Of the five original members of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson was the only one who knew how to surf. Strangely his brother Brian was afraid of the water! Dennis grew up in Hawthorne, California, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. His father owned a machine shop and was a frustrated songwriter. His mother enjoyed singing and frequently organized family sing-alongs.
Brian, the oldest son, was humming complete songs when he was just 11 months old. At three he was singing them. By sixteen, with the use of a small tape recorder, Brian created four-part harmonies. Carl, the youngest brother, taught himself to play the guitar when he was 11 years old. Cousin Mike Love was known for having perfect pitch.
Dennis, who was born on December 4, 1944, was a maverick. He had no interest in music until he was in his teens, when he learned to play the drums.
In 1961 Brian came up with the idea for the band that would become
the Beach Boys, but Dennis inspired their first hit.
The original band had five members: the three Wilson brothers, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, who was in college with Brian. They wanted a recording contract with a major label and knew they would have to create a fresh sound. The band spent many afternoons brainstorming until Dennis came up the right idea. He thought they should record a song about surfing.
By the next afternoon, Brian had written "Surfin'," which became a hit in Los Angeles and helped the Beach Boys secure a recording contract with Capitol records.
By 1966 Brian had become bored writing songs that celebrated sun worshiping. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The theme album explored the emotions that people experience as they move toward maturity.
In 1970 Dennis released a solo single: "Sound of Free" and "Lady," which he recorded with Daryl Dragon, who had been an auxiliary keyboardist for the Beach Boys. The following year, Dennis co-starred in the movie Two-Lane Blacktop, which proved to be a box-office disaster.
For Dennis the late 1960s was a time of upheaval in his personal life.
He divorced his wife Carol and soon found himself caught up in a lifestyle where drugs were readily available. He even hung out with convicted murderer Charles Manson. Together they wrote a song, "Never Learn Not to Love." It was included on the Beach Boys album 20/20, released in early 1969.
Dennis's friendship with Manson ended abruptly when Manson became incensed that he was not given a published credit for writing the song. Following the Tate/LaBianca murders, Dennis received threatening calls from Manson's cult warning him that he was next. He often awoke in the morning to find that the furniture in his home had been mysteriously rearranged during the night. Dennis relaxed after Manson was securely behind bars.
In the 1970s Dennis married his second wife, actress Karen Lamm. A short while later, they divorced, then remarried, and finally divorced again. He also fathered a child by the daughter of his cousin Mike Love. Dennis's battle to overcome a long-standing drinking problem influenced his decision to stop touring with the Beach Boys in the early 1980s. His disappointment over the band becoming nothing more than a group of middle-aged men lifelessly playing oldies also played a role in his getting out.
On December 28, 1983, Dennis Wilson spent the day doing something he had enjoyed his entire life: swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Despite the water temperature being a cool 58 degrees, Wilson chose not to wear a wetsuit. For two straight hours, he entertained himself diving 13 feet into the water. Then suddenly, he lost his balance and slipped. When friends noticed he had not surfaced, they became alarmed and phoned the police. An hour later, Wilson's body was discovered. An autopsy ruled the cause of his death to be accidental drowning - an ironic way for a Beach Boy's life to end.