Dennis was the second (middle) of the Wilson brothers from Los Angeles. Urged by older cousin Mike Love (born 15th March 1941), Dennis approached older brother Brian (born 20th June 1942), the original conspicuous musical talent in the family, to form a group and compose a song about surfing. The Beach Boys formed in August 1961 under the guidance of father Murray Wilson, meeting immediate success. Though the Beach Boys were named for and developed an image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only real surfer in the band.
Dennis had little musical experience at the outset but quickly learned to play the drums. However, he gained little respect musically due to Brian's reliance as producer on session drummers, particularly Hal Blaine. Nevertheless, Dennis became far and away the most popular member of the group, becoming its box-office sex symbol. Dennis' emerging musical talent took a back seat. He developed a personal musical style and taste divergent from the Beach Boys' known style: soulful, even bluesy, compared with the group's famous high harmonies.
Though given few important lead vocals on the early Beach Boys recordings, he impressed on "Do You Wanna Dance?" in February 1965, then later that year on Beach Boys Party gave an authoritative rendition of John Lennon's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away". He accompanied himself on guitar, and like the other Beach Boys became a multi-instrumentalist.
From 1968, following Brian's almost total retreat from the band, Dennis became its most important composer, in romantic-gothic mode, though emulating his brother in recording technique. The following year brought the infamous Manson-Tate murders. Charles Manson had been, briefly, Dennis's protege, and the trauma of this episode affected Dennis for his remaining 14 years.
Further composing triumphs came on Beach Boys albums 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), Carl & The Passions: So Tough (1972) and Holland (1973) before the Beach Boys reverted to an oldies format. The artistic progress shown by Dennis and younger brother Carl was discarded in favor of Reagan-Bush era popularity as the group was hailed as 'America's Band'.
Working with a few trusted collaborators including Darryl Dragon (the 'Captain' of the Captain & Tennille) and Manson Era confederate Gregg Jakobson, Dennis managed to pull together a critically acclaimed solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), which matched the contemporaneous band album Beach Boys Love You in sales. The first solo album's follow-up, Bamboo, was scuttled by lack of finance and the distractions of simultaneous Beach Boys projects and remains officially unreleased though often bootlegged. Two songs from Bamboo were lifted for the Beach Boys 1979 L.A. (Light Album) and represent Dennis Wilson's final officially released artistic statements.
Succeeding years saw an alcohol abuse problem worsen. Possibly disillusioned by others' neglect of his talent (though he had always shown a blatant disregard for his own physical safety), he continued to record solo intermittently, but never released any more material. Thus, the "other" Beach Boy who has been called genius by some was unfulfilled creatively at the time of his death by alcohol-related drowning at Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, in late December 1983, just after his 39th birthday.