The Truth About Jan and Dean

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I’m a fan, not a critic. My regular readers will know that this is the general theme of Your Home for Vintage Leisure. You won’t get a lot of critical analysis of anything here but what you will get is the celebration of retro things, things that are inherently great because of their artistic merit and/or things that are simply great because of the joy they provide. Some things, SoulRide can and will defend; everything else is a guilty pleasure.

The vocal duo Jan and Dean fit into this latter category. Sort of. They made many iconic records with shiny polish and endless catchiness so you do get quality along with pleasure from listening to them. But I’ve discovered something insidious – and indefensible – lurking at the heart of this pair of LA boys.

Both lads came from upper-middle class families. Jan Berry’s father was an aeronautical engineer who worked for Howard Hughes and flew on the only voyage of the so-called “Spruce Goose”. Mr. Berry raised his family in toney Bel Air. Dean Torrence’s father was a graduate of Stanford and was a sales manager at Wilshire Oil Company. At Emerson Junior High in Westwood and later at University High School (“Uni”) in West LA, Jan and Dean played together on football teams and would harmonize in the shower after games, sometimes with James Brolin.

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The boys formed a group that comprised among others drummer Sandy Nelson, future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston and 1st tenor Arnie Ginsburg. The group rehearsed in Berry’s garage and Jan began his interest in production by recording the group on an Ampex tape recorder. Jan, Dean and Arnie put together a little doo-wop ditty called “Jennie Lee” and were going to record it when Dean was suddenly conscripted into the Army. So, it was the vocal duo of “Jan and Arnie” that recorded the song and released it in the spring of 1958. The song was a hit that peaked at #8 and was even covered three times. Two singles followed that went nowhere. At the end of 1958, Torrence was home from the Army and Ginsburg decided to leave the music business and become an architect. He also later received a patent for a portable batting cage.

It was then that as “Jan and Dean” the boys began recording songs that Jan Berry was writing, producing and arranging. They released “Baby Talk” on Dore Records (where Herb Alpert was working) in the spring of ’59, watching it peak at #10. Berry was also contracted to work as producer to other artists. All the while, the duo were – much like Lesley Gore during her career – attending school; Jan at medical school and Dean at USC studying advertising design.

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Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. Jan, far left, and Dean, second from right, help Mike Love and Brian Wilson hold up David Marks.

Enter Brian Wilson. Jan and Dean had been immensely inspired by the music of the Beach Boys, created largely by Wilson and lyricist Mike Love. Jan and Brian met and became fast friends, collaborating in the studio. Berry was motivated by Wilson’s mastery of production and arranging and endeavoured to be a similar force in the studio. Jan and Dean covered Beach Boy songs and Wilson co-wrote “Surf City” with Jan resulting in a number 1 song for Jan and Dean; before the Beach Boys had topped the charts.

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This is my vinyl copy, I’m happy to say.

Jan and Dean proceeded to have 26 chart hits including three Top Tens over the next three years. The duo were tapped to star in two unrealized television series and performed the title track to the film Ride the Wild Surf. All of their hits were surf/hot rod related – as was the trend at the time – or simply perfect examples of sunshine pop, each benefiting from Berry’s studio mastery.

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On April 12, 1966, Jan Berry crashed his Corvette into a parked truck on Whittier Drive, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard, on a strip of road known as “Dead Man’s Curve” – the very title of a song that Jan and Dan had scored a #8 hit with two years earlier. Berry sustained substantial head injuries and stayed in a coma for more than two months – he awoke on the morning of June 16, 1966. He eventually made a recovery from brain damage and partial paralysis though he had to learn to write with his left hand as he had minimal use of his right. 

JD7Berry’s accident and the resulting hiatus for Jan and Dean did not necessarily kill their career. Changes in music were afoot into 1967 and the sunshine sound of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys was beginning to seem out of step. Berry eventually returned to the studio and he and Dean created the psychedelic Carnival of Sound but the album was shelved and not released until 2010. The duo spent the 70s and 80s touring the oldies circuit. Dean, however, turned his art education into Kittyhawk Graphics, a company that designed covers for albums such as The Beach Boys Love You and the 1971 album Pollution by Pollution, for which Dean won the Grammy for Album Cover of the Year. Dean has also worked his way into my lexicon. Whenever it’s raining real hard, I say it’s “coming down in Dean torrents”.

Jan and Dean had a good run of three years and put out some great records. They were at a party where Brian Wilson played them “Surfin’ USA”. The duo loved the song and asked if they could record it. Brian demurred but then played the boys a ditty he had been fooling with. Jan loved it and he and Brian turned it into “Surf City” which went on to become the first surf song to hit #1. It’s a great song and has gone on to become iconic.

