As Brian Wilson remembers it, the head Beach Boy was still a beach toddler the first time he heard George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a piece of music that would have a profound effect on the rest of his life.
"I was 2 years old," Wilson, 68, said recently while seated on the couch in the living room at his Beverly Hills home, his voice carrying the enthusiasm of a discovery made last week. "My mother played it for me, and she said I turned my head like this [cocking his head to the left] toward the speaker, and she knew I liked it.
"So every couple of weeks she would take me to my grandmother's house, and my grandmother had [a recording of] 'Rhapsody in Blue,'" he said. "We would go there and my mom would play it for me. I just couldn't believe it — it's such a beautiful piece. I loved it."
He still does. Those closest to the composer, arranger and vocal wizard behind the Beach Boys' signature hits, including "Good Vibrations," " California Girls" and "Surfer Girl," say that when he sits down at a piano before rehearsing or performing, the song he typically plays to warm up is "Rhapsody in Blue."
That 1924 composition catapulted Gershwin, already one of Tin Pan Alley's most successful songwriters of the Jazz Age, to a peak of musical accomplishment for the way the nearly 18-minute work married vernacular music and a classically informed level of compositional expansiveness.
It's also the first music heard on "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin," an album arriving Tuesday. He doesn't simply sing a dozen of the iconic songs written by George and his lyricist brother, Ira, but also includes two new numbers created out of song fragments left unfinished by George when he died of a brain tumor at age 38 in 1937.
Wilson and his present-day lyric writer, Scott Bennett, turned those fragments into newly completed cross-generational collaborations, "The Like in I Love You" and "Nothing But Love," that bookend the album.
The project is an outgrowth of a two-album deal Wilson entered into last year with Disney Pearl, a Walt Disney Records imprint. The Gershwin project was Wilson's idea — with some heavy encouragement and support from Disney bigwigs. The follow-up project will feature his interpretations of children's songs from the Disney canon.
"The notion of him doing his thing — he calls it 'Brianizing' — with Gershwin, seems like an amazing opportunity," David Agnew, president of Walt Disney Records, said when the announcement was made last fall.
Although the album is Wilson's way of sharing his affection for the Gershwins' legacy, for pop aficionados it offers up a meeting of distinct voices in American music from strikingly different eras and locales: the Gershwins inextricably linked with the bustling New York metropolis of the 1920s and '30s, Wilson with sunny Southern California in the '60s.
George Gershwin's blending of the structural sophistication and instrumental range of symphonic music with pop-song accessibility can be seen as a precursor to Wilson's expansion of the vocabulary of '60s pop music through the use of ambitious orchestral and choral arrangements. The culmination of those ideas were 1966's "Pet Sounds" album and the long-shelved "Smile" album that Wilson belatedly completed in 2004.
"While they may have composed in different eras, I think it's an absolutely natural marriage," said Todd Gershwin, George and Ira's great nephew and a trustee of their estate. The estate authorized Wilson to pick from among 104 fragments that have been sitting in limbo for more than 70 years.
"There were 30 to 45 seconds' worth of chords," Wilson said. "Just music — no lyrics. We listened to all 104 of them and we finally concluded that we liked these particular two. We wrote around the [existing] theme. We'd get a couple of chord changes and borrow from that." He said there was just enough music left by Gershwin that "we just got a feeling for what we wrote — we just got the vibe of his thing."
For Brian Wilson Band member Bennett, who wrote lyrics for the new songs on Wilson's previous album, "That Lucky Old Sun," it was a surprise getting the call to work on the Gershwin project: "This was too big to expect little me to be given a shot. I thought they'd call Van Dyke [Parks, Wilson's lyric writer for 'Smile'] or Jimmy Webb to fill such big shoes."
Along with the two new songs, Wilson and his band "Brianize" a dozen Gershwin standards, journeying from a relatively traditional Great American Songbook take on "Love Is Here to Stay" and an elegant bossa nova groove behind " 'S Wonderful" to a '50s R&B/doo-wop rendition of "I've Got a Crush on You" and a souped-up Beach Boys-style run through "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
The centerpiece is a four-song medley from "Porgy and Bess," including an instrumental version of "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" full of banjos and harmonica floating over big-beat rock rhythms, and Wilson's version of Bess' showcase number, "I Loves You Porgy."
The Wilson touch extends throughout the album with instrumental interludes he crafted with Brian Wilson Band conductor Paul Mertens, with each song segueing into the next as he had done on "Pet Sounds," and even more extensively on "Smile."
"We spent days recording vocals," said Mertens, another member of the band that has backed Wilson for most of the last decade. "I would start fading around the sixth or seventh hour, and he was still working and saying, 'I want to do one more.' That's not always been my experience with Brian…. I would say he worked harder on this than I've ever seen him work on anything. He put in days that would be hard for someone half his age. He worked his tail off."
Disney Records executives also are working theirs in hopes that the Gershwin-Wilson pairing will create enough public interest "that this will become one of those two or three albums that break through the clutter, like a Susan Boyle or a Josh Groban," Disney vice president of marketing Rob Souriall said after a listening session recently in West Hollywood for about 100 journalists, radio, retail and other music-industry types plus a couple Gershwin grand-nieces.
The marketers' challenge: convincing listeners that "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin" offers something that hasn't been heard before in the countless recordings of George and Ira's music over nearly a century.
"The best compliment I've had so far," Mertens said, "was from a friend who was listening to 'They Can't Take That Away From Me.' He said 'Wow, it sounds like Brian wrote it.' I know some other contemporary artists have covered the American songbook in a very lazy way. I think this record is different in that regard….
"It seems to me like the care and the detail on the record are evident — it doesn't sound like it was just tossed off," Mertens said. "Music fans will appreciate that. The last thing we want is for people to go, 'Who wants to hear another Gershwin song?'"