An Interview With Daryl Dragon

Daryl Dragon worked extensively with the Beach Boys, and with Dennis in particular, in the late 60s and early 70s. Originally part of the touring band, he co-wrote the single Sound of Free as part of Rumbo and arranged Dennis' gorgeous orchestral ballads on Carl and the Passions - So Tough. A much-vaunted solo project was never completed and Daryl went on to find considerable success as one half of the Captain and Tenille, with his wife Toni. A version of Cuddle Up was included on their debut album.

This interview was conducted by Adam Webb on December 7th, 1999, and is presented here on for the first time.

Webb: How did you start working with the Beach Boys?

Dragon: I went to Royal Academy in the UK then I went back to the States and majored in music at college in the US: took string bass, played in the orchestra and then played the pipe organ. I then stayed at college for 5 years. I got tired of doing that because I'm a musician and I didn't want to want to become an instructor.

Luckily I knew Bruce Johnston from years before when my brothers and I used to work in clubs and used to work casuals. You know, play at parties and stuff like that. Bruce was always around and he got inducted into the Beach Boys in 1965.

Bruce called my brother Doug to audition for the touring band in front of Carl Wilson. They ended up calling me in because Doug didn't have a very good ear, so he called me up, hoping that I'd get the gig so I could teach him the part. Bruce and Doug were more party guys. They were kinda wild and I was more conservative so I don't think they wanted me as much as him, but those were very complex songs that Brian wrote. This was about 1967.

So I passed the audition and then I went on the road with the Beach Boys. Then after a while I taught my older brother how to play the songs and my younger brother, Dennis, who was a percussionist and recording engineer used to occasionally take Dennis [Wilson's] place. Actually on one of the album covers you'll see a drummer who looks like Dennis Wilson and it's actually my brother Dennis. I can't remember which one it was now.

It must have been a pretty interesting time to start touring with the band.

That was like the real college for me, going out there and finding the fans beating on the limo. It was right before they started to die. Their careers kind of just slid from '67 to '72, right when I was with them. When I left they went back up!

Anyway it was also quite interesting to have the three Wilson's there and then the three of us. Three brothers and three brothers, sort of comparing notes.

So when did you start working with Dennis personally?

It took a few years because back then he was really a wild man. You could compare him to Keith Moon, he was doing all that kind of stuff. He was drinking, and I didn't want to be around that.

It was after I started jumping around on the piano on stage during Help Me Rhonda, I kind of did something as a joke and called myself Captain Keyboard and got Mike Love to introduce me and give me a solo. And everybody started jumping around. The Beach Boys were always kind of conservative-approached on stage. Then Mike saw the way I got a reaction when they started screaming and so he started prancing around like the lead singer of the Stones. What's his name..? Jagger.

So I think Dennis saw what was going on and he came around me and we started to talk and then he started playing me some tunes, probably in '69. And he played me these songs that didn't sound like Beach Boys. I didn't even know that he wrote. And he played this stuff and I said, "That's very good," and I think he was very insecure about it because no one ever told him that, including his father. He couldn't hold anything up to Brian as far as on that level of commerciality and all that stuff. That's how they looked at it.

So he was happy to see that I saw his talent and so I told him to pursue this stuff and I asked him what else he had and I was really blown away. I did see a similarity between Wagner and Dennis Wilson.

Where do you think that talent came from?

Dennis had a rapport with women. He almost was like a woman in his intuition. He tried to act like a big man, beating his chest like a gorilla, but down deep he had a tap on a woman's psyche. I watched this and I know he had it! And I don't know many people who could do that. It's kind of hard to explain.

He just locked right in. He could 'soul talk' if you were open to it. That's why with Manson he called him Jesus Christ and Manson called himself Jesus Christ. I never met Manson, luckily enough as I found out, but those guys have taps. A guy like Manson is almost hypnotic. He had a way that attracted Dennis because he was always searching for extra spirituality not knowing that it could be the Devil just as easily. It was all kind of weird.

So anyway I was fascinated with him musically and he would take me fishing to the lake and then we went to Australia and New Zealand together with the band and he put me on the back of a Triumph motorcycle and almost killed me. Stuff like that.

What do you remember about the Sunflower album?

I played on most of those cuts. I had a lot of suggestions and involvement, whether that be the song formation or whatever.

I think Dennis' songs on that album really stand out as different from the other members' contributions? Was he a big fan of Motown?

They liked all that. And Carl especially, he was involved in everything that Dennis did because he loved Motown. And Brian was another vibe too - that mixture of the romantic and that whole Detroit sound of Motown. The problem was that Brian was not writing so much at that time so the other guys tried their hand to make a Beach Boys album and it was very hard for them.

What did you feel that the other band members felt about Dennis' work?

They didn't understand him. I felt they didn't realise what he had. His voice was kind of like Joe Cocker, that soulful approach which was hard to sell.

Do you think that Dennis lacked confidence in his talent?

He had no confidence in his own talent and I helped him with that. I know that his wife Barbara really liked his music and she knew that I believed in him. I spent lots of time working with him and he was really nice to give me a cut of some of those songs. You know, I'd think of one word - it was like Gregg Jakobson, he'd think of a single word and then Dennis would give him part of the writer's [credit]. A joke.

Dennis always seemed to stand apart from the other band members as someone who would collaborate with outsiders.

Well, they didn't want to do any thing with him. So he would get help from lyricists and stuff and they would not get that. It was like something that I learned in school: I know that I don't have it but I know that my wife has it. It's called a tap on the universe. Mozart had it. Carole King probably had it. They get a tap, they know when it's right and they play it and record it and then that's it...a completed work. It's like something they didn't write and that they don't even want to take credit for. It came through them and they don't even know where it came from.

It sounds like Brian and his feelings....

They're like a sieve or a vehicle or a vessel or something like that. They just go to the piano and find the chords and that's it. And not only that, the most interesting part is that a year after they write it they can't even remember it. Even if it became a hit they can't remember the song because it came through them. Whereas, myself... I'm sitting there thinking 'Boy, I'll get an 'A' in this' you know, in the Royal Academy of Music. Hear this melody and all the harmonies are right because the teacher says so. They don't do that. They don't care about the harmonies, they don't care what the teachers say. Most of them don't go to school for that reason: they get brainwashed or they get their tap locked out. I really believe that.

Dennis Wilson made his own rules. Brian Wilson was ten times over what Dennis is on the creative and unique approach to harmonies. You know, Salieri used to sit there by Mozart and write down all the stuff. He was a frustrated writer but he was writing by the book trying to make the people happy but Mozart wrote just what was going through his head. He didn't care and he heard all the stuff in his head, just like Brian did.

Brian would walk into the studio and tell the French Horn to play this note and the clarinet that. He never even took any music lessons -- he just told them what to play and they all wrote it down in their music.

Dennis didn't have the same gift as far as orchestration and that's why he came to me and I would write out the harmonies and the violin parts and the strings and all the arrangements for him.

And it's very intricate I think. Very complex but not overbearing and with everything in it's place.

That's why Dennis liked me, because I could translate just like Salieri did for Mozart. It was my job to try and translate and capture emotionally what he was doing. When he sang a word you wanted to encapsulate and enhance that musically. That's what an arranger does.

And that was a great collaboration until 1972 and I had to make my decision about staying with the Beach Boys, which they actually asked me to do in Holland. None of them remember it today but they did ask me to become a full-time member of the band. But I wanted to start my own group with my wife and work in clubs for $20 a night and they didn't understand that because I was making a lot more with the Beach Boys.

But I believed in Toni and I didn't believe in them. I believed in Dennis but I didn't believe that he had an avenue to make it through the Beach Boys because of the image and because of the internal problems and where they wanted to go hip-wise.

Mike and Al wanted Brian to write what he was doing back in the old days about surfing chicks and all that. They didn't want to go romantic, which I can maybe understand because it's not a big market. It's too bad. For Dennis there was so much frustration. I think that if you get locked out and you have so much to say that doesn't help your urge to want to live. Your whole future and what you wanted to do - what you were put on the earth for.

Going back to the 1970s and the sensitivity of those songs. Were you surprised that Dennis had that side in him?

I didn't really know he had that because I just watched him play drums and beat the hell out of them. When I saw him on stage one time in a break during rehearsals and I walked over to him while he was playing piano and asked him what it was and he was like, 'I wrote that.' It was a gift.

In concert I think he would do that Joe Cocker tune You Are So Beautiful and then just sit down at the piano and play some of his own songs. Some people really liked that. For some reason especially in Europe they seemed to understand him better than they did in his own country. They respected him as an equal member and it was surprising in a good way. I think that was when he was talking to me about starting up a solo offshoot group.

He could have done that too. He was kind of upset when I left because we were talking about it, but with his drinking and everything it would have been a gamble.

Did you have much contact with Dennis in the late 1970s?

I used to see him now and then if we were in the same city or whatever. Also my wife Toni sung with them sometimes when I was musical director on tour - working out the horn arrangements and stuff from the records - which was really hard.

Around 1977 or 1978 we saw him at some Dick Clark deal or one of those award shows and Toni and I saw this homeless guy walk in and it was like 'How did he get backstage?' And I looked closer and it was Dennis Wilson. He had a sack and a quart of liquor, long hair and a beard. He was unshaven, he was dirty and he looked homeless. He looked like a guy who lived in downtown LA on the streets. And he was supposed to be playing onstage. That's when I saw that this hasn't got long to go. It was all over.

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