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All-Star Tribute

Brian Wilson: 'A major and important artist'

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson's professional career spans 40 years, and contains some of the best-known -- and most creative -- songs in pop music history  

By Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- At one point during the 1960s, it was Brian Wilson vs. The Beatles.

Wilson, the legendary songwriter and composer of The Beach Boys, took it upon himself to out-write and out-produce the Fab Four -- and fifth Beatle George Martin -- as the musicians raced to new frontiers of popular music.

And Wilson won, by many estimates. His masterpiece concept album "Pet Sounds" (1966) tore down creative boundaries and led The Beatles to create 1967's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Although Wilson failed to maintain the high standards he set for himself, his artistic genius left an indelible print on popular music. As the writer, composer and singer of some of history's most intricately woven pop songs -- layers of complex instrumentation melding with outrageous harmonies and arrangements -- Wilson was a Mozart of pop music in the 1960s.


And on Wednesday evening, 35 years after he reached his songwriting peak with tunes like "Good Vibrations," Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B," the music world pays tribute to his work.

Turner Network Television (TNT) is scheduled to air "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson" on July 4 at 8 p.m. EDT.

Elton John, Ricky Martin, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Go-Go's, Heart and Vince Gill are among musicians who perform Wilson's work on the show, taped March 29 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Wilson also performs several Beach Boys numbers. Chazz Palminteri hosts the event.

David Leaf, a producer on the show and author of the Wilson biography "The Beach Boys and the California Myth" (Putnam, 1977) became a Beach Boys fan in the 1960s and attended his first Beach Boys concert in 1967. He says creating the tribute has been a dream of his for a long time.

"What's exciting is the ability to reach a large audience with this music, and have people who may be casual fans of The Beach Boys to realize that there's not just some fun songs there, but a major and important artist at work," says Leaf.

First of his kind

Elton and Brian
Elton John, left, and Brian Wilson perform "Don't Worry Baby"  

Brian Wilson was born on June 20, 1942, and grew up in Hawthorne, California. He formed The Beach Boys with his two younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine (later replaced by David Marks for a short time).

In the early '60s, they rode the wave of popularity of surfer-inspired songs, but branched out to new horizons under Brian Wilson's guidance.

Leaf says Wilson was the first of his kind. Before The Beatles came along, he was setting the standard on critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums like 1963's "Surfer Girl," which included "In My Room," a bold new step in songwriting and pop arrangement.

"He became the first member of a major pop group to win creative control of the records," says Leaf, 49. "He was the writer, the chief composer, the arranger and producer of The Beach Boys records in 1963. That was unprecedented."

But Wilson also suffered much-publicized nervous breakdowns, and he delved into drugs in the mid- and late '60s. Some observers speculate that his troubles had something to do with his abusive father.

Regardless, Wilson's work with The Beach Boys had diminished by the 1970s. He has since released three solo albums to moderate success.

'It goes right to your heart'

Along with the all-star musical lineup at the tribute, Beatles producer Martin will talk about Wilson's work.

"What you will hear in his words is that Brian was not only the musician who was most influential in driving The Beatles in a more artistic and advanced direction musically, but that the 'Sgt. Pepper' album in particular was a direct outgrowth of Brian's productions of 'Pet Sounds' and 'Good Vibrations,' " says Leaf.

"We're talking about the artist who really combined jazz harmony with rock 'n' roll -- that created a hybrid that was essentially a new form of popular music," he says. "The music has a power and a feeling that affects people of all ages. It just goes right to your heart."

Leaf says he's proud of the tribute show.

"We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," he says. "I think this tribute was well-timed in that it's happening at a point in Brian's life when it could be best appreciated."

TNT is a unit of AOL Time Warner, parent company of CNN.

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