Carl Wilson is one of the most-loved and much-missed vocalists and musicians of his generation, whose glorious voice and authoritative guitar graced scores of great recordings. In celebration of the late Beach Boys singer, born on December 21, 1946, here are some of Carl’s greatest performances, chiefly comprising his work with the Beach Boys, but also featuring some solo outings and guest appearances. His premature death at just 51, on February 6, 1998, robbed us of many more years of his fine work.
Born in the Californian town that the Beach Boys made famous, Hawthorne, Carl was four and a half years younger than his brother Brian, and two years the junior of his other sibling, Dennis. He was close to six years younger than the other mainstay of the group’s sound and personnel, his cousin Mike Love, so Carl had his work cut out to be taken seriously, at least as a vocalist.
He was, however, established in the role of lead guitarist for the group from their very first album, 1962’s Surfin’ Safari. His Fender solo, halfway through the hit single title track and in between Love’s verses, sets the template for the customisation of Chuck Berry’s lead lines that was Carl’s first hallmark as a guitarist. His bold introductory line on “Surfin’ USA” was another memorable motif, and occasional instrumentals also put him centre stage, such as the affectionately- titled rock’n’roll shuffle “Carl’s Big Chance” on 1964’s All Summer Long.
Carl’s early vocal leads on Beach Boys songs were often in the Berry-influenced rock’n’roll idiom that partly defined their early sound, and he was in the spotlight on early album versions of “Summertime Blues,” “Louie Louie” and others. But gradually, his pristine voice started to imprint itself on some of the group’s most memorable sides.
As Brian’s songwriting became more sophisticated, Carl’s voice grew with it, developing a distinctive, supple soulfulness that makes a song like “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” from 1965’s Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) such a pleasure. By now, he was also expanding as a guitar player, using the 12-string Rickenbacker that he and other figureheads such as Roger McGuinn and George Harrison helped to popularise.
Then, in the mid-1960s period, came the two most indelible of all Carl’s vocal performances. To this day, many casual listeners probably don’t realise that it’s the often unsung Carl who gives life to his brother Brian’s incredible melodies and lyrics on either of them: “God Only Knows,” the 1966 masterpiece from the Pet Sounds album was followed by another work of genius before the end of the year, “Good Vibrations,” on which Carl does the lion’s share of the vocal work, augmented by Brian and Mike.
Carl also showed himself a fine interpreter of the complex lyrics of Van Dyke Parks, as on the mesmeric “Wonderful” from Smiley Smile. As the group’s work became more influenced by the experimentation of the later 1960s, there was still room to rock out, with a soulful lead on their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her,” and to helm chart hits like “Darlin’” and another cover, “I Can Hear Music.”
Wilson’s voice helped ease the Beach Boys into the 1970s on Surf’s Up, on whose title track he plays a major role. The group’s next album, Carl and the Passions – So Tough, was even named after an early group of his. As Brian’s involvement lessened, Carl’s musicianship grew ever more important, and his lead vocals on some of their less successful albums of the late 1970s remain very charming, notably “Sweet Sunday Kinda Love” from the M.I.U. Album.
Carl was the main featured vocalist on 1979’s return to acclaim, the L.A. (Light Album), singing and co-writing the fine “Good Timin’” with Brian and steering the lovely “Full Sail,” among others. As the 1980s dawned, the group’s momentum ebbed, even if they were, as Carl sang, trying to keep the summer alive; but 1985’s self-titled album provided the ballad “She Believes In Love Again,” which he co-sang with its writer, Bruce Johnston.
Carl made two solo albums, a self-titled 1981 set and Youngblood in 1983. One of the highlights of that solo debut, now sadly out of print, was “Heaven,” while the latter included “Of The Times.” Then there’s the marvelous “Since God Invented Girls,” Elton John’s excellent tribute to the Beach Boys on which Carl and his brothers sang backing vocals. Listen for Carl’s beautiful, unmistakable voice in particular at 3’10” into this much-underrated track from Elton’s 1989 album Reg Strikes Back.
Like A Brother was the album Carl made in the 1990s with Gerry Beckley of America and Robert Lamm of Chicago, released after Carl’s death under the trio name Beckley-Lamm-Wilson. Among his other guest vocals was an appearance on Chicago’s gorgeously harmonised “Wishing You Were Here,” and let’s not forget “Don’t Fight The Sea,” which features Carl and his bandmates in a posthumous contribution to Al Jardine’s solo album A Postcard From California. A talent such as Carl Wilson’s comes along all too rarely.
Buy or stream the Beach Boys’ Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971.