Saturday (December 4th) marks what would’ve been the 77th birthday of Beach Boys co-founder and drummer Dennis Wilson. For most of his life, Dennis was overshadowed by his older brother Brian, who wrote most of the group’s hits, and by his younger brother Carl, who sang lead on songs such as “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” As a youngster, Dennis was considered the least musical of the Wilson brothers, but it was his idea for Brian and cousin Mike Love to first write about surfing which resulted in their 1961 debut single “Surfin’.” It was the Wilson’s mother Audree who urged the group to include Dennis, who was then forced to play drums because, according to legend, he couldn’t play anything else.
Dennis’ good looks and powerful live drumming provided the group with a much-needed boost in the wake of the “British Invasion.” Brian Wilson often used direct instances from Dennis’ life as the foundation for Beach Boys songs, including “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Let Him Run Wild,” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Dennis sang lead on the group’s 1965 remake of Bobby Freeman‘s “Do You Wanna Dance.” He began contributing songs to Beach Boys albums beginning with their 1968 album Friends, and everyone in the group was surprised at the spiritual quality of his work.
In the late-1960’s, while older brother Brian Wilson slowly retreated from the group in a haze of mental illness and drug abuse, it was Dennis’ songs on albums such as Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Carl & The Passions – So Tough, and Holland that kept the band’s artistic vision advancing. Songs such as “Little Bird,” “Be Still,” “Celebrate The News,” “Be With Me,” “Forever,” “Cuddle Up” “Only With You,” and “Baby Blue,” rank among the most revered of the band’s catalogue. Most of Wilson’s unfinished 1971 solo album, tentatively titled, Poops / Hubba Hubba, was finally released as part of the Beach Boys’ 2021 critically acclaimed box set, Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969 -1971.
His personal life was less successful, including five failed marriages and a year-long friendship with the infamous Charles Manson. Sadly the mainstream press has always gravitated toward his brief time knowing Manson and turbulent personal life than his 15 years as a working songwriter.
In 1977, he became the first active Beach Boy to release a solo album, called Pacific Ocean Blue.
In recent years, it’s come to light that Dennis’ greatest success was in co-writing the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful” with Billy Preston in 1974, for which he did not receive a credit. Friends who were there the night the song was written have gone on record claiming that Dennis contributed integral portions to the song, but that he refused to be credited, explaining that he was “just helping a friend out.” Dennis went on to perform the song at nearly every Beach Boys show, starting in 1975, and told numerous people that he indeed did co-write the song.
On December 28th, 1983 Dennis drowned in Marina Del Rey, California just weeks after his 39th birthday.
Only days before, Wilson, who was homeless at the time, had checked himself out of a Los Angeles detox unit in an effort to kick his crippling drug and alcohol addictions. Wilson was visiting a friend whose boat was berthed next to where his own boat, the Harmony, had been docked for years. The Harmony had been repossessed in the summer of 1981 due to lack of mortgage payments, and at the time of his death, Wilson was diving into the 50 degree waters to retrieve various possessions he had thrown off the boat in the past.
Although burials at sea are normally reserved only for naval personnel, then-President Ronald Reagan gave the Wilson family special permission to allow a sea burial for Dennis. He was laid to rest in early 1984.
A feature film based on Dennis’ final years, called The Drummer, was recently scrapped after several years of pre-production.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY REMEMBER DENNIS WILSON
Brian Wilson revealed that it was none other than his brother Dennis who contributed the church-like organ during the slower portion of the group’s 1966 Number One hit “Good Vibrations.” Brian explained how Dennis ended up with such a high profile spot on his debut as the Beach Boys’ keyboardist: “He was sitting at the organ, and I said, ‘I wanna play the organ,’ and he says, ‘Well, let me play.’ So I said, ‘Alright,’ and I taught him his part.”
Al Jardine told us that he’s still amazed at the depth and beauty of Dennis’ songs: “Oh, he was the most underrated member of the band in those terms. His compositions, I think, were stronger, and they got stronger and stronger as we went along — as he went along — until obviously he couldn’t go any further. And I just think that given time, y’know, he would’ve been the. . . probably the best composer in the band, outside of Brian, of course. Yeah, he just had that natural, intuitive instinct about music and lyrics. He always. . . he was the kind of guy who could get to the point without beating around the bush and, y’know, could just nail it.”
