Wilson Phillips -- The hottest trio in pop turns its California dream into reality

One way to get a sense of the buzz surrounding Wilson Phillips’ current summer concert tour is by reading the ”love bytes” that mysteriously appear each night on the band’s dressing-room door: the crowd loves you blazed the message on July 6, their opening night in Concord, Calif. A couple of shows later, in Alabama, the notice read ladies of the night. The headline for a Saturday night concert in Lake Placid, N.Y., was only slightly more discreet. Scrawled in black ink across the backstage door of the Olympic Auditorium, it screamed Wilson Phillips — three hot babes!

What’s the meaning of these strange, emphatic messages? ”I want to give the girls a love of the road,” says production manager Eric Williams, who grudgingly concedes to being the anonymous author in his self-appointed role as the band’s tour cheerleader. In addition to his nightly banners, Williams pumps up the summer jam by attaching upbeat instructions to the band’s set lists, including stage directions (”Work the crowd!” ”Reach out to the audience!”) and peppy greetings for the local crowds (”Alabama, you guys look great!” ”Let’s get impulsive, New Jersey!”). ”I want to get the girls juiced up,” he says.

If the band needs pumping up, the crowds don’t seem to. Chynna Phillips, 22, Carnie Wilson, 22, and Wendy Wilson, 20, who are currently opening a 35-city tour for Richard Marx, are this summer’s band to catch. Despite mixed reviews — some critics dismissed Wilson Phillips’ highly produced, commercial sound as sheer pop gloss-their first album, Wilson Phillips, has sold almost 2 million copies since its release in March. Their first single, ”Hold On,” went to No. 1 in early July. A second track, ”Release Me,” was at No. 6 on the Billboard chart last week and climbing.

Admittedly, the enthusiasm for Wilson Phillips is due in part to their purebred rock & roll roots. The California trio can claim heritage from two of the defining rock groups of the late ’60s: Chynna is the daughter of Michelle and John Phillips of Mamas and Papas fame, and Carnie aad Wendy are the offspring of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Although the girls name Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles as their major musical influences, their sun-drenched harmonies obviously owe much to the West Coast sound invented by their parents, leading many to greet their rise as the second coming of the California Dream.

At this stage, however, promoters are eager to put distance between the band and its roots. ”History doesn’t sell records,” insists Charles Koppelman, CEO of SBK, the trio’s record company. In this video age, Wilson Phillips has another obvious commercial advantage — a glossy, screen-perfect look. With their album-cover smiles, stylish haircuts, and impossibly hip black stage wear, the trio is made for MTV. ”Two million people have told us they like them,” Koppelman shrugs. ”Whatever it is, they’ve got it.”

On the dressing-room wall after a performance at New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center, a banner from sponsor AT&T reads Reach Out and Touch. A small crowd has gathered for Wilson Phillips’ nightly ”meet and greet” sessions, at which representatives from radio and retail and concert sponsors get to rub elbows with real-life rock & roll. When the band enters, the room erupts with the kind of somewhat awed excitement usually reserved for pop nobility: Radio jocks in pink polo shirts fiddle with flash cameras; clean-cut SBK reps hurry forward to press palms; AT&T executives swarm around a pile of autographed glossies.

For the most part, the girls work the crowd like old pros. Chynna cuts into a long-winded compliment with ”I gotta go schmooze.” (”That’s good,” says the band’s publicist. ”That’s what you’re here to do.”) Finally the girls line up against the wall for a photo-op with the folks from the telephone company. ”I feel like my smile is frozen to my face,” says Carnie, who smiles anyway.

Back in their own dressing room, the singers rearrange the furniture for an interview. ”You sit there,” Wendy orders the interviewer, pointing at a chair as the three subjects perch stiffly on the edge of a couch. Despite the long day (beginning with a four-hour bus trip from Utica, N.Y., followed by a 15- minute sound check, a half-hour stage performance, and the meet-and-greet session), the girls are still in performance mode, their photo-op smiles firmly in place. ”You’d be surprised at how much we really enjoy going to those things and meeting people,” Chynna says of the meet-and-greet. ”You have to be nice to everybody so that they don’t feel left out,” adds Carnie. ”We’ve been doing this for six months now so we’re pretty good at it.”

And they are: Wilson Phillips has basically promoted its way to the top.

It all started in 1986 when Chynna went over to the Wilsons’ house to discuss cutting an album for charity using children of ’60s bands. The first song they tried was Heart’s ”Dog and Butterfly,” and for the childhood friends, cohesive harmonies came naturally. The Wilson sisters, who had sung together all their lives, covered the lower and upper octaves, and Phillips fit perfectly into the miidle range. ”Our voices have a lot of the same resonance, and something happened that was just meant to be,” says Carnie. ”We all just turned to each other and said, ‘This is it. This is very special. We should do something with this.”’

What they did was go to record producer Richard Perry — a friend of Michelle Phillips’-who signed them after hearing them sing just four notes of Stevie Nicks’ ”The Wild Heart.” Perry spent the next three years cutting demos with the girls, trying to define the band’s sounun and finally hooked them up with Glen Ballard, cowriter of Michael Jackson’s ”Man in the Mirror.” By early 1989 every major record company was after the group, including Capitol, Columbia, Warner Bros., and MCA. The trio chose SBK partly because Charles Koppelman had developed newcomers like Tracy Chapman. ”We recognized that they were young, talented, and that they will be here for quite some time,” says Koppelman. ”Their demographics seem to be anywhere from young teens to mature adults. Their music is mainstream pop. They are the perfect franchise artists.”

Koppelman’s marketing plan relied heavily on promotion. Before the girls had sung one note in front of a live audience, they spent a grueling three months pushing their first single to radio stations and at retail conventions across the U.S., sometimes hitting as many as four towns a day. The photo opportunities and promo spots continued on a whirlwind tour of Europe — six countries in six days. The capper was a hop to Japan in June, where the girls shocked everyone, including their handlers, by walking off with the Tokyo Music Festival’s grand prize for their first live performance of the newly released ”Hold On.”

All this hype left very little time for the band to develop its vocal and performing talents, which is what this tour is all about. A vocal coach and a choreographer were called in to sharpen the girls’ performance techniques. A nutritionist created a special balanced diet for the road. All this made them a bit nervous. ”In the beginning it can be kind of overwhelming,” Chynna admits. ”But you learn to make everyone there feel a part of the show. Not just the first 20 rows.” Besides, Carnie points out, it beats shaking hands with sponsors. ”This is the fun part,” she says. ”The music comes naturally.”

”Let’s really project tonight,” Chynna bellows, throwing her voice into the back of cavernous Olympic Auditorium, where the band is doing a sound check for the Lake Placid concert. Eric Williams puts the girls through their vocal paces, greeting eech number with whoops and yells. Watching from the sidelines, management representative Steve Hoffman is moved to an extravagant prediction. ”This,” he says, ”is going to be even bigger than New Kids.”

This evening, anyway, Hoffman turns out to be only slightly off. When Wilson Phillips hits the stage, the resort crowd is ready to howl. By the end of the first number, ”The Dream Is Still Alive,” the people in the front row have raised their hands over their heads. Halfway into the next tune, a group of girls in the fifth row begins mouthing the words. When the singers launch into the opening bars of ”Hold On,” the audience seems ready to erupt. A man in his early 30s rises from his seat, raises a paper cup to the stage, and screams, ”I looooooove you, Chynna!”

”It’s such a rush doing a concert and seeing people actually mouthing the lyrics,” says Carnie afterwards. ”It’s like, holy s—, they actually know the words.”

Despite their choreographic training, the three singers are still finding their performance legs. Chynna, who has worked in films and television, is the liveliest stage presence, while Carnie seems tense and giggly and Wendy is stiff. All are strong vocalists, but they are still struggling to find a sharp focus for their fluid harmonies, and none of the three close friends is willing to take the vocal lead. ”Tonight was better than last night,” Chynna notes, ”but we’re still working on our blend.”

Whether they hit it or not, they have managed to impress their toughest critic — the man who created their harmonized California sound back in the early ’60s. At home in Los Angeles, Brian Wilson is closely following his daughters’ rise to stardom. Wilson, who has been under psychiatric care for much of the past decade, has had a strained relationship with his daughters since his 1980 divorce from their mother, Marilyn Rovell Wilson. He doesn’t see his daughters, but he talks to them regularly — and to reporters about them. ”I’m so damned proud of Wendy and Carnie,” he has said. ”I’ve been following their record’s chart position like I used to my own songs.” Ironically, the Beach Boys didn’t chart at No.1 until their ninth single, ”I Get Around” (1964); Wilson Phillips hit the top their first time out, suggesting that, commercially at least, the girls may outrun their famous parents.

Then again, perhaps not. Those who lingered outside after the concert in New Jersey were treated to an ironic sight: workmen replacing Wilson Phillips’ name on the marquee with that of the next headliner — the Beach Boys. But by tten, Wilson Phillips’ powder-gray tour bus was already whisking the trio to the next summer hot spot, the next radio promo, the next photo-op.