The youngest of the three Wilson brothers who were the core of The Beach Boys, Carl initially was heard in the harmonic blend of backing vocals that was the hallmark of the groups music. Michael [Love] always sang the bottom, Carl explained. I would sing the one above that, then would come Dennis [Wilson] or Alan [Jardine], and then Brian on top.
In the groups first years, Carl rarely sang a lead vocal. When he did, the song was tucked away as an album track. But in 1966, Carls voice came into its own, and Brian recognized it for the powerful instrument it was. Brian first showcased Carls voice on God Only Knows, an international Top Ten hit and Carls trademark song in concert until his death. And it was Carl who sang lead on the groups next single, Good Vibrations, which went to Number One all over the world.
His singing voice was incomparable, remembered Billy Hinsche, Carls former brother-in-law and a member of The Beach Boys touring band for many years. He had perfect pitch to match his flawless delivery and phrasing.
Carl also was responsible for the guitar solos that highlighted many of The Beach Boys hits. Never accorded the popular acclaim received by many later guitarists, Carl nonetheless was held in sufficiently high regard to be named one of the 30 Greatest Rock and Roll Guitarists in The Book of Rock Lists. His guitar playing inspired a young generation of kids, like me, to pick up an instrument and learn how to play, said Hinsche, and he could rock with the best of them.
In the late Sixties, Carls lead vocal was heard on an increasing number of Beach Boys records, including one of the groups last Top 20 hits, Darlin, where his love for rhythm-and-blues came to the fore. In 1969, with Brian increasingly reticent to lead the group in the studio, Carl made the jump from Brians apprentice up to the producers role for the group.
Ive always been the one who worked real closely with Brian, Carl said. I was his sounding board; I was his underling. I always tagged along. In addition to being one of the players in the studio, I worked with him in the control room, because he wanted my ear. His first solo production was I Can Hear Music, a cover of a Phil Spector tune that cracked the Top 30 for the group. Carl had learned a lot from his older brother; the recording, featuring sleighbells and an acappella break, was true to Brians production technique in every way.
In the early 1970s, he expanded his contributions to include songwriting. The first songs he wrote were Long Promised Road and Feel Flows, both of which appeared on the Surf s Up album. Another song, The Trader, appeared on the groups Holland album. By that time, Carl was acknowledged as the groups defacto leader, both in the studio and on the road.
He was the leader of the band, said Hinsche. No one knew the vocal and instrumental parts like Carl did. His attention to detail and his knowledge of every nuance of every song was astounding. He insisted that the group not only play and sing the parts accurately, but that they do so with feeling. He was a total professional.
During Brians much-ballyhooed comeback of the mid-Seventies, Carl stepped aside from the songwriting and production in favor of his older brother. At the end of the decade, his writing skills came to the fore again as the band settled into a more democratic approach to recordmaking. He contributed three songs to 1979s L.A. (Light Album) (including Angel Come Home, sung by brother Dennis) and two to 1980s Keepin the Summer Alive. Then, frustrated by the groups refusal to begin work on another album, Carl went solo.
On his two solo albums Carl Wilson in 1981 and Youngblood in 1983 Carl returned to his R&B roots. I didnt want to compromise and make my solo stuff sound like the Beach Boys, he commented at the time. The R&B approach just came naturally. Its a side of me thats always wanted to come out. I have this massive collection of R&B records. When we were doing Pet Sounds, Id go home and put on my Stax and Aretha stuff. Its always been a big part of my life.
Collaborating with him on songwriting was Myrna Smith, a member of the black gospel trio, The Sweet Inspirations, who sang backup on all of Aretha Franklins greatest hits and toured with Elvis Presley throughout the 1970s. Carl and Smith wrote all eight of the songs on Carl Wilson and seven of the 11 songs on Youngblood.
The first album highlighted soulful ballads like Hurry Love and Heaven. Producer James William Guercio recalled, He had the most phenomenal vocal range and texture that I ever had the privilege of putting a microphone in front of.
On his second album, Carl decided to cut loose. I wanted Youngblood to be a singing album, he said at the time. I wanted to express sides of myself that I could never do in the Beach Boys, more hard rock stuff. I wanted to get myself to sing freer, with a greater dynamic range. Covers of John Halls uptempo What You Do To Me and John Fogertys rowdy Rockin All Over The World afforded him the opportunity to rock as hard as he wanted.
Carl rejoined the Beach Boys when they agreed to his demands for more rehearsals and a new album. On their 1985 album, simply titled The Beach Boys, he contributed three songs, including two written with Smith.
In March 1997, Carl was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his condition, he went on tour with the Beach Boys again that summer, hitting the road in May and persevering until late August. Carl put on such a positive face about his illness that ... I honestly believed he was going to beat it, said fellow Beach Boy Alan Jardine. And I think he did, too.
Carl passed away February 6, 1998, at age 51 from complications due to lung cancer. His mother, Audree, had preceded him only two months earlier.
Carl is remembered by family and friends for not only his musical talents, but also his spirituality and sensitivity. We used to call him the Rock of Gibraltar, said his brother, Brian. He brought a lot of emotional security for us. Jardine agreed, He was the spiritual center of the group.
Carl was the most wonderful human being I ever had the opportunity to work with, stated Guercio. He had the most spiritual sensitivity and respect for all mankind. It was an honor and pleasure to work with and know him. We will all miss his talents and principles.
Liner notes written by Brad Elliott.
Compilation ©1999 Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.
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