On Carl Wilson

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Today is the birthday of Carl Wilson (1946-1998), the youngest of the Beach Boys’ Wilson brothers, their influential lead guitarist, and lead singer on several of their important songs. Furthermore, if you’ll do the arithmetic, you’ll see that he was only 15 when the quiet, humble Wilson brother started making his impact.

When I was a teenager, Wilson was definitely on Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest rock guitarist list. Can’t tell if he still is; their web site makes you go through the list page by page, and I’m not about to sift through 100 separate web pages! But Wilson was key in adapting Chuck Berry’s style to what came to be known as surf music. One easily conjures in the mind the sound of Wilson’s clean guitar leads, with their signature echo effect.

As a singer, his voice was almost exactly like his brother Brian’s, making it hard to pick him out. But he sang the lead on such songs as “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, “God Only Knows”, and “Good Vibrations”. As Brian began to sink deeper into his breakdown, Carl produced many of the band’s records of the late 60s and 70s by default, and sang lead on many of the singles from the same period, such as “Darlin'”, “Wild Honey” and “I Can Hear Music”. He also sang background on other people’s recods; a classic example is Elton’s John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.

I well remember when his solo album Carl Wilson came out it in 1981; I actually have a mental image of it on display in the record department of our local Woolworths. Carl was disgruntled by the fact that at that stage the Beach Boys success was coming primarily as an oldies band. He wanted more creative fulfillment, but the LP didn’t sell very well. There were more hits with the Beach Boys of course. He died of cancer at the young age of 51.

Here he is a singing lead on a song I’ve always really loved, written by his brother Brian when he seemed to be reflecting just a hint of Beatles influence in 1965:

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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