When holding down the reputation of a monumental figure in music as Brian Wilson boasts, there are a lot of important moments to cover. From first fathering together members of his family to create a band to moving away from the surfing sound that became The Beach Boys’ signature to breaking down in the face of deteriorating mental health, a timeline of Wilson’s 1960s alone could be a 40-plus entry list.
As the Smile sessions turned disastrous, Wilson’s image as the brilliant-yet-fragile genius became solidified in pop culture. But Wilson lived quite a life after initially stepping away from The Beach Boys – his mental health struggles, his returns to music, his partnership with Eugene Landy, and his establishment of a solo career.
With so many possibilities, we’ve had to key in on some of the most important moments that made Wilson the legend he is today. Quite a few of the biggest events in Wilson’s life had to be condensed, paired up, or simply left off this timeline. The truth is that Brian Wilson lived enough to have about ten timelines that cover it all.
These entries are just some of the most important points that made Brian Wilson the iconic artist that he remains today. 80 years of unstoppable creativity is being chronicled in just a few dots across the one-of-a-kind life of Brian Wilson.
A timeline of Brian Wilson’s remarkable career:
Brian Wilson is born
Brian Douglas Wilson was the first child born to Audree and Murray Wilson. Murray was abusive towards Brian, including physical attacks that potentially caused Wilson to suffer from partial deafness. The Wilsons would have two more boys, Carl and Dennis, in 1944 and 1946, respectively.
The Beach Boys release their first single, ‘Surfin’
Wilson quickly took an interest in music, including the close harmony singing of The Four Freshmen and the driving style of both R&B and rock and roll.
Wilson, and his cousin Mike Love, devised the idea of forming a vocal group in 1961. Recruiting Carl, Dennis, and their friend Al Jardine, the first lineup of The Beach Boys came together and recorded their first song, ‘Surfin’, in November of that year.
Wilson lands his first number one song with Jan and Deans’ ‘Surf City’
As The Beach Boys rose in popularity, Wilson found that he was most comfortable working the confines of the recording studio. He began producing for artists outside of his band, including an up-and-coming surf vocal duo named Jan and Dean.
Wilson offered them the song ‘Surf City’, which became a number one song in the summer of 1963. Murray, Wilson’s manager, was furious that his son’s first number one wasn’t with The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys hit number one with ‘I Get Around’
Murray would be satiated a year later when ‘I Get Around’ became the first Beach Boys’ number one single on the Billboard Hot 100.
By this time, The Beatles had officially hit big in America, causing Wilson to seriously focus on elevating his writing. He refused to continue writing surf songs, wishing to progress The Beach Boys to new sonic territories.
Wilson has a breakdown on the way to a live show
With the stress of writing, arranging, and producing all of The Beach Boys’ material, compounded by his recent marriage to his wife Marilyn, Wilson suffered a mental episode on a flight to Houston for a gig.
Wilson was temporarily replaced by Glen Campbell and informed the group that he was retiring from the road, causing the band to hire Bruce Johnston as a permanent replacement.
Wilson begins recording ‘California Girls’
Due to Wilson’s assistance, The Beach Boys’ music had become increasingly complex while still retaining the summer themes that Love favoured.
The ultimate synthesis of the two sides came on ‘California Girls’, the first song Wilson wrote after experimenting with LSD for the first time. Wilson would consider the sessions for ‘California Girls’ some of the favourites of his entire career.
Pet Sounds is released
Wilson took a full leap into sophisticated chamber pop with Pet Sounds, the highly ambitious and laboured-over Beach Boys. Wilson’s one completed masterpiece, Pet Sounds paired yearning emotional lyrics with dense orchestral arrangements and hints of psychedelia.
The results would be some of the most acclaimed pop music of all time, but the initially lukewarm critical and commercial reception had a highly negative effect on Wilson.
