The Beach Boys - interview with David Marks - part 1


I was a lad when the Beach Boys had their first glorious hits on the radio, and my older brother began buying their 45s. I keep coming back to their music, for its musicality, creativity, depth, poignancy, spirituality, range of styles, and good fun, discovering ever more gems in their huge catalogue. From collecting all of their albums (I like the series that put two albums on one CD with extensive liner notes), reading several books on the band, and seeing the later performing incarnations (the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson with his own band), I’ve come to understand their story and cherish their music even more.

A friend who was crazy about a psychedelic album entitled Without Earth by a group called the Moon, which included David Marks, made me aware of of Marks’ background as a Beach Boy. I contacted Marks and was delighted when he agreed to meet. The interview took place on July 18, 2008, at his home in New York, with his wife, Carrie, also present. I finally got to see David Marks in performance in 2012, when the Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary tour reunited all of the surviving members.

The earliest members of the Beach Boys were the three Wilson brothers, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, plus David Marks, Al Jardine, and Mike Love. Their first manager was Murry Wilson, the father of the three boys. David Marks played guitar on the first five studio albums by the Beach Boys before his departure from the band. His story is told in detail in The Lost Beach Boy, a book by Jon Stebbins with David Marks, published in 2007.

Early Musical Experiences

CM : I’ve read that you came to California when you were seven. Where and when were you born ?

DM : I was born in Lake Erie, Pennsylvania, on August 22, 1948.

CM : Do you have any musical memories from the time you were in Pennsylvania ?

DM : When I was about four, I would sit at my aunt’s piano and pick out notes with my index fingers.

CM : Do you remember what songs ?

DM : They weren’t songs ; I was just tripping out on the sound of the piano, hitting the notes one by one. Then my grandfather’s friends from Italy, maybe they were his nephews, probably in their early twenties, they sang and played guitars. So at an early age, around five, I was being introduced to guitars, those big Gibson hollow-bodied guitars they had. I remember trying to pick up a guitar and trying to play it. I didn’t pursue playing it of course ; it was bigger than me. Also my grandpa had a mandolin, and they jammed. My grandfather emigrated from Italy when he was around twenty. He played the mandolin and Italian songs on the mandolin.

CM : With the round back.

DM : Yeah, he had a beautiful old antique. I wish I had that mandolin now.

CM : What type of music were they playing ?

DM : I don’t recall exactly, but probably pop songs, because they did appear on Ted Mack [Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour was an exceptionally popular television show]. I believe they won. I remember it was a big exciting thing around the living room at grandma’s. I saw them on TV and I was very impressed by that.

CM : So, at a very early age you saw people who were not just playing, but playing on the television.

DM : Yeah. Both of my parents sang big band style songs around the house, never professionally, but they both had an ear and could carry a tune and they had nice voices. I listened to my parent’s big band records from the ’40s, and I spent my whole life from the age of five idolizing Harry James, Benny Goodman. I idolized Harry James, a handsome guy with the pencil moustache and the beautiful babe, leading a band and is in all of these movies and records. That has to do with the trumpet lessons.

I didn’t actually start playing music seriously until I was in the fourth grade. I took trumpet lessons, my grandma bought me a beautiful trumpet. That’s after we moved to California. My cousins lived with her ; their mom was in the Air Force, they were taking accordion lessons. I don’t think there was anyway you could get me to take accordion lessons. Since I was interested in it in school, she bought me a trumpet. So in the fourth or fifth grade, I was in the school band and in the choir. It wasn’t until I was ten, before I got my first guitar.

CM : Once you got into guitar, you probably gave up the trumpet.

DM : I lost it in a pawn shop sometime during the ’70s I believe. Yeah, I didn’t pursue my virtuosity of the trumpet. I’m not built for a wind instrument. I don’t have enough wind, unless I’m talking about myself and then I have plenty of wind ! Playing the trumpet is really tough. I played the sax when I was hanging out at Berklee in Boston, and in order to play the sax, you have to bite down on your bottom lip as hard as you possibly can. I got pretty good on the sax, but it started vibrating the fillings out of my teeth. Like I said, the wind instruments, I’m not cut out for that. I like the string instruments and percussion instruments.

