We are very excited to launch a new feature of exclusive excerpts from upcoming and soon-to-be-released books. Today, we showcase Chapter Five from Kent Crowley's new book Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys-The Biography. The book, published by Jawbone Press, is out September 29th and is available at Amazon here.
Chapter 5: Carl’s Big Chance
For John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the historic moment began with an introduction at a church fete. For Jagger and Richards, it was a chance meeting at a railway station. For Stills and Young, their careers began with an encounter in the midst of a Hollywood traffic jam followed by a lowspeed car chase.1 Yet for The Beach Boys, stardom began with scattered seeds rather than a decisive moment. As Carl recalled in 1983, “Brian had been fooling around at the piano for years, picking apart those Four Freshmen songs and putting them back together again. He would make me, my mom, and Mike sing the harmonies he had figured out. He’d make us do that for hours. Then one day he got it in his imagination that he could do simpler, more direct music: rock’n’roll. He thought he could put together a band and make music like we heard on the radio.
What makes The Beach Boys unusual in the history of pop music is that they started out as a singing group who later learned their instruments. And it is in this respect that their surf music origins are significant.
The entry requirements for surf bands were not high. The Surfaris, who recorded ‘Wipe Out,’ began as four high school age boys who formed a band with a backline consisting of a drum kit and one Fender Bandmaster amplifier. Because the Bandmaster had four inputs, they were able to plug two guitars and an electric bass into it and learn a smattering of instrumentals, mostly culled from The Ventures and Dick Dale’s Surfer’s Choice albums. For school dances, back yard barbeques, and showings of surf films in 1961, surf music delivered the most music for the least investment and any guitar players with a rudimentary knowledge of basic chords could easily master the instrumental hits of the day.
History proved to be kind to The Beach Boys. Surf music along the Orange Coast, where Dick Dale ruled, and the South Bay, where The Bel Airs led the charge, was still a developing regional phenomenon. Bands like The Tornadoes and The Chantays came to the Rendezvous or the Bel Air (later the Revilleaire) in Redondo Beach and carried the idiom inland, where the relative availability and affordability of Fender instruments, compared with their more established counterparts like Gibson, Gretsch, or Guild, meant that kids with generous parents, paper routes, or lawn mowing jobs could purchase and learn a fine instrument in far less time than before.
In the summer of 1961, Al Jardine, an accomplished folk singer, standup bassist, and guitarist musician around Hawthorne, persuaded his friend Brian Wilson to start a singing group. Brian suggested he include his brother Carl and his cousin Mike Love. In late August, Al took the fledgling group, with Dennis Wilson in attendance, into the studios of Hite and Dorinda Morgan, owners of Guild Music, Murry Wilson’s music publisher.
Dorinda Morgan liked the harmony-vocal sound but expressed regret that the boys had not come up with anything original. Dennis told her that surfing was the new craze and that Brian had written a song about it (it had begun as a school music exercise). The would-be group went home to set about completing and rehearsing it.
Over Labor Day weekend, at the start of September, Murry and Audree left for a trip to Mexico City. The group rushed down to a music store on Hawthorne Avenue and spent their food money on renting instruments, including a standup bass for Al. They also got a generous contribution from Al’s mother, performing an impromptu a capella ‘Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring’ (made famous by The Four Freshmen) for her to close the deal.
When Murry and Audree returned home, Murry barely contained his fury at what the boys had done — until they played him their song, ‘Surfin’.’ In an October 1971 article in Rolling Stone magazine, Murry recalled what happened next, in his own inimitable style.
“Dennis made them write it. He told them, ‘Write a song about surfing.’ He bugged them. He was an avid surfer. He’d disappear every Saturday and Sunday he could, without cutting the lawn — you might put that in, too — without cutting the lawn. He loved the sport.”
Encouraged by Murry, the future Beach Boys set off to record some demos for the Morgans. One of them was ‘Surfin’.’ In their original configuration, Carl played guitar, Al played bass, and Brian played a snare drum with a pencil — covering it with his shirt to mute the volume. Lead singer Mike stood at one microphone while the rest of the band clustered around a second.
“We sounded so shitty at first,” Carl later lamented. “We were so shaky and lame. After all, I was just 14 and a sophomore in high school.” According to Murry, “They kept saying to Mr. Morgan, Hite Morgan, my publisher, ‘We’ve written a song about the surfing sport and we’d like to sing it for you.’ Finally he agreed to hear it and Mrs. Morgan said, ‘Drop everything, we’re going to record your song. I think it’s good.’ And she’s the one responsible.”
Murry quickly cut a deal with a small independent label called Candix Records, whose owners neglected to inform him that they were teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. While the band originally hoped to call themselves The Pendletones (in honor of both the Pendelton shirts favored by surfers and The Del Tones), they unpacked the first shipment of their records to find that one of the label’s executives had renamed them Beach Boys— omitting ‘The.’ At one point they nearly became The Surfers.
