Brian Wilson Takes On George Gershwin The former Beach Boy's new album is titled Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Here, Wilson talks about the iconic songwriter's influence, and describes what it means to him to tackle Gershwin's music.

Brian Wilson Takes On George Gershwin

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When Brian Wilson was just a little kid - maybe 3 or 4 years old, long before he found fame and fortune singing about the California surf - his parents took him to visit his grandmother.

BRIAN WILSON: And my grandmother put on "Rhapsody in Blue" for me and had me lay down by the record player, and they played "Rhapsody in Blue." And I just remember I loved it so much, you know? I really did. The arranging, the impetus, the excitement, the beauty - it was just an absolute work of art.

CORNISH: Six decades later, after building the Beach Boys, then struggling with drugs and mental problems and finally rebounding, Brian Wilson was ready to take on his icon, George Gershwin.


CORNISH: The new album is called "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin," and when I talked with Wilson this week, he said that when the Gershwin estate approached him about making the record, he didn't have to be asked twice.

WILSON: And as soon as I heard about that, I bit. I bit. I said, yeah, I'll do it.

CORNISH: It's really amazing, listening to the record, because your style actually meshes pretty well with these songs. At first, it seems like - I think of your melodies and the Beach Boy melodies, and I don't necessarily think of "I Got Rhythm," for instance. But a song like that really works so well. And I want to play a bit of it now.


WILSON: We wanted to give it a Beach Boy feel. So we gave it a, ra-ka-cha- ka, ra-ka-cha-ka , ra-ka-cha-ka, a little bit of (unintelligible) feel. We gave it a Beach Boy flavor to it, you know?

CORNISH: It's more than a flavor.

WILSON: I know.

CORNISH: Were you afraid to take over Gershwin?

WILSON: No. I was just in awe of him the whole time.


WILSON: Ol' man trouble, I don't mind him. You won't find him 'round my door.

CORNISH: One interesting thing is that there are songs on the record that I heard, actually, were unfinished works. Explain what that means. Are those bits of paper, bits of recording?

WILSON: Well, they gave us 104 unfinished piano songs.


WILSON: All played by George Gershwin. And then we were supposed to narrow it down to just two songs - out of all 104. And we kept listening and listening, and the two that caught our ear was mostly the harmony and the melody. And from there, we wrote songs, originated new songs based out of the two we took.

CORNISH: And the two you chose were "Nothing But Love," and a song called "The Like in I Love You."


WILSON: (Singing) The pain in painting, the muse in music, the like in I love you.

CORNISH: What was it like trying to write in the style of another artist?

WILSON: Well, it was interesting because Gershwin, I wouldn't do this for anybody else but Gershwin, actually, you know, to tell you the truth.

CORNISH: Really?

WILSON: No. I don't think there's an artist in the world that I'd rather do this - than Gershwin.

CORNISH: Why is that? Why do you relate to him?

WILSON: Well, because he's so great. You know, he's so damn - he's so darn great, and his music is so uplifting. It makes you feel good.


WILSON: (Singing) I loves you Porgy, don't let him take me. Don't let him handle me and drive me mad.

CORNISH: I want to ask you about "I Loves You Porgy," which is from "Porgy and Bess," and that's not a song you usually hear a guy singing. So what choices did you make when you approached doing this song?

WILSON: I told, you know, my wife and my orchestrator, I said, you know, this should be a girl singing this song, right? I said, would you guys mind if I sang it and assumed the role of a girl? And they said fine.

And then when the Disney people heard it, they go, Brian, you're supposed to be a girl. I said, I don't care. So I sang it a little bit sweetly, you know?


WILSON: (Singing) Someday, I know he's coming to call me. He's gonna handle me and hold me so. It's gonna feel like dying, Porgy, but when he calls, I have to go.

CORNISH: There's one last thing: a quote from Gershwin in the liner notes to your record. He says, true music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans, and my time is today.

And I thought it was interesting that that was in the notes because it's something that could have been said about your music and the Beach Boys back in the '60s.

WILSON: That's right. And believe it or not, he's the greater, me the lesser. I can never be as good as George, but I can emulate him and present him to the new generation.

CORNISH: Musician Brian Wilson. His new record is "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin."

Brian Wilson, thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you, ma'am.


WILSON: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. The things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

CORNISH: For Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish; have a great week.

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