Wilson Phillips's California Dream

The offspring of the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas bring their voices together

Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson, and Chynna Phillips of the vocal group Wilson Phillips, circa 1990. Credit: Tim Roney/Getty

A banner on the studio wall of the Mesa, Arizona, radio station reads, 'KZZP 104.7, the Number 1 hit music station.' On the bulletin board someone's written, 'The music is great, the jocks are pumped, we are definitely ready for battle!' It's 7:30 a.m. on Valentine's Day, and morning man Bob Case is previewing an anthemic pop song called "Hold On" for his radio audience.

The tune is the first single from the debut album by Wilson Phillips, and two-thirds of the group are here today as Case's very special guests. Seated in the studio is 22-year-old Chynna Phillips – the only child to come from the union of John and Michelle Phillips, the onetime hippie dream couple of the Mamas and the Papas. Next to Phillips is Carnie Wilson – the 21-year-old daughter of Brian Wilson, the troubled musical genius behind the Beach Boys, and his former wife, Marilyn, who sang with the Sixties vocal trio the Honeys. Carnie's 20-year-old sister, Wendy, is back home in Los Angeles, nursing an ear infection – the first casualty of the nonstop schedule of handshaking, video making, photo taking that have been Wilson Phillips's recent life.

"God, that's GOOD," Case shouts into the mike once the song concludes. Chynna and Carnie beam as Case keeps right on raving: "Great song! Am I impressed? Am I easily impressed? Wow, that's a great song! Obviously influenced by your parents, huh?"

"Somewhat," Carnie says, her winning smile disappearing just for a moment.

"Maybe a little," says Chynna, who then mentions other artists like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles – groups that were, in fact, influenced by the parents of Wilson Phillips.

"We'll get a chance to talk up close and personal with Wilson Phillips in a minute," Case promises as he cues up Madonna's "Burning Up." As that tune plays, Chynna and Carnie sing along.

"Anything you want to talk about?" Case asks as they prepare to go back on the air.

"Not too much about the parents," Chynna says softly, but getting her point across. Case and his sidekick, Lisa McDaniel, suggest an entirely different, naughty way to invade their guests' privacy: the Dating Game. Ever the good sports, Chynna and Carnie agree to have the DJs call and wake up their boyfriends. Chynna's boyfriend, Michael, doesn't pick up, but Carnie's beloved Gary does and, in so doing, earns the opportunity to respond to such questions as "What's the biggest part of Carnie's body?" "My butt," answers Carnie. "Her heart," says Gary, scoring himself some major Valentine's Day Brownie points.

Off the air, Case asks the pair if they're going to the Gavin Seminar – a major radio convention being held a few days later in San Francisco. Yes they are, Chynna tells him. "You'll love it," he says, "it's a complete schmoozatorium." The girls then rush into a nearby room to record some "liners" – taped station identifications that can be repeated over and over. Then it's out to the station's front lawn to pose for a photo in front of the giant KZZP call letters.

"Weren't they nice?" Carnie says as the van pulls away to head off to the next radio station. "Everybody we meet has been so nice."

***

"These girls are real thoroughbreds," says Peter Lopez, Wilson Phillips's lawyer and co-manager. And it's a good thing, since the members of Wilson Phillips find themselves in a big-stakes horse race. And good bloodlines or not, their record label, SBK Records, is sparing no expense in trying to jockey them to the inside track.

On a nationwide promo tour such as the one that finds Wilson Phillips working the greater Phoenix area today, there's no need to bother with lugging around instruments and actually playing for people. Instead, you campaign for stardom. You press the flesh. You plan photo opportunities. You lay the groundwork for acceptance at radio and retail. Basically, you schmooze your way to the top.

Of course, it helps if people in the proper places want to schmooze with you. And God only knows, everybody wants to meet and greet the members of Wilson Phillips these days. Some of that interest may be strictly musical – heartfelt reaction from some of the select few who've heard the threesome's advance tape and have fallen for its ultracommercial, harmony-drenched pop sound. But it's also safe to assume that plenty of this early curiosity is a product of the industry buzz that surrounds Wilson Phillips, a buzz that landed the trio in Time, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and other publications years before the group had a name, much less an actual album.

That buzz is unsurprising, considering that Wilson Phillips is perhaps the highest of high-concept musical groupings. To some, these three L.A. kids are more than just another pleasant new musical act with the big-bucks support of a record company behind them. They are the princesses of West Coast rock royalty, the second coming of the California Dream.

