DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In Southern California in 1961, kids were starting bands to play instrumental guitar music, emulating The Ventures and Dick Dale and The Del-Tones. But you didn't just walk into the music business. The Wilson boys, whose father Murray was an unsuccessful songwriter, helped his sons break in. Today, rock historian Ed Ward has the story of the very earliest recordings by the Beach Boys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURFIN'")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing. Surfing is the only life, the only life for me, now surf, surf with me. Got up this morning...
ED WARD, BYLINE: One day late in 1961, Dennis Wilson and his cousin Mike Love went fishing at Redondo Pier. Redondo Beach was a popular surfing spot. And Dennis, who surfed there sometimes, mentioned to Mike that although there were a lot of instrumental surf bands around, nobody was actually singing about surfing. Dennis and his brothers had a sort of informal harmony group, Carl and the Passions. And brother Brian had a knack for the kind of rich harmonies The Lettermen and The Four Freshmen sang.
Mike was a bass, so he'd done some singing with them. History doesn't record if Dennis and Mike caught any fish that day, but the idea of writing a song about surfing seemed like a good one. The Wilson boy's father introduced him to Hite and Dorinda Morgan, who had a music publishing firm that had published some of Murray Wilson's songs. The Morgans agreed to record a demo by the boys at their home studio, and the guys knew that if they were going to make a record, they'd have to have a song for the B-side and came up with "Luau."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUAU")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Let's have a luau. Let's have a ball. Let's have a luau, invite one and all. No need to dress up. Just come as you are. You bring the cola. I'll bring my guitar. Girls will all hula...
WARD: Having secured the rights to "Surfin'" and "Luau," Hite Morgan rented a professional studio, and the boys rented some decent equipment thanks to the mother of Brian's school friend Al Jardine, who has added on vocals. Eight takes of Surfin' and 12 takes of "Luau" later, they had a record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURFIN'")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Surfin' is the only life, the only way for me, now surf, surf with me. I got up this morning, turned on my radio. I was checking out the surfing scene to see if I would go. And when the DJ tells me that the surfing is fine, that's when I know my baby and I will have a good time. Going surfing...
WARD: In November 1961, Hite Morgan circulated a dub of "Surfin'" and "Luau" to several big record labels who passed. He then approached a tiny label called Candix, who thought the name the group was using, The Pendletones after the plaid Pendleton shirts surfers favored, was too obscure. The promo man for the distributor who handled Candix, Russ Regan, nixed the name, as well as The Surfers - there already was one - The Hang Tens and The Woodies and suggested The Beach Boys. So on November 27, "Surfin'" was released and radio went on it immediately. The group first heard it in Brian's car as they were driving in the rain down Hawthorne Boulevard.
A week later, the song won the best new song contest on KDAY, and their momentum grew. In no time, it was the number three record in Los Angeles. They were playing gigs. They performed on television. And in early February 1962, they went back into the studio with Hite Morgan for a follow-up. Brian and Mike had written an uptempo number, "Surfin' Safari." Carl, who'd just bought a new Telecaster guitar, wrote an instrumental, "Karate." And Brian, inspired by his new girlfriend, wrote two songs for her, the first time he'd written something all by himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURFER GIRL")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Little surfer, little one, made my heart come all undone. Do you love me, do you, surfer girl, my little surfer girl? I have watched you on the shore, standing by the ocean's roar. Do you love me, do you, surfer girl?
WARD: This time, they were high-tech. Brian's lead vocal would be dubbed on later. And the second song gave the surfer girl a name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDY")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Judy, Judy, Judy, bop, oh, Judy.
Oh, Judy, do you hear me call your name? Oh, Judy, do you really feel the same? Oh, Judy, if I were you I'd take the blame. Judy...
WARD: But The Beach Boys were already being pursued by the big time. Capitol Records was still reeling from the loss of its two biggest stars, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and searching like crazy for a hit, even one about a fad. This kept Hite Morgan from releasing these tunes, although he did sell a sped-up version of "Surfin' Safari" to the Ariola label in Germany, oddly enough. But the story wasn't quite over. Hite saw that Mattel, a toy company in Hawthorne, was bringing out boy and girl dolls named Barbie and Ken and, thinking it might be worth exploiting, had his son write a song, "Barbie," and got some of the Beach Boys to record it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Barbie, Barbie, queen of the prom, turn down dates Eddie and Todd. Everyone loves her. She's lovely to see. But Barbie, my Barbie, she loves only me. Brian sang lead. Carl and Al sang back up, as did someone named Val Poliuto and in a duet with Brian in the middle of the song, Audree Wilson, the boys' mother. By summer, The Beach Boys were Capitol Records recording artists and national hit makers. Hite Morgan was left with a couple of thousand unsold copies of "Barbie" and his memories of some sessions that made history.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEACH BOYS SONG, "BEACH BOY STOMP")
DAVIES: Ed Ward is the author of the forthcoming book "The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963." He played music from the new collection "Becoming The Beach Boys." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Donald Trump has declined to release his tax filings. But Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold has looked into Trump's finances and claims about his charitable giving by investigating the Trump Foundation. We'll talk about what Fahrenthold has discovered with the help of social media and crowdsourcing. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.