‘Good Vibrations’ hits number one
Wilson spent most of 1966 assembling the pieces that would eventually make up The Beach Boys’ second number one song, ‘Good Vibrations’.
Featuring a highly-experimental structure, ‘Good Vibrations’ was one of the only officially completed songs from the ongoing Smile sessions, which quickly took a turn for the worst after the completion of ‘Good Vibrations’.
Smile is officially abandoned
Looking to expand on the sounds of ‘Good Vibrations’ into a full album, Wilson embarked on his most ambitious and infamous project, Smile. The sessions were alternatively highly creative and chaotic, with Wilson beginning to doubt his own abilities.
After a disastrous session for ‘Mrs. O Leary’s Cow’ precipitated another mental breakdown, Wilson split with his creative partner Van Dyke Parks and eventually abandoned Smile in July, with remnants eventually appearing on the album Smiley Smile.
Wilson’s first daughter, Carnie, is born
Brian and Marilyn Wilson’s marriage began to suffer as Brian’s drug use and erratic behaviour began increasing. While Brian was struggling to work, the couple welcomed their first child, Carnie Wilson, in 1968, quickly followed by another daughter, Wendy, the following year. Carnie and Wendy would later find pop success of their own with the vocal group Wilson-Phillips.
Sunflower is released
Wilson began to increasingly isolate himself from his bandmates after the breakdown of the Smile sessions, with his contributions to their subsequent releases varying wildly.
Wilson heavily participated in the sessions for 1970s Sunflower, but when the album was a commercial failure, Wilson fully retreated from the band and began an extended period of drug abuse, food addiction, and mental decline.
The Beach Boys release Love You
In 1975, Wilson had his first interactions with Eugene Landy, a radical psychologist whose treatment involved become intertwined with his clients’ entire lives. Wilson began to emerge from his reclusion, returning to The Beach Boys for the 1976 album 15 Big Ones.
Wilson reached a second creative apex with 1977’s The Beach Boys Love You, but once again discouraged by the mixed critical reception and lackluster commercial success, Wilson permanently ceased his creative involvement with the band.
Wilson returns to the care of Eugene Landy
After more drug problems threatened to derail his life permanently, Wilson was once again placed in the care of Landy, this time due to the band’s intervention. Even though he had little control over his own life, Wilson returned to music, briefly with The Beach Boys and then onto his solo career for the first time.
Wilson releases his debut solo album, Brian Wilson
In 1988, Wilson had recovered enough to release his first solo studio album, Brian Wilson. The album was controversial, mainly due to the involvement of Landy, who acted as the album’s “executive producer” and was originally listed as a songwriter on five of the album’s tracks.
Wilson is put under a family conservatorship
In the mid-1980s, Wilson met former model Melinda Ledbetter at the car dealership she was working at. The two began dating, but Landy’s interference ultimately led to their breakup. However, Ledbetter fought to free Wilson of Landy’s control, which eventually led Wilson to be placed under the conservatorship of his family.
Wilson marries Melinda Ledbetter
After officially freeing himself from the control of Landy, Wilson reconnected with Ledbetter and married her in early 1995. The two have adopted five children, with Ledbetter continuing to act as Wilson’s manager.
Wilson finally completes Smile
After more than 35 years since originally abandoning his most legendary project, Wilson officially returned and completed a version of Smile as a solo artist, retitling the album Brian Wilson presents Smile.
The LP was a critical and commercial success, nabbing Wilson his first-ever Grammy for the song that was largely seen as the impetus for the original album’s abandonment, ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’.
The Beach Boys release That’s Why God Made the Radio
To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, Wilson officially returned to The Beach Boys for the recording of the album That’s Why God Made the Radio. Wilson and Jardine returned to the band’s touring group along with Marks, but the full Beach Boys lineup has not toured since 2012.
Wilson continues to tour and put out albums, including the solo instrumental album At My Piano in 2021, but it appears as though his association with The Beach Boys is now officially over.