Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who has battled professional and psychological problems for more than 15 years, provided the emotional high point of the third annual Yamaha Music Excellence Awards when the formerly reclusive singer performed solo before a crowd of nearly 1,000 people.
Wilson was one of 15 award recipients, along with Stevie Wonder, John Denver, Chet Atkins and Beatles producer George Martin, several of whom attended Thursday's ceremony at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel.
The event, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Yamaha, was held on the eve of the winter convention of the National Assn. of Music Merchants (NAMM), which opened Friday at Anaheim Convention Center.
Despite appearances by Denver, Atkins, Martin, Little Richard and keynote speaker Quincy Jones, it was Wilson who drew the biggest response from the audience, which consisted primarily of Yamaha instrument dealers.
At one point in the 1970s, Wilson had lost his voice and weighed more than 300 pounds. But it was a trimmed-down Wilson who told the crowd, in a somewhat nervous and rambling speech, how in 1974 he vowed to make a comeback. He subsequently lost nearly 150 pounds and returned to performing regularly with the Beach Boys.
Following his brief speech, Wilson sat down at a piano perched near the edge of the stage in the vast ballroom and announced, "This isn't exactly the philharmonic." He then turned in a melodically on-key rendition of the Beach Boys' 1963 hit "Surfer Girl," effortlessly hitting all of the tune's demanding high notes.
But upon finishing, he took a wrong turn, stumbled off the piano bench and said into a microphone, "Oh, I fell off the stage."
Backstage after receiving his award, Wilson said that he is currently at work on a solo album and that his goal now is "not to sound like anybody else. If I can do that, it will be great." When a fan offered praise for the Beach Boys landmark 1966 album "Pet Sounds," Wilson seemed genuinely touched and said, "A lot of love went into that album."
John Denver said he came to Anaheim to accept the award in person because "my two (Yamaha) guitars are the most beautiful sounding acoustic instruments I've ever played." He also said that this year he is ending his 17-year association with RCA Records to sign with a new label, which he declined to name.
Chet Atkins, who said he was "honored" to received one of the awards designed to recognize individuals who have contributed significantly to the popularization of music, added, "They (awards) are nice, but I never think of the past much. I've won a few, but I don't sit around and look at them. I try to keep moving ahead."
With the characteristic modesty of one of the most respected guitarists in the world, Atkins added, "Heck, I'm still trying to learn how to play the guitar."
Other award winners included Dave Grusin, who was present, and absentee winners Leonard Bernstein, Chuck Berry, Dick Clark, Steve Gadd, Elton John, Loretta Lynn, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and the North Texas State University School of Music, which has a jazz ensemble that has been nominated twice for Grammy Awards.