It's almost too easy to underestimate the importance of Jan & Dean in the history of rock & roll and its evolution into rock. The mere mention of their name today evokes images of suntanned California teens dancing and surfing on the beaches of Malibu. The ultimate good-time music act of the early '60s -- who only earned one gold record (for "Surf City") -- the duo get credit for inspiring lots of smiles and providing the soundtrack to countless parties, but few listeners, critics, or pop culture historians appreciate just how important they were musically during the first half of the 1960s, or how long it took them to achieve the level of craftsmanship that characterized their music as much as their high harmonies and catchy choruses. Even becoming "Jan & Dean" wasn't easy for this duo.
Jan Berry (born April 3, 1941) and Dean Torrence (born March 10, 1940) met at University High School in West Los Angeles, where they were classmates and members of the football team. They began singing together with some other friends, which eventually led to the formation of a performing group, the Barons, who specialized in doo wop music of the period -- among the songs they covered were "Get a Job," "Hushabye," and "Short Shorts." The group competed in a high-school talent contest, which required more rehearsal than usual and resulted in their spending a lot of time in Jan Berry's garage, which had been outfitted as an amateur recording studio, complete with a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines and a piano; when an arrangement got very complex and ambitious, they even pressed into service a couple of friends from the neighborhood, future Beach Boys member and producer Bruce Johnston on the piano and star drummer Sandy Nelson. Berry was already becoming experienced in the studio -- he'd learned how to create an echo-delay effect between the two machines (this feature would later become standard on Ampex machines, but it was a big deal in 1958) and was learning how to hear all of the subtle details that creep into multiple performances of a piece and perceive how they might fit together to best advantage. The Barons did the show and, as an amateur group without particular plans, went their separate ways. Berry kept getting any of them who were willing to show up together at his parents' home, however, and recording take after take of various songs, as many as 50, according to Torrence. He would experiment with them by splicing parts of each take together, coming up with completed versions that were larger than the sum of the individual parts.
The whole point in those days of just about any voluntary male teen activity was (what else?) to impress girls, and that was how Berry's recording career began: a member of the fairer sex suggested, almost as a dare, that he and his friends would be really cool if they made records, and Berry took her up on it. The problem of what to record proved vexing until one of the other former members of the Barons, Arnie Ginsburg, showed up on a day when Berry and Torrence were struggling with the question, proposing a song about a stripper with the stage name Jenny Lee ("the Bazoom Girl"), who was appearing at a strip joint in Los Angeles. Ginsburg and Berry came up with the song, and Berry and Torrence worked on it, although it fell to Berry and Ginsburg to put the final vocals down, Torrence having been called up for his obligatory six months' service in the army reserve.
Berry was getting the demo of "Jennie Lee," as it was titled, transferred to disc at a studio when producer Joe Lubin, who worked for the Arwin Records label (a small recording enterprise owned by Marty Melcher, the husband of Doris Day and the father of future Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders producer Terry Melcher), heard the song and offered to buy it. Lubin believed that something could be made out of the song, and Berry happily sold him the master. Meanwhile, Torrence, who was part of the team that Berry intended to debut before the public, was about to go into the army. Lubin overdubbed a band led by Don Ralke on top of the basic track of two vocals, a piano, and percussion, and issued the song on Arwin in the late winter of 1958. The single came out credited to Jan & Arnie, Ginsburg having replaced Torrance in the combo, and rose to number eight nationally that summer. Jan & Arnie appeared on American Bandstand and rubbed shoulders with many of the top singing stars of the period and seemed headed for lasting stardom, while Torrence was stuck in the army.
