By David Beard
Between 1959 and 1961, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence established themselves as blonde-haired, doo-wop heartthrobs from the West Coast as they appeared on Dick Clark’s Philadelphia-based version of “American Bandstand.”
By 1962, Jan & Dean landed a contract deal with Liberty Records and tossed out the suits and ties in exchange for the sunny beaches of California. But before the shift could ignite in their favor, however, a new friendship — born out of a like-minded desire to record music about a cultural phenomenon — had to take shape. Enter Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Jan & Dean’s No. 1 hit single “Surf City,” Torrence takes us back to the early days of surf music.
Goldmine: What is your first memory of meeting Brian Wilson?
Dean Torrence: I don’t remember any of the individual guys particularly when we first met. Jan and I met The Beach Boys collectively. I remember meeting them as a group, and I was very jealous, because they were in a vocal group. That’s what Jan and I had started out being ... a vocal group. I always enjoyed harmonies. I was very jealous that I was not in a vocal group like they were in, because I enjoyed singing harmony parts. It only took me a couple of minutes to realize how damn good they were at singing harmonies. Jan and I connected with them almost immediately. It was kind of like Jan and I had finally found a vocal group that we could sing along with, as if we still had another five guys in our group, which we didn’t. We didn’t mean to be a duo. We were a duo that wanted to be a vocal group. It was always very frustrating, until the technology caught up, and then Jan was able to start to stack vocal parts, and then we were a hell of a lot happier. We were able to become a vocal group in the studio, but initially, we got all that from watching The Beach Boys and said that’s what we want to do.
GM: What was your first impression?
DT: The very first time we worked with them was in a live situation, and they were to be our backup band, so they had learned at least three of our doo-wop songs. “Linda” was one of the songs that they had to learn at the time because it was a hit at the time (1962). They had to learn “Linda” because we didn’t have a backup band. Most of the time that we played, the buyer – that was buying us for a certain show – would have to hire a self-contained band as our opening act. The opening band would play their own set, but then – part of the deal was – they had to back up Jan & Dean. Remember, these were mostly hops, so your average live set was probably 20 to 30 minutes at the most. It wasn’t all that difficult. The band would learn the three major Jan & Dean doo-wop hits, and then we’d collectively figure out some classics that we could all sing together. That’s exactly what the function of The Beach Boys were that particular time when we first met. They were the opening act, and they were our backup band. How perfect was that? They were able to be the four vocal parts that we needed to sing the harmony parts. I would sing the falsetto and Jan would sing the bass on either side of the harmonies, and it was absolutely perfect. That was the group that we always wanted to be in. The audience seemed to absolutely love it, and we ended up re-singing “Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari,” which were the records that the Beach Boys had just released at that time. We knew the songs well enough to fill in the harmony parts, and Mike or Brian would sing the lead, and we just became background vocalists. I think at that moment a light bulb went off and we knew we needed to move into doing those beach culture and West Coast culture songs. We exchanged phone numbers that night and said we’d get together soon.
GM: OK, so fast forward to early 1963. Brian played a demo of “Surfin’ USA” for you and Jan. You both asked him if you could record it. What was his response?
DT: He said, “F**k no, … you pigs!” [Laughs.] Then he said, “I have something that’s similar.” He proceeded to play “Surf City” on the piano. He only had half of it done, but he had the choruses figured out and the basic melody. Brian told us he was only going to do one of those songs. He didn’t need both of them. We liked “Surf City,” too, but we told Brian that if he wanted our advice, the smarter thing for him to do is to give us “Surfin’ USA,” and we’ll help you finish “Surf City.” We said, “Brian, you wrote ‘Surf City,’ but you didn’t write ‘Surfin’ USA’.” Brian said, “What do you mean?” We said, “That’s not your melody, that’s a Chuck Berry melody… You can’t do that.” Brian said (something like), “Well, my dad said it was OK.” [Laughs] We said, “Your dad works in a machine shop. We don’t think he really knows. You can’t take somebody else’s melody and just change the words to make it yours. The melody is owned by the person that wrote the melody, and no matter what kind of words you put to it, the person who wrote the melody still owns the melody.” We knew Chuck Berry and figured we could call him up and explain to him what we had done, and the best we could hope for is that Chuck would split the writing credit with us, and would pretty much be his song no matter what. So we told Brian that he had his own publishing company with Sea Of Tunes, so he should finish “Surf City,” because it would be his publishing company and his writing credit. He kept telling us that his dad said it was OK. We told him, “OK, but you’ll find out,” which he later did. We gladly took “Surf City.”
GM: The song was initially titled “Two Girls For Every Boy.” What do you remember about the evolution of the song?
DT: Brian just turned it over to us. Jan and I took it and tweaked it some. Jan took it back to Brian to have a look at it. I’m not sure how much Brian looked at it at that point because I wasn’t in on that part of it. By the time Brian met us in the studio, we had the basic song worked out. We were in the studio and asked Brian to write the song down the way he saw it. Brian wrote it all out. At that point I re-looked at it and caught some stuff in it that I felt that we kind of needed to tweak. I made some suggestions and asked Brian if that was OK. I asked him if he wanted to rewrite it, and he said, “No, no … you go ahead and cross out what you want to cross out. You write it.” I crossed out what I felt should be changed, and that what was the version that was used. I’d say Brian wrote at least half of it, Jan wrote around 35 percent and I wrote about 15 percent-ish. It was the three of us working well together. Jan wrote out all the arrangements, which were brilliant, so we had a great track to work with. We knew we had a damn good song there.
GM: As someone who participated as a collaborator, have you ever felt cheated?
DT: Technically, if you have two writers, no matter who wrote what, it’s usually 50 /50. So yeah, it should have been split three ways equally for the writing credit. In those days I didn’t really know about those things, and didn’t really care at the time. I thought of it as a collective project anyway. I just focused just making it as good as it could be, and not who got credit for it. Yeah, I should have been credited for it, and should have been paid for the writing credit. That would have probably put my kids through school.
GM: What did Brian glean from you and Jan?
DT: By the time Brian began working with us, we were working in better studios. Jan knew the technology backwards and forewords. I don’t think that Brian knew anything about the technology. Jan knew the mechanics of all that stuff; he knew what recording heads were being used, he knew which microphones made your voice sound warmer or colder. Jan knew all of that, and he was more than happy to pass it on to Brian if he was interested. Once Brian heard all of that stuff, he became very interested in knowing more about the studio. Brian was more into writing the song, getting the song the way he liked it, and then working out the harmony parts. When we started pointing out that Brian could use studio musicians to knock the stuff out, then his stuff became exponentially better.
GM: What does the 50th anniversary of “Surf City” mean to you?
DT: The fact that it has been able to survive 50 years, still get played on the radio today and not be laughed at musically or technology-wise is pretty damn neat. It’s very, very cool. I’m very proud of that song; it’s just a great a record.
GM:What is your overall impression of the songs that Brian worked on with you and Jan?
DT: Brian helped construct a lot of those songs from the get-go. Whatever Brian brought to the table – like showing up for “Drag City” and coming up with the falsetto part – it was always the icing. He could always be counted on, even if we thought we were finished with something. If he had time and wanted to come by … we always knew it would be the icing, the whip cream and the cherry on top. It was always something good, and we never regretted it when he showed up. GM