“It came out on the Candix label,” said Murry, “and it was played on three stations in LA every hour, 24 hours a day. Sam Riddle introduced it on KDAY, and Russ Reagan—a well-known producer and record figure, who was then handling Candix and who gave them the name Beach Boys—got it on KFWB and KRLA. And it went to 76 on the Top 100 chart.”
In the 60s, each radio station compiled its own list of current hits drawn from polling local record stores and from the number of calls requesting the songs through the switchboards. Bands often mobilized armies of friends and neighbors to pepper the stations with phone calls and left stacks of records at local record shops, then sent friends in to buy the entire stock. The record store then reported to the radio stations about a new record that sold out in a matter of hours or days, and a hit was born.
In an effort to circumvent pressing plants that were reportedly owed money by Candix, a second pressing on the X Records label followed in December. Then more Candix pressings followed, keeping record collectors occupied for the next five decades.
Essentially a doo-wop tune, the only connection between the song ‘Surfin’’ and surfing itself was the lyrics; Carl’s Kay guitar is barely audible. They weren’t the first to celebrate the brave new world of California beaches in a doo-wop tune; the San Bernardino-based The Pentagons (who once boasted singer Al Wilson of ‘Show And Tell’ fame as a member) released ‘Down At The Beach’ in April of 1961.10 Yet the band found themselves called The Beach Boys, and with the surfer stomp the latest dance craze in Southern California, and with airplay already bubbling up on local Los Angeles stations, there was no place for them to go except surfin’.
• • • • •
As ‘Surfin’’ began its ascent of the local and then national charts, the band now faced a problem that would confront Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969, when they produced their first album — they had a hit record they could sing, but they couldn’t play. To make matters worse, of all of the friends and family mobilized to call radio stations to request ‘Surfin’,’ one missed out on the excitement. Carl’s long-time jamming partner, David Marks, felt left out, especially since he had been part of the Wilsons’ musical circle since the beginning. Carl and Dennis had ‘adopted’ David as a friend and, in Dennis’s case, a partner in petty crime. More importantly, David idolized Brian and often stood by the window spying as Brian carefully deconstructed chords and Four Freshman harmonies on the piano.
Transforming a doo-wop group into a surf band posed the first problem for The Beach Boys. In the beginning, the band comprised only a piano player, a rhythm guitarist, and a string bassist (Dennis was still considered only a vocalist). This was hardly the foundation for a group who would be a surf band, whether they liked it or not.
Audree solved one of the first problems by insisting that Dennis be included as a drummer, apparently despite Brian’s objections. Mike then acquired a saxophone, a staple of the early surf bands, who included a generous helping of rhythm & blues songs like ‘Tequila’ and ‘Night Train’ in their set lists.11 Brian moved Al, who was already an accomplished folk guitarist, on to rhythm guitar. He took over on bass, acquiring a Fender electric instrument and mastering it quickly.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Carl replaced his Kay guitar with a three-color sunburst Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard. When Fender first introduced the Stratocaster it featured a maple fretboard with a thicker neck. By the late 50s, the Stratocaster came equipped with a slimmer neck, which made it far easier for younger guitar players to master.
More importantly, the Stratocaster and the designs that it inspired, such as the ‘tilt-waist’ Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, offered features that easily accommodated the emerging surf sound. Rather than a ‘set’ or glued-in neck, Stratocaster necks were bolted on to the body, which many players felt added sufficient tension for the lower strings to roar rather than twang. The single-coil pickups produced searing razor-sharp highs, whereas humbucker pickups offered a warmer, mellower higher register. These designs helped surf guitarists like Dick Dale create the sounds that allowed guitarists to capture the power and intensity of a breaking wave.
In the wake of recording ‘Surfin’,’ the newly named Beach Boys comprised only two accomplished musicians — Carl and Al — and three others learning their instruments. Now they set out to become a band. Rehearsals began at the Wilson home, and as soon as the band had mastered some of the rudimentary surf tunes of the time, such as ‘Let’s Go Trippin’’ and ‘Mr Moto,’ Murry wangled an intermission performance at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa immediately after the single’s release.
For The Beach Boys and the few who remember their maiden performance, on Saturday, December 23, 1961, it was by all accounts a brief and dismal affair. The band was horribly nervous. “The only boys who weren’t were Mike and Alan — and probably Carl, because Carl is basically a musician,” recalled Dorinda Morgan. “He gets so involved in his music that he forgets about the crowd.”
The headliner, Del Tones guitarist Nick O’Malley, witnessed what he remembered as awkward newcomers dressed in white pants and shortsleeved dress shirts.14 Some recall the show lasting as little as 15 minutes and containing only ‘Surfin’’ and the single’s B-side, ‘Luau’ (written by Bruce Morgan, son of Dorinda and Hite Morgan). Dorinda Morgan recalled Brian feeling “humiliated” by the audience’s lack of interest.15 In retrospect, some claimed The Beach Boys were rejected by the surfing audience and scorned as the “Hollywood version” by light-board surfers.
‘Surfin’’ and ‘Luau’ were both primarily mid-tempo vocal songs, and ‘Luau’ sounded suspiciously like advertising agency travelogue lyrics superimposed over The Coasters’ ‘Poison Ivy.’ (“Let’s do ‘Luau’” became a running joke during informal jam sessions.)16 The two songs stood at odds with the fast, loud, aggressive guitar styles audiences had come to expect at the Rendezvous, which by that point had hosted probably all of the major surf guitarists of the era, such as Norman Sanders, Jim Masoner, Dave Myers, and others. Standing onstage with three-fifths of the band still learning their instruments, one might say that with that first performance The Beach Boys brought a switchblade to a gunfight.
For Beach Boys fans and historians, that first performance is an odd curio. For decades afterward, The Beach Boys exiled the memory of it to what politicians call the ‘memory hole’ and claimed their actual debut occurred a week later, on New Year’s Eve at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. The occasion was a Ritchie Valens Memorial benefit headlined by Ike & Tina Turner, Gene McDaniels, Frankie Avalon, and others.
With ‘Surfin’’ just beginning its ascent up the charts, The Beach Boys turned their attention to becoming a performing band — and within weeks faced their first major hurdle.
“After ‘Surfin’’ the boys were off the air and they couldn’t get back on the air,” Murry told Tom Nolan. “No one wanted them; they thought they were a one-shot record. Al Jardine hit the road and enrolled in dental school. Mr Morgan [who produced ‘Surfin’’] and I went to Dot Records and cooled our heels in the foyer. Nobody would talk to us. We went to Liberty, and the big shots were too busy to see us. And finally I asked Mr Morgan, ‘What’ll we do?’
“He says, ‘I don’t know, Murry, you’re their dad and manager, lots of luck to you.’ And he says goodbye. And that cost him $2,700,000, that statement. It cost him $2,700,000.”
• • • • •
For decades, Al Jardine seemed a reluctant warrior: the only non-family member in the band, an outsider who ended up with the flu during the photo shoot for Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and who groused about the burdens borne by musicians when the other band members discussed the music and their fans.18 In later years, when Carl and Mike generally agreed upon start times and set lists, many Beach Boys touring band members recall it was Al who would demand changes in the set lists to reduce the number of lead vocals he had to sing.19 Yet Al’s role in the band’s formative months proved crucial. At first, he was the most accomplished musician in the band. He was the band’s first bassist and he would go on to play bass on many Beach Boys hits that were later credited to Brian or members of the Wrecking Crew.20 As a vocalist, Al sang lead on The Beach Boys’ second number one single, ‘Help Me, Rhonda,’ and often substituted for an absent Brian on vocals and bass. But besides being outside the family, Al viewed himself as a musical outsider as well.
While Al and Brian shared a love of folk harmony bands like The Kingston Trio, Brian was at heart a jazz composer. Mike, Carl, and Dennis, meanwhile, shared a common passion for Chuck Berry and the raucous rhythm & blues records issuing from their transistor radios. A dyed-in-thewool folkie, Al later admitted, “I’m one of those three chord guys. I like music that has nice melodies and tell good stories.”
Songwriter Harlan Howard, who penned such classics as Patsy Cline’s ‘I Fall To Pieces’ and Ray Charles’s ‘Busted,’ famously described country music, which evolved from folk, as “three chords and the truth.” The truth was in the lyrics. Al would later admit that he had come late to appreciating the complexity of Brian Wilson’s music because of his background in folk music’s three chords, simple melody, and focus on lyrics. “I didn’t appreciate the musical substance,” he said. “I was more involved with the lyrics.”
After the band’s fourth performance, at the Mesa Presbyterian Church in Hawthorne on January 25, and a recording session on February 8, Al Jardine quit The Beach Boys. The usual story is that Al left the band when he felt that The Beach Boys were on the path to being one-hit wonders, and when the rehearsals and benefit gigs were producing no income yet still detracting from his studies. When he turned in his notice, the single ‘Surfin’’ was still making its steady ascent up the local KFWB Fabulous Forty Survey, where it would reach a peak of number four. Meanwhile, ‘Surfin’’ had received its first mention in Billboard magazine, where it charted at number 118 in the second week of January and peaked at number 75 in the week ending March 24. Likewise, Cashbox magazine called it the ‘Hit Pick of the Week’ for the week of January 27, and it would peak at number 85 in March.
