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Brian Wilson on Gershwin’s Music

Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson talks about his new album covering the songs of his musical hero, George Gershwin.

Left: Brian Wilson, 1988; Right: George Gershwin, 1931. (AP)

The music of George Gershwin captured the America of New York City and 1930s urban romance, in “Rhapsody in Blue” and more.  The music of The Beach Boys captured the America of the California coast and 1960′s surfer love. 

Now, Beach Boys leader and songwriter Brian Wilson has brought his famous sound to Gershwin’s famous tunes.  It’s something to hear. We speak with Wilson about Gershwin.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys and American pop music legend. His new album is “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.”

Randy Lewis, pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times since 1981. Read his review of Brian Wilson’s new album.

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  • Valkyrie607

    I wasn’t expecting it, but I kind of got chills when I heard “I Got Rhythm” with that straightforward backbeat instead of the typical swinging on-beat style I’ve heard it in before. I think I just might check this out.

  • Cathy Abraham

    I love George Gershwin’s music. He was America’s composer! It’s classic! To make it into a Beach Boys sound is just a sin. I have listened to what Brian Wilson has done and it doesn’t do any justice to Gershwin’s music. Gershwin was a genius – leave the best alone.

  • Jon

    Did BW have a stroke or has he been at the Vodka this morning?

  • Robert Pierce

    Tom, could you Brian Wilson ask if “God Only Knows” was influenced by late 19th century harmonic practice? I hear echoes of Brahms in it. Thanks!

  • Cal Kolbe

    There is a difference between “re-imagining” and
    variation on a known theme. Brian Wilson’s “interpretation” of George Gershwin is totally off-key.
    The Gershwin songbook has been malleable enough for an almost infinite variety of stylists over the years, but
    Wilson apparently has a tin ear for sensibility in this
    case.
    Suggest he go back to the beach.

  • Sandy

    I am head boppin’ and smilin’ away, at work, to this fabulous and fresh interpretation of Mr. Gershwin’s music. One would have to be fairly humorless and soul-dead to not ‘receive’ Brian Wilson’s gift of Gershwin Peace.Thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Wilson.

  • Valkyrie607

    Oh people. Brian Wilson is person # 21048 to interpret Gershwin. Gershwin is one of the greats, which is why people keep going back to him for inspiration. It’s not a sin; it’s not blasphemy; if you don’t like it just move along. It’s not like Brian Wilson’s interpretation is going to erase the millions of other recordings of Gershwin’s music.

  • http://none Julien

    Tom,

    Would you ask Brian if his new record will be released on vinyl? What does Brian think about digital vs analog recording methods?

    Thank You
    Huge Honor to listen today…

    Julien in Athens, Ga

  • Harry Hooker

    George and Ira were beachboys in tne 30′s they lived in Dubose Heyward’s cottage on Folly Beach, SC. My uncles were friends of the latter and hung out w/ the former. Folly Beach has since become one of the few performance surfing sites on the S. East Atlantic. Love your Smile, Bryan

  • Harry Hooker

    Oh, The Score for Porgy and Bess was written in the Heyward’s cottage. Harry in St. George, SC

  • jeffe

    Well it’s not on the level of Ella’s and Sarah Vaughan’ Gershwin song book recordings. Which in my opinion are the best and not many even come close. Frank Sinatra is up there as well.

    I liked some of what I’m hearing and some is just plain corn ball. “I Got Rhythm” did not work for me. However “I Loves You Porgy” was real nice.

  • Andy

    Tom,

    Please ask Brian about the rumored Beach Boys reunion, and a possible tour of the surviving members.

    Thanks

  • jeffe

    I forgot to mention Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess album arraigned by Gil Evens, wonderful music even though it’s an instrumental interpretation.

  • David Wrighht

    Well, Brian’s in great voice, and good for him for giving this a shot. In general, I find most of these tracks way too perky. All the Jewish urban melancholy has been Disneyed right out of them.

  • John

    I guess I’m humorless and soul-dead.

  • Celeste Crago

    Bravo, Brian! You are a true genius! I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I’m 57 and your music has long grabbed my soul. Your Gershwin adaptations are again soul stirring, and please consider further the music of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. And to the commentor above that had something ugly to say, you’ve obviously never had an inspired creative impulse spark your Being, so how would you appreciate sheer genius in muscianship? But I hope you will find your purpose before this lifetime has passed you by! Bless you, Mr. Wilson.

  • Spencer

    I was wondering how to find the name and artist of some of the transition music during the show.
    thanks

  • jeffe

    Well, Brian’s in great voice, and good for him for giving this a shot. In general, I find most of these tracks way too perky. All the Jewish urban melancholy has been Disneyed right out of them.
    Posted by David Wrighht

    Fred Astaire’ versions of “I Got Rhythm” “It’s Wonderful” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and many others were pretty light and bouncy and full of the kind of Broadway shows of the period. Gershwin wrote for him as well, so how does their collaboration play into the “Jewish urban melancholy” when a lot of these films and musicals were about entertainment and escape.

    “Shall We Dance” (1937 film) is a classic.

  • David W.