What followed was an excellent run of joyous songs, some celebrating surf and cars, some just plain great pop: “Honolulu Lulu” (#11), “Drag City” (#10), “Dead Man’s Curve” (#8), one of my favourites, “New Girl in School” (#37), “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” (#3), “Ride the Wild Surf” (#17) and “Sidewalk Surfin’ (#25). In 1965 and ’66, they added “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy” and another favourite of mine, “Popsicle”.

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If you can find this, buy it. It’s excellent and really all you need.

When I was a teenager, I bought “Surf City: the Best of Jan and Dean” on cassette. I played that tape relentlessly until it started to make a weird squeal. I loved it. It was perfect. With the first warm days of spring, I would get this tape out and it would take me away. The great lyrics of “She’s My Summer Girl” and the fun vocals of “Popsicle”. Even the sad ballad “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy” was good enough to go on one of my famous mixed tapes (“Roadworthy” from 1994. You’ve probably heard of it). Years later, as an adult, it was this track that lead me to the epiphany, the discovery of the truth I refer to in the title of this post and it is this: for a vocal duo, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were terrible singers.

In other words, these guys have some lousy voices. Now, I would never write an article simply to denigrate somebody. If I have an unpopular opinion, if there’s a movie I don’t like (Some Like It Hot) or an actor I can’t stand (Rosalind Russell, Ernest Borgnine), I generally keep that to myself. And the point of this tongue-in-cheek post is not to heckle Jan and Dean; I think I’ve made it clear that I love them. I just remember being really dumbfounded when it occurred to me seemingly out of the blue that these guys make a poor sound when they sing.

Take the aforementioned “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy”. This is an excellent song and a great example of the finesse Jan Berry had acquired as a producer. He employs a Wall of Sound technique that you can really hear in the rolling drums. The song reached #27 and is a plaintive and sad song. Jan and Dean harmonize well on the chorus but listen closely.

“A Sunday Kind of Love” was co-written by Louis Prima in 1946 and has been recorded countless times by artists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Lee Lewis and Reba McEntire. J&D recorded it early in their run, giving it a bit of a doo-wop arrangement. But they sing the pleasant lyric pretty straight which easily reveals some vocal shortcomings.

“Fiddle Around” and “My Favourite Dream” are further examples – one taken at a medium gait and the other more wistfully. “Gee whiz, that’s not the way it is…”. Like “A Sunday Kind of Love”, “My Favourite Dream” is presented without much adornment; there’s nowhere to hide.

“Linda” and “Honolulu Lulu” are a couple of my favourites, but, dang! I could go off on a tangent on the history of “Linda”. Suffice it to say it was written for Linda McCartney when she was a little girl. I think that, from the outset, an unpleasing tone can be detected in the doo-wop-y singing of the title. Also, I’ve always thought it was hard to hear any lack of quality in a voice singing falsetto but not on Jan and Dean’s “Linda”. There is a distinctly dead, nasal, blunt sound to the vocals on “Honolulu Lulu”. I think it’s unmistakable.

As I read this, I can’t believe I’m publishing a post that runs somebody down. I can only hope that the theme I’m trying to present actually comes through. Perfection is not essential. I often think of “The Falcon”. In the 1940’s, RKO Radio Pictures put out a series of B films featuring the character of “The Falcon”; a playboy-type who was an amateur shamus. These films were 60-minutes of great fun, a window to another time. I love these films and when I watch them I always think of how a film doesn’t have to be Casablanca to be enjoyable; The Falcon’s Adventure is the perfect “late show” and, in a phrase I like to think I coined, it is “unencumbered by greatness”. Same goes for Jan and Dean.

As I’ve said, there’s a lot of polish to many of Jan and Dean’s recordings but generally their’s is a lightweight catalogue. And that’s fine, thank you very much. Realizing that I think the boys have poor singing voices hasn’t decreased my enjoyment of them one bit. And it shouldn’t decrease yours or keep you from checking them out.

4 comments

  1. Another superb insightful article, and “unencumbered by greatness” is a phrase that is pure, literary genius!

    This was fascinating on a number of levels, the family link to Howard Hughes and the flight of the Spruce Goose was really interesting, but also the fact that their career had started much earlier that I had thought. For some reason I had in my mind that they were kind of a “manufactured” duo, so I was surprised to learn about the depth of talent in terms of production. Am I right in thinking that Jan Berry actually sang the lead on the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann, during the “party” sessions?

    I vaguely remember a made-for-TV movie about them, perhaps in the 70s? I think it might have even been called Dead Man’s Curve.

    Thanks Gary, for a great piece.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, George. I appreciate it. I’m still trying to get my head around Jan Berry being a studio maestro. I guess he was part of a small group of young LA guys – like Brian – that should have put aside being “artists” (and therefore restricted) and stayed in the studio and built a “stable”; like Spector did. It was actually Dean that is featured on “Barbara Ann” although I’ve never been able to pinpoint him. I also can’t really hear the “Thanks, Dean!” someone says at the end of the song. And you’re right about the TV movie – I haven’t seen it in years and barely remember it. Thanks again and stay tuned!

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