Best Individual Artist: Brian Wilson

BRIAN WILSON: RHAPSODY OF BRIAN

Brian Wilson hard at work at his piano. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

By Ken Sharp

Talk about a dream team. Never would one imagine that you’d ever see a songwriting credit pairing Gershwin and Brian Wilson. But the improbable becomes reality on the new CD, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, an extraordinary collection that finds the erstwhile Beach Boys genius delightfully reinterpreting with his signature flair a raft of Gershwin classics like “Summertime”, “I Love You, Porgy”, “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Wilson’s long-time personal favorite “Rhapsody in Blue.” What’s even more exciting and improbable are the two “new” songs featured on the CD, “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love.” Culled from over 100 existing original Gershwin piano fragments, these two songs were lovingly completed by Wilson and what a delight they are. Tin Pan Alley meets West Coast surf on Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin as exquisite melodies, sweeping harmonies and sophisticated arrangements intersect to create yet another wondrous sonic achievement and worthy addition to the lofty canon of Wilson classics.

Unlike the Beach Boy auteur’s ‘60s musical contemporaries (Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Mick Jagger et al) Wilson is notoriously press shy and is a man of few words. But don’t let the economy of some of his answers fool you, he remains passionate and proud of his latest musical project, it’s just that he feels much more comfortable “in his room” writing music than playing the media game.

You’re acclaimed as one of music’s greatest songwriters. With Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, how did you come to do an album of songs by Ira and George Gershwin?
Brian Wilson:
Well, the Disney people came to us with the idea. They said would you like to do an album called Wilson Sings Gershwin. And a couple of days later we called them back and I said, “Yeah, we’ll bite, we’ll bite, I’ll do it.”

You were a fan of both Ira and George Gershwin since childhood.
Brian Wilson:
Yeah. When I was two years old, I was over at my grandmother’s house. I remember that my grandmother and my mother used to play a nice beautiful version of “Rhapsody in Blue.” At that age I wasn’t able to think and articulate that, “Oh, I like this!” but I remember hearing it and liking it. But I just don’t think I was able to communicate what I thought of it at the time in words because I was too young, I juts knew that I really liked it.

You’ve gone on record stating that “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of your favorite melodies and clearly it’s a song that’s touched you on deep level since you first heard it. Can you explain what it is specifically about that song that moves you so much?
Brian Wilson:
Yeah. “Rhapsody in Blue” became one of the main songs in my life. It’s just so beautiful. The melody is like a single note octave (Sings “doo doo doo doo”). It’s a very unique and simple melody of one note climbing above another note climbing above another note.

Sitting down to write songs at the piano, that song still inspires you.
Brian Wilson:
Yeah, that’s true. Sometimes I sit down and first starting playing a little bit of “Rhapsody in Blue” to get me into the mood to write a song. That song still inspires me to this day.

At what point did you first learn how to properly play “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano?
Brian Wilson:
I think I first learned how to play it when I was 28 years old. I’d go from the record and play two bars and then go to my piano and figure out how to play those two bars. Then I’d go back to the record and play another two bars and then to my piano for two bars until I learned how to play the whole song. It took some time but it was worth it.

Were your parents Gershwin fans, what was the kind of music you heard in your household growing up?
Brian Wilson:
By Gershwin the only song I remember hearing as a kid was “Rhapsody in Blue.”
See, all the songs that the Disney people gave us—they gave us 25 Ira and George Gershwin songs –and they asked us to narrow my choices down to 12 songs and we did that. The next move was they gave us 104 unfinished Gershwin piano songs. So we listened to all of those songs and wound up rounding it down to just two songs and those two songs turned out to be “two original songs that I helped finish writing. One of those songs was called “The Like in I Love You” and the other’s called “Nothing But Love.”

What was it about those two Gershwin fragments that caught your ear and made you decide that “Yeah, I can work on these, I want to finish writing them”?
Brian Wilson:
Those two really caught my ear and I thought I’d be able to finish them off. I think what struck me the most was the chords. A lot of Gershwin’s songs influenced me and inspired me so it was a thrill to finish these two. It took me only about a week and a half to finish them off. It was pretty quick.

What was the reaction you received from the Gershwin estate after playing them the finished songs?
Brian Wilson:
They received a really positive reaction, they liked it. I was nervous and didn’t know what to think. I thought, “Oh, my God, what’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen if they don’t like them? But then I stopped worrying and thankfully that didn’t happen.