CM : Do you play others ?

DM : I play piano, bass, guitars, mandolins, banjos. I tried to play violin, but I couldn’t do that very well. The violin is the same as the mandolin, same tuning.

CM : Do you play the mandolin in the Italian style that you heard when you were young ?

DM : I play the Italian style, but I don’t play the Italian songs. I do the double picking thing, vibrato. I wish I could play as fast as they do.

CM : When you got your first guitar, it would have been around ’58 or ’59, the time of the Kingston Trio. Was it that or something else that made you say, “Now I want to get one of those.”

DM : The truth of the matter is, I wanted drums more than anything. My parents wisely chose not to buy me drums for obvious reasons, but they tried to appease me with a guitar. It wasn’t my first choice but I took to it really quickly. When I got my first guitar at ten, the first thing I did was—I didn’t hit the strings open or any of that—I started picking out a melody on the top E string. So I started off being a lead guitar player ! One day, right after I got my first Sears guitar, I went with my mom to her weekly book meeting that she had at the Biltmore Hotel on Hermosa Beach and a friend of hers had a son who was John Maus, [later known as] John Walker of the Walker Brothers. I saw him and his sister perform. He was playing an electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, and I went nuts. I had to know what it was and I had to have one. He and his sister had an act. They had a record out called “Hideout” that was getting local airplay in L.A. [John and Judy’s rockabilly song “Hideout” was released on the Dore label in 1959. click to hear it on youtube. He was a little older, about Brian or Mike’s age. He showed me a few things on the guitar. At the same time, Carl Wilson was learning—that was his first choice to play the guitar—and he was playing around. I introduced him to John, and John showed us both pretty basic stuff that we still used in our later years.

CM : Was that a formal teacher-student relationship ?

DM : No, it was my mom’s friend’s son that I was enamored with, so my mom talked. I think John grudgingly sat down with me, but he was impressed with my first couple of sessions with him. So much so that he brought me into the studio to record this little ditty that I wrote on the high E string, just one string. I played a little melody, and he played rhythm guitar and let me use his Stratocaster. I was all excited. The guy from his band, Jimmy, played drums.

CM : Does that recording survive ?

DM : I think it’s in my storage unit on a cassette. There was scratchy acetate of it for all these years and that might be around somewhere. That was the first time that anyone from the neighborhood got into a recording studio. It happened to have been me. Brian hadn’t even gotten in the recording studio. It was interesting and exciting and fun.

CM : You were lucky to have those very early experiences.

DM : It happened to be with Richie Podolor, a friend of John’s, who ended up being one of the most premier producers of the ’70s. He produced Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, everybody.

The Beach Boys

The Pendletones in 1962, before changing the name to the Beach Boys, from left : Mike Love, Brian Wilson, David Marks, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson (hidden) - picture source

CM : So you were right in the thick of it when you got to California.

DM : Yeah, we’re thinking there were no accidents involved in the chain of events that took place, just one after the other leading up to the Beach Boys. It’s particularly amazing that I moved across the street from the Wilson’s.

CM : What did your parents think of your music ?

DM : They always encouraged it. My mother especially encouraged it but my father was proud that I was a successful musician at the ripe age of fourteen, thirteen, whatever. They totally approved and backed me the whole way. The night the three Wilson brothers came over to the house and invited me to be in the band, it was a little touchy. I didn’t know what my parents were going to say, they didn’t know what they were going to say either. “Hmm, you’re a little young.” But luckily they consented. They had some reservations later, after the antics of the first tour were reported back to them. They were re-checking their decision on that. But it worked out and I’m glad that they let me do that. It was a priceless experience.

CM : You started playing this little ditty that you wrote and then what was your musical direction ?

DM : Carl and I would play together almost everyday. I lived right across the street [from the Wilson family] since I was seven. Since I was an only child, I was there constantly, and Dennis and I would be messing around. At age ten, eleven and twelve, Carl and I would play our guitars quite a bit together. We learned together, we listened to records and picked out little Chuck Berry licks and Ventures licks and Dick Dale was around. Brian was beginning to write songs. I must have been around twelve at the time and Carl and I had been playing for a while.