Beach Boys co-founder David Marks, who grew up across the street from the Wilsons in Hawthorne, California, recalled that even as a child Dennis was never predictable: “Y’know, he charmed the adults and some of the kids that he beat up on were afraid of him. And I was one of them, actually. But he mostly protected me because he regarded me as a brother. But if I was the only one around, then I would be the target. Not maliciously or in anger, but (he’d) hold you down and rub grapes in your face and punch you in the stomach, or slap you around (laughs), or whatever, But it was out of love.”
Carnie Wilson, who is Brian Wilson’s daughter and Dennis’ niece, says that she thinks about her uncle regularly: “I had a crush on Dennis, he made my stomach feel funny. And my memories of Dennis was, like, him getting on the ground like he was proposing to me, kneeling down in front of me whenever he saw me and he would kiss my hand in like 20 places. That was his thing. And he was wild and sexy. Y’know, wild. Just out there.”
Carl Wilson’s son Justyn Wilson was asked what he remembered most about his Uncle Dennis: “Just fun stuff, y’know sitting in his little, like, lounge area behind his drum set. Like a little seating thing for people to hang out. He would have just like (laughs) a little spot to hang out (laughs) or like chill, maybe some pillows or y’know. . . (laughs). He was just like a fun guy as much as I can remember. And I remember there was that other side where you’re kind of not so sure, (and) it can maybe be a little scary or frightening, ’cause he was like on the edge, y’know? But in just a very real way.”
The late, great Glen Campbell toured briefly as the band’s bassist in 1964 and 1965 played on dozens of Beach Boys studio tracks. A while back, he recalled to us Dennis’ insatiable love of the outdoors: “Ah, he was incredible (laughs). First thing he wanted to do — I think it was in Miami — we’d go out and go fishin’! Or fish off the pier. I don’t know why he liked to fish, ’cause I don’t like really just sitting there holding a pole. If you’re going out on a boat — that’s cool, at least it’s a little recreation. But he just liked to do that.”
By the time of Dennis’ death his relationship with his cousin and Beach Boys frontman Mike Love was virtually non-existent. Having married Love’s alleged illegitimate daughter Shawn Love, and fathering a son with her, Dennis had finally pushed his relationship with Love beyond repair. Photographer Ed Roach, Dennis’ longtime confidante, was friendly with the entire band and shed some light on Dennis’ relationship with Mike Love and Al Jardine: “The bad blood was really starting intensely between Dennis and Mike over women. Dennis was named in Mike’s first divorce — as, y’know, ‘alienation of affection.’ You needed a reason to divorce in those days, and he named Dennis as the ‘despondent’ (laughs), I think they called it, or something. So their bad blood started there and then it escalated when Mike got so wrapped up in TM and sobriety. But Al was never — he wasn’t disrespectful to Dennis back in those days. And Dennis still had a lot of clout in those days with them on the road, and stuff.”
Jon Stebbins, who wrote the definitive biography on Dennis called The Real Beach Boy, explained one of the many reasons why Dennis abandoned his 1977 symphonic tour in support of Pacific Ocean Blue: “I think he wanted 23 pieces — at least 18, he wanted. It was going to be all of his boys. I think he was going to play some piano and come up front and sing some. It was going to be a whole deal, y’know? They were rehearsing ‘What’s Wrong,’ ‘Rainbows,’ ‘Pacific Ocean Blue,’ ‘The End Of The Show’ — they were probably going to do that as the last song, and he’d do ‘You Are So Beautiful’ for the encore, I’m sure. But he wanted strings, he wanted bass flutes, y’know? (Laughs) He wanted all that stuff and they wouldn’t give him the budget for it.”
Dennis’ primary songwriting partner and producer Gregg Jakobson says that Murry Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ abusive father and original Beach Boys manager always weighed heavy on Dennis’ psyche: “I think he probably channeled Murry into a lot of things. There was a lot of pathos there, there was a lot of conflict, and I think that was part of Dennis’ make up — how could it not be, since he was a little boy? And there was a lot of adversarial-ness there and a lot of conflict there. And this was a very spiritual cat — I mean, there was a very, very spiritual side to Dennis. And a lot of that came from family — (it) came from his dad and his mom, y’know? That’s one of the things that made Dennis such a soulful person; It’s real, and that’s what people are pickin’ up on.”