"Jennie Lee" was a promising start, made more so by the brash, defiant sound of the singing, which seemed to embody the essence of teenage attitude. Arwin tried two follow-ups that performed far less well, and by the late fall of 1958, with show business looking a lot less promising, Ginsburg left the duo. Luckily, Torrence's army service ended just then and Berry asked him if he could try singing together again. The duo also decided to get some help from a pair of new producers -- Lubin having run out his string with them at Arwin -- Herb Alpert, a jazz trumpet player with major ambitions, and his songwriting partner, Lou Adler, who got them onto the Dore Records label. The four of them ran through several demos before finding "Baby Talk," which Jan & Dean recorded in Berry's home studio, exactly like "Jennie Lee," before adding on the full backing band. "Baby Talk" ended up making number ten nationally during the summer of 1959, and Jan & Dean were on their way. Over the next year, they made the rounds of television music showcases, performed at concerts, and cut a series of remakes of R&B harmony vocal classics, including their version of "Gee" by the Crows.
There were still problems to be overcome, however. They felt that Dore Records was a dead end in terms of getting them wider national exposure, and wanted to sign with a major label. The most enticing of these possibilities came in the form of an offer from Liberty Records, a relatively new Los Angeles-based company that seemed to have a better, stronger commitment to rock & roll than most of the large established companies and was flush with cash thanks to hit singles by Ricky Nelson and smash albums by Julie London. They desperately wanted to be on Liberty, and Adler and Alpert were prepared to go with them as producers, but even this switch wasn't easy to accomplish. Astonishingly in retrospect, Liberty balked at releasing "Heart and Soul," a new recording of the duo that they were positive would hit, but which Liberty rejected. Their version of the Hoagy Carmichael/Frank Loesser standard got to number 25 nationally (in direct competition with a version of the same song by the Cleftones) in the summer of 1961, released on Challenge Records, a company owned by Gene Autry. Even though it wasn't a hit for Liberty, the duo's career at the new label was made -- the company signed them, and over the next two years, Jan & Dean kept releasing singles in a doo wop vein, trying to emulate the success of their three hit singles.
Not one of them charted higher than number 69, however, and it seemed as though Jan & Dean had run out their string. In fact, they'd run into a trough in their success, owing to the weak material that they were receiving from their publisher, Aldon Music (amazingly, home of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil, et al., but unable to come up with first-rate material for the team). Instead, they began writing their own material and producing themselves.
They began their climb back to success with Berry's first official production, "Linda," which got to number 28 in early 1963, their best chart placement in two years. Fate then played a hand when Jan & Dean played some shows with the Beach Boys, a new band from Hawthorne, CA, whose harmony singing was very similar to theirs. The Beach Boys were currently enjoying their first Top Ten national hit, and the group backed the duo at their shows -- all of them took an immediate liking to each other, especially Brian Wilson and Berry. Both were as much architects of sound as they were musicians, with definite ideas about the shape of the sound they wanted.
Wilson had been experiencing difficulty in finishing a song called "Surf City," and gave it to Berry to finish for Jan & Dean. Cut in early 1963 with Wilson also singing on it, "Surf City," released in March of that year, became Jan & Dean's first number one single. Listened to even four decades later, "Surf City" is a marvel to behold -- the Berry/Wilson composition was like a miniature teenage movie, setting a scene and depicting action worthy of one of the beach party films of the period, with layer upon layer of activity that moved forward with extraordinary energy.
The single also heralded a major change in their sound as they jumped headfirst into surf music. For the next few years, the duo's sound was rooted in a surf-guitar sound acquired from guitarist Dick Dale by way of the Beach Boys and increasingly bold use of harmony singing. "Honolulu Lulu" followed at number 11 late that summer, while "Drag City" rose to number ten early that winter, and "Dead Man's Curve" went to number eight the next spring. The duo might've been expected to lose momentum with the advent of the British Invasion in 1964, but that summer they hit number three with "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena," and "Ride the Wild Surf" got to number 16 that fall. Jan & Dean were considered important enough to rate a spot as hosts of the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964.
