Jan & Dean - Biography
Having been immortalized for bizarrely prescient songs like “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Jennie Lee,” the rock & roll duo Jan and Dean were a seminal part of the vocal surf groups of the late-’50s and early-’60s, and—along with the closely affiliated band The Beach Boys of the same era—they’re still considered giants of the genre. Between the years of 1958-1966, the duo of William Jan Berry and Dean Torrence landed a remarkable 16 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts, including other notable songs as “Baby Talk” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” Berry and Brian Wilson would collaborate in the early-1960s to create what would become the essential surf music of the era, while Berry also penned songs for acts such as The Angels’ “I Adore Him” and The Rip Chords’ “Three Window Coupe.” Jan & Berry were made all the more unique because, during the height of their fame, they were enrolled as full-time college students.
Berry grew up in the wealthy and exclusive Bel Air neighborhood in Los Angeles, the son of an electrical engineer. A chip off the old block, at an early age he tested as a genius in his school and demonstrated prowess with all things electronic. While still attending University High School, Berry would assemble a rudimentary yet functional recording studio in his home. He also began moonlighting as a local radio DJ.
Berry and Torrence, also a resident of Bel Air, began writing songs and singing together after football practice in the late-1950s. Berry converted his garage into a makeshift studio, and they began recording their sessions. The two were soon joined by Sandy Nelson (drums) and Bruce Johnston (piano), later of The Beach Boys, and the quartet called themselves The Barons. With very few songs in their repertoire, they began to gig, performing the three songs they knew to that point—“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” “Get a Job” and “Short Shorts”—repeatedly.
Even in these early days Berry was perfecting his art of vocal harmonies. After graduating high school, Torrence joined the Army reserves and soon thereafter departed for duty, while Berry was putting the finishing touches on his new song, “Jennie Lee.” It was serendipitous how the song went on to become a hit. When Berry took the song to the local pressing plant to make a record it was overheard by Joe Lubin of Arvin Records, who happened to be there at the time. He offered to re-record the song from its primitive stage, utilizing the skill of topnotch session players, and “Jennie Lee” was launched, going on to become a top ten hit. Once Torrence returned from the Army in 1959, he and Berry were together again, and they began working with Lou Adler and Herb Alpert to pen follow-up songs. One of the results from this songwriting phase was “Baby Talk,” which Alpert wrote the orchestration for. It was released on Dore Records in 1960, and the association with the label led the troupe to a slew of other singles, including “Gee” and “We Go Together.”
By 1961, Jan and Dean had put together a string of hit records, and soon became closely associated with The Beach Boys. Dick Clark caught wind and began featuring the duo’s music on his American Bandstand show, which helped to catapult them into stardom. Remarkably, all this was happening in their idle moments—both Berry (UCLA) and Torrence (USC) were attending university full-time, with music making still a sideline profession.
Jan and Dean next signed to Challenge Records, a label owned by singing cowboy, Gene Autry. On Challenge they scored a series of quasi-successful hits, songs like “Wanted One Girl” which climbed into the top 40 but never towards the upper echelons of the charts. In 1962, The Beach Boys were hired to record as the band behind Jan and Dean’s vocals
Jan and Dean released their debut full-length record for Liberty Records in 1963, called Jan and Dean Take Linda Surfin’, which also featured two compositions by Brian Wilson—“Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari.” The album featured an all-star line-up of session players, including Hal Blaine (drums), Billy Strange (vocals), Glen Campbell (vocals) and Tommy Tedesco (guitar). The opening track on the album, “Linda,” became one of the group’s career highlights and Berry’s arrangements went on to influence a generation of vocal harmonizers. Jan and Dean recorded other hit songs, such as “Honolulu Lulu” and one of their signature tunes, “Drag City.”
Surf City (1963 Liberty) was Jan and Dean’s second full-length album, and, using the same talented roster of session players, it was again hit-laden, with songs like the Brian Wilson-penned “Surf City.” Alongside the popular song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” which went to #3 on the chart, the album also featured an eerie harbinger—the song “Dead Man’s Curve,” a lore-perpetuating tune about a dangerously abrupt turn in Los Angeles that climbed to #8.
As a seminal act in that defining era of Southern California surf music, Jan and Dean were featured in a movie called Ride the Wild Surf—which they scored yet another hit with the title track for. The duo had six songs as top sellers in 1964 alone, and by 1966 they had over four times that on the charts. Torrence had graduated college by this time, with a degree in commercial design, and Berry was amidst working on his medical degree.
But in a strange twist of fate, tragedy struck that same year, when Berry—who was driving his Corvette Stingray, reportedly at 60 miles per hour—hit a parked truck and fractured his skull. The location of the accident on Whittier Drive was said to have been near to the spot of “dead man’s curve,” which their hit song was about. This accident put him into a coma with brain damage and partial paralysis, and the duo of Jan and Dean’s truncated yet scintillating career in the 1960s would come to a close as he began the long road to recovery.
Though he had begun singing again as early as 1972, by the latter part of the 1970s Berry was recovered enough for a second foray. They would tour again, first with The Beach Boys, and into the 1980s in various forms. CBS produced a television movie called Dead Man’s Curve about the Jan and Dean story in 1978, which included appearances by The Beach Boys, Wolfman Jack and Dick Clark.
After battles with his recovery process and eventual drug addiction, Jan Berry died in 2004, leaving a legacy of some of pop music’s most revered songs in his wake from the mid-1960s golden age of surf music.