Dennis Wilson

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 and as the middle brother of bandmates Brian and Carl Wilson. Dennis was the only true surfer in the Beach Boys, and his personal life exemplified the "California Myth" that the band's early songs often celebrated. He was also known for his brief association with Charles Manson, a cult leader and songwriter later convicted of several murders, and for co-starring in the 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop.

Dennis Wilson
Wilson in a 1970 promotional shot for the film Two-Lane Blacktop
Wilson in a 1970 promotional shot for the film Two-Lane Blacktop
Background information
Birth nameDennis Carl Wilson
Born(1944-12-04)December 4, 1944
Inglewood, California, U.S.
OriginHawthorne, California, U.S.
DiedDecember 28, 1983(1983-12-28) (aged 39)
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • producer
  • Vocals
  • drums
  • keyboards
Years active1961–1983
Associated acts

Wilson served mainly on drums and backing vocals for the Beach Boys. His playing can be heard on many of the group's hits, despite the popular misconception that he was always replaced on record by studio musicians.[1] He originally had few lead vocals on the band's songs, but his prominence as a singer-songwriter increased following their 1968 album Friends. His music is characterized for reflecting his "edginess" and "little of his happy charm".[2] His original songs for the group included "Little Bird" (1968) and "Forever" (1970). Friends and biographers also say that he was an uncredited writer on "You Are So Beautiful", a hit for Joe Cocker in 1974.[3]

During his final years, Wilson struggled with drug addiction which contributed to tensions with his bandmates. His solo album Pacific Ocean Blue (1977) was released to warm reviews and moderate sales.[4] Sessions for a follow-up, Bambu, disintegrated before his death. In 1983, Wilson drowned at age 39. In 1988, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Beach Boys.[5]

Early yearsEdit

Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, the son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. He spent his family years with his brothers and parents in Hawthorne, California.[6] Dennis's role in the family dynamic, which he himself acknowledged, was that of the black sheep. Out of the three Wilson brothers, he was the most likely to get beaten 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. However, Dennis would sing with his brothers late at night in their shared bedroom, 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."[7]

1961–1968: Career beginningsEdit

Dennis performing on drums, 1964

Their 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, with Murry taking over as manager, and were immediately successful. Though the Beach Boys developed their image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only actual surfer in the band.[8] For the sleeve notes of their 1964 album All Summer Long, Dennis wrote: "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."[4]

In the early 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.[citation needed] Brian took note of Dennis's limited drumming technique early on and, as the mid-1960s 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.[9] 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".[citation needed]

As Brian withdrew from the group in the late 1960s, Dennis started writing songs for the Beach Boys.[2] His first major released composition was "Little Bird" (1968), the B-side of the "Friends" single. These tracks, along with his "Be Still", were featured on the album Friends.

1968–1969: Manson episodeEdit

Wilson in 1966

In late spring 1968, Wilson 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.[10] Later on, Wilson noticed the same two girls hitchhiking again. This time he took them to his home at 14400 Sunset Boulevard.[4] He recalled that he "told [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."[11] Wilson then went to a recording session; when he returned later that night, he was met in his driveway by Charles Manson, and when Wilson walked into his home, about a dozen people were occupying the premises, most of them young women. They were later known as members of the "Manson Family".[4]

Wilson was initially fascinated by Manson and his followers, referring to him as "the Wizard" in a Rave magazine article at the time.[12] The two struck a friendship and, over the next few months, members of the Manson Family – mostly women who were treated as servants – were housed at Wilson's household, costing him approximately $100,000 (equivalent to $740,000 in 2019). Much of these expenses went into cars, clothes, food, and penicillin shots for their persistent gonorrhoea.[4] In late 1968, he told the magazine Record Mirror that "when I met [Charlie] 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 [learned] from him."[11] Some of Manson's songs were recorded at Brian's home studio.[12] These recordings remain unheard by the public.[13] Wilson also introduced Manson to a few friends in the music business, including the Byrds' producer Terry Melcher.[12]

