For Jan & Dean, there’s one last ride to take – into the Hall of Fame
By Phill Marder
Most associated with surf music, Jan Berry also had a tremendous impact on the importance of the bass vocal in doowop, and, consequently, on the bass lines used by Mike Love in the Beach Boys.
Jan & Dean actually started as a trio – Berry and Dean Torrence being joined by Arnie Ginsburg – and scored their initial hits as Jan & Arnie when Dean left for a stint in the Army reserves. The first, “Jennie Lee,” written by Berry and Ginsburg about a local stripper and recorded in Jan’s garage, featured Berry’s bass vocal “ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba” throughout, creating a radio sensation that reached No. 8, even spurring a cover version by Billy Ward & His Dominoes, which also charted. The follow-up, “Gas Money,” was a great record but failed to come close to the debut’s success and when the next outing bombed, Ginsburg joined the Navy. By this time Dean had returned and he and Berry cut “Baby Talk,” another effort featuring Berry’s vocal bass lines. It hit No. 10. As most collectors know, early promotional copies were released as Jan & Arnie.
Subsequent releases continued the formula of Dean singing over Jan’s bass vocals until the Beach Boys started the surfing craze in 1962. “Heart & Soul” peaked at No. 25 in direct competition with the veteran doowop favorites, The Cleftones, whose version reached No. 18. But in the United Kingdom, Jan & Dean’s version was the hit. Their version of “Linda” reached No. 28 in 1963, just preceding the surf music explosion.
With Jan & Dean appearing in person with the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson became friendly with Berry and his group often backed the duo. Eventually, Wilson and Berry collaborated on “Surf City,” which featured the Beach Boys on backing vocals. The record soared to No. 1 just four months after “Linda,” and almost a full year ahead of the Beach Boys’ first No. 1, “I Get Around,” which, naturally, pissed off Capitol Records and Brian’s dad, Murry. Dean soothed the ruffled feathers somewhat, singing lead on the Boys’ No. 2 single “Barbara Ann” a couple years later. That version of the Regents’ 1961 hit also reached No. 3 in the U.K.
But there’s a misconception held today that Berry was more-or-less a Wilson puppet. Far from the truth. As Torrence notes on the Jan & Dean website, “Brian realized that Jan was a good teacher, and he was learning a lot about studio technology from Jan. Jan had already been in recording studios for six years and, because of his high intellect, he was able to grasp the technical concepts of the quickly evolving recording equipment they were using. Jan had also experimented with the chemistry of putting a different mix of studio musicians together and he had finally settled on a very talented core of players that even included two drummers (Phill’s note: Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, two Hall of Fame drummers, played on many Jan & Dean recordings) who would play at the same time (extremely unique on rock & roll records) and a relatively unknown guitar player from Texas named Glen Campbell. This group went on to become known in the studio recording business as ‘The Wrecking Crew’. Jan pointed out to Brian that, rather than wait for the Beach Boys to get off the road to record the instrumental backing tracks, that Brian could use these studio guys instead and get his records made quicker, and that he would also save some wear and tear on the Beach Boys. After all, the Beach Boys sound came from the vocals, not necessarily from the instrumental background tracks. Brian immediately saw the advantages of using studio musicians and the result was that his records from that point on were sounding a lot more sophisticated.”
The success of “Surf City” changed Jan & Dean’s career, turning them from stars to superstars as Berry expanded the duo’s subject matter as did Brian with the Beach Boys, adding hot rod topics to the surfing stable. “Honolulu Lulu,” hit No. 11, “Drag City” No. 10 and “Dead Man’s Curve,” No. 8. “The New Girl In School,” the flip of “Dead Man’s Curve” and a throwback to the duo’s doowop beginnings with its “papa doo ronday ronday” bass lead, also reached the top 40 to be followed by Jan & Dean’s instant classic, “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena),” which soared to No. 3. In 1964 the string continued, the title song of the movie “Ride The Wild Surf” climbing to No. 16 and “Sidewalk Surfin’,” featuring Berry’s lyrics over Brian Wilson’s “Catch A Wave” music, peaking at No. 25 while starting another craze.
In 1965, two more top 30 entries, “You Really Know How To Hurt A Guy” and “I Found A Girl” came in a year that saw the duo granted the ultimate honor, being named hosts of “The T.A.M.I. Show,” the first filmed superstar concert, featuring Chuck Berry and Gerry & the Pacemakers opening with James Brown and the Rolling Stones closing. In between, so many major acts appeared, if a fire had broken out in the concert venue, Rock & Roll could have died.
The next year Jan & Dean, for all intents and purposes, did. “Dead Man’s Curve” became reality when Jan plowed his Stingray into the back of a truck. He lived, but never fully recovered, suffering partial paralysis and brain damage. He fought back to eventually appear live with Dean in later years, but his career as a recording force was over.
Still, Jan Berry was the epitome of the rock star. One of the best looking of all rockers, he pioneered vocal styles and recording techniques and probably had much still to offer as he had already served as a producer for other acts, The Angels and Rip Chords being just two.
At allmusic.com, Bruce Eder noted, “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.”
Eder also wrote, “…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…”
In an interview conducted by Jan & Dean fan and historian David Beard in the July 27, 2010 “Goldmine,” Dean stated his views concerning the duo’s importance in the history of Rock & Roll and the lack of recognition coming from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
“Why Jan’s not in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I will never understand. He had more hits than two-thirds of the people that are already in there. On top of that, if you start weeding it down to how many of those people produced, performed, and arranged their own records (not even The Beatles did that), then you’re down to about 8 percent. How many produced, performed, arranged, sang and wrote while they were getting a college degree? Duh! I don’t think anybody was doing all that, but Jan was! I’d say that’s pretty amazing! To this day I’ve heard people wonder out loud why we’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We have the scoreboard if you want to just compare number of hits and musical projects done. We beat 75 percent of the people that are in there. So what else is it? I’ve got to think it was that we were pretty irreverent when it came to the music industry. They kind of always held that against us. That’s OK with me.”
And on the Jan & Dean website, Dean wrote, “We were the No. 6 selling singles artists of 1964, just behind Elvis (#5), the Beach Boys (#4), The Four Seasons (#3), the Dave Clark Five (#2) and the Beatles (#1). Pretty cool company to be hangin’ with on the Billboard national charts, wouldn’t you say?”
And all, it should be noted, are members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
True, Jan & Dean’s career was abbreviated suddenly, but, unlike several other early rockers whose careers were cut short by tragedy, Berry, along with his partner, accomplished enough before his accident to merit Hall of Fame induction. When Barry Mann sang “Who Put the Bomp (in the bomp bomp bomp),” he well could have been singing about Jan Berry.
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