Although best known for his work as the lyricist on The Beach Boys' legendary magnum opus Smile in 1966-67, Van Dyke Parks went on to a fascinating and varied career that included a string of critically-acclaimed but poor-selling solo albums, film and television work, and an ever-growing cult following. A musical polymath with influences ranging from challenging modern American composer Charles Ives to elfin British folkie Donovan, Parks was among the first rock-era singer-songwriters to prove that it's possible to have a satisfying and long-lasting career while never coming close to the top of the sales charts.
Van Dyke Parks was born in Hattiesburg, MS, and spent his early years in Lake Charles, LA; though he moved to New Jersey to attend Princeton's American Boychoir School before the age of 10 and spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, he maintained the courtly air and aristocratic accent of an old-fashioned southern gentleman. Although Parks' musical gifts were clear from an early age, he first entered show business as a child actor. His television credits include a co-starring role on the sitcom "Bonino" (NBC 1953), starring opera legend Ezio Pinza as a widowed concert singer raising his large family, and numerous roles in teleplays, a near-forgotten staple of 1950s TV programming where full-length plays were performed live for the cameras. On the big screen, Parks' highest-profile roles came in the Grace Kelly romantic comedy "The Swan" (1956), and the family drama "A Gift For Heidi" (1958), in which he played Peter, the best friend of beloved children's book character Heidi (Sandy Descher).
By the dawn of the 1960s, Parks' interest in acting was dwindling, and the teenager began studying music at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology. After dropping out in 1963, Parks moved to Los Angeles, where he formed a folk group with his older brother Carson Parks called The Greenwood County Singers. A pair of 1966 solo singles on MGM Records, "Number Nine" (a sunshine-pop recasting of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy"), and "Come To The Sunshine," made no commercial ripples, but a connection with producer Terry Melcher led to Parks' introduction to Brian Wilson, who was looking for a lyrical collaborator for his planned masterpiece Smile. Unfortunately, Parks' abstruse lyrics were among many points of contention between Wilson and the other Beach Boys, and the album was shelved, uncompleted, in 1967.
However, Parks' increasing notoriety got him signed to Warner Brothers Records, where he worked closely with A&R head Lenny Waronker's pet project Harpers Bizarre (who scored a Top 40 hit with a remake of Parks' "Come to the Sunshine"), before turning to his own debut album Song Cycle (1968). A musically and lyrically complex album with little connection to what was popular either in the Top 40 or on the burgeoning psychedelic underground, Song Cycle was such a perplexing hard sell that the label's advertising head Stan Cornyn soon began placing full-page ads in magazines with the headline "How we lost $35,509 on 'the album of the year'." In 1970, Parks entered his label's executive offices as the first head of Warner Brothers' newly-founded audiovisual department, a full decade before music videos were commonplace. Two years later, Parks released his second album, Discover America (1972), an LP of vintage calypso songs from Trinidad and Tobago; Parks continued his fascination with calypso on his next release, Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976).
Following this release, Parks withdrew from making records for a number of years as he returned to working in film and television. Along with working as a composer on several films, including Jack Nicholson's western comedy "Goin' South" (1978), the Harold Ramis comedy "Club Paradise" (1986), and Robert Downey Sr.'s porn parody "Rented Lips" (1988), Parks was the musical director for the short-lived variety series "The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour" (ABC 1982), and made a low-key return to acting as Hoagy the piano player in Robert Altman's "Popeye" (1980). Parks continued acting sporadically for the next several years, most notably with a small part in Nicholson's "Chinatown" sequel "The Two Jakes" (1990), for which he also wrote the music, and a guest role on an episode of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" (ABC 1990-91).
Parks released two concept albums in the 1980s. Jump! (1984) was based in part on Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, while Tokyo Rose (1989) took its inspiration from the fraught history of American and Japanese relations. Both albums featured Broadway-style orchestral arrangements. 1995's Orange Crate Art found Parks renewing his artistic collaboration with Brian Wilson, who provided lead vocals and vocal arrangements on an album's worth of Parks' songs idealizing his adopted home of California. Parks followed this with his first live album, Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove (1998), which featured songs from throughout Parks' career, as performed by a small orchestra with the composer on vocals and piano. In 2004, Parks reteamed with Wilson to finish Smile, which was released as a Wilson solo album to general acclaim. The pair continued their collaboration with That Lucky Old Sun (2008), a concept album by Wilson featuring five songs with lyrics by Parks. In 2011, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions, the first approved issue of the much-bootlegged 1966-67 Beach Boys sessions.
Along with his continuing work in film and television, Parks played on, arranged and produced albums for other musicians, including Joanna Newsom and Silverchair. Inara George, the daughter of Parks' late close friend and musical collaborator Lowell George of 1970s rockers Little Feat, recorded an album-length collaboration with Parks, An Invitation (2008). Parks began releasing new singles on his own label, Bananastan Records, in 2011; in May 2013, these songs were gathered on the album Songs Cycled, Parks' first new album since 1995.