Burgers, Chili Dogs, and Recording Studios: LA Memories with Brian Wilson

In conversation with a couple of his longtime musical collaborators, Wilson takes us back through some of The Beach Boys’ favorite Southern California food joints and hangouts through the years.
In Conversation

Burgers, Chili Dogs, and Recording Studios: LA Memories with Brian Wilson

In conversation with a couple of his longtime musical collaborators, Wilson takes us back through some of The Beach Boys’ favorite Southern California food joints and hangouts through the years.

Words: Darian Sahanaja and Al Jardine

Photo: Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

April 01, 2022

Brian Wilson Los Angeles CA 1965.

This article appears in FLOOD 12: The Los Angeles Issue. You can purchase this special 232-page print edition celebrating the people, places, music and art of LA here.

We just couldn’t do an LA issue without Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, whose music has not only influenced so many of the artists we’ve featured in FLOOD, but has also profoundly shaped the world’s perception of Southern California. Brian’s not the easiest interview to nail down, however, so we asked Darian Sahanaja if he could ask Brian—subject of the recent feature documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road— to share a few of his favorite LA dining spots and memories with us. Darian has played keys for and served as the musical director of Brian’s live band for over 20 years, and he also worked with Brian on his recent album At My Piano, a lovely collection of Beach Boys classics like “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows,” and “Surf’s Up” performed in their purest form with just Brian and solo piano—so we knew he was the right guy for the job. And with an assist from original Beach Boys guitarist Al Jardine, who also played on Brian’s recent Greatest Hits Tour, Darian was able to wrangle the following Q&A. But let’s have him set it up for us… — Dan Epstein

It was the middle of October; we were midway through our tour with the Brian Wilson Band, and getting ready for the night’s show in Washington, DC. The catering was decent, which got Al and I talking about The Beach Boys’ favorite food joints and other hangouts back when they were growing up in Southern California. Al reminded me that it was 60 years ago to the month that The Beach Boys recorded “Surfin’,” their very first hit. We wanted to verify the details, and so off we went to Brian’s dressing room, where—as it always happens with him—the conversation took some unexpected turns.

Al Jardine and Brian Wilson recording ‘Pet Sounds’ at Western Recorders studios in the Spring of 1966 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Al Jardine and Brian Wilson recording "Pet Sounds" at Western Recorders studios in the spring of 1966 in Los Angeles, California / photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Darian Sahanaja: Brian, it’s amazing that you recorded “Surfin’” 60 years ago. 

Al Jardine: Your very first song you ever made, your first lyrics, everything!

Darian: Where did you record it, Hite Morgan Studios?

Brian Wilson: Yeah, how did you know that?

Darian: I’d always see it credited on early Beach Boys records. 

Brian: Jan and Dean inspired “Surfin’”—that [sings] “Ba ba dip dip de dip…”

Darian: Right, because they had that song, what was it?

Al: “Jennie Lee”! I bought “Jennie Lee” at Melody Music!

Darian: That was a record store?

Al: Yeah, and a big hang. I bought my Martin guitar there, too, come to think of it. Brian, was that where we bought all our singles?

Brian: Yeah.

Al: Because we both lived in the neighborhood…

Brian: And LeShawn’s.

Al: What was LeShawn’s?

Brian: Another little music place. That’s where I bought The Four Freshmen. [Sings] “You stepped out of a dream…”

Darian: So that was in Hawthorne, as well?

Brian: Probably.

Darian: Where was Melody Music?

Al: It was on 130th, near the Fosters Freeze.

Darian: Did you go to Fosters Freeze? 

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: What did you used to get at Fosters Freeze?

Brian: Shakes.

Darian: Were they good?

Brian: Yeah.

Al: Burgers, too. Gotta have burgers.

Darian: What about Wich Stand?

Brian: Wich Stand? That’s the place Mike Love used to go to. 

Al: In Inglewood?

Brian: Yeah.

Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Al: We never went there, I don’t think. You had to have a car, to begin with. Did you have a car in high school?

Brian: Oh, yeah!

Al: You did? What did you have?

Brian: Ford Fairlane.

Al: Nice! There was an old restaurant that’s still down on Crenshaw, though I can’t remember the name of it. You remember, Brian? When you and your father and your brothers, we used to eat and you guys would have to get up and move around and change seats, because you're left-handed and your dad was left-handed, too.  