Jan & Dean's success as singles artists during this period tends to obscure the virtues of their LPs. Beginning with the Drag City album, in particular -- which was their first LP of all original material -- their albums showed a level of care and sophistication in the production and the selection of tracks that was unusual, if not extraordinary, for most rock & roll LPs in 1963. The duo's music grew in complexity in 1964, Berry attempting ever more daring productions behind their songs -- it was seldom cited by historians or critics for this virtue, but the single "Dead Man's Curve," recorded after the version that appeared on Drag City, involved 18 separate vocal parts. Their recordings of "Sidewalk Surfin'" and "Ride the Wild Surf" were also exceptionally ambitious, but their complexity in the recording studio was masked by the overt, lighthearted fun of their subject matter as songs. The Beach Boys ran the risk of being similarly underrated, except that their singles took on a more lyrical, seriously romantic veneer that allowed them to be taken more seriously, at least by rock music critics and listeners. Jan & Dean's music, by contrast, was too much fun to be taken seriously. They even ended up in occasional conflict with their record company, as Liberty attempted to release singles that the duo felt were less than first-rate, efforts that were usually blocked. It was easy to overlook, amid the fun, the craftsmanship of their work. The latter even came to rub off on the Beach Boys.
As important as their own music was, the influence that the duo had on rock music by way of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson was equally great, and perhaps greater. When he'd first met Berry, Wilson was trying to shape the group's sound as well as writing or co-writing most of the songs and playing bass on-stage. It was Berry who showed Wilson the other side of the coin, in terms of the relationship of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean; the Beach Boys were a self-contained group, which made them ideal to back the duo on-stage in those early gigs together, but by the same token, on their records, Jan & Dean used the top studio musicians in Los Angeles, including Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, and Glen Campbell. By late 1964, Wilson had given up playing with the group to concentrate on writing and producing the group's recordings, but was stymied by the group's tour commitments, in terms of getting them into the studio. Berry pointed out that there was no reason for the Beach Boys not to use those same musicians and other session men; he also pointed out that no listeners really cared much if Dennis Wilson or Carl Wilson played drums or guitar on the group's records.
Wilson began using the same session musicians that Jan & Dean did, and the result was the opening of a golden age in the history of the Beach Boys, starting with Today! and culminating with Pet Sounds and the never-issued SMiLE. No one knew (though one could have guessed on Pet Sounds) that the group (apart from Carl Wilson's lead guitar) didn't play on those records or most of the singles from this era; rather, what mattered was that the records themselves were some of the best-sounding of the period.
By 1965, Jan & Dean's chart successes had slackened somewhat. They still placed records in the Top 30 and tried jumping on several pop culture bandwagons, including albums devoted to folk-rock and the singles and albums hooked on the craze surrounding the then-new Batman television series. Berry even produced and arranged an instrumental album, Pop Symphony No. 1, featuring orchestral versions of the group's hits. At the same time, after several years of declining offers to act in movies, they'd finally agreed in 1966 to do a film and filmed a television pilot that was to have aired that summer. With 28 charting singles -- seven of them in the Top Ten -- in the space of seven years, they had little left to prove or conquer, except maybe the test of longevity.
The duo's success ended with Berry's near-fatal automobile accident in April of 1966. He wasn't even believed to be alive when the police arrived at the wreck of his Corvette Stingray and there was barely any heart beat when he was cut out of the car. It took years for Berry to recover even partially, learning how to walk and talk all over again, and the duo's music, apart from a group of releases on Warner Bros. and Columbia that were scarcely heard, was relegated to the status of oldies. Any musical advancement was impossible in the circumstances, and Torrence, who'd always had an interest in art, became a successful graphic designer, as well as continuing to sing on other artists' records. Eventually the two did resume touring, and their shows were well-received for the good-time vibes the duo and their band generated, but their days as a musical influence were over. Their time playing music, however, was not over. The duo resumed touring in the '80s including a two-week engagement in the People's Republic of China in 1986. They continued to perform '90s as Berry's health permitted and although there were no new Jan & Dean recordings, Jan released a solo album titled Second Wave in 1997. In 2004 Jan Berry passed away after suffering a seizure; he was 62.
Jan & Dean were the subject of a TV movie in the late '70s and remained much loved (if not sufficiently respected or appreciated) icons of early-'60s rock & roll. Beginning in the 1970s with the release of the Legendary Masters double LP, their music has been heavily anthologized, and the 1990s saw the reissue of their entire Liberty Records LP catalog on CD, as well as more compilations. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi