Carl Dean Wilson (December 21, 1946 – February 6, 1998) was an American singer, songwriter, and musician, best known as one of the founding members of The Beach Boys, alongside his brothers Brian and Dennis. As well as being an influential guitarist, Carl is regarded as having one of the finest singing voices in the rock idiom, notably performing lead vocals on The Beach Boys' #1 hit "Good Vibrations", also regarded as one of the greatest pop singles ever produced.
Born in Hawthorne, California to Murry and Audree Wilson, Carl Wilson was the youngest of the Wilsons' three sons. A contrast to the ambitious and melancholy Brian and the rebellious Dennis, Carl was a quiet, well-mannered young man who rarely if ever felt the brunt of the parental abuse often perpetrated by father Murry. As a teenager, Carl became enamored with the growing rock and roll scene, particularly Chuck Berry, whom he sought to emulate when learning to play the guitar. Carl's love of rock and roll is partly credited with shaping the early sound of The Beach Boys, and as a result, surf rock as a whole.
When The Beach Boys were formed, Carl became lead guitarist; his Berry-inspired lead guitar lines are a staple of many of their early, primarily surf rock-driven hit singles, among them their very first, "Surfin'" (1961). During the first three years of the band's existence, Carl rarely sang lead vocals. Notably, when Brian's production methods started to shift more towards session musicians, Carl remained one of the few group members to still contribute instrumental tracks, recording guitar leads during vocal sessions with his guitar plugged directly into the soundboard.
As the '60s progressed, Carl became a more confident singer and performer; following his much-vaunted lead vocal for "God Only Knows", featured on the seminal Pet Sounds (1966), more and more often he found himself in the role of a featured lead vocalist, a role previously dominated by Brian and bandmate Mike Love. Following the worldwide success of "Good Vibrations", throughout the '60s Carl would continue to lend his voice to (admittedly more modest) hit singles such as "Darlin'", "I Can Hear Music", and "Wild Honey".
After brother Brian's retirement as an onstage performer in 1965, Carl assumed the role of de facto onstage bandleader (contracts from this time stipulating that promoters would be hiring "Carl Wilson plus four other musicians"), eventually taking charge of studio sessions as well in response to Brian's continually decreasing role within the group. In the late '60s, Carl also made headlines as a conscientious objector to the ongoing Vietnam War; at one point, the Beach Boys were forced to go on tour without Carl due to his having to appear before the draft board.
Though never a prolific songwriter, the dawn of the '70s saw the genesis of Carl's first self-composed songs; previously released songs credited to Carl had been either surf rock instrumentals, or songs on which he was credited for arrangement ideas rather than songwriting. Together with then-manager Jack Rieley, Carl wrote two songs for The Beach Boys' 1971 album Surf's Up; namely, "Feel Flows" and "Long Promised Road", the latter of which he viewed as his "first real song." Subsequent Beach Boys albums would typically feature a couple of Carl Wilson originals, usually co-written with a bandmember or other writer.. Another notable song composed with Rieley was "The Trader", an anti-imperialist opus that opened side two of the Beach Boys' 1972 album Holland. This particular album was meant to be Brian's glorious return to the producer's chair, but a lack of interest on his part resulted in Carl having to take the brunt of the responsibility.
Throughout the '70s, Carl also served as producer for a number of other artists such as Ricci Martin (son of Dean Martin; Carl would later marry Dean's daughter Gina), and South African group The Flame, of which members Blondie Chaplin Rikki Fataar would serve as members of The Beach Boys for a couple of years. The lineup including Chaplin and Fataar would release the album Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (1972), its title a reference both to a long-forgotten name once used for the group that would become The Beach Boys, as well as a nod at Carl's long-running de facto leadership.
By the early 1980s, The Beach Boys had split into several camps, the two most basic of which were "nostalgia" and "progress"; Carl was of the latter group. Frustrated with the band's continuing reliance on decade-old hits and half-hearted emulation of their '60s aesthetics, Carl took a leave of absence in 1981. During the years that followed, he would release two solo albums–Carl Wilson (1981) and Youngblood (1983)–which received favorable reviews but disappointing sales, not at all helped by a lack of record label support and promotion.
By the time Youngblood was released, however, Carl had already rejoined his old group. That same year, brother Dennis drowned in an unfortunate accident, and was given the unique honor of receiving a burial at sea, an honor usually reserved for war heroes. Though Carl would relegate songwriting and production duties to other bandmates and parties, he continued to produce his own recordings throughout the years. Notably, he performed co-lead vocals on The Beach Boys' last #1 hit, "Kokomo".
A habitual smoker since age 13, Carl was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997; he would continue performing live with The Beach Boys until a few months before his death. Though his illness had stricken him to the point where he had trouble standing up, when performing "God Only Knows", he always respectfully stood for the duration of the song. Carl Wilson died in February 1998, only three months after the death of his mother, Audree Wilson. He was survived by his brother Brian, wife Gina Martin Wilson, and two sons by his first marriage, Justyn and Jonah. His gravestone is inscribed with the words "The heart and voice of an angel."
Posthumously, Carl has been featured on a number of recordings, most notably with supergroup Beckley-Lamm-Wilson (consisting of Gerry Beckley of America and Robert Lamm of Chicago, alongside Carl), on some of brother Brian's (whose 1998 song "Lay Down Burden" was dedicated to his late brother) solo recordings, and the continuing slew of archival releases by The Beach Boys. Though his Beach Boys vocal spots are usually given to other group members now, performances of "God Only Knows" have often made use of Carl's original, irreplaceable vocal tracks.
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