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Dennis Wilson

Dennis Wilson
Dennis Wilson in a 1970 promotional shot for Two-Lane Blacktop
Background information
Birth name Dennis Carl Wilson
Born (1944-12-04)December 4, 1944
Inglewood, California, United States
Origin Hawthorne, California, United States
Died December 28, 1983(1983-12-28) (aged 39)
Marina del Rey, California, US
Genres Rock, pop
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, producer
Instruments Vocals, drums, percussions, keyboards, guitar, accordion
Years active 1961–1983
Labels Caribou, Sony Music, Capitol, Brother, Reprise
Associated acts The Beach Boys, Daryl Dragon, the Four Speeds, Gregg Jakobson

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.[1]


  • Early years 1
  • 1960s: career beginnings 2
    • Manson episode 2.1
  • 1960s–70s: artistic growth 3
    • Pacific Ocean Blue 3.1
    • Bambu 3.2
  • 1970s–83: final years 4
    • Death 4.1
  • Musicianship 5
  • Equipment 6
  • Personal life 7
  • Solo discography 8
    • Album 8.1
    • Singles 8.2
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10

Early years

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."[2]

1960s: career beginnings

Dennis in 1966

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.

Manson episode

In 1968, Dennis was driving through Malibu when he noticed two female hitchhikers, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey. He picked them up and dropped them off at their destination.[5] Later on, Dennis noticed the same two girls hitchhiking again. This time he took them to his home at 14400 Sunset Boulevard, near Will Rogers Park. Dennis then went to a recording session. When he returned at around 3 a.m., he was met in his driveway by a stranger, Charles Manson. When Wilson walked into his home, about a dozen people were occupying the premises, most of them female. Dennis became fascinated by Manson and his followers; the "Manson Family" lived with Dennis for a period of time afterwards at his expense. In late 1968, Dennis reported to journalists,

I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who'd recently come out of jail after 12 years. ... He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We're writing together now. He's dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.[6]

Initially impressed by Manson's songwriting talent, Dennis introduced him to a few friends in the music business, including Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day), whose home at 10050 Cielo Drive would later be rented by director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Manson family members would later murder Tate and several others at this home. Manson held recording sessions at Brian's home studio. Those recordings, if they exist, have never been released. The Beach Boys released a Manson song, originally titled "Cease To Exist" but reworked as "Never Learn Not to Love", as a single B-side and on the album 20/20.

According to Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks: "One day, Charles Manson brought a bullet out and showed it to Dennis, who asked, 'What's this?' And Manson replied, 'It's a bullet. Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.' Well, Dennis grabbed Manson by the head and threw him to the ground and began pummeling him until Charlie said, 'Ouch!' He beat the living shit out of him. 'How dare you!' was Dennis' reaction. Charlie Manson was weeping openly in front of a lot of hip people. I heard about it, but I wasn't there. The point is, though, Dennis Wilson wasn't afraid of anybody!"[7]

As Dennis became increasingly aware of Manson's volatile nature and growing violent tendencies, he finally made a break from the friendship by simply moving out of the house and leaving Manson there. When Manson subsequently sought further contact (and money), he left a bullet with Dennis' housekeeper to be delivered with a cryptic message, which Dennis perceived as a threat. In August 1969, Manson Family members perpetrated the Tate/LaBianca murders. For the remainder of his life, Dennis rarely discussed his involvement with the Manson Family.

1960s–70s: artistic growth

"Little Bird" was written primarily by Dennis and Stephen Kalinich with uncredited contributions from Brian.

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Although he had helped Brian write a few other songs dating back to 1963 at the age of 18, Dennis' first major released composition was "Little Bird",[8] the B-side of the "Friends" single, coupled with "Be Still", also a paean to nature and reflecting on his place in the natural world of which his surfing hobby was only a minuscule part. He had further compositions featured on later Beach Boys albums such as 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), Carl and the Passions – "So Tough" (1972), Holland (1973) as well as others. Sunflower included the track "Forever" and three other songs written by Dennis. Their inclusion was said to be at the insistence of the label, claiming that Dennis' songs sounded more "modern" than other rejected Beach Boys tracks.[8]

As Brian withdrew more and more from active participation with his group, Dennis stepped up as a major creative force of the Beach Boys,[8] having learnt production techniques from observing his brother and showing cosmic-gothic overtones in composing (influenced by Richard Wagner). At least two of his songs were included on all but one of the six albums released in that five-year period, peaking with four songs on each of 20/20 and Sunflower. When certain territorial jealousies arose within the band over his growing role, he began to hold back songs for his own projected solo albums.

On December 4, 1970, Dennis released his first piece of solo material, a little-known single released only in Europe and the UK under the name "Dennis Wilson & Rumbo." The single featured "Sound of Free", on his usual theme of freedom, on the A-side with the romantic "Lady" (also known as "Fallin' In Love") on the B-side. The song was later covered by American Spring and released as the B-side to their single "Shyin' Away".

