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Dennis Wilson
Dennis Wilson 1971 cropped.jpg
Wilson in a 1970 promotional shot for the film Two-Lane Blacktop
Background information
Birth name Dennis Carl Wilson
Born (1944-12-04)December 4, 1944
Inglewood, California, U.S.
Origin Hawthorne, California, U.S.
Died December 28, 1983(1983-12-28) (aged 39)
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • singer
  • Vocals
  • drums
  • keyboards
Years active 1961–1983

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 association with the Manson Family and for co-starring in the 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop.

Wilson served mainly on drums and backing vocals for the Beach Boys. His playing can be heard on many of the group's hits, belying the popular misconception that he was always replaced on record by studio musicians. 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". His original songs for the group included "Little Bird" (1968) and "Forever" (1970). Friends and biographers have asserted that he was an uncredited writer on "You Are So Beautiful", a 1974 hit for Joe Cocker frequently performed by Wilson in concert.

His solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), was released to warm reviews and moderate sales comparable to those of contemporaneous Beach Boys albums. 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.


Dennis Wilson 1961
Wilson's Hawthorne High School yearbook portrait, 1961

Dennis Carl Wilson was born on December 4, 1944, the second child of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. He spent his family years with his brothers Brian and Carl and their parents in Hawthorne, California. Dennis' role in the family dynamic, which he himself acknowledged, was that of the black sheep. According to neighborhood friend David Marks, Dennis' "raucous behavior" inspired other kids to nickname him "Dennis the Menace". Out of the three Wilson brothers, Dennis was the most likely to get beaten by their father and suffer the worst treatment.

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. Dennis later described Brian as a "freak" who would "stay in his room all day listening to records rather than playing baseball. If you could get me to sing a song, yeah, I'd get into it. But I'd much rather play doctor with the girl next door or muck around with cars." 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 said 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."

Dennis noted of himself, "If my dad hadn't given me a BB gun when I was nine years old, my life would have been completely different. With that gun I had something I could take my anger out on. Hunting, fishing, racing have been my preoccupations ever since." Brian told Melody Maker in 1966: "Dennis had to keep moving all the time. If you wanted him to sit still for one second, he's yelling and screaming and ranting and raving. He's the most messed-up person I know." Around the time he was 14, Dennis began playing piano and learned to play boogie-woogie styles.

Early career

Formation of the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys TV (Dennis)
Dennis performing on drums with the Beach Boys, December 1964

The Wilsons' mother, Audree, forced Brian to include Dennis in the original lineup of the Beach Boys. In 1960, Dennis began taking drum lessons at Hawthorne High School. Teacher Fred Morgan later said that Dennis had been "a beater, not a drummer" and "a fast learner when he wanted to learn." According to Brian, "We kind of developed into a group sort of through the wishes of Dennis. He said that ... the kids at school knew I was musical because I had done some singing for assemblies and so on." Recalling their first group rehearsals, Dennis said that he was initially "going to play bass, and then I decided to play drums. ... Drums seemed to be more exciting. I could always play bass if I wanted to."

The Beach Boys officially formed in late 1961, with Murry taking over as manager, and had a local hit with their debut record "Surfin'", a song that Brian wrote at Dennis' urging. Dennis recalled, "We got so excited ... I ran down the street screaming, 'Listen, we're on the radio!' It was really funky. That started it, the minute you're on the radio." Though the Beach Boys developed their image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only actual surfer in the band. Carl supported, "Dennis was the only one who could really surf. We all tried, even Brian, but we were terrible. We just wanted to have a good time and play music."

In early 1963, Dennis teamed with Brian's collaborator Gary Usher. Calling themselves the Four Speeds, they released the single "RPM" backed with "My Stingray". In March 1964, Dennis moved out of the Wilson family home and took residence at an address in Hollywood. In the sleeve notes of the band's July 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." In December, Murry told a reporter that Dennis had been "a little too generous" with money and "cried when he learned about how much he had wasted. ... Where the other boys invested or saved their money, Dennis spent $94,000. He spent $25,000 on a home but the rest just went. Dennis [is] like that: he picks up the tab wherever he goes."