In September 1968, Wilson recorded a Manson song for the Beach Boys, originally titled "Cease to Exist" but reworked as "Never Learn Not to Love", as a single B-side released the following December. It was credited solely to Wilson.[14] When asked why Manson was not credited, Wilson explained: "He didn't want that. He wanted money instead. I gave him about a hundred thousand dollars' worth of stuff."[15] 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 ... I heard about it, but I wasn't there."[16] Writing in his 2016 memoir, Mike Love recalled Wilson saying he had witnessed Manson shooting a black man "in half" with an M16 rifle and hiding the body inside a well.[17]

Wilson distanced himself from Manson and moved out of the house, leaving Manson there. When Manson subsequently sought further contact, he left a bullet with Wilson's housekeeper to be delivered with a threatening message.[4] In August 1969, Manson Family members perpetrated the Tate–LaBianca murders. Shortly afterward, Manson visited Wilson's home, telling him that he had "just been to the moon" and demanded money, which Wilson gave.[18] That November, Manson was apprehended and later convicted for numerous counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Wilson refused to testify against Manson.[12] He explained: "I couldn't. I was so scared."[19] Instead, he was privately interviewed by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Wilson's testimony was deemed inessential since Jakobson agreed to publicly testify and corroborate Wilson's claims.[20]

In the subsequent years, Wilson allegedly received death threats from members of the Manson Family, who telephoned his home and told him: "You're next".[19] In 1976, he commented that "I don't talk about Manson. I think he's a sick fuck. I think of Roman and all those wonderful people who had a beautiful family and they fucking had their tits cut off. I want to benefit from that?"[21] In the 1978 biography The Beach Boys and the California Myth, Wilson acknowledged the interest in his relationship with Manson and said: "I know why [he] did what he did. Someday, I'll tell the world. I'll write a book and explain why he did it."[19] According to biographer Mark Dillon: "Some attribute [Wilson's] subsequent spiral of self-destructive behavior ― particularly his drug intake ― to these fears and feelings of guilt for ever having introduced this evil Wizard into the Hollywood scene."[12]

1960s–1970s: Artistic growthEdit

[His] intense, melancholic and soulful [songs] would usually sit at odds with the group's more wholesome image. ... As the Beach Boys descended into a parody of their former selves it would be Dennis who would twist their trademark sounds into new shapes. At his best this would sound something like Kurt Cobain produced by Phil Spector.

—Adam Webb, The Guardian, 2003[4]

Dennis continued writing songs for the Beach Boys' subsequent albums, including Sunflower (1970), which featured the single "Forever" and three other songs written by Dennis. Their inclusion was said to be at the insistence of the label, which claimed that his songs sounded more contemporary than other rejected Beach Boys tracks.[2] On December 4, 1970, Dennis released his first piece of solo material, an obscure single released only in Europe and the UK under the credit "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".[citation needed]

Wilson (center) performing with the Beach Boys, 1972

In 1971, Dennis starred alongside James Taylor and Warren Oates in the film Two-Lane Blacktop 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. That same year, he injured his hand badly enough to prevent him from playing drums for some time, so 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 live album The Beach Boys in Concert (1973) features only Dennis onstage among thousands of fans on the album cover.

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 BlueEdit

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."[4] He then approached James William Guercio, owner of Caribou Records, who stipulated "a structured recording process" before signing Dennis to a two-album contract.[4] 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."[4]

Dennis released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. It sold poorly, peaking at No. 96 on the US Billboard album chart. Dates were booked for a Dennis Wilson solo tour, but these were ultimately cancelled when his record company withdrew concert support in light of poor album sales and a perception that he was becoming increasingly unreliable.[citation needed] He did occasionally perform his solo material on the 1977 Beach Boys tour.[23] Despite Dennis claiming the album had "no substance",[22] Pacific Ocean Blue received positive reviews and later developed status as a cult item.[2]

The album remained largely out of print between the 1990s and 2000s.[2] In June 2008, it 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.[24]


Pacific Ocean Blue's follow-up, Bambu, began production in 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 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.[citation needed] This material was also released on vinyl in 2017, without Pacific Ocean Blue, for Record Store Day.