Jardine’s departure from The Beach Boys occurred at a crucial juncture in the band’s career. For the first six weeks of their existence, The Beach Boys had performed only at a handful of venues — mostly local benefit shows at churches or local recreation centers — and were ready to start moving on to paying gigs. More importantly, while surf music dominated the music scene along the coastline, the style had just begun breaching the inland cities beyond the beach towns and — like it or not — The Beach Boys were riding the crest of the wave.
On February 16, 1962, The Beach Boys commenced a two-night stand at the Rainbow Gardens nightclub, located at 150 East Monterey Avenue in Pomona, one of the centers of the Latin-flavored rhythm & blues known in Los Angeles as the ‘Eastside sound,’ which dominated the music scene in the eastern portion of Los Angeles County. Like the Rendezvous, the Rainbow Gardens began as a popular nightclub featuring some of the biggest names of the big-band era in the 1940s before transitioning to rock’n’roll in the 50s. Musician and historian Mark Guerrero called it one of the “quintessential and classic places for Latin music, rhythm & blues, and Chicano eastside sound bands.”
As 1962 dawned, “surf music was coming in,” said Dr Leroy ‘Zag’ Soto, then bassist with one of the most popular Eastside bands, The Mixtures. At the Rainbow Gardens, The Beach Boys served as the ‘break band’ for The Mixtures, so named because they were a racially mixed band — a rarity at the time. According to Jon Stebbins, the band’s performance (for which they were paid $150) didn’t exactly resonate with the primarily Latino fans of The Mixtures.
“Segregation was a big thing at that time,” said Soto, who had begun performing in predominantly African-American high schools with a teenaged drum prodigy named Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie. Soto recalled that at this point, The Beach Boys had abandoned the dress shirts and adopted the Pendleton shirts and black slacks uniform they favored in the first part of their career. Yet The Beach Boys continued to share bills with The Mixtures at the Rainbow Gardens and ‘Pop’ Leuder’s Park in Compton, a largely African-American community near Hawthorne. “They weren’t well received—racism was big time at that time,” Soto added. “Whites didn’t go into black neighborhoods.”
Reduced to a quartet, The Beach Boys were performing before racially mixed audiences, opening for a racially mixed band, at a time when mixing races at an entertainment venue could lead to violence. Soto remembered The Mixtures “would play El Monte Legion Stadium and the fights would break out with knives. People would shout ‘play louder!’”
The two bands didn’t socialize after the gigs, probably because, as The Surfaris’ Jim Pash pointed out, leader Brian spent every available minute rehearsing the band’s harmonies backstage, while Murry watched over the band hawk-like and ensured the drinking, carousing, and skirt-chasing were left to bands without stern parental oversight.
Yet what impressed Soto and his bandmates was The Beach Boys’ harmonies. “They were great; they were one of the first bands where harmonies were great,” Soto said. “There was not a lot of that with rhythm & blues bands, who specialized in the raucous high energy sounds of artists such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”
As a bassist, Soto also paid close attention to Brian’s bass playing. “It was surfer music, but I liked some of the stuff he had.”
Times were changing and The Beach Boys were on the cutting edge of that change. The success of ‘Surfin’’ ensured that The Beach Boys would go on to bigger and better gigs, which proved problematic for The Mixtures when their manager suggested they learn to play surf music, telling them “surf music was just moving up — he would like for us to play a little whiter.”
Al’s departure happened at the right time, or so it seemed at first. Shackled to surf music by dint of their name and the theme of their hit record, The Beach Boys now had the opportunity to become an actual surf band. At one point, the band was reported to have invited Paul Johnson, guitarist with the Bel Airs and composer of ‘Mr Moto,’ to join the band, but Johnson declined, as Jim Pash later explained, because he “wanted to play surf music.”
The pressure was on. ‘Surfin’’ continued its climb up the national charts and surf music — real, lead-guitar-driven surf music—broke its coastal bonds and raged down the Santa Ana Canyon and eastward from Redondo Beach. More and more bands picked up Stratocasters, tube reverbs, and big Fender amps and produced music in which the most singing involved was to exhort the audience to shout “Let’s go trippin’.”
It was at Carl’s behest that the three Wilson brothers solved their problem by taking a short walk across the street and inviting David Marks to fill Al’s spot. The move proved critical. Brian no longer had an ally in pursuing folk harmonies, and Carl’s long-time jamming partner now anchored the rhythm guitar spot. Marks — a devout rock’n’roller with roots in blues and jazz — brought a new energy into the band and a stronger command of the techniques of rock’n’roll and surf. While the 13-year-old Marks adequately covered Jardine’s harmony vocal style, his biggest contribution was to unleash the rock’n’roller in Carl. The guitars now held their ground against the singing voices at the exact moment in history when the lead guitar was becoming the voice of rock’n’roll.