    “…a lot of these films and musicals were about entertainment and escape.”

    So they were, jeffe. I still think it’s there in the subtext of lines like “they can’t take that away from me.” To my ear, Astaire gets it and Wilson doesn’t. I hope I’m not psychoanalyzing Gershwin and his audience too much by suggesting that the manic gaiety of the Depression-era musicals shined as brightly as it did because of the dark background. To put the pushy, in-your-face syncopations of “I Got Rhythm” to a laid-back beach beat is to miss the point of the song. Maybe Brian should have tried a little harder to “get” hip-hop.

  • jeffe

    I agree “I Got Rhythm” is not cutting it, but to be fair I think some of the other tunes seemed pretty good. I would not buy the CD myself as I noticed I don’t have Sarah Vaughan’ Gershwin song book and that’s a work of high art which I will be buying.

    I was never a huge Beach Boys fan, but Brian Wilson is an innovator in how he used the recording studio and overdubs.
    His harmonic sense is also pretty amazing.

    I hate to say this but there does not seem to be too much subtext in Gershwin’ lyric “they can’t take that away from me.” It’s a love song, nothing more.

  • Margie Hooper

    I am a East Coast Sufer girl of the Early 60′s and I loved Brian’s take on Gershwin’s music. I love Gershwin period. When can I get my CD?

  • http://www.prayforsurfblog.blogspot.com Phil Miglioratti

    Anyone here love Brian Wilson/Beach Boys music but hate the Gershwin tunes? Seems to me those who have a pre-disposition against the BW/BB sound are going to be unimpressed by Reimagines.

    That’s OK, but you don’t have to trash our “genius” in order to protect your “genius” – Gershwin’s reputation will survive Brian’s reinterpretation, just like Brian’s music (including this new release) will survive long after any snobblish-sounding disregard for him is ancient history.

  • Dana Franchitto

    NOt very charitable. Jon. rather judgmental.
    I love the music of Brian Wilson from Surfin’ USA to the forward -looking “Good Vibrations” . but why does he want to jump on the “great American Songbook” bandwagon? Gershwin is a wonderful creatrive force but this genre is way overdone.

  • John Connor

    Wow i cant wait to buy this album.Not out here for awhile :(.great interview
    I heard a guy today thats a modern day Wilson in my own opinion
    http://paulmelia.bandcamp.com/track/miss-you-shelter-from-my-mind
    listen to the outro,blew my mind in a way Wilson did and does

  • Annie

    I am curious if Brian’s daughter helped with this project? We heard her sing in July at a concert and she has a great voice!

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    I don’t know much Beach Boys music, and even less Gershwin. That said, I can hear the brilliance of both in the samples played on the program. I understand that the Beach Boys really are one of the top five most important and influential American bands (along with Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Pixies, and the Ramones), although I doubt if I will ever really love their music, with the exception of Good Vibrations, which really is a masterpiece. That said, Brian Wilson, though obviously a hugely talented musician, doesn’t come across in this interview as a very interesting person.

    Leave it to the Disney Corpse to worry about homosexual intimations in a cover of “I Love You Porgy!”

  • Amy

    I haven’t listened to the interview yet, but Brian often does not come across well in interviews because he suffers from a form of mental illness. On some days, his symptoms are worse than on other days, and I believe he must also take medications (with side effects) to control the worst of the symptoms. Even under the best of circumstances, he hates doing interviews anyway. So give him a break on that score.

    I’m a fan of Brian’s and am somewhat familiar with Gershwin through my fandom of Fred Astaire. I absolutely love this album. It’s not for everyone, but he did some really beautiful work here, in my opinion. Songs like God Only Knows and The Warmth of the Sun demonstrate that Brian Wilson is fit to walk in Gershwin’s footsteps.

  • Tom Tache

    When I first heard “I Got Rhythm” on the show today the neurons were firing in the synapses in the part of my brain that told me I was listening to one of my favorite songs done by one of my favorite groups. It is fabulous! I felt like I was remembering it from an album Barbara Ann must have been on. I’m 62. A song usually has to grow on me. This one made me tingle immediately. I downloaded it from iTunes before I left work.

    Please do some more like “I Got Rhythm” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” (Love the Boogity Boogity Boogity Shoo and the backbeat.)

  • Gordon Cheyne

    Mr. Wilson. I respect your talent. but you are no George Gershwin. I’ve been playing the piano since 1959 and studying the Gershwins since 1970. You are talented but made a misstep here.

  • John Q

    Brian Wilson’s completion in 2006 of the long dormant and fabled Smile album was a masterpiece worthy of comparisons to Gershwin. Different, but open to serious comparison. Brian Wilson, along with Gershwin, were among the very few with the talent to bridge the sophistication of jazz and symphonic music with popular music.

    He is certainly among the most talented American musical icons of the second half of the twentieth century. Those that dismiss him due to The Beach Boys’ surf image are really thinking within a limited, myopic framework. If the other members of The Beach Boys had allowed Brian to follow his instincts and Smile had been released in 1967 as originally intended, one can only dream of what may have followed. Smile is that good.

    There is good reason for Wilson’s acclaim among those who actually produce music.

