Carl Dean Wilson (December 21, 1946 – February 6, 1998) was an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer who co-founded the Beach Boys. He is best remembered as their lead guitarist and as the youngest brother of bandmates Brian and Dennis Wilson.
Influenced by the guitar playing of Chuck Berry and the Ventures, Carl's initial role in the group was that of lead guitarist and backing vocals, but he performed lead vocals on several of their hits, including "God Only Knows" (1966) and "Good Vibrations" (1966). Unlike other members of the band, he often played alongside the studio musicians employed during the group's critical and commercial peak in the mid 1960s. After Brian began withdrawing from the group, Carl was forced to take a more active production role, and he became the band's musical director on stage from 1965 until his death from lung cancer in 1998.
During the 1980s, he attempted to launch a solo career, releasing the albums Carl Wilson (1981) and Young Blood (1983). Shortly before his death, he recorded material with Gerry Beckley and Robert Lamm, later released for the posthumous album Like a Brother (2000).
Carl Dean Wilson was born in Hawthorne, California, the youngest son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. 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 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 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".
After Brian's retirement from touring in 1965, Carl became the musical director of the band onstage. Contracts at that time stipulated that promoters hire "Carl Wilson plus four other musicians". Following his lead vocal performance on "God Only Knows" in 1966, Carl was increasingly lead vocalist for the band, a role previously dominated by Mike Love and Brian. He sang leads on the singles "Good Vibrations", "Darlin'", and "Wild Honey". Starting with the album Wild Honey, Brian requested that Carl become more involved in the Beach Boys' records.
"Feel Flows" from Surf's Up (1971)
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 get into his stride 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 earlier, 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 RTÉ 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. During the 1970s, he also produced records for other artists, such as Ricci Martin (son of Dean Martin) and South African group the Flames, 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.
By the early 1980s the Beach Boys were in disarray; the band had split into several camps. Frustrated with the band's sluggishness to record new material and reluctance to rehearse, Wilson took a leave of absence in 1981.
He quickly recorded and released a solo album, Carl Wilson, composed largely of rock n' roll songs co-written with Myrna Smith-Schilling, a former backing vocalist for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, and wife of Wilson's then-manager Jerry Schilling. The album briefly charted, and its second single, "Heaven", reached the top 20 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart. Wilson also undertook a solo tour to promote the album, becoming the first member of the Beach Boys to break ranks. Initially, Wilson and his band played clubs like The Bottom Line in New York City and the Roxy in Los Angeles. Thereafter, he joined the Doobie Brothers as opening act for their 1981 summer tour.
Wilson recorded a second solo album, Youngblood, in a similar vein, but 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 a cancelled 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 in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family, on February 6, 1998, just two months after the death of his mother, Audree Wilson. He was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
The Beckley-Lamm-Wilson album, Like a Brother, was finally released in 2000, and Carl's late recordings continue to appear. Brian's album Gettin' in Over My Head (2004) features Carl's vocal from the unreleased Beach Boys song "Soul Searchin'", with new backing vocals recorded by Brian. The original Beach Boys version, sourced from a cancelled attempt at a new Beach Boys album in late 1995, was eventually released in the Made in California (2013) box set, along with another 1995 track titled "You're Still a Mystery", which features Carl in the vocal blend. In 2010, bandmate Al Jardine released his first solo album, A Postcard From California, which includes a similarly reconstructed track, "Don't Fight The Sea", featuring one of the last vocals Carl recorded. Carl can also be heard on the continual stream of Beach Boys archival releases, most notably as a central voice in the November 2011 release of The Smile Sessions.
It was announced that Wilson's voice would be heard on a track from the reunited Beach Boys, on the album That's Why God Made the Radio (2012), but this never materialized. Instead, the scheduled song, "Waves of Love", featured on the 2012 re-release of Jardine's A Postcard From California. During The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour, a segment of the show was dedicated to the memories of Dennis and Carl. The band harmonized with isolated vocal tracks of Carl performing "God Only Knows" and of Dennis singing "Forever", as the band's crew projected images of the individual Wilson brothers on a large screen behind the band onstage.
Carl Wilson is widely recognized as an important and influential singer in popular music. The renowned countertenor, Iestyn Davies, interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4's Front Row on 16 December 2009, referred to Carl's lead on "Good Vibrations" as "[that] wonderful male alto solo; exactly the same sound you'd hear from a good singer in a cathedral or on a Baroque opera stage. It's a wonderful sound."
Wilson was a significantly spiritual person and frequently spoke of what he called his "connection with Spirit". Prayer ritual was an important part of his life and, according to Brian, "prayer sessions" were conducted before recordings on Pet Sounds in order to invoke higher guidance in the music. Wilson declared himself a conscientious objector and refused the draft to join the American military during the Vietnam War. By 1988, Wilson had become an ordained minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.
Wilson was married twice: first to Annie Hinsche, sister of frequent Beach Boys sideman Billy Hinsche, then in 1987 to Dean Martin's daughter Gina (born December 20, 1956). With Annie, Wilson had two sons, Jonah (born 1969) and Justyn (born 1971). It was during the breakup of his and Annie's marriage that Carl wrote "Angel Come Home" which, according to co-writer Geoffrey Cushing-Murray, was about Wilson's grief over separating from his wife during the incessant touring with the Beach Boys. His marriage to Gina lasted until his death, and she accompanied him on all of his touring duties.
|Year||Album details||Chart positions|
|March 1981||"Hold Me" / "Hurry Love"||Carl Wilson||—|
|June 1981||"Heaven" / "Hurry Love"||#20 (Billboard Adult Contemporary)||#107|
|March 1983||"What You Do To Me" / "Time"||Youngblood||#72 (Billboard Hot 100)|
|July 1983||"Givin' You Up" / "It's Too Early to Tell"||—|
|September 2015||"This Is Elvis"||This Is Elvis - Single||—|
|April 1981||"Heaven" / "The Right Lane"||Carl Wilson||—|
|May 1983||"What You Do to Me" / "Time"||Youngblood||—|