The Conflicting Stories Behind the Origin of “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson has been interviewed countless times and asked the same questions over and over. Through the years, it is interesting to compare his answers to see where the lines have blurred. The fact that his songs are strong enough to still be talked about is a testament to his contributions to the musical landscape of our past. It’s understandable when memories twist and turn in our minds over the course of our lifetime. Let’s look at the conflicting stories behind “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys.

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Little surfer, little one
Made my heart come all undone
Do you love me, do you surfer girl
Surfer girl, my little surfer girl

The First Version

Initially, the song Wilson cited as an inspiration for “Surfer Girl” was “When You Wish Upon a Star” by Dion and the Belmonts. Wilson had heard it sung by Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. The original recording won the Acadamy Award in 1940 for Best Song.

In 1976, Wilson told CBS Radio, “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was 19 years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving along to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together, and called it ‘Surfer Girl.'”

I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the ocean’s roar
Do you love me, do you surfer girl
Surfer girl, surfer girl

“I Kept Humming It”

Wilson claimed “Surfer Girl” was the first song he’d ever written. That fact was disputed by multiple classmates through the years. Wilson had been dating Judy Bowles for several years when he wrote the song. In 1964, he stated the song was “directly inspired by a girl I was dating at the time.” He later contradicted that statement. In 2011, Bowles told author James B. Murphy, ”At the time, I thought [it] was written for me, but I’ve read what Brian said in his book that he didn’t write it within anyone in mind.”

Twenty-three years later, Wilson’s original story changed ever so slightly, “I was in my ’57 Ford, cruising around, and I started humming along to a song that was on the radio. I turned the radio off, and I kept humming it, but I went into my own little composition. Then I got home, went to my piano, and doctored it up a little bit.”  

We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my woody, I would take you everywhere I go

A Different Inspiration

In 2022, Wilson recounted this version, “The day I wrote ‘Surfer Girl,’ I was in my car and heard a record on the radio by a guy named Dore Alpert called ‘Tell It to the Birds.’ Once that song was over, I started humming a melody to myself. Then I drove home and quickly went to the piano and finished off the melody where I wrote the bridge, and the introduction, and the fade. So part of it was written in my head, and part of it was written on the piano. It took me a while, but I got it. I knew that was a special one when it was done. It’s still one of my favorites. I wasn’t one of those kind of writers who’d just bang out song after song. I never wrote songs when I was not inspired.”

So I say from me to you
I will make your dreams come true
Do you love me, do you surfer girl

Building on Top of a Foundation

In his 2016 memoir I Am Brian Wilson, he reflected on the creative process, “It’s been more than 50 years now, and I wonder all the time about what let me think I could write something of my own, that I could build something on top of the foundation I got from other singers and groups. What made me think I could have my own songs? There must have been something deep inside me, another kind of foundation. Part of it came from my dad, who also loved music and who also wrote songs. Part of it came from all the people around me who loved music and wrote songs.”

Surfer girl, my little surfer girl
Little one
Girl surfer, girl, my little surfer girl
Little one
Girl surfer, girl, my little surfer girl
Little one
Girl surfer, girl, my little surfer girl

It’s “When We First Got Movin'”

In 2011, Wilson released an album of songs associated with Disney. It offered a full-circle moment. Wilson wrote in 2016, “We closed the record with “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio, which Dion and the Belmonts had covered back in 1960. I had been thinking about their version when I wrote my first song, “Surfer Girl,” and when I thought about it again, I realized how important the lyrics were to me. It was one of the songs that had always been with me ever since I was a little kid. When I showed the tracklist around, some people wondered if “When You Wish Upon a Star” was my way of saying goodbye to recording, if I was going back to the beginning.”

In 1990, Wilson wrote in the liner notes for the CD release of Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Vol.  2 that “‘Surfer Girl’ was my group’s ballad theme song. It means a lot to me spiritually, and it is really a song about how the group first started singin’ pretty harmonies. The introduction to this song is, at first, a simple one, but if you study the form, it is original. To me, it represents the start of music when we first got movin’.”

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Photo by CA/Redferns

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