The boys were very musical, their parents played the keyboards and so from the time they were born, the boys were singing and around music. Murry was semi-professional. He tried to shop some of the songs that he wrote to people like Lawrence Welk and so forth. But when Brian heard Carl and I playing the chord styling, the picking, the strumming that the rhythm and blues artists did in the ’50s and ’60s...

CM : Like the Jimmy Reed shuffle ?

DM : No, it’s more like on “Surfer Girl.” We were doing that strumming and Brian was writing “Surfer Girl” and heard us doing that, so he enlisted us to do it and combined that piano with the guitars and the vocals, the four part harmonies. It fit really nicely.

CM : Was there a particular song that you picked up that rhythm from ?

DM : It was a pretty popular style with all the groups. Ritchie Valens was probably the one John got it from, because he knew Ritchie. So he passed it down to us. Everybody was using it, but Brian wasn’t really aware of that. You mentioned folk music ; Brian and Al from high school were dabbling in that area. Al loved the Kingston Trio and they were more into the acoustic sound, so when they went to Candix finally, they were still into that acoustic thing. They would all gather around one microphone and record the thing live and Brian would tap the snare with his finger. Al had an upright standard bass and Carl was playing his old Kaye guitar, a hollow body electric but it was unplugged, just miked. After Brian got interested in Carl and I strumming and playing lead, we went in and did the demos for “Surfing Safari,” “409” and “Lonely Sea” which was electrified music. It was like a rock & roll band then. That sound, the electric surf style guitars and Dennis on drums playing wildly from instinct and Brian’s beautiful textured four-part harmony was a very unique sound. Capitol ate it right up.

CM : Were you playing in unison, you and Carl, or how did you sort out what each did ?

DM : You know how brothers blend when they’re singing together : the vocal kind of sounded like one guy. That’s how our guitars sounded. We’d play off of each other rhythmically and then Carl would come in and overdub his leads. Carl and I learned all those lead riffs from the Ventures and Dick Dale. We learned those together. We both learned how to play rhythm and lead at the same time. However, being a Wilson and having his father as the manager and his big brother as the producer, Carl got to play the lead solos.

CM : Was that true live as well as in the studio ?

DM : Well, we had to do a lot of performing of sets, we’d do three or four sets a night, as opposed nowadays, you just do your 90 minute show because you’re the star, and you’re out of there. In those days, we did a lot of playing so we had to put together a lot of instrumentals by other people and I got to play lead live. But on the records, our records, Carl played the lead. You can hear me try to sneak in leads, like on the end of “Shutdown” as its fading.

On some songs, I would be strumming and Carl would be picking, or I would be picking the fifths, the Chuck Berry style, while Carl would be strumming, so it would be mixed up. Sometimes, like on the surf songs and the car songs, we would play rhythm together. You might call it unison, but we wouldn’t be doing it perfectly together so there was a lot of interplay involved. That’s another aspect that made the sounds unique.

CM : Do you think it was related to the Phil Spector “wall of sound” idea ? Were you going for that ?

DM : Not yet, not at first. Brian didn’t really get that inspired by Phil Spector until a little later. He had heard him and admired him, but he didn’t start to try to emulate Phil Spector until a little later.

CM : Was it to create a big, rich, full sound, or just by instinct ?

DM : It was an accident. We didn’t say, “Let’s see if we can…” purposely try to find big textures and sounds. The combination of Brian’s four-part harmony vocal arrangements with a rough garage band sound rhythm track made for contrasts and they blended. It wasn’t purposely done that way. Like so many big bands, it’s kind of an accident when you get certain people together and the chemistry of the collective group creates this one entity. So if any one guy wasn’t involved, it wouldn’t have come out the same way.

CM : You guys had already been practicing like that anyway.

DM : Yeah, we were already tight. Carl and I were like one guy on the guitar practically.