In January 1965, Brian declared to his bandmates that he would no longer tour with the group for the foreseeable future.

Increased record presence

Brian wrote that he had felt that Dennis "never really had a chance to sing very much", and so he gave him more leads on their March 1965 album The Beach Boys Today!. Dennis sang "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "In the Back of My Mind". The former became the first song with a Dennis lead that was issued as an A-sided single, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Dennis Wilson in 1966
Wilson in 1966

In the latter part of the 1960s, Dennis started writing songs for the Beach Boys. Dennis's collaborator Gregg Jakobson commented, "He started taking his piano playing more seriously. He'd ask Brian to show him stuff until he got a pretty good grasp of chords." In January 1967, Dennis recorded the original composition "I Don't Know", but it was left unreleased. Music historian Keith Badman states that whether the piece was intended for Smile is not definitively known. In December, Wilson recorded a piece called "Tune #1" that was intended for a solo project to be released on Brother Records, but it was also shelved.

Wilson's first major released composition was "Little Bird", issued in April 1968 as the B-side of the "Friends" single. "Little Bird" and another song, "Be Still", were co-written with poet Stephen Kalinich and featured on the album Friends (June 1968). The group's next album, 20/20 (February 1969), marked the emergence of Dennis as a producer, including his original songs "Be with Me" and "All I Want to Do". Dennis's "Celebrate the News" was released as the B-side to the standalone single "Break Away".

By this time, the Beach Boys' popularity had faltered considerably. Dennis believed, "Because of the attitude of a few mental dinosaurs intent on exploiting our initial success, Brian's huge talent has never been fully appreciated in America and the potential of the group has been stifled. ... If the Beatles had suffered this kind of misrepresentation, they would have never got past singing 'Please, Please Me' and 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and leaping around in Beatle suits."

In 2018, many of Wilson's unreleased tracks from this period were released for the compilations Wake the World: The Friends Sessions and I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions.

Two-Lane Blacktop

From August 13 to late October 1970, Dennis shot his parts for the Universal Pictures road movie Two-Lane Blacktop. The film depicts "The Driver" (James Taylor) and "The Mechanic" (Wilson) driving aimlessly across the United States in their 1955 Chevy, surviving on money earned from street racing. It made its worldwide premiere on July 7, 1971, in New York City. The film received mixed reviews but later gained stature as a "cult classic".

Solo career

Unfinished album

Dennis continued writing songs for the Beach Boys' subsequent albums, including Sunflower (August 1970), which featured the single "Forever" – commonly regarded as one of his finest songs – and three others: "Slip On Through", "Got to Know the Woman", and "It's About Time". Their inclusion was said to be at the insistence of Warner-Reprise, who felt that Dennis's songs sounded more contemporary than other rejected Beach Boys tracks. "Slip On Through" became the first of Dennis's songs to be issued as an A-sided single by the Beach Boys.

Dennis Wilson 1971 2
Wilson c. 1971

In the early 1970s, Wilson recorded material with Beach Boys touring musician Daryl Dragon to be set aside for a potential solo album, provisionally titled Freckles. Dennis also offered Poops and Hubba Hubba as the album's working titles. On December 4, Stateside/EMI released "Sound of Free", a single issued only in Europe and the UK under the credit "Dennis Wilson & Rumbo". The B-side was the Sunflower outtake "Lady" (also known as "Fallin' In Love"). At the Beach Boys' concerts in 1971, Dennis played solo piano renditions of his songs "Barbara" and "I've Got a Friend". Biographer Jon Stebbins writes, "He was developing a power-ballad style that would become his signature."

Dennis' two song contributions to the Beach Boys' August 1971 album Surf's Up – "4th of July" and "(Wouldn't It Be Nice to) Live Again" – were left off the record. At the time, Dennis stated that he "pulled" the songs off the record because he did not feel they flowed well alongside the other tracks. According to band manager Jack Rieley, the absence of any Dennis songs on Surf's Up was for two reasons: to quell political infighting within the group concerning the album's share of Wilson-brother songs, and because Dennis wanted to save his songs for a solo album.