It all began in 1986 when Chynna Phillips called Carnie and Wendy Wilson with an idea. Wouldn't it be nice, Chynna asked her pals one day, if they could get together a bunch of the children of members of various Sixties bands to write and record a record and donate the proceeds to charity?

At the time, Carnie and Chynna had both finished high school and were pursuing acting careers. Though Chynna's credits are better known – she can be seen in Some Kind of Wonderful, Caddyshack II and Roxanne: The Prize Pulitzer – Carnie also caught the acting bug, appearing in commercials for Goodrich Tires and Mardi Gras paper towels, as well as a Ronnie James Dio video. Wendy – the youngest and most academically minded of the three – was still in high school and thinking about pursuing both writing and modeling.

So they called some other kids with similar backgrounds, like Ione Skye (Donovan's daughter) and Moon Zappa. "Nobody else was much interested," remembers Wendy. "So Chynna came over and we just started singing together. The first song we did was 'Dog and Butterfly,' by Heart. Our three-part harmony just felt so natural. My sister naturally goes low, I naturally go high, and Chynna just fit right into the middle. And we realized that we didn't want to do just one charity record. We wanted to form a group." (Though no one is eager to discuss it, there was some consideration given to having a fourth member, Owen Elliot, Mama Cass Elliot's daughter. "There was talk," says Phillips, "but then we decided it would be best just to have three.")

The day after they sang "Dog and Butterfly," the threesome went over to the home of the famed record producer Richard Perry, a friend of Michelle Phillips's. "We went into his music room and sang just four notes of 'The Wild Heart,' by Stevie Nicks, in three-part harmony," recalls Carnie. "He fell back in his chair and said, 'That's it?' We said, 'Yeah.' But he must have liked us, because he signed us to make demos, which we started right away."

Like some sort of blockbuster movie, Wilson Phillips spent the latter part of the Eighties in development. First, Perry set the girls up with engineer Jim Tract and paid for them to record demo after demo, as they went about the process of trying to find their own sound. Over the next few years they would record everything from dance tracks with producer Jellybean Benitez to a cover of the Shirelles' pop hit "Mama Said." Eventually, Perry hooked the trio up with Glen Ballard, a songwriter and musician best known as the co-writer of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror."

By Valentine's Day 1989, Carnie, Chynna and Wendy were being romanced by virtually every major record company. Huge bouquets of flowers and mash notes came their way from some of the most powerful men in the business. "Roses are red/Violets are blue/MCA Records/Is the home for you," read one card. Other suitors included Capitol, Columbia and Warner Bros.

Exactly one year and a serious bidding war later, the threesome has settled into a long-term and thus far mutually satisfying relationship as the sweethearts of SBK Records, which was founded last year by the song-publishing giant Charles Koppelman. To the girls, SBK promised to be a place where they would be top priority, where they wouldn't get lost. To SBK, Wilson Phillips represents more than just a prized, sexy, pop-oriented group with strong associations to past rock glories. Wilson Phillips is also the label's big chance to prove itself, to show the world this new, well-financed upstart can develop a new act as well as, if not better than, any of the major labels.

Koppelman, an industry veteran who received much attention in recent years for his part in making Tracy Chapman a star, was smitten from the start. "They are the sort of group that comes along once every 10 years," he says. "When I talk about Wilson Phillips, I call them the franchise, I refer to them as the future, the future of music and the franchise of SBK. I made these girls the same promise that I made Tracy – that more people would hear them than not. And people should hear them. Their sound, their perspective on life at 20 years old, their ideas, their freshness is just a smile. And I think we're all ready for a smile."

Meanwhile, things went so well with Glen Ballard that the girls decided to keep working with him as their producer for their debut album, a decision that led to a somewhat acrimonious split with Perry. Koppelman served as executive producer.

Along the way, the threesome also picked up a name. They had considered calling themselves Leda and titling their first album Chasing Swans. They had other ideas, too: Pretzels With Mustard, Sound Thoughts, Zen Girl, Ladies First, Entropy and the Girls – which is what everyone around the trio still calls them. Finally, they chose the more minimalist Wilson Phillips. (After some debate, it was decided not to have a hyphen.)

"The funny thing," says Chynna, "is that most kids today have no idea what those names mean. You ask a kid on the street and they may know some of the songs and maybe they've heard of the Beach Boys. But they don't know who Brian Wilson or John Phillips are. If you say Phillips to a lad today, they'd think 'screwdriver' or 'milk of magnesia.'"

In the van on the way to the next radio station, KOY FM-95, Rock Dibble, who does regional promotion for SBK, is briefing the girls. "This station is very influential," explains Dibble. "Right now they're running in a hefty urban mode. They're great people."

