Carl Wilson: The late Beach Boys singer's journey through music and life

24 May 2024, 17:38 | Updated: 28 May 2024, 11:47

Carl Wilson in 1980
Carl Wilson in 1980. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Carl Wilson was an integral part of the legendary American rock band the Beach Boys.

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Born on December 21, 1946, in Hawthorne, California, and known for his distinctive voice and instrumental prowess, Carl’s contributions were crucial in shaping the sound that defined an era.

His life, filled with musical achievements, personal struggles, and a dedication to his craft, left an enduring legacy.

Early life and formation of the Beach Boys

Carl grew up in a musical family. His father, Murry Wilson, was a songwriter, and his mother, Audree, nurtured his early interest in music.

Alongside his brothers, Brian and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine, Carl began experimenting with harmonies and instrumentation. This familial collaboration led to the formation of the Beach Boys in 1961. Bruce Johnston later joined the band in 1965.

Clockwise from left, the Beach Boys are Al Jardine, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Carl Wilson.
Clockwise from left, the Beach Boys are Al Jardine, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Carl Wilson. Picture: Getty

From the outset, Carl was the band’s lead guitarist, bringing a distinctive surf-rock sound that became synonymous with the Beach Boys. His guitar work on early hits like ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ set the tone for the band’s early success.

As a teenager, Carl’s technical skills were already advanced, influenced by guitarists such as Chuck Berry and the Ventures.

The Beach Boys’ rise to fame

The Beach Boys quickly rose to fame with their unique blend of rock and roll, vocal harmonies, and the California lifestyle. Carl’s role expanded as the band progressed, particularly with the production of their seminal album Pet Sounds in 1966.

While Brian Wilson, the band’s primary songwriter and producer, was the creative force behind the album, Carl’s contributions as a musician and vocalist were pivotal.

The Beach Boys (L-R Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine) in 1987
The Beach Boys (L-R Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine) in 1987. Picture: Getty

His lead vocal on ‘God Only Knows’ remains one of the most celebrated performances in rock history, showcasing his emotive and soothing voice.

Solo career and personal challenges

While the Beach Boys continued to achieve success throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Carl pursued solo projects as well. In the early 1980s, he released two solo albums, Carl Wilson (1981) and Youngblood (1983).

These works allowed him to explore different musical styles and showcase his talents as a songwriter. Songs like ‘Heaven’ and ‘What You Do to Me’ from these albums highlight Carl’s ability to craft thoughtful and melodic compositions.

However, Carl’s journey was not without challenges. The 1980s were marked by struggles within the Beach Boys, including personal and professional conflicts.

Carl was married twice. His first marriage was to Annie Hinsche, the sister of frequent Beach Boys sideman Billy Hinsche. Together, they had two sons.

Carl Wilson (right) with wife Gina Martin, the daughter of singer Dean Martin (left)
Carl Wilson (right) with wife Gina Martin, the daughter of singer Dean Martin (left). Picture: Getty

During the breakup of their marriage, Carl wrote 'Angel Come Home', a song that co-writer Geoffrey Cushing-Murray said reflected Wilson's sorrow over their separation amid the relentless touring with the Beach Boys.

In 1987, Carl married Gina Martin, daughter of Dean Martin. Gina accompanied Carl on all subsequent tours, and their marriage lasted until his death.

Carl often found himself in the role of mediator, striving to keep the band together amidst growing tensions. His commitment to the band and to maintaining their legacy was unwavering, even when faced with the daunting task of navigating the group’s internal dynamics.

Later years and battle with cancer

In the 1990s, Carl continued to tour and record with the Beach Boys, remaining a vital member of the band. Despite the changing musical landscape, he maintained a deep connection with fans and upheld the band’s reputation for live performances.

The Beach Boys - God Only Knows (Official Music Video)

Tragically, in 1997, Carl was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite undergoing treatment, he continued to perform, demonstrating remarkable resilience and dedication to his music.

His final performance with the Beach Boys was in 1997, and even as his health deteriorated, he remained optimistic and focused on his passion.

Death and legacy

Carl Wilson passed away on February 6, 1998, at the age of 51. His death marked the end of an era for the Beach Boys and left a void in the world of music. Fans and fellow musicians mourned the loss of a talent whose contributions had profoundly impacted rock and roll.

Carl’s legacy endures through his recordings and the memories of his performances. As a musician, he was known for his technical skill, distinctive voice, and ability to convey deep emotion through his music.

As a person, he was remembered for his kindness, humility, and unwavering commitment to his family and bandmates.

The Beach Boys’ music continues to inspire generations of musicians and fans. Carl Wilson’s work, particularly his contributions to albums like Pet Sounds and his iconic performances on songs like ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Kokomo,’ remains a testament to his talent and influence.

Carl Wilson
Carl Wilson. Picture: Alamy

His ability to blend intricate guitar work with lush harmonies helped define the Beach Boys’ sound and solidify their place in music history.

Carl Wilson’s journey through life was marked by incredible musical achievements, personal challenges, and an enduring passion for his craft.

As a founding member of the Beach Boys, his legacy lives on, not only through the timeless music he helped create but also through the lasting impact he had on those who knew him and the millions of fans who continue to celebrate his contributions.