n a field where the term “genius” is handed out freely, Van Dyke Parks is the real article. As a session musician, composer, arranger, lyricist, and singer, he’s contributed significantly to several decades’ worth of inimitable masterpieces credited to other artists, as well as generating two or three masterpieces of his own. Born in Hattiesburg, MS, in 1941, he was a musical prodigy and attended the American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ. He studied the clarinet and also worked as a child actor, on-stage and on television, co-starring with Ezio Pinza in the 1953 comedy series Bonino, and also working in movies, including Grace Kelly’s final film, The Swan (1958).

He remained dedicated to music, however, and studied at the Carnegie Institute and majored in music at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1964, a year after graduating, he was signed to MGM Records as a recording artist, releasing “Come to the Sunshine,” which had some local chart action in Phoenix, AZ, and threatened to do something nationally without succeeding. (It did promise enough to require that Parks put together a band to back him on-stage, whose members included a young Stephen Stills.) He became a session musician and worked with Sonny & Cher (when they were “Anthony & Cleopatra”), as well as playing sessions for producer Terry Melcher on records by Paul Revere & the Raiders and other artists. On the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension album he played the Hammond B-3 organ, and he also played keyboards on sessions for Judy Collins, and arranged songs for Tim Buckley.

t was also Melcher who got Parks together in 1966 with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. A prodigiously gifted composer, Wilson was no lyricist, and he needed one who could match the daring new music he was devising in his head — this resulted in their collaboration on the SMiLE album. Initially, only “Heroes and Villains” emerged from their work together as a modest hit single but a well-loved one, and the project languished over Wilson’s worsening emotional and mental state in 1967. Fragments and pieces of the project turned up on ensuing albums into the early ’70s, and Parks also played a key role in completing a song, “Sail on Sailor,” that gave the Beach Boys a rare early-’70s single success. (In an early-’80s interview, incidentally, Parks said — without blame or recriminations — that he had never received a penny in royalties from his work with Wilson or the sales of the Beach Boys’ records, a situation that was no doubt tied to the confusion surrounding the sale and ownership of their publishing, which was later nullified.)

Vandyke Parks releasing first album in over 20 years

Van Dyke Parks – First New Album In 20 Years

At the heart of some of the great albums of the last 50 years, Parks’ accomplishments include Brian Wilson’s ‘lost’ masterpiece Smile, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder’s first recordings, and Joanna Newsom’s critically acclaimed 2006 album YS.

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