Carl Dean Wilson (December 21, 1946 – February 6, 1998) was an American rock and roll singer and guitarist, best known as a founding member, lead guitarist and sometime lead vocalist of The Beach Boys. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Wilson played the Chuck Berry-esque guitar parts on many of the band's early hits. Because the band first became successful when he was in his teens, he was still developing as a musician and singer. His lead vocals in the band's first three years included "Summertime Blues" (duet with David Marks), "Louie, Louie" (splitting the lead with Mike Love), "Pom Pom Play Girl," "All Dressed Up for School", and "Girl Don't Tell Me."
Following his performance of the lead vocal on "God Only Knows" in 1966, Carl was increasingly featured as lead vocalist for the band (a role previously dominated by Mike Love and Brian Wilson), singing many leads on the Smiley Smile and Wild Honey albums, including the hit singles "Good Vibrations," "Darlin'," and "Wild Honey," then on 1969's "I Can Hear Music," which served as Carl's first major studio production. After his elder brother Brian's retirement from the stage in 1965, Carl became the de facto leader of the band onstage (contracts at that time reading that promoters hired 'Carl Wilson plus four other musicians'), and shortly after became the band's in-studio leader, producing the bulk of the albums 20/20, Sunflower, Surf's Up, Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (named in honour of his effective leadership of the band at this point) and Holland.
In 1967, Wilson also made headlines as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, at one point having to let the rest of the band tour the UK without him while he was up before the draft board.
Never a prolific songwriter, Wilson's first solo composing contributions to the band, other than a handful of early surf instrumentals, came with 1971's Surf's Up, on which he composed "Long Promised Road" and "Feel Flows" to lyrics by the band's then manager Jack Rieley. He had earlier been given cowriting credits on a few songs, but these appear to have been for arrangement ideas contributed to others' songs - he considered "Long Promised Road" his first real song. On the immediately following Beach Boys albums, he would average one or two songs, cowritten with various lyricists or other members of the band. Carl's leadership role in the band diminished somewhat in the late '70s, both due to Brian's brief reemergence as the band's producer and substance abuse problems. He nonetheless remained a prominent and recognizable voice in the band, taking lead vocals on many songs and serving as "mixdown producer" on the Brian-produced Love You album.
By the time of recording of 1979's L.A. (Light Album), Carl had overcome his drug problems and again found himself filling the vocal and songwriting gap left by a retreating Brian Wilson. A song he wrote with Brian in 1974 and sang lead on, "Good Timin'", was a Top 40 American hit from that album.
During the 1970s Wilson also produced records for several other artists, notably Ricci Martin (son of Dean Martin, not to be confused with the late-'90s pop star) and South African group The Flame (two members of which went later joined The Beach Boys for a couple of years). He also occasionally appeared on others' records as a backing vocalist, most notably appearing on Chicago's Wishing You Were Here (with Al Jardine and his brother Dennis Wilson.) His voice appears as a backing vocal on many recordings by groups and solo singers. Examples include Chicago's hit "Baby, What A Big Surprise", Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" (with Bruce Johnston) and David Lee Roth's hit cover of "California Girls."
By the early 1980s the Beach Boys were in disarray - the band had split into several camps. Frustrated with the band's sluggishness to record new material and reluctance to rehearse for live shows, Wilson took a leave of absence in 1981, rather than remain as part of what he saw increasingly becoming a nostalgia act.
He released a solo album, Carl Wilson, to little critical notice, in 1981, made up of songs co-written with Myrna Smith-Schilling (former backing vocalist for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin and wife of Wilson's then-manager Jerry Schilling). He also undertook a solo tour to promote the album that same year, the first member of the band to do so (not counting Mike Love's various side projects in the late '70s).
Wilson was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer in early 1997. Despite his illness and chemotherapy treatments, Carl continued to perform after diagnosis. Carl played through the Beach Boys' entire summer tour which ended in the fall of 1997. He sat down most of the time and needed oxygen after every song, but he still had his unique voice. The only time he stood during concerts was when he sang "God Only Knows" to his fans.
A handful of recordings of Wilson have been released - notably the album Like a Brother, by a "supergroup" Wilson formed with Gerry Beckley of America and Robert Lamm of Chicago. He also appeared posthumously on his brother Brian's album Gettin' in Over My Head, which used his vocal from the unreleased Beach Boys song "Soul Searchin'" put to a new backing track. He also appears on the many Beach Boys archival releases that have come out since his death.