The Secret Jewish History of the Beach Boys

All-American Group Leaned Heavily on Jewish Guitarist

Having Fun Fun Fun ‘Til Her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away for Shabbos: The Beach Boys as seen in 1964.
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Having Fun Fun Fun ‘Til Her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away for Shabbos: The Beach Boys as seen in 1964.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published August 26, 2014, issue of September 05, 2014.

Going to the beach, surfing, and driving around looking for girls aren’t exactly the stuff of which Jewish dreams are typically made — at least not where I come from. Maybe that’s why the songs of The Beach Boys never moved me the way the songs of The Beatles did, which expressed aspirations to be a paperback writer or to complain about paying taxes or to lament the passing of yesterdays. (You can almost hear the “Oy, vey” in that one.) But as it turns out, there’s more to The Beach Boys’ story and songs than idle sun worship at the beach.

As almost everyone knows, The Beach Boys — who find themselves on tour this summer — were primarily a family group, comprised of the brothers Wilson — Brian, Dennis and Carl, and cousin Mike Love — and their pal, Al Jardine. But as almost everyone doesn’t know, one of the founding members of the group was David Marks, the nice Jewish boy who lived across the street from the Wilsons and whose guitar playing on The Beach Boys’ first three albums of surf-rock hits helped shape their distinctive sound. David Marks’s contributions as a founding member of the band have been forgotten in large part through the efforts of the Wilson boys’ domineering father, Murry, who did all he could to erase David’s role from the band’s history.

It wasn’t always such. The Markses and the Wilsons started out as friendly neighbors, with their children in and out of each other’s houses all the time. When The Beach Boys began playing concert tours outside the immediate vicinity of their native Hawthorne, California, Murry Wilson, who acted as the group’s manager, sent David’s father, Elmer Marks, with them as tour manager and guardian; most of them were still teenagers.

Jo Ann Marks was the hip, young mom, a colorful figure who welcomed David’s friends into her home. She was young and good-looking, and both Brian and Murry Wilson are said to have had crushes on her. Some allege Murry sent Elmer on the road with the band so that he could spend time alone with his neighbor’s wife. Jo Ann was also an amateur psychic who talked to Brian about the powers of unseen vibrations, ideas that would fuel the group’s first million-selling single, “Good Vibrations.”

David Marks’s time with the group was brief. He left after just two years, quitting at age 15, tired of being treated like a fifth wheel by Murry Wilson, who never seemed to accept him as part of the group. Oddly enough, Marks had a one-fifth ownership of The Beach Boys, together with the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love, so technically one could say that Murry worked for him. In contrast, in all the years that Marks’s replacement, Al Jardine, has played with The Beach Boys, he has been a hired hand, a singer and guitarist whose main role was to recreate the distinctive, reverb-drenched sound of David Marks’s guitar, which featured on the group’s first series of hit songs.

While Marks was still with the group, they all began hanging out at the home of Marilyn and Diane Rovell, who were classmates of Carl Wilson and David Marks at the Hollywood Professional School, a private performing arts academy. Since Carl was old enough to drive, he drove David to school each day. The boys would typically give the Rovell sisters a ride back to their house in the heavily Jewish Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Marks would later describe the girls’ mom, Mae Rovell, as “the quintessential Jewish mother,” who always had matzo ball soup brewing on the stove and a kitchen full of homemade cakes.

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