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Brian Wilson Takes On George Gershwin

Imagine the opening chords of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" sung by an ethereal chorus of spot-on Beach Boys-style harmonies. Or don't imagine it: Just play the new disc by the impresario behind The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, who recently joined Weekend All Things Considered guest host Audie Cornish to talk about his new album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.

Wilson says his earliest musical memory was "Rhapsody in Blue," which he heard when he was 4.

"My mom and dad took me over to my grandmother's house, and my grandmother put on 'Rhapsody in Blue' for me, and had me lay down by the record player,” he says. "I just remember I loved it so much, you know? I really did."

For Wilson, Gershwin's music struck a chord on many levels.

"It was everything," Wilson says. "The chords, the melodic movement, the arranging, the impetus, the excitement, the beauty. It was just an absolute work of art."

Some of the new album's songs are Gershwin covers, while others were inspired by unfinished piano parts, which Wilson completed.

"They gave us 104 unfinished piano songs, and we were supposed to narrow it down to just two songs," Wilson says. "We kept listening and listening, and two caught our ear with their harmony and melody. From there, we originated two new songs."

As for the covers, "I Loves You Porgy" was a somewhat unusual pick: The song is traditionally sung by a woman.

"I told my orchestrator, would you guys mind if I sang it and assumed the role of a girl? Then the Disney people heard it and said, 'Brian, you're supposed to be a girl,' " Wilson says. "I said, 'I don’t care,' so I sang it sweetly."

Though originally apprehensive about taking on such an iconic figure, Wilson says he bit as soon as heard the idea.

"His music is so uplifting," Wilson says. "I wouldn't do this for anybody but Gershwin. He the greater, me the lesser. I can never be as good as George, but I can emulate him and present him to the new generation."

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NPR Staff