TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Perhaps no other artist in American history did more for popular music than Brian Wilson.
As the front man for the legendary Beach Boys, Brian was the key to the band's international success and fame. He wrote the music, arranged tight harmonies, performed and produced songs that will outlive Brian for many generations to come.
Wilson hit his peak in 1966 with the release of 'Pet Sounds,' an album consistently ranked among the greatest of all time.
'Pet Sounds' challenged how the rock album was put together. 'Pet Sounds' created the idea of an album not being a collection of singles and assignment songs, but rather an art form. It was hailed by the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and most notably the Beatles, who used 'Pet Sounds' as the inspiration for 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'
A half century later, Wilson is playing his masterpiece to live audiences one last time on the road that includes a stop in Toledo at the Stranahan Theater on October 4. Fans around the world are responding to the tour with near universal praise.
"Well, everyone shows how they love the album. They love it very much," Wilson told WTOL. "We've been to Australia, Japan, China, Canada, Europe. They all like it a lot."
'Pet Sounds' took the Phil Spector 'Wall of Sound' technique and expanded it with complicated chord structures, an array of instruments, production quality that was far beyond its time and the patented harmonies that made the Beach Boys famous.
"Well, I'm most proud of the harmonies," Wilson said. "The melodies and lyrics too, but mostly the harmonies."
Brian didn't do it by himself. He was accompanied by lyricist Tony Asher, the best studio musicians in Los Angeles known as the Wrecking Crew and the soaring voices band mates.
Brian put all the elements together for an album that was seemingly perfect from the iconic opening of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" to the strange coda of Brian's dogs Banana and Louie barking at a passing train at the end of "Caroline No."
"The process starts with the piano. Then after I write everything in my mind, I write it on a piece of paper for the musicians and for my brothers [Dennis and Carl] and my cousin [Mike Love] and my friends [Bruce Johnson and Al Jardine]," Wilson explained. "The mood was always up. And Hal Blaine, the drummer, was sort of like the guy that conducted the sound. And me and my engineer would be in the booth getting the sound mixed."
More than a half-century later, the idea of re-creating intricate the album live onstage seems daunting. On top of that, Brian's voice has deteriorated with age and years of smoking cigarettes and taking drugs.
But the passion for the music still is there. His drug use is behind him and he has learned how to deal with his personal demons. On top of that, he is backed by one of the most talented group of musicians on tour.
"We have been performing for 18 years. So me and my band have had a lot practice and they're getting better all the time," Brian said.
Among the new comers is former Beach Boy and old friend Al Jardine, who is originally from Lima, and Blondie Chaplin, who had a brief stint with the Beach Boys in the 1970's.
Also in the group is Al's son Matt Jardine, who has the challenge of singing Brian's falsetto notes on songs like "Surfer Girl" and "Don't Worry Baby."
"He doesn't sound like me, but he does a great job hitting the high notes," Brian explained. "He's a good singer."
While the tour highlights the "Pet Sounds" album, seeing Brian live is a celebration of all of Brian's music from the upbeat "Fun, Fun, Fun" sound of early 1960's to the moving "Love and Mercy," that has become his own personal message to the world.
In the early 60's, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys recorded the soundtrack of the All-American summer with classics like "Surfin' USA," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Little Deuce Coupe," and "California Girls."
It was a family band with his two brother Dennis and Carl Wilson, his cousin Mike Love and a friend from the Hawthorn High School football team Al Jardine. All of them were young, playful and seemingly naive of the demanding music business. The band was playful and the sessions were light-hearted.
"Well Mike used to make us all laugh. He used to keep us laughing. He was a very funny guy. And we laughed a lot," Brian remembered. "We were able to relax and get the recordings and the vocals. They were very good."
But underneath was the growing pressures of the record company for more hits and the strict decorum on and off the road demanded by the domineering force of Brian's father and Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson, who was notoriously abusive toward his sons. These factors, coupled with Brian's growing drug use and issues with undiagnosed mental illness, led to 'Pet Sounds.'
Breaking away from the fun and summer songs, Brian began to write music that expressed the complicated emotions he experienced at only 24-years-old. The album expressed hope with despair, togetherness with loneliness, the pure joy of being in love with the heartbreak of having no one to love you. There were no cliches, just raw emotion expressed in sounds that were as complicated musically as the emotions themselves.
Despite acclaim from his peers and critics, the album was flop. While it was disappointment to both Wilson and the record company, he continued to follow the music and push rock into previously unheard of territory.
After 'Pet Sounds' Brian continued work on "Good Vibrations," later recognized as one of the greatest pop songs of all time. The song used a splicing recording technique, where Brian recorded individual hours of individual segments of the song and stitched them together on tape. The result was three-and-half minute "Pocket Symphony."
"Good Vibrations" reached number 1 on the charts and sold more than a million copies. It was a much-needed confidence boost after 'Pet Sounds.'
With that confidence, Brian continued to explore his experimental musical themes and recording techniques. He hoped the result of this explosion of creativity would result in another masterpiece he dubbed "SMiLE." But he would later abandon the album due to push back from the band and record company, mental illness, drug use and the improbable task of sequencing the hours of recorded music into a coherent album.
But tales of those sessions have gone down in music legend.
Wilson wrote many of the songs on the album on a piano placed inside a sandbox. He made the studio musicians wear firefighter helmets during a recording of the song "Fire." Then, there was the story of Paul McCartney of the Beatles and a stalk of celery.
"Well, we were recording "Vege-Tables" and we had vegetables there," Wilson remembered. "So when he got there he played this song called, "She's Leaving Home." And I gave him a celery stalk and he chewed it up."
But lost in the pop music in the early 60's, the experimental sound of the mid 60's and his renaissance years in the 90's and 2000's is his more soulful music recording in the mid to late-60's with the "Wild Honey" album. However, that sound received recent attention through a compilation release by the Beach Boy's highlighting this period for the band.
Many fans did not what to make of the album as the Beach Boys had just made the transition from pop-sounding "Surfin' USA" to the psychedelic "Good Vibrations."
But the blue-eyed soul coming from the band was product of the R&B radio, which had recently gone mainstream thanks to Motown. The result was classics such as "Wild Honey" and Darlin'."
"I was inspired by Motown and just generally rhythm and blues music," Wilson explained. "I was inspired by rhythm and blues music."
It's been 56 years since the Beach Boys recorded and released their first song "Surfin." Much has changed about Brian Wilson, but some things have not.
He still gets stage fright, though he admits adoring audiences help him throughout a show.
"It takes away that stage fright," Wilson explained. "It gets you prepared to do a good concert."
He is soft-spoken and does not speak profoundly.
When asked about why his music appeals to a younger generation of fans, Wilson simply said, "I think they like the drums and the voices. And the guitars and pianos."
Despite many critics proclaiming Brian as a genius, he is a humble and gentle man. To Brian, his legacy is simple and modest.
"My life and my productions, being married to Melinda. You know, all that stuff," Wilson explained.
While Brian's legacy could never approach the mythical status of his contemporary and great rival John Lennon, one can argue Wilson's accomplishments in art of record making are equal, if not greater, than Lennon's. However, Brian Wilson stands on his own, more humble pedestal.
At 76, Brian's legacy is somehow grand, modest and plain. He is simply one of the greatest musicians to ever live. He is the ultimate messenger of unconditional love through the guise of the song.
Brian will share his message of "Love and Mercy" in Toledo on October 4.
"I want them to know we really, really love doing "Pet Sounds" for people," Wilson said. "And I hope they enjoy the performance and the sound of our concert."