HE WRITES SONGS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE WORLD SING
EVEN IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHO HE IS!
Bruce Johnston is a true musical lifer. The longtime member of The Beach Boys has been cranking out widely embraced radio fare since the early 1960s, scoring his first hit under his own name in 1963 with novelty number "Surfers' Pajama Party." However, it is a ditty that most people think Barry Manilow penned that's forever ensured his professional legacy, namely 1975's monster smash "I Write The Songs," which will performed and cherished in cocktail lounges and blasted by easy listening stations long after each of us are dust.
As a member of The Beach Boys, Johnston has one of the stronger, more interesting voices in the band, and has kept his pipes largely intact to this day (unlike some other Boys we shall not mention), and he's provided the band with some of their best album cuts, particularly in the early '70s when Brian Wilson's creative energies were at an ebb. Johnston's flexible voice and multi-instrumental talents are rippled into The Beach Boys work, though he's often glossed over by the bigger personalities. His first vocal with the group was on "California Girls," and legend holds that it was Johnston who turned Paul McCartney onto Pet Sounds - Johnston was one of the most vocal proponents for Brian's then-hair brained concept that took the band a good remove from their teenybopper roots. Outside the band, he's worked as a producer, arranger and session player with the likes of Cass Elliot, Eric Carmen, Elton John and more. The guy has skills for days.
Bruce Johnston turns 67 today and we're happy to celebrate the man. He's our kind of musician…and yours, too, given how often y'all sing his songs at karaoke bars!
We begin with perhaps Johnston's finest Beach Boys tune, which originally appears on 1973's Surf's Up, one of the best but often overlooked Beach Boys LPs. This solo rendition from the Old Grey Whistle Test presents Johnston in his pure singer-songwriter element.
Johnston was asked to join The Beach Boys touring band in 1965, where his on again, off again relationship with the band starts. Here's the audio for one of Johnston's pre-Boys singles, one of those wonderfully morbid teen laments so prevalent in the era.
This tune is the epitome of pop music – a catchy assemblage of elements about commonly understood subject matter that grips the popular imagination. These guys sing so well together, and often the glue to their their harmonies is Johnston.
The early 1970s is the unsung golden era of The Beach Boys, a time when their music matured into something a touch more adult and they began to understand the job of being musicians outside of being pop stars. Here's some primo vintage live footage of the guys from Paris in 1970 that begins with an a cappela rendition of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring."
In his tenure with The Beach Boys, Johnston has been asked to do some, uh, questionable things for the sake of commercial interests. We offer up this number from a long forgotten 1965 teen romp, where the band backs up Annette Funicello, as evidence. That's a young Bruce playing bass.
By 1970's Sunflower Johnston's musical influence on the band, Dennis Wilson in particular, is clear. It's Johnston more than big brother Brian that one hears in cuts like this one and Dennis' solo masterpiece, Pacific Ocean Blue (see JamBase's earlier salute to that album here)
One of Johnston's finest lead vocal turns also comes from Sunflower. Written by Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, the piece has the air of a great Caetano Veloso number, effervescent but not weightless because of the singer's inherent heft.
We finish with the audio of Johnston's version of his most famous yet most invisible composition. It is often the fate of musicians that their work lives on well past them, finding connection and success that has little to do with them directly. Johnston's music has touched countless lives and whether folks know his name or not takes nothing away from what he's contributed to our collective songbook.
And if you need or want to see Barry sing Johnston's uber-popular tune you can swing over here. Manilow has an iron grip on his online video presence but the Internets will do what they do…
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