Brian: My dad used to smoke a pipe.

Darian: So, that was when you guys were in high school and college, but how about once The Beach Boys got happening and you moved into your apartment? Were there any cool places you used to like to hang out? 

Brian: Skippy’s. 

Darian: Where was that?

Brian: In Hawthorne.

Darian: What kind of place was that? Hamburger place? 

Brian: Hamburgers, yeah. Burgers and fries, that kind of thing.

Darian: Did you ever hang out at Canter's? 

Brian: Oh, yeah.  

Darian: I love that place! So what did you get there? Would you go there late at night?

Brian: Well…what was that stuff called, Al—cream cheese?

Darian: Cream cheese? What, on bagels?

Brian: Yeah. Cream cheese.

Darian: Did you get matzo ball soup or anything? 

Brian: Phil Spector took me there.

Darian: Really!? I never heard about that! What happened? Were you guys recording? 

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Brian: Phil and I were in a limousine.

Darian: I love this. You guys were at the studio?

Brian: Yeah, he taught me how to produce.

Darian: Wow. So then you went to Canter’s with Phil. You guys got a booth there, right? 

Brian: Right.

Darian: Anyone else there with you?

Brian: Just me and Phil.

Darian: No, really? Just Brian Wilson and Phil Spector at Canter’s? Was that after you were recording?

Brian: Recording, yeah.

Darian: All right. Other than eating places, you ever want to go any places in LA like clubs? 

Brian: Movies, clubs.

Darian: Which clubs?

Brian: Place called The Baked Potato. Don Randi’s place.

Darian: Wow, Don Randi—he was one of the guys that played on the Phil Spector records, right?

Brian: Right. The Wrecking Crew. What’s your favorite Phil Spector song?

Darian: “Walking in the Rain,” Ronettes.

Al: How about you, Brian? What’s your favorite?

Brian: “Be My Baby.”

Darian: Still?

Brian: Oh, yeah.

Darian: I still can't get past the idea that you went to Canter's with Phil Spector. What'd you guys talk about?

Brian: I don't know. [Laughs.]

Darian: Did you talk about music? 

Brian: Yeah. 

Darian: Was he nice to you, Phil? 

Brian: Oh yeah. He taught me how to produce.

Darian: I know he taught you how to produce, but how about in person? Was it like you and I talking?

Brian: Yeah. Me and Phil used to have a little romance. 

Darian: A musical romance?

Brian: Right.

Al: Brian, Dean Torrence told me that you came down to a session with Jan and Dean to do a record, it might have even been “Surf City.” And there were two drummers sitting there, Hal [Blaine] and Earl [Palmer], right? The two of them, that blew your mind, Dean said. Apparently that was what set the tone for your upcoming big productions—those two drummers, the best drummers in Hollywood.

Brian: Right. “Da Doo Ron Ron” [by The Crystals] had two drummers.

Darian: Yeah! And “Be My Baby”—that had to have two drummers, right?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: Was Earl a nice guy?

Brian: Earl Palmer? Oh, yeah.

Darian: I got to play with Hal, and he was a really nice guy, but I never met Earl.

Brian: I think Earl Palmer played on…what was that song by The Righteous Brothers?

Darian: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Brian: Yeah, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Earl Palmer played the tom-toms.

Darian: How do you know that?

Brian: I know. [Laughs.]

Al: Brian, did Jan Berry have an influence on you?

Brian: Eh, he helped me out.

Al: And “Surf City,” that was a Number One smash you wrote, what, the melody?

Brian: I wrote some of “Surf City.”  

Darian: The “two girls for every boy” part—was that you? It sounds like your kind of chords.

Brian: No.

Darian: Jan wrote that?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: OK, so, The Baked Potato, Don Randi, you went to see him. That was in the ’70s?

Brian: ’70s, yeah.

Darian: Did they play jazz?

Brian: Jazz, yeah.

Darian: So you went to The Baked Potato… Where else?

Brian: Baked Potato, and that’s it.

Darian: That’s it? No Roxy or Whisky?

Brian: No. 

Darian: Did you ever go to Pandora's Box? You remember that place? 

Brian: Oh, that's where I met Marilyn [Rovell, Wilson’s first wife].