CM : Tell me about some of the groups you had seen perform live that made an impact on you in your early days.

DM : Carl and I were always looking at groups, especially if they were playing in the same city that we were at the time. We went to see the Champs, who had Seals and Crofts [in the band] at the time. We admired a lot of the people that played with us on the same bill. We were self-contained, we played our own instruments on our records and everything. We were hired a lot of the time because there were going to be singers on the bill, so they asked us to accompany the singers. After we were through with our show, we would stay on stage. All the hit acts at the time, we would back-up : Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Jimmy Reed, the Remingtons, just so many I can’t remember them all. I remember we backed up a duo called Caesar and Cleo.

CM : Yes I know who they are : Sonny and Cher. You had to have some advance notice to do this.

DM : Not all the time. On our Hawaii tour, we backed up Jackie DeShannon and Dee Dee Sharp, and we had no clue before we got to Hawaii what we were going to be doing. We learned the material on the spot. We did an adequate job ; we were just kids, right ? We were not professional studio players by any means. We just basically knew our own material.

CM : At least the songs had been on the radio.

DM : Yeah, so we just listened to the records and we ended up doing a fine job at that. The groups we played with made good impressions on us. We were very impressed by Dick Dale, the Bel-Airs, the Ventures, Chuck Berry. We ended up seeing all these people live and we were just star struck, because we were new on the scene.

CM : Did you have any connection with Bobby Fuller ?

DM : Yeah, the Bobby Fuller Four, I never got to meet him or hang out with him. I saw them at PJ’s once. Between PJ’s and the Red Velvet and Ciro’s. Ciro’s was a movie star hangout during the ’50s and ’60s and they turned it into a rock club in the ’60s.

David Marks and the Marksmen

CM : After you left the Beach Boys there were a couple of other bands.

DM : Yeah, as I was making the transition out of the Beach Boys, I had still some obligations, contracts for gigs that were lined up for the next year or whatever it was. As I was doing that I recruited this garage band in the neighborhood called the Jaguars, they all played Fender Jaguars. So I got those guys, I met them through Mark Grosclose, who was a friend of Carl’s from high school, who we actually used a couple of times on Beach Boys shows when Dennis broke his leg ; he broke his leg a couple times. He was a drummer and that was his band, The Jaguars. I got a hold of him and changed the name to Dave and The Marksmen and we got signed to A&M and did a few singles and then Warner Bros., and then toured a while with that.

CM : Was that an instrumental band ?

DM : No we sang. I sang all the songs in the Marksmen, the Beatle covers and all. The ones we recorded, I wrote myself and sang. As a matter of fact, there’s a compilation of all that we did, that Carrie put together that’s for sale now. It accompanies the book, The Lost Beach Boy.

CM : So you are a singer too.

DM : Yeah, I never really focused on that but I always sang. I sang in the choir in the fourth grade, I even sang in the choir in college in the ’90s. In the early days when Brian was arranging vocals and he was a little short of vocalists, he used Dennis and I to sing unison. At the time, my voice was changing, I was going through puberty and I was crackly, and Dennis was playing drums and surfing, so Brian got the two of us together to sing the same note on a lot of the stuff. You can hear us on “409” and “Little Deuce Coupe.” It fitted and made that part stronger, which fit in with the other guys, who also a lot of the times double tracked their voices.

I don’t try and sound like them but I have been told at times there is a hint of Dennis and Carl sometimes and even Mike Love. I do love singing the old surf and cars songs when I’m playing with Surf City All Stars, with Al Jardine and Dean Torrance. I do the leads, Mike’s leads, I was told that I sounded a lot like Mike. I’m kind of trying to sound like Mike on those gigs. My natural, solo stuff and my own compositions, to myself for a split second, I’ll hear Carl in my voice. After I was told that, it was a little embarrassing because I don’t want people to think I’m trying to. But when you grow up with those guys from a very young age and you’re listening to them sing every day and the same guy, Brian, who taught them how to sing is teaching me how to sing, you’re gonna sound a little like that.

part 2 of the David Marks interview is here

comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006