Brian perfected the band’s vocal style and keyboard base, Carl’s Chuck Berry-esque guitar became an early Beach Boys trademark. While in high school, Carl also studied saxophone.
Turning 15 as the group’s first hit, “Surfin'”, broke locally in Los Angeles, Carl’s father and manager, Murry (who had sold his business to support his sons’ band), bought him a Fender Jaguar guitar. Carl developed as a musician and singer through the band’s early recordings and the early “surf lick” sound quickly evolved into the rock sophistication of “Fun, Fun, Fun”, recorded in 1964 when Carl was 17. By the end of 1964, he was diversifying, favoring the 12-string Rickenbacker that was also notably used by Roger McGuinn in establishing the sound of the Byrds and by George Harrison of The Beatles during this era. Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1976), stated that Pete Townshend of The Who expanded on both R&B and white rock “influenced heavily by Beach Boy Carl Wilson.”
Carl’s lead vocals in the band’s first three years were infrequent. Although all members of the band played on their early recordings, Brian began to employ experienced session musicians to play on the group’s instrumental tracks by 1965. Unlike the other members of the band, Carl often played alongside with session musicians. He also recorded his individual guitar leads during the Beach Boys’ vocal sessions, with his guitar plugged directly into the soundboard. His playing can be heard on tracks like 1965’s “Girl Don’t Tell Me” and 1966’s “That’s Not Me”.
In 1965 he took over as lead singer in and part running the band in 1966, and then fully in 1970.
In 1969, the Beach Boys’ rendition of “I Can Hear Music” was the first track produced solely by Carl Wilson. By then, he had effectively become the band’s in-studio leader, producing the bulk of the albums during the early 1970s.
Though Carl had written surf instrumentals for the band in the early days, he did not gain prominence as a songwriter until the 1971 album Surf’s Up, for which he composed “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows”, with lyrics by the band’s then manager Jack Rieley. Carl considered “Long Promised Road” his first real song. After producing the majority of Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972) and Holland (1973), Carl’s leadership role diminished somewhat, due to Brian’s brief public reemergence and because of Carl’s own substance abuse problems.
For L.A. (Light Album) (1979), Carl contributed three songs, among them “Good Timin'”, co-written with Brian five years earler, which became a Top 40 American hit. Carl’s main writing partner in the late 1970s was Geoffrey Cushing-Murray, but for Keepin’ the Summer Alive (1980) he wrote with Randy Bachman of the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Carl told Michael Feeney Callan, writer-director of the 1993 documentary The Beach Boys Today (a celebration of the Beach Boys’ 30th anniversary), that Bachman was his favorite writing partner, accordingly: “Basically because he rocked, and I love to rock”.
As a producer and vocalist, Carl’s work was not confined to the Beach Boys. He was widely regarded to have had one of the finest voices in rock and his voice appears as a backing vocal on many recordings by groups and solo singers during the 1970s, while he also produced records for other artists, such as Ricci Martin (son of Dean Martin) and South African group the Flame, two members of which later temporarily joined the Beach Boys’ line-up. He lent backing vocals to many works, including Chicago’s hits “Baby, What a Big Surprise” and “Wishing You Were Here” (with Al Jardine and brother Dennis), Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (with Bruce Johnston), David Lee Roth’s hit cover of “California Girls”, Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves”, and the Carnie/Wendy Wilson holiday track “Hey Santa!” Carl also recorded a duet with Olivia Newton-John, titled “You Were Great, How Was I?”, for her studio album, “Soul Kiss” (1985). It was not released as a single.
In 1981 he released a solo album, Carl Wilson, followed by Youngblood, in 1983. By the time of its release in 1983 he had rejoined the Beach Boys. Although Youngblood did not chart, a single, the John Hall-penned “What You Do To Me”, peaked at number 72, making Wilson the second Beach Boy to land a solo single on the Billboard Hot 100. Additionally, the song cracked the top 20 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Wilson frequently performed that song and “Rockin’ All Over the World” (from the same album), as well as “Heaven” from the 1981 album, at Beach Boys’ concerts in the 1980s. “Heaven” was always announced as a tribute to brother Dennis, who drowned in December 1983.
The Beach Boys’ 1985 eponymous album prominently featured Wilson’s lead vocals and songwriting, highlighted by his “It’s Gettin’ Late” (another top 20 Adult Contemporary hit) and the “Heaven”-like “Where I Belong”.
In 1988, the Beach Boys scored their biggest chart success in more than 20 years with the US Number 1 song “Kokomo”, co-written by Mike Love, on which Carl sang lead in the chorus. After this, Love increasingly dominated the band’s recorded output and became the driving force behind the album Summer in Paradise (1993), the first and only Beach Boys album with no input from Brian in any form. In 1992, Carl told Michael Feeney Callan his hope was to record new material by Brian. “Speaking for myself”, he told Callan, “I only want to record inspired music“.
Carl continued recording through the 1990s and participated in the Don Was-led recordings of Brian’s “Soul Searchin'” and “You’re Still a Mystery”, songs conceived as the basis of an aborted Brian Wilson/Beach Boys album. He also recorded the album Like a Brother with Robert Lamm and Gerry Beckley, while continuing to tour with the Beach Boys until the last months of his life.
A cigarette smoker since the age of 13, Carl was diagnosed with lung cancer after becoming ill at his vacation home in Hawaii, in early 1997. Despite his illness, Carl continued to perform while undergoing chemotherapy. He played and sang throughout the Beach Boys’ entire summer tour which ended in the fall of 1997. During the performances, he sat on a stool, but he stood while singing “God Only Knows”.
Carl died of lung cancer at the age of 51 in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family, on February 6, 1998, just two months after the death of his mother.