When Brian Wilson was 2, he heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” According to legend, the song had a profound impact on the boy, so much so that it changed his life.
Fifteen years later, when Wilson was putting a band together that would become the Beach Boys, the rich and complex music of Gershwin was never far from his mind or musical consciousness. Gershwin’s melodies and symphonic approach to pop music stayed with Wilson, and influenced how he heard music in his head. Wilson wrote songs for the Beach Boys — “Help Me, Rhonda” comes first to mind — that in an earlier era might have passed as Gershwin songs.
And now, all these years later, Wilson has completed the musical circle and repaid the debt owed to Gershwin for his influence.
On Tuesday, Disney Music Group will release the CD “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.” The record stands as Wilson’s homage to the composer in the form of new arrangements of classic Gershwin songs, and also includes two new songs that Wilson crafted from unfinished Gershwin melodies.
Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering in Portland served as mastering engineer for the project.
“I was really thrilled and stoked to get the call from Brian’s people to work on his record yet again,” said Ludwig, who has been a fan of the Beach Boys since he was in college and has mastered previous Wilson discs, including “Smile” (2004). “Brian being who he is, he can get the best arrangers and the best musicians, so I am always interested to hear what he’s coming up with.”
With the help of Bull Moose Music, Ludwig previewed “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” one night last week at the high-end listening room at Transparent Audio Inc. in Saco.
With the lights turned low, Ludwig played the disc from start to finish without interruption for about a dozen friends and Wilson aficionados, including myself.
First impression: It’s amazing how much this record sounds like the Beach Boys, circa “Pet Sounds,” with its layers of harmonies, complex arrangements and range of musical dynamics. But after listening to the record a time or two, it’s striking to realize how much the Beach Boys sounded like Gershwin.
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” could be the Beach Boys in 1966. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” has a doo-wop appeal left over from Wilson’s teen years. It’s apparent that Gershwin’s influence on Wilson was profound from very early on, affecting not only how he heard the music in his head, but how he coaxed sounds from the other members of the band to fit his vision.
Wilson’s Gershwin project is a masterpiece. It sounds fresh and not anything like a tribute CD. Wilson has taken these classic songs that have been part of our country’s musical language for almost a century — “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” — and given them new arrangements and dynamic, original interpretations.
Gershwin died five years before Wilson was born. It’s not outrageous to imagine their lives somehow fitting together in one single lineage that reaches across the spectrum of American pop, stretching from Gershwin’s Brooklyn to Wilson’s Los Angeles.
Ludwig refused to predict if the CD will become a hit. He long ago gave up handicapping popular music, he said. But there is no question that the release of “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” promises to be a signature musical event of the summer, said Chris Brown, vice president of marketing and operations at Bull Moose.
“Anytime Brian completes something, it’s a triumph for him personally and for any music fan. He’s been as good as ever for the past 10 years or so, and this record continues that trend and confirms the inspiration of Gershwin on his music,” Brown said.
At age 68, Wilson remains an icon of popular music. In the last few years, he has emerged from a decades-long period of isolation and modest creative accomplishment. He’s not only written and recorded new music, but also overcome a widely documented fear of performing to mount tours that have received critical praise.
Gershwin was only 39 when he died, but in a short life and career, he managed to write popular melodies that were known around the world. He composed for Broadway, for Tin Pan Alley and for orchestras.
Like Gershwin, Wilson showed remarkable musical prowess at a very young age. He had vision and confidence in his convictions, and was singularly responsible for an entire segment of pop music that emanated from California beginning in the early 1960s.
He began dropping out of public view when he was in his 20s, first because of a bout with anxiety that caused him to stop touring with the Beach Boys, and later because of a deep psychosis that left him socially isolated.
Although he is active again musically in a public way, Wilson remains somewhat of a recluse.
Even Ludwig, whose role on the final outcome of “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” is profound, never spoke with Wilson directly about this project. Most of his interaction was with chief mixer Al Schmitt.
“Nobody gets to speak with Brian,” Ludwig said.
That may be true, but with this record, Wilson is making himself heard loud and clear.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]