Lindsey Buckingham became friendly with Dennis Wilson when Wilson began dating Fleetwood Mac‘s Christine McVie. Wilson was a frequent visitor to the band’s recording sessions for Tusk, which coincided with Wilson abandoning his own album Bambu: “He was kind of a lost guy. He was a very talented guy — way more talented than he had the structure to be able to exhibit. Y’know, he had a lot going on without the tools to sort of get there — that’s my opinion anyway. He was a real sweetheart. He was also a rogue. Y’know, he was that rogue element.”
Carl Wilson’s brother-in-law and longtime Beach Boys sideman, the late-Billy Hinsche told us that despite Dennis’ long and public decline, his death was still a shock to him: “I never thought that Dennis would die that way, that young. He had done his Pacific Ocean Blue and it had done very well, and it was critically acclaimed, and it sold well. It had outsold the Beach Boys album at the time, so I’m told. Y’know, he never could sit still, he had to be doing something. So yeah, I was worried about him and I knew he wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t think it was gonna happen as soon as it did, or in the way that it did. I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted the way it happened, y’know?”
Dennis’ son, Carl B. Wilson, who’s also a drummer, is hopeful that even more of his father’s unreleased works will be issued sooner rather than later: “Anything that would be able to could come out and let people hear what work my dad has done. . . Y’know, I’d love to be able to go somewhere and buy one of his records. So whichever way any of his work can come out, just so long as it’s through the right avenue and can really be done right, then yeah, all that stuff. Ultimately, what I’d really like is for people to be able to understand and appreciate what he did. Y’know, what it comes down to is, is it worth it for it to come out? And y’know, I’ve always thought that it was.”
2008 proved to be the biggest year in Dennis Wilson‘s solo career, with the deluxe reissue of his solo album Pacific Ocean Blue and its unreleased 1978 follow-up, Bambu, which was released in June to unanimous critical acclaim — and earning the nod for “Best Reissue” from Rolling Stone, Mojo and Uncut magazines.
One of the highlights on the set is “Holy Man” which is featured twice: once in Wilson’s original 1975 instrumental version, and again with newly-written lyrics by Wilson’s main collaborator, Gregg Jakobson. Jakobson enlisted the help of close family friend and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins to sing the new words to Wilson’s melody.
In 2010 the BBC aired Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, the first major documentary ever produced on Dennis. Aside from previously unseen footage, the doc features exclusive interviews with Beach Boys Brian Wilson, David Marks, Al Jardine, and Blondie Chaplin, Dennis’ sons Michael and Carl B. Wilson, Jeff Foskett, engineers John Hanlon and Tom Murphy, Ed Roach, Gregg Jakobson, Jon Stebbins, Jo Ann Marks, Ron Swallow, and others.
In 2017, noted rock writer Ken Sharp has published Dreamer – The Making Of Dennis Wilson’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue.’ Over the course of five years, Sharp — who’s best known for his works on the Raspberries, Elvis Presley, David Cassidy, John Lennon, Cheap Trick, Kiss, and the “Wrecking Crew,” among many others — has interviewed nearly everyone involved in the late-Beach Boy’s 1977 masterpiece, which marked the first solo album released by an active member of the group.
Through Sharp’s interviews — mainly new, but also featuring archival bytes from Wilson and others — the story of Pacific Ocean Blue comes to life with countless in-depth tales of the music’s composition, recording, Wilson’s personal life, the promotional of the album, its aborted tour, and his relationship with the key people — the Beach Boys, his then-current and former wives, bandmates, assistants, record label reps, fans, and collaborators — that all aided in delivering the album. Dreamer not only features a multitude of never-before-seen photos, but Sharp provides insight into nearly every song Dennis Wilson ever wrote. The book also features an exhaustive sessionography.
In 2016, Beach Boys fans were in for a thrill during the final scene and end credits of Sarah Jessica Parker‘s HBO drama Divorce, when Dennis Wilson’s melancholy voice brought the episode to a close. The song, “You And I,” has long been beloved by fans of Wilson’s breathtaking 1977 solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue, which features the chorus of “no more lonely nights” — a song that undoubtedly inspired none other than Paul McCartney seven years later for his 1984 Top 10 hit using those same four words.
On April 13th, 2017, a decade after it was completed, the unlikely collaboration between Wilson, Taylor Hawkins, and Queen‘s Brian May and Roger Taylor on a new version of “Holy Man” finally saw the light of day as a Record Store Day exclusive release.