Darian: You met Marilyn at Pandora's Box!?

Brian: Yeah, 1962.

Al: That would have been around “Surfin’ Safari” time, and “Ten Little Indians.” Who suggested that idea, Brian? [Laughs.] “Ten Little Indians” certainly wasn’t your idea. Was that Nick Venet?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: Was Nick a cool guy? I know his wife, Valerie. She's still alive and she's really sweet. Was he really cool?

Brian: Oh, yeah. He signed our contract. 

Darian: But he's credited for producing the early records, right?

Al: First three records.

Darian: What was his role? Was he in the studio with you?

Al: Ask Brian, because I’d dropped out of the band at that point.

Darian: Brian, how involved was he in the actual recording process? 

Brian: He wasn’t the producer, he was just with the record company. 

Darian: All right, so we’ve done the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s... Where were you in the ’90s?

Brian: LA.

Darian: Is that when you met Melinda [Ledbetter, Wilson’s second wife] and stuff?

Brian: Yeah, ’95.

Darian: So where would you go to eat at that time, when you wanted to go have a good meal?

Brian: It was a place in Malibu called… I can’t remember.

Darian: All right—flash forward to when we met and started touring, you were eating at a place up by where you live now…

Brian: Scrivner’s.

Darian: Wasn’t there another place by there that you loved?

Brian: Mulholland Grill.

Darian: Right. Is that still there?

Brian: No, they went out of business.

Al: What about that chili dog place, Brian? Everybody went there for a while…

Brian: Pink’s!

Al: Ohh, boy…

Darian: You hung out at Pink’s?

Brian: Oh, yeah… I ate chili dogs all the time.

Darian: That’s a cool LA hangout! 

Al: It’s still there!

Darian: When were you hanging out at Pink’s?

Brian: The ’60s… When did Pink’s start, 1938?

Darian: Would you guys stop there on your way to record?

Al: Probably after.

Darian: Brian, what was your favorite thing at Pink’s?

Brian: Chili dog. 

Courtesy Capitol Records

photo courtesy of Capitol Records

Darian: Al, you too?

Al: Oh god, yeah. 

Darian: Was there always a big, long line?

Al: Well, after we were done recording, it was one in the morning and it was slow.

Darian: Hey, Brian, any memories you have of working at Gold Star Studios? 

Brian: Working with Phil Spector. 

Darian: You worked with Phil Spector at Gold Star? What was cool about the place? 

Brian: I don't know. It was just a good studio.

Darian: Did you like the sound? Oh, they had the echo chamber!

Brian: Right.

Darian: What did Phil record there? 

Brian: “Be My Baby” and all those songs.

Darian: What did The Beach Boys do there?

Brian: We recorded “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”

Darian: Yeah, that’s a great one! And it has that sound! How big was that studio room?

Brian: Big!

Darian: Bigger than the one at Western?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: Did you do “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” Spector-style, with the two pianos and two drums?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: Who was the engineer?

Brian: Larry Levine.

Darian: What did Stan Ross do?

Brian: He and David Gold started the studio in 1948.

Darian: You heard about Gold Star Studios because Phil worked there, right?

Brian: Right.

Darian: You know they tore Gold Star down?

Brian: No they didn’t.

Darian: They did! You know what’s there now? A dry cleaner. The building doesn’t exist anymore, so I’ve always wondered what it was like. You’d walk through the front door on Santa Monica, and what was the first thing you’d see?

Brian: Studio A.

Darian: The control room?

Brian: Right. Phil cut there.

Darian: Studio A—so that means there were other studios?

Brian: Yeah, A and B. My dad worked in Studio B.

Darian: Really, what did he record there?

Brian: A song called “Theme for Falling Leaves.” [Brian probably means Murry Wilson’s 1967 instrumental single “Leaves.”]

Darian: He didn’t do The Many Moods of Murry Wilson there, though?

Brian: No.

Darian: He probably did that at Capitol Studios, right?

Brian: Yeah.

Darian: OK, so you walk into the control room at Studio A—do you remember the gear they had in there? 

Brian: They had Altec speakers. 

Darian: And the board was two-track?

Brian: Yeah, two-track. And they had two echo chambers!

Darian: Yeah, that was a great sound. Well, all right—thank you, Brian!

Brian: Thank you, Darian! FL