Two songs from the Bambu sessions, "Love Surrounds Me" and "Baby Blue," were lifted for the Beach Boys' L.A. (Light Album) (1979).[2] Dennis and Brian also recorded together apart from the Beach Boys in the early 1980s. These sessions remain unreleased, although they are widely bootlegged as The Cocaine Sessions.[25][26]

1970s–1983: Personal strugglesEdit

Dennis drumming with the Beach Boys in 1983

In succeeding years Dennis abused alcohol and heroin.[27] Following a confrontation on an airport tarmac, he declared to Rolling Stone on September 3, 1977, 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."[28] Two weeks later, disputes were resolved, and Dennis rejoined the group.[28] 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. For the assault, they were fined about $1,000, and Dennis filed a restraining order.[29]

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 Dennis's disbelief.[27] He was proven wrong as the rest of the band gave him an ultimatum after his last performance in November 1983 to check into rehab for his alcohol problems or be banned from performing live with them.[27]


By November 1983, Dennis was homeless and living a nomadic life.[27] 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.[27][30] On December 28, three weeks after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina Del Rey after drinking all day and then diving in the afternoon to recover his ex-wife's belongings, previously thrown overboard at the marina from his yacht three years earlier amidst their divorce.[27] Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter believed that Dennis experienced shallow water blackout[disambiguation needed] just before his death.[31]

On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis's body at sea, off the California coast. The Beach Boys released a statement shortly thereafter: "We know Dennis would have wanted to continue in the tradition of the Beach Boys. His spirit will remain in our music."[32] His song "Farewell My Friend" was played at the funeral.[33]

Dennis's widow Shawn Love reported that Dennis had wanted a burial at sea, and his brothers Carl and Brian did not want Dennis cremated.[32] At the time, only veterans of the Coast Guard and Navy were allowed to be buried in US waters without being first cremated, but Dennis's burial was made possible by the intervention of then-President Ronald Reagan.[34] In 2002, Brian expressed unhappiness with the arrangement, believing that Dennis should have been given a traditional burial.[35]

Legacy and musicianshipEdit

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.[2]

While it is often said that Dennis's drumming in the Beach Boys' recordings was filled in exclusively by studio musicians, this is a common misconception.[1]

Dennis was naturally left-handed, and would play his drum kit using the open-handed technique in the same style as other famous drummers such as Billy Cobham and Lenny White, where the drummer does not cross the hands while playing the beat. This technique allowed him to play the kit just as it would be set up for a right-handed drummer.

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."[36] 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."[22]

In 1988, Dennis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously as a member of the Beach Boys.[5]

Wilson appeared as a character on the NBC crime drama series Aquarius, portrayed by Andy Favreau.[37]

Personal lifeEdit

Wilson's first wife was Carole Freedman, with whom he had a daughter Jennifer and adopted son Scott. His second was Barbara Charren, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Carl.[citation needed] Dennis was then married twice to actress Karen Lamm, the ex-wife of Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, in 1976 and again in 1978.[27] He also had a relationship with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac.[27][38]

At the time of his death, Wilson was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Love (born Shawn Marie Harris on December 30, 1964),[citation needed] who claimed to be the daughter of his first cousin and bandmate, Mike Love, although Love always denied being her father.[27] Wilson and Love had one son, Gage Dennis,[39] born September 3, 1982.




Year Album details Chart positions
1977 Pacific Ocean Blue
  • Released: August 22, 1977
  • Label: Caribou
96 16 5
2017 Bambu (The Caribou Sessions)
  • Released: April 22, 2017
  • Label: Caribou


Date Title Label
December 1970 "Sound of Free" / "Lady" Stateside
September 1977 "River Song" / "Farewell My Friend" Caribou
October 1977 "You and I" / "Friday Night"

The Beach BoysEdit

Songs (written or co-written)


  1. ^ a b Orme, Mike (July 8, 2008). "Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition". Pitchfork.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Sclafani, Tony (November 1, 2007). "Dennis Wilson's Majestic Solo Work". PopMatters.
  3. ^ "Wilson's talent sings forth on 'Pacific' re-release". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 15, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Webb, Adam (December 14, 2003). "A profile of Dennis Wilson: the lonely one". The Guardian.
  5. ^ a b "The Beach Boys, inducted in 1988". The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  6. ^ Selvin, Joel (May 31, 2005). "For the Beach Boys, fun, fun, fun began in humble Hawthorne". SF Gate. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
  7. ^ Leaf 1978, pp. 16–19.
  8. ^ Leaf 1978, p. 19.
  9. ^ Doe & Tobler 2004, pp. V, 9.
  10. ^ Bugliosi, Vincent Bugliosi (March 1975). Helter Skelter. p. 338.
  11. ^ a b Griffiths, David (December 21, 1968). "Dennis Wilson: "I Live With 17 Girls"". Record Mirror.
  12. ^ a b c d e Dillon, Mark (June 13, 2012). "Mark Dillon: Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson". National Post.
  13. ^ Doe, Andrew Grayham. "Unreleased Albums". Bellagio 10452. Endless Summer Quarterly. Retrieved October 16, 2015.
  14. ^ Barlass, Tyler (July 16, 2008). "Song Stories - "Never Learn Not To Love" (1968)".
  15. ^ Nolan, Tom (November 11, 1971). "Beach Boys: A California Saga, Part II". Rolling Stone.
  16. ^ Holdship, Bill (April 6, 2000). "Heroes and Villains". The Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Gaines 1986, p. 216.
  19. ^ a b c Leaf 1978, p. 136.
  20. ^ Leaf 1978, p. 137.
  21. ^ Gaines 1986, p. 219.
  22. ^ a b c Leaf, David (September 1977). "Dennis Wilson Interview". Pet Sounds. 1 (3). Archived from the original on December 6, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  23. ^ "Dennis Wilson solo recordings". Local Gentry. Archived from the original on December 6, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-05.[better source needed]
  24. ^ "Wilson's 'Ocean' Set For Expanded Reissue". Archived from the original on June 1, 2008. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  25. ^ Doe, Andrew Grayham. "GIGS82". Endless Summer Quarterly. Retrieved December 12, 2014.
  26. ^ Stebbins 2011, p. 221.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i Goldberg, Michael (June 7, 1984). "Dennis Wilson: The Beach Boy Who Went Overboard". Rolling Stone.
  28. ^ a b Swenson, John (October 20, 1977). "The Beach Boys - No More Fun Fun Fun". Rolling Stone.
  29. ^ Gaines, Steven (October 21, 1986). "Beach Boy drummer 'goes for it' and ends up beat up". The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle.
  30. ^ Jerome, Jim; Buchalter, Gail; Evans, Hilary; Manna, Sal; Pilcher, Joseph & Rayl, Salley (January 16, 1984). "Death of a Beach Boy". People Magazine.
  31. ^ Autopsy: The Last Hours of Dennis Wilson. Reelz. March 18, 2017. Nar. Eric Meyers. Exec. Prod. Ed Taylor and Michael Kelpie. Television.
  32. ^ a b "Beach Boys drummer buried in rites at sea". The Day. January 5, 1984.
  33. ^ Death of a Beach Boy
  34. ^ "Reagan Helps Get Approval For Musician's Burial at Sea". The New York Times. UPI. January 3, 1984. Retrieved August 20, 2014.
  35. ^ Ginny, Dougary (May 31, 2002). "After the wipeout". The Guardian.
  36. ^ Grant, Mike (October 11, 2011). "'Our influences are of a religious nature': the Beach Boys on Smile". The Guardian.
  37. ^ "April Grace Spies Role In 'Berlin Station'; Andy Favreau Grooves With 'Aquarius'". Retrieved December 15, 2019.
  38. ^ "Christine McVie Keeps a Level Head After Two Decades In the Fast Lane". Rolling Stone.
  39. ^ California Birth Index, 1905-1995


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit