“If Brian Wilson and Diana Ross Changed Places”
by Michael Fowler
Brian Wilson, the son of an impoverished school teacher and a soldier who had aspirations for their children, stuck his head out the window of his mother’s public housing apartment and listened to the sounds of Detroit: the ambulances, garbage trucks, drunken brawls and gun shots common to his neighborhood. And this was on Christmas morning. By the time he strolled into the Motown studio with his fellow projects-dweller Mary Wilson (no relation) and mutual friend Florence Ballard to lay down the tracks for a new song, these harsh urban noises had transformed themselves in his head. The Motown management had never heard anything quite like the trio, especially the voice of a lovelorn projects girl streaming from Brian, who mostly resembled a confused white guy. They figured they had something, but would it move vinyl? It did, and in 1964 “Where Did Our Love Go?” became Brian Wilson and the Supremes’ first number one hit.
On the other side of the world, Diana Ross, the daughter of middle-class parents with aspirations for their children, as long as they remembered that father knew best and that mother drank, dug her toes in the sand at a California beach. She had heard original music in her head from the age of twelve, most of it having to do with sun, sand and surf. It would later be held against her that Diana never actually surfed, but this was untrue. She often drove to the beach in her woody and sequined gown and shot the curl and hung five with fellow enthusiasts Kahuna, Frankie and Annette. It was while waiting to catch a wave in southern California that there popped into her brain the lines and melody of “Surfin’ Safari.” She sang it for her friends, and they liked it. Diana decided to record it, and in 1962 it became her and the Beach Boys’ first chart-topping single.
Brian’s success at Motown continued into the sixties. He allowed songwriting credit to go to the Supremes, but there was never any doubt as to who was writing the hits or singing the leads on most of them. His soaring tenor on “Come See about Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “I Hear a Symphony,” honed by years of grueling choir practice at the hands of the Baptists, was now captured for the ages in the studio by the ace Motown production team. Brian completely redefined the famed Motown Sound, adding to its components trebly reverb guitar notes and car engine noises. He also enlarged its inner-city vocabulary to include hip terms like “dual-quad” and “baggies.”
Out on the coast, Diana joined forces with Dennis and Carl Wilson, brothers, their cousin Mike Love and a hanger-on named Al, and followed their first hit with a stream of top-selling singles. With “In My Room”, “Be true to Your School”, “Shut Down”, and “Surfin’ USA,” Diana penned hits about all the really important things in the heart of an adolescent girl who lived in a restricted, coastal community: privacy, high school, fast cars, and of course surfing. Ross kept it real by composing at a baby grand set in a sandbox, to always have a reminder of the sunny shore even while hard at work indoors. Inspiration flowed while she ran her soles over the grainy sand. She tried composing on a concrete floor once, but came up with a Monkees tune.
Her career was not without controversy. Listeners on both coasts heard the songs “Surfer Girl” and “Help Me Rhonda” and shook their heads. They decided Diana had “come out” and given a new meaning to the term drag-racing. But much to the relief of countless fans, she was soon back in the studio belting out “Little Deuce Coup” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” extolling hotrods and advocating driving as a substitute for sex. She was normal after all and back in business. Ed Sullivan thanked the straight gods that ruled television and booked her for his show in 1964.
Brian and the Supremes headlined the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966, two years after Diana Ross and the Beach Boys’ appearance. After Sullivan introduced the group as a “soul act,” Brian crooned “Baby Love” in striped beach leisureware as the ballroom-attired Mary and Florence shimmered beside him, none of them missing a beat. A second televised triumph occurred in 1973 when Brian and the ladies bust a move on Soul Train. Unstoppable now, Brian Wilson and The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by an enthusiastic Isaac Hayes.
No artist is without her setbacks. By the late 60s, Diana’s inner demons began to play havoc with her psyche. She did little but dose herself out on LSD and listen to Beatles’ albums, relishing each sonic nuance. Her magnum opus, Smile, remained incomplete and going nowhere, and she wrote John and Paul demanding to know what beach they composed on, suspecting Brighton. She also insisted that Ringman or whoever played drums stop singing. Yet she overcame problems with drugs and musical uncertainty by returning to her roots, and had a late-career smash hit in “Sail on Sailor” in 1973. After an on-and-off solo career, in 1988 Diana Ross and the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by an effervescent Gary Glitter.
Like Diana, Brian too suffered tribulations, but none particularly worth mentioning. Once his father swatted him with a rolled-up newspaper, and that was about it. His career was always pretty much a straight arrow headed for the highest plateau. He was that good.
Today Diana is making a career comeback. Having won several Grammys and achieved international star status, she has reunited with the original Beach Boys and begun a new tour. Tall and thin, bewigged and sequin-gowned, she still makes for a startling sight on a surfboard.
Brian, having lately abandoned music for acting, and performed starring roles in several Hollywood blockbusters and TV specials, is still a disappointment to his father.
Will there ever again be two such artists, talented to the point of disbelief and disbelieved as to their talent, great to the point of triviality and trivial if you overlook their greatness, so unlike as to be the same? Probably not.