"What do you mean when you say 'urban'?" Chynna asks him. "Do you mean like a city?"

It's explained that 'urban' is an industry buzzword for black or dance music. This is just the latest lesson in a running tutorial on the music business that SBK staffers all over the country are giving the trio. Earlier, over muffins, eggs and juice in the conference room of KZZP, Ken Lane of the label's national singles-promotion department discussed with Carnie and Chynna why their promo tour is concentrating on Top 40 and adult-contemporary stations. "We're positioning 'Hold On' as an across-the-board, mainstream pop hit," he told them, before adding how wonderful it would be for KZZP and the other stations in the Nationwide radio chain to jump right on the record and add it to their playlists. "The whole game is adds," he said. "Then you need rotation."

Also in the van are Jeff Panzer, SBK's director of creative services, who's road-managing the promo tour, and Jonah Wilson, the son of Beach Boy Carl Wilson and a friend of the girls', who's on the promo tour helping out. Panzer asks for quiet in the van. He's on the portable phone, getting news about MTV's response to a rough cut of the "Hold On" video, an untypically uplifting, unironic piece of work by director Julien Temple.

"Abbey Konowitch loves it," Panzer tells everyone after he hangs up.

"Who's this Abbey?" asks Chynna. "Does she have a very nice job at MTV?"

"Yes, but Abbey's a he," says Panzer. "Remember, you met him at our lunch with MTV." Some weeks earlier, SBK had arranged for a few key MTV staffers to be taken by horse and carriage to the Plaza Hotel for a private breakfast in a room where only an hour later Ivana Trump would throw a birthday party for her son.

Considering the pace lately, Chynna can be easily forgiven for forgetting a few names. The worst, Jonah Wilson says, was when they woke up in New York City and took an early morning train to Baltimore to visit a few stations there. Next they drove to Washington, D.C., and visited a few more stations, lunching with one, then attended an evening reception for local radio and retail. Then they caught a night flight to Atlanta, where they began all over again.

The last stop in Phoenix is at 99.9 KEZ, an ultramellow adult-contemporary station. No one at 99.9 KEZ seems to have actually heard the Wilson Phillips album or single yet, but they do seem more than happy to meet Carnie and Chynna anyway. Music director Carla "the Affection Connection" Foxx comes by to chat and then introduces the girls to the station's afternoon jock, Perry Damone. "Y'all have something in common," she tells Carnie and Chynna excitedly. "Perry has a famous parent, too. His dad's Vic Damone."

***

"I don't suppose you could call what we had normal childhoods," says Chynna Phillips.

"I feel like I had a normal childhood," says Wendy Wilson. "At least it seemed normal to me."

"Well, we all come from dysfunctional families," says Carnie, "and these days I guess that's pretty normal."

Of course, the Wilson and Phillips families dysfunctioned very much in public. And to read the books that have chronicled the musical, chemical and sexual exploits of the families, one might imagine that the next generation would be utter emotional basket cases. Carnie and Wendy did after all grow up with a father famous for hanging out in a sandbox in the family home. And before his recovery in the Eighties, Chynna's dad was one of rock's most notorious drug casualties.

Which is not to say that being famous L.A. showbiz kids didn't have certain advantages. Chynna fondly recalls spending time on movie sets as she followed around her actress mother – who was married momentarily to Dennis Hopper in the Seventies and has been involved with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, among others. And though Carnie says her father was often "in his own world," she and Wendy did spend time with him and the other Beach Boys on the road and at their Brother Studios, "our second home," she says. Carnie and Wendy still listen to a tape recording they made for their grandparents as little girls in Amsterdam while the Beach Boys recorded their 1973 album Holland.

"I don't recall a lot from those days," says Carnie. "I really just remember planes and hotels and ordering room service and playing 52 pickup and sometimes getting to go onstage to sing 'Good Vibrations' with the other kids." Carnie and Wendy – who grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah – even got to record a version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with the Beach Boys in the background during sessions for the group's 1978 album M.I.U. And not many other girls invited Elton John to their sixth birthday party, as Carnie did, and actually had him send flowers, stuffed animals and a note explaining that he couldn't make it but that perhaps they could have tea together soon.

Carnie, Chynna and Wendy all credit their mothers with being strong, stable and loving parents. Their fathers were much more elusive characters. John and Michelle Phillips's marriage was already falling apart when Chynna was born, and by the time she was aware of who her mama and papa were, they weren't Mamas and Papas anymore. Brian and Marilyn Wilson's marriage also crumbled as Brian's condition deteriorated, and his contact with his daughters has wavered over the years.