Dennis starred alongside James Taylor and Warren Oates in the critically acclaimed film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as "The Mechanic". The film depicts "The Driver" (Taylor) and "The Mechanic" driving aimlessly across the United States in their 1955 Chevy, surviving on money earned from street racing.

In 1971, Dennis injured his hand badly enough to prevent him from playing drums for some time. Ricky Fataar took over as the group's drummer between 1972 and 1974. During this period Dennis acted as a co-frontman alongside Mike Love, as well as playing keyboards and singing. The 1973 live album The Beach Boys in Concert features only Dennis onstage among thousands of fans on the album cover; however, none of his songs were included in the lineup. During the three-year recording hiatus following Holland, Dennis's voice deteriorated markedly. By then his onstage antics (including streaking) occasionally disrupted the Beach Boys' live shows. In 1974, concurrent with the success of the '60s hits compilation Endless Summer, Dennis returned to his role behind the drums. According to Dennis's biographer, Jon Stebbins, it was this year that he co-wrote the lyrics and modified part of the melody of "You Are So Beautiful" at a party with Billy Preston.

Pacific Ocean Blue

Co-written and sung by Dennis with lyrical assistance from Carl, "River Song" was about a river Dennis saw in the High Sierras which kept getting bigger as he walked alongside it.[9]

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Dennis released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. His collaborators on the album included Daryl Dragon (the 'Captain' of Captain & Tennille) and Gregg Jakobson. The album peaked at No. 96 in the U.S. 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.[10] Despite Dennis claiming the album had "no substance",[9] Pacific Ocean Blue received positive reviews and sold moderately, later developing status as a cult item.[8]

The album remained largely out of print between the 1990s and 2000s.[8] 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.[11]


Pacific Ocean Blue's follow-up, Bambu, began production in the year 1978 at Brother Studios in Santa Monica with the collaboration of then Beach Boys keyboardist and Dennis's close friend Carli Muñoz as songwriter and producer. The first four songs that were officially recorded for Bambu were Muñoz's compositions: "It's Not Too Late", "Constant Companion", "All Alone", and "Under the Moonlight". The project was initially scuttled by lack of financing and the distractions of simultaneous Beach Boys projects. Bambu was officially released in 2008 along with the Pacific Ocean Blue reissue.

Two songs from the Bambu sessions, "Love Surrounds Me" and "Baby Blue," were lifted for the Beach Boys' 1979 L.A. (Light Album).[8] Dennis and Brian also recorded together apart from the Beach Boys in the early 1980s. These sessions remain unreleased though widely bootlegged as The Cocaine Sessions.[12][13]

1970s–83: final years

They say I live a fast life. Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world. It won't last forever, either. But the memories will.

—Dennis Wilson, quoted in the sleeve notes for the album All Summer Long (1964)

Succeeding years saw Dennis abusing alcohol and heroin.[14] An alleged bar fight which resulted in some damage to his throat at some point in the early to mid 1970s – after which he was instructed not to speak for some time – had taken a toll on his voice, although it gave him a more gravelly tone. Following a confrontation on an airport tarmac, Dennis declared to Rolling Stone on September 3 that he had left the Beach Boys: "They kept telling me I had my solo album now, like I should go off in a corner and leave the Beach Boys to them. The album really bothers them. They don't like to admit it's doing so well; they never even acknowledge it in interviews."[15] Two weeks later, disputes were resolved and Dennis rejoined the group.[15]

At some time, Brian's then-girlfriend and nurse Carolyn Williams accused Dennis of enticing Brian to purchase about $15,000 worth of cocaine. When Brian's bodyguard Rocky Pamplin and the Wilsons' cousin Stan Love learned of this incident, they physically assaulted Dennis at his home; they were fined about $10,000, and Dennis filed a restraining order.[16]

As the Beach Boys pressured Brian to readmit himself into Eugene Landy's Twenty-Four Hour Therapy program, Dennis was informed by friends that he would be the band's next target, to which Dennis replied, "No, they're not going to do anything."[14] He was proven wrong, and by 1983, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and manager Tom Hulett had banned Dennis from performing with the group. Dennis was then told that he would only be allowed to rejoin the Beach Boys if he admitted himself to a detoxification program.[14]


For a month prior to his death, Dennis had been homeless and living a nomadic life.[14] 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.[14][17]

On December 28, 1983, shortly 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.[14] On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis' body at sea, off the California coast (). 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."[18] His song "Farewell My Friend" was played at the funeral.[19]

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.[18] 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.[20] In 2002, Brian expressed unhappiness with the arrangement, believing that Dennis should have been given a traditional burial.[21]


PopMatters writer Tony Sclafani summarized in 2007:

By all appearances the happy-go-lucky Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson lived out the proverbial live-fast-die-young motto. To some degree, that’s a fair assessment. Dennis did indeed drive fast cars, hang with hippies (including Charles Manson) and dated his share of beautiful California women. But like his older brother Brian, Dennis was bullied mercilessly by his father. His wild side masked an underside that was, by turns, brooding, self-loathing, sensitive, and anxious. Dennis’s music reflected his edginess and exhibited little of his happy charm, setting it apart from Brian’s music. Dennis never sang about fun, and no images of surfboards or surfer girls ever appear in a Dennis Wilson song.[8]

While it is often said that Dennis' drumming in the Beach Boys' recordings was filled in exclusively by studio musicians, this is a common misconception.[22] In 1970, at the height of the band's UK popularity, a New Musical Express writer used the phrase, "as crisp as a Dennis Wilson rim shot."

