Dennis Carl Wilson (December 4, 1944 – December 28, 1983) was an American musician, singer, and songwriter who co-founded the Beach Boys. He is best remembered as their drummer, as the middle brother of bandmates Brian and Carl Wilson, and for his brief association with murder-conspirator Charles Manson.
Dennis served mainly on drums and backing vocals for the Beach Boys from its formation until his death in 1983. Noted as the only true surfer in the group, his personal life exemplified the “California Myth” that the group’s early songs often celebrated.
While he was allowed few lead vocals in the 1960s, his prominence as a singer-songwriter increased into the 1970s.
His original songs for the band included “Forever”, “Little Bird”, and “Slip On Through”. He also helped pen “You Are So Beautiful”, which became a hit for Joe Cocker in 1974.
His only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), was released to positive reviews, but a moderate commercial reception. Written and recorded over a span of several years, the album, peaked on US record charts at number 96 during a 12-week stay. Sessions for a follow-up, Bambu, disintegrated before Wilson’s death.
In 1988, Dennis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously as a member of the Beach Boys.
Dennis Carl Wilson was the son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. He spent his family years with his brothers and parents in Hawthorne, California. Dennis’ role in the family dynamic, which he himself acknowledged, was that of the black sheep. Though anxiety-filled and aggressive at times he was also sensitive and generous.
He was the most often beaten of the Wilson brothers, by their strong-willed father Murry. Possessed with an abundance of physical energy and a combative nature, Dennis often refused to participate in family singalongs and likewise avoided vocalizing on the early recordings that Brian made on a portable tape recorder, but Dennis would sing with his brothers late at night in their shared bedroom on a song Brian later recalled as “our special one we’d sing,” titled “Come Down, Come Down from the Ivory Tower.”
Brian noted of the late night brotherly three-part harmonies: “We developed a little blend which aided us when we started to get into the Beach Boys stuff.”
Dennis’ mother, Audree, forced Brian to include Dennis in the original lineup of the Beach Boys. Urged by older cousin Mike Love, Dennis had approached Brian to form a group and compose a song about surfing.
The Beach Boys formed in August 1961 and were successful immediately. (Murry had taken over guidance of the group as manager.) Though the Beach Boys were named for, and developed, an image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only actual surfer in the band.
During Dennis’ few years of the Beach Boys, Brian gave him the role of the drummer. Dennis quickly learned the basics of drumming at school lessons and, like the other members, he picked up more on the job.
Brian took note of Dennis’ limited drumming technique early on and, as the mid-60s approached, often hired session drummers, such as Hal Blaine, to perform on studio recordings (additionally substituting all other players at one time or another, under the demand for the band members on tour).
Dennis accepted this situation with equanimity, generally giving high praise to his older brother’s work, as Brian’s compositions became more mature and complex.
Though given few important lead vocals on the early Beach Boys recordings (“Little Girl (You’re My Miss America)” and “This Car of Mine”, as well as the bridge verse on “Girls on the Beach”), he sang lead on “Do You Wanna Dance?”, the group’s February 1965 hit.
Later that year on Beach Boys’ Party!, Dennis sang a rendition of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” He accompanied himself on guitar and, like the other Beach Boys, became a multi-instrumentalist.
Early in 1963 Dennis teamed with Brian’s former collaborator Gary Usher, a neighbor in Hawthorne who became a prolific creative figure in surf music recording and, later, folk.
As a duo writing, producing, and performing, and calling themselves the Four-Speeds, they released the single “RPM” backed with “My Stingray”. Both sides got top four-star ratings in Billboard reviews, in mid-March 1963, and were popular enough locally and in spots cross-country to earn Dennis a Chevy Corvair sports car, which he totalled in a drunk-driving crash.
By 1977, Dennis had amassed a stockpile of songs he had written and recorded while factions within the Beach Boys became too stressful for him.
He expressed: “If these people want to take this beautiful, happy, spiritual music we’ve made and all the things we stand for and throw it out the window just because of money, then there’s something wrong with the whole thing and I don’t want any part of it.”
He then approached James William Guercio, owner of Caribou Records, who stipulated a “a structured recording process” before signing Dennis to a two-album contract.
According to Guercio: “My discussions with Dennis were along the lines of, ‘You just tell Gregg [Jakobson] what you need – you have the studio and your job is to finish the dream. Finish the vision. Trish Roach [personal assistant] will do the paperwork and Gregg’s the co-ordinator. It’s your project… You’ve got to do what Brian used to do. Use anybody you want – it’s your decision and you’re responsible.”
Dennis released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. The album peaked at No. 96 in the US and sold around 300,000 copies, matching that year’s Beach Boys album Love You.
Dates were booked for a Dennis Wilson solo tour but these were ultimately cancelled. However, Dennis did occasionally perform his solo material on the 1977 Beach Boys tour.[better source needed] Despite Dennis claiming the album had “no substance”, Pacific Ocean Blue received positive reviews and sold moderately, later developing status as a cult item.
The album remained largely out of print between the 1990s and 2000s. In June 2008, the album was reissued on CD as an expanded edition. It was voted the 2008 “Reissue of the Year” in both Rolling Stone and Mojo magazines, and made No. 16 on the British LP charts and No. 8 on both the Billboard Catalog chart and the Billboard Internet Sales chart.
For a month prior to his death, Dennis had been homeless and living a nomadic life. In November 1983, he checked into a therapy center in Arizona for two days, and then on December 23, checked into St. John’s Medical Hospital in Santa Monica, where he stayed until the evening of December 25. Following a violent altercation at the Santa Monica Bay Inn, Dennis checked into a different hospital in order to treat his wounds. Several hours later, he discharged himself and reportedly resumed drinking immediately.
On December 28, 1983, 24 days after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, after drinking all day and then diving in the afternoon, to recover items he had thrown overboard at the marina from his yacht three years prior.
On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis’ body at sea, off the California coast (33°53.9′N 118°38.8′W). The Beach Boys shortly released a statement stating: “We know Dennis would have wanted to continue in the tradition of the Beach Boys. His spirit will remain in our music.” His song “Farewell My Friend” was played at the funeral.
Dennis’ widow, Shawn Love, reported that Dennis desired a burial at sea, while brothers Carl and Brian did not wish for Dennis to be cremated.
As non-veterans of the Coast Guard and Navy are not allowed to be buried at sea unless cremated, Dennis’ burial was made possible by the intervention of President Reagan. In 2002, Brian expressed unhappiness with the arrangement, believing that Dennis should have been given a traditional burial.