And thus while the mothers have heard their daughters' music throughout the long process of making their debut, their fathers first heard the record when they were given advance tapes shortly before "Hold On" was released in early March.

Such details about their past are not something the members of Wilson Phillips share freely. "The last thing we want is people to think that we're trying to squeeze the last bit of juice we can get from our parents to get famous," says Chynna. "But we realize there's no getting around the subject. Whether reporters talk about it with us or not, it's going to end up in the paper. If it's not talked about in front of us, it'll be talked about behind our back. So we have to deal with it as a group in a way that doesn't offend people. On the other hand, our parents had absolutely nothing to do with this record. We stand on our own. We started singing together and then realized after the fact, 'Oh, no, people are going to think this is a joke until they really hear the music.'"

The party line in the Wilson Phillips camp is that after the group has had a few hits of its own, the issue of the girls' famous folks will disappear. (Of course, it may reappear if the movie version of Michelle Phillips's autobiography, California Dreamin', gets made with Chynna playing her mother. At one point, Michelle wanted Carnie to play Cass Elliot in the film.)

Until then they'll answer a few questions politely. Of course, other unprompted references to the famous families slip out occasionally, particularly from the gregarious, bubbly Carnie. She still remembers her father playing two of his favorite pieces of music, "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Be My Baby," over and over again. A confessed "harmony freak," she's a big fan of both of her parents' music. In her tape box – right alongside more recent favorites from the B-52's and Soul II Soul – is a new copy of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. "I got it when I was buying tapes to take along to listen on my Walkman," she says. "I hadn't listened to it in years, and when I did, I cried." Her voice gets suddenly quieter. "I think it's Daddy's masterpiece," she says sweetly.

***

"This is like Troop Beverly Hills," says Jeff Panzer with a tired laugh.

Panzer and the girls have just pulled up to the Los Angeles airport in a white limousine for the brief flight to Oakland on their way to the Gavin convention – the grand finale of their promotional trip. The night before, Julien Temple's assistant woke him up to approve a last-minute editing change on the "Hold On" video.

Due to a major storm, the flight this morning is a horrendous roller-coaster ride, and the girls seem a little shaken up. Still, the mood picks up when they meet with Daniel Glass, SBK's senior vice-president of promotion, who reels off a flurry of details about stations jumping on "Hold On." Reenergized, they head off to a luncheon at the distribution office for CEMA, which distributes SBK's records. Then it's off to the hotel to get ready for the Gavin convention cocktail hour, basically radio's equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival, a free-for-all in which new acts try to network themselves while older ones try to stir up some interest.

Before heading down to the lobby for the big event, SBK staffers gather upstairs for a champagne toast. Among those present are Glass and Arma Andon, another SBK senior vice-president who will soon start co-managing the group along with Peter Lopez. Though Andon admits it's very unusual for someone at the record company to manage one of the label's acts, he doesn't think there's any conflict. "We all have one agenda," he says, "which is to help the girls sell lots of records and get where they want."

"This is a great night to strut our stuff," Glass tells the girls. "Whatever it is you're doing, keep doing it." With that, it's off to the big room, which is already packed with thousands of radio programmers checking out the food, drink and music options. In attendance are a number of familiar faces – Stewart Copeland, Kiss's Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, Stephen Bishop, Everything but the Girl, even a pair of Hooters – as well as plenty of less familiar faces desperately trying to become familiar in the near future. Glass stakes out a space near one of the bars and begins bringing over radio VIP after radio VIP for small talk and a photo opportunity. This goes on for hours. At one point, Don Kirshner comes over to see what all the commotion's about. Moments later members of Technotronic come over to say hello to the girls. As the label mates pose together, Glass seems thrilled with how things are going. "This is the ultimate," he says, "this is history."

In the next few weeks, things will go pretty much as planned. Radio stations will jump on the single. MTV and VH-1 put the "Hold On" video in regular rotation. Stores begin to display their Wilson Phillips records, tapes and CDs prominently. Sure, there are a few negative early reviews, but no one at SBK seems too worried that such naysaying will stop the album from going at least platinum.

Meanwhile, back at the schmoozatorium, there's yet another photo to take. Across the crowded ballroom – unnoticed by Wilson Phillips – Beach Boys Mike Love and Bruce Johnston make their exit from the evening's festivities, looking like two men who've had enough of this particular kind of fun, fun, fun.