Doing a record like Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, did you feel less pressure than doing a record comprised of all of your original songs?
Brian Wilson:
Not really, I still felt pressure to live up to someone as great as Gershwin. I couldn’t relax at all. I had to treat each song differently. For instance, “I Love You, Porgy”, (sings “I love you, Porgy” It calls for a sweeter lead vocal because on the original well known version it’s a girl singing. In fact only girls have sung that song, not boys. But I was the first boy to actually do a version of that. And the Disney people said, “Brian, ‘I Love You, Porgy’ is sung by a girl, are you sure you wanna sing it?’ And I said, “I don’t care.” And they said, “If you don’t care we don’t care.” It took us two and a half months to finish the record. We’d go in and chip away at it.

What’s the first music besides “Rhapsody in Blue” that you recall hearing as a child?
Brian Wilson:
I can’t really remember much. My mom and dad would play their favorite songs and I’d listen to them and some of them I liked a lot. They’d play songs by Rosemary Clooney, I really liked her. They’d also play songs by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Then I got into rhythm and blues music like “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and The Comets and stuff like that. Four Freshmen.

How would the family listen to music, all together in living room, radio shows, etc?
Brian Wilson:
My mom and dad had a Wurlitzer jukebox that they played records on. I’d pick songs that they had and listen to them. I had nothing to say about what I wanted to hear at that time. But I really liked a lot of the music they listened to.

When did you get your own transistor radio?
Brian Wilson:
Let me think…Have you ever heard of a radio called a crystal set? It’s a semi-radio. It’s got a one channel radio show. I got one of those in 1953 or 1954 when I was 11 or 12 year’s old. I used to listen in bed on this crystal set. Boy, that was exciting. I’d listen to people like Andy Williams, you know that song (sings “once I was alone…”). It’s a song called “Canadian Sunset”. So I remember hearing that and I also remember hearing (sings “ I never felt more like singing the blues because I never thought that I would ever lose your love dear, you got me singing the blues…”) I remember those two songs. That wasn’t shared by my mom or dad or even my brothers, it was all mine. I remember sitting in my little room all by myself listening to that crystal set.

You’ve also been a big champion of radio and understood its importance at an early age. In the Beach Boys you’d often bring acetates to local stations personally and have them premiere a song.
Brian Wilson:
I’ve always loved AM radio. There was radio station in Los Angeles that I listened to a lot called KFWB, there’s another one called KRLA and KBLA. They had some great dee jays on those stations that used to turn me on to all kinds of good music, people like Gene Weed and Wink Martindale. Those are two important radio dee jays that come to mind. I still remember the first time I heard Phil Spector’s record “Be My Baby”. Man, that song took me on a real trip! I remember I was in my car listening to the radio and Wink Martindale came on and said, “Here we go with The Ronettes and “Be My Baby”.” And I turned up the volume and bam, there was the record and I was blown away! That was the very first time I heard “be My Baby.” I love everything about “Be My Baby.” It’s juts a total record, it’s not just Ronnie’s great voice or the production or the background vocal arrangements or even the musical backing, it’s just everything that went into that record is mind blowing and still to this day, every time I play “Be My Baby” or hear it on the radio my mind still gets blown. (laughs)

When you first had enough money to buy your own albums and singles, what was the first record you ever bought?
Brian Wilson:
I’d get my records from a record store called Lishon’s Music. I bought a Four Freshmen album called The Four Freshmen and the Five Trombones. There was a song on it called “You Stepped Out of a Dream” that I really liked so I bought that album. There was a demonstration both where you could play records and if you like ‘em you could buy ‘em and if you didn’t like ‘em you didn’t have to buy ‘em. So I bought The Four Freshmen and The Five Trombones. And man, did it ever turn me onto harmony; I’d never heard harmonies like that! I first saw the original Four Freshmen perform in 1958 at a place called the Coconut Grove. And then I saw The Four Freshmen later in their career, none of the original guys were in the band at that point, it was all new guys. I saw them play live twice. It was just a thrill. Of course I also had all of Phil Spector’s music and loved “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. I loved all of Spector’s stuff, there’s nothing that I don’t like. I also loved the single “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. (Sings “just let me hear some of that rock and roll music…”) Also, I loved “Johnny B. Goode” too. (Sings” Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans. What a great song. Another great one was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

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