  • Crabby

    Brian has already won his race in the musical circuit. Projects like these are just the victory laps. Let Brian celebrate being alive, happy and productive once again. Don’t like it? Then move along. There is a grander goal at play in the universe.

  • Andrew McIntyre

    It’s a great album full of legendary songs reworked by a songwriter/composer who is unquestionably on George/Ira’s level. Yes, he does re-work some of them as a Beach Boys-kinda vibe but its a real joy for Brian to do them and that comes through in the music.

    And the person who accused Brian Wilson of having a “tin ear” for anything obviously knows diddly-squat of what the man has and can do.

  • Ben

    I think we all better listen to Gordon. He’s been playing the piano since 1959. I certainly won’t buy the “Brian Wilson Thinks He’s Gershwin” CD after hearing what Gordon had to say (he’s known about Gershwin since 1970). So that’s settled.

    As for the guy who posted that “Brian Wilson doesn’t seem very interesting” — well, I can’t say that I blame you within the context of this dull NPR show. This program was about two pseudo-intelletuals listening to themselves talk. What’s more, they often discuss Brian in the third person as if he’s a child or not even there. I’m sure this program will be a hilarious and cringe-inducing time capsule 50 years from now. If you want to hear the “interesting” Brian, dig around for other interviews. Brian is so genuine, funny, unfiltered and of course… talented!

  • Ben

    I kinda undermine my point by mistyping “intellectuals” but I’m sure a few folks get the drift.

  • Rich

    Some historical accounts maintain that the first version of Rhapsody In Blue heard by Brian was Glenn Miller’s big band arrangement. Give a listen on YouTube.

  • Bob

    Comment to Jon. “BW”, Brian Wilson has a severe hearing deficit as a result of being physically abused as a child by his father. Please think before you attempt to be funny.

  • Roy Merritt

    Although I was mostly a Beatles fan in my teens in the ’60s I could always appreciate the talent on display by the Beach Boys. I never cared much for surfer music however, it reminded me of high school phonies and Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello (sic) movies which I abhorred. The sound seemed to me to be somewhat juvenile. I do realize Brian Wilson is nonetheless a musical genius and we have denied his talent for years because of his psychic demons. It is refreshing to see his take on the genius that was Gershwin who was lost to the world as such a young age.

  • ddddd

    Gershwin is a legend, but so is brian wilson. What this album has done is not just say wow the beach boys sounded like gerswhin, but gershwin did too. Wilson doesn’t measure up, but i listen to the beach boys song “warmth of the sun”. And i think about Ella Fitzgerald singing it.

    and yeah Brian has a had a lot a lot a lot of problems. amazing he’s so productive after all the hell he’s been through.

  • Donna

    I love this new sound.

    Now, just imagine what George could do with Brian’s music. Wouldn’t that be something?

  • http://www.as-seen-ontv.info reaina

    I have listened to what Brian Wilson has done and it doesn’t do any justice to Gershwin’s music.
    just me two cents..

  • ken

    Not mentioned in the discussion about “Back in the USSR”–Mike Love of the Beach Boys actually gave Paul McCartney some ideas for the song, when they were both in the Maharishi’s ashram in India at the same time in 1968–which explains a lot. Paul writes about this in Many Years from Now.

  • Mike

    Why is the podcast for this show only 13 minutes long?

  • Chris Latter

    When I heard Brian Wilson talk about growing up with Gershwin and hearing Rhapsody in Blue at around 3 years old, I had to keep listening. I had the exact same experience. I am 61 now, and I remember and can “air” conduct the entire Rhapsody in Blue symphony by Leonard Bernstein because I learned it by listening to it over and over and over and over when I was 4 or 5 years old.
    I never tire of this inspirational and accessible music.

  • Ed Sirois

    Brian’s a musical genius and this new CD is just a lot of fun. The arrangements are great and Brian is in the best voice in a long time. I sense a Grammy in the near future, and well deserved.

  • Georgieidrew

    Just heard Brian on Jeon Gomeshi (?) happy to hear his Gershwin and just loved it.  Am a huge Beach Boys fan and have been for years.  Congrats to Brian, keep well.

  • nj

    Anyone even vaguely familiar with Mr Wilson’s difficult struggles in the past would not make such a rude, ignorant, and insensitive comment.

    (posted during the 7/1/11 rebroadcast)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brennan-Moriarty/100000655771831 Brennan Moriarty

    Love the Beach Boys and indeed Gershwin [who doesn't] -facinating rhythm.
    I was in Scotland around July 2001, and THE BEACH BOYS MOVIE was supposed to be on “the tele”, the B&B Host -where I stayed- near that big west coast Mountain [mt ben hur?] west of Lock Ness… who was a BIG FAN, and looked forward to seeing the movie, but it got “blocked out” for some reason {manson?! lol} and Last night TV, 2 other “California People” were “tileing on cable” Bill Mahre and “Inception” -Leonardo di Caprio- and you don’t see much R.Reagan [speach note cards?] on TV much either. waz-up-wit-dat? Guess you gotta buy the Stuff to really enjoy IT.

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