Although Dennis rarely sang backing vocals on stage, and only occasionally took a lead, his raspy-sounding vocals were a key ingredient in the group's vocal blend in the studio. In the late 1960s and 1970s, his lead vocals lent a bluesy edge to an updating of the Beach Boys' sound, giving their music new dimensions on the retreat of brother Brian's influence in composing and studio production.

In 1967, Dennis was cited as "the closest to brother Brian's own musical ideals ... He always emphasises the fusion, in their work, of pop and classical music."[23] Dennis said his brother Brian was an "inspiration", not an influence, and that "Musically, I'm far apart from Brian. He's a hundred times more than what I am musically."[9]


Dennis used drums made by Camco, Ludwig, Rodgers, and Zickos. Around 1980, Dennis started to use Yamaha Recording Custom drums in a black finish with 14x10 and 15x12 rack toms, 16x16 and 18x16 floor toms, a 22x14 kick drum, and a 14" metal snare drum. His cymbals were a combination of Paiste and Zildjian. He used Remo Clear Controlled Sound Black Dot drumheads on all the drums as well as Pro-Mark Dennis Wilson Signature 747 drumsticks.

Personal life

At the time of his death, Dennis was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Love (born Shawn Marie Harris on December 30, 1964), the daughter of his first cousin and band mate, Mike Love.[14] Wilson and Love had one son, Gage, born September 3, 1982. Shawn Marie died aged 38 in September 2003, of liver cancer.

Dennis was previously married to Carole Freedman, with whom he had a daughter Jennifer, and whose son, Scott, he adopted; and Barbara Charren, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Carl. Dennis was also married twice to Karen Lamm, the ex-wife of Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, in 1976 and again in 1978.[14]

Dennis also had a relationship with Christine McVie of the band Fleetwood Mac.[14][24]

Solo discography


Year Album details Chart positions
1977 Pacific Ocean Blue 96 16 5


Date of release Title Label Chart positions
December 1970, UK "Sound of Free"/"Lady" Stateside Records never charted
September 1977, Europe "River Song"/"Farewell My Friend" Caribou Records never charted
October 1977, US "You and I"/"Friday Night" Caribou Records never charted


  1. ^ "The Beach Boys, inducted in 1988". The  
  2. ^ Leaf 1978, pp. 16–19.
  3. ^ Leaf 1978, p. 19.
  4. ^ Doe & Tobler 1997, pp. V, 9.
  5. ^ Bugliosi, Vincent Bugliosi (March 1975). Helter Skelter. p. 338. 
  6. ^ Griffiths, David (December 21, 1968). "Dennis Wilson: "I Live With 17 Girls"". Record Mirror. 
  7. ^ Holdship, Bill (April 6, 2000). "Heroes and Villains".  
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Sclafani, Tony (November 1, 2007). "Dennis Wilson's Majestic Solo Work".  
  9. ^ a b c  
  10. ^ "Dennis Wilson solo recordings". Local Gentry. Archived from the original on December 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  11. ^ "Wilson's 'Ocean' Set For Expanded Reissue". Archived from the original on December 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  12. ^ Doe, Andrew Grayham. "GIGS82". Endless Summer Quarterly. Retrieved December 12, 2014. 
  13. ^ Stebbins 2011.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Goldberg, Michael (June 7, 1984). "Dennis Wilson: The Beach Boy Who Went Overboard".  
  15. ^ a b Swenson, John (October 20, 1977). "The Beach Boys - No More Fun Fun Fun".  
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Jerome, Jim & Buchalter, Gail & Evans, Hilary & Manna, Sal & Pilcher, Joseph & Rayl, Salley (January 16, 1984). "Death of a Beach Boy". People Magazine. 
  18. ^ a b "Beach Boys drummer buried in rites at sea".  
  19. ^ Death of a Beach Boy
  20. ^ "Reagan Helps Get Approval For Musician's Burial at Sea". UPI in  
  21. ^ Ginny, Dougary (May 31, 2002). "After the wipeout".  
  22. ^ Orme, Mike (July 8, 2008). "Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition".  
  23. ^ Grant, Mike (October 11, 2011). Our influences are of a religious nature': the Beach Boys on Smile"'".  
  24. ^ "Christine McVie Keeps a Level Head After Two Decades In the Fast Lane". Rolling Stone. p. 2. 


  • Doe, Andrew;  
  • Stebbins, Jon (2011). The Beach Boys FAQ: All That's Left to Know About America's Band. Backbeat Books.  
  • Webb, Adam (2001). Dumb Angel: The Life and Music of Dennis Wilson. Creation Books.  
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