Engineer Stephen Desper said of Dennis's album, "ninety percent of it was ninety percent done". Fred Vail, the band's co-manager, described the album as "diamonds never cut and polished", and explained, "The Beach Boys obviously weren't buying into his songs as part of the group output." Several tracks from the album – "Baby Baby", "It's a New Day", "I've Got a Friend", "Behold the Night", "Hawaiian Dream", "Medley: All Of My Love / Ecology", and "Before" – were released on the 2021 box set Feel Flows.

In June 1971, Dennis 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. Stebbins writes, "Now, during concerts, the impulsive, physically aggressive Dennis would be reduced to sitting behind a keyboard or standing off to one side behind a microphone. It hurt him deeply. He felt like a caged animal. His drinking became worse and his participation in the band became erratic." Biographer David Leaf wrote that, by this time, "Dennis was constantly quitting [the band] or getting fired and then rejoining."

Two more songs intended for Dennis's album – "Make it Good" and "Cuddle Up" (originally titled "Old Movie") – were ultimately placed on the Beach Boys' 1972 release Carl and the Passions – "So Tough". Dennis wrote and produced two songs – "Steamboat" and "Only with You" – on their next album, Holland (1973). A third song, "Carry Me Home", was left off the record. The cover of their 1973 live album, The Beach Boys in Concert, depicts only Dennis onstage, although the album itself contains none of his songs.

Pacific Ocean Blue

Wilson's onstage antics (including streaking) occasionally disrupted the Beach Boys' live shows. He continued recording for his forthcoming solo album at the band's Brother Studios facility in Santa Monica. In 1974, concurrent with the success of the greatest hits compilation Endless Summer, Dennis returned to his role behind the drums. According to Billy Hinsche, keyboardist for the Beach Boys' supporting band, it was this year that Dennis co-wrote the lyrics and modified part of the melody of "You Are So Beautiful" at a party with Billy Preston. Hinsche said, "I was there that night, and I would not dispute that Dennis had a hand in writing 'You Are So Beautiful,' and that's the reason we would do it in concert."

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

Dennis released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. Although it sold relatively poorly, peaking at No. 96 on the US Billboard chart, it outperformed the following two Beach Boys albums. Dates were booked for a Dennis Wilson solo tour, but these were ultimately cancelled when his record company withdrew concert support. He did occasionally perform his solo material on the 1977 Beach Boys tour. Despite Dennis claiming the album had "no substance", Pacific Ocean Blue received positive reviews and later developed status as a cult item, ultimately selling nearly 250,000 copies.

The album remained largely out of print between the 1990s and 2000s. 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.


Pacific Ocean Blue's follow-up, Bambu, began production in 1978 at Brother Studios, with the collaboration of then Beach Boys keyboardist and Dennis' 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, Dennis' physical and mental decline, which stemmed from his severe economic and marital problems at the time, and the distractions of simultaneous Beach Boys projects. Bambu was officially released in 2008 along with the Pacific Ocean Blue reissue. 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). Dennis and Brian also recorded together apart from the Beach Boys in the early 1980s. These sessions remain unreleased.

Final years and death

Dennis Wilson 1983
Dennis drumming with the Beach Boys in 1983

In succeeding years, Dennis's health problems got worse. By the last year of his life, he had virtually lost his normal speaking voice, struggled to sing, and had forgotten how to play drums, often missing Beach Boys performances in the process.

On December 28, three weeks after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina Del Rey after 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. Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter believed that Dennis experienced shallow-water blackout just before his death. On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis' 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." His song "Farewell My Friend" was played at the funeral.

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

Personal life

Wilson's first wife was Carole Freedman, with whom he had a daughter, Jennifer, and adopted son, Scott, from her previous relationship. They married on July 29, 1965, and divorced in 1967. His second was Barbara Charren, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Carl. Dennis's songs "Lady" and "Barbara" were written about Charren. Dennis was then married twice to actress Karen Lamm, the former wife of Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, in 1976 and again in 1978.

From 1979 to 1982, Dennis had a relationship with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac.

At the time of his death, Wilson was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Harris (born on December 30, 1964), who claimed to be the daughter of his first cousin and bandmate, Mike Love, although Love disputed the claim. Wilson and Shawn had one son, Gage Dennis, born September 3, 1982.

Fictional depictions

  • In the 1990 television movie Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys, Wilson is portrayed by Bruce Greenwood.
  • In the 2000 miniseries The Beach Boys: An American Family, Wilson is portrayed by Nick Stabile.
  • In the 2015 movie Love & Mercy, Wilson is portrayed by Kenny Wormald.
  • In 2019, Wilson appeared as a character on the NBC crime drama series Aquarius, portrayed by Andy Favreau.
  • Wilson is a minor character in Quentin Tarantino's 2021 novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.



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"

Songs (written or co-written by Dennis Wilson)

  • Surfer Girl (1963)
    • "South Bay Surfer (The Old Folks at Home)"
  • Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
    • "Denny's Drums"
  • Friends (1968)
    • "Friends"
    • "Be Here in the Mornin'"
    • "When a Man Needs a Woman"
    • "Little Bird"
    • "Be Still"
  • 20/20 (1969)
    • "Be with Me"
    • "All I Want to Do"
    • "Never Learn Not to Love"
  • Sunflower (1970)
    • "Slip On Through"
    • "Got to Know the Woman"
    • "It's About Time"
    • "Forever"
  • Carl and the Passions – "So Tough" (1972)
    • "Make It Good"
    • "Cuddle Up"
  • Holland (1973)
    • "Steamboat"
    • "Only with You"
  • Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
    • "River Song"
    • "What's Wrong"
    • "Moonshine"
    • "Friday Night"
    • "Dreamer"
    • "Thoughts of You"
    • "Time"
    • "You and I"
    • "Pacific Ocean Blues"
    • "Farewell My Friend"
    • "Rainbows"
    • "End of the Show"
  • Pacific Ocean Blue CD reissue bonus tracks
    • "Tug of Love"
    • "Holy Man"
    • "Mexico"
  • Bambu (The Caribou Sessions) (2017)
    • "School Girl"
    • "Love Remember Me'
    • "Wild Situation"
    • "Common"
    • "Are You Real"
    • "He's a Bum"
    • "Cocktails"
    • "I Love You"
    • "Time for Bed"
    • "Album Tag Song"
    • "Piano Variations on "Thoughts of You""
  • L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
    • "Love Surrounds Me"
    • "Baby Blue"
  • Ten Years of Harmony (1981)
    • "San Miguel"
  • Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys (1993)
    • "4th of July"
  • Endless Harmony Soundtrack (1997)
    • "Barbara"
  • Ultimate Christmas (1998)
    • "Morning Christmas"
  • The Smile Sessions (2011)
    • "I Don't Know"
  • Made in California (2013)
    • "(Wouldn't It Be Nice to) Live Again"
    • "Barnyard Blues"
    • "My Love Lives On"
    • "Celebrate the News"
    • "Sound of Free"
    • "Lady"
  • Wake the World: The Friends Sessions (2018)
    • "Away"
    • "Untitled 1/25/68"
  • I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions (2018)
    • "Well, You Know I Knew"
    • "Love Affair"
    • "Peaches"
    • "The Gong"
    • "A Time to Live in Dreams" (Also on Hawthorne, CA (2003))
    • "Mona Kana" (Also on Made in California (2013))
  • 1969: I'm Going Your Way (2019)
    • "I'm Going Your Way"
  • Feel Flows (album) (2021)
    • "Baby Baby"
    • "It's a New Day"
    • "Medley: All Of My Love/Ecology"
    • "Before"
    • "Behold the Night"
    • "Hawaiian Dream"
    • "I've Got A Friend"
  • Sail On Sailor – 1972 (2022)
    • "Carry Me Home"

See also

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