As teenagers, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were in a garage band, called "The Barons", with a third man, Arnie Ginsberg. Shortly before entering the army, Dean sang with Jan on a recording called, "Jenny Lee", but it was released under the name of Jan and Arnie. The song was a top ten hit and Jan and Arnie released two more singles,"Gas Money" and "The Beat That Can't Be Beat", that didn't fair as well.
On these humble, early sessions, Berry played piano while Ginsburg played a drum set consisting of nothing more than a piano bench and a baby's high chair being hit with drum sticks heavily echoed. The duo overdubbed their vocals, layering them in mono on the same two track machine, also heavily echoed. This 'master' was then brought to bandleader Don Ralke, who utilized a small combo of Los Angeles session musicians to overdub these songs into a releasable form for the "Arwin" label.
After a couple of years, Arnie had decided he had had enough and informed Jan that it was time to look for a new partner. Dean had just gotten out of the service, and once again, teamed up with his old friend to record with the Dore label.
Jan was still the guiding force musically, now singing the leads in Arnie's absence, as well as dueting with Dean on the harmony parts. Their uncanny ability to overdub themselves into a complete singing group took an important step forward as the duo started recording in real recording studios around the time that "Baby Talk," their debut disc under their new name becoming a top 10 smash. While Jan still recorded demos in his garage and had them overdubbed later for release as he had with the old Jan & Arnie sides (and "Baby Talk" as well), the new sessions for the label were often under the supervision of Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. This started to lend a far more musical sound and production sheen to sides like "We Go Together," "Baggy Pants," "Judy's An Angel," "Gee" and "White Tennis Sneakers." They hadn't coalesced into a surf group just yet, that was still a couple of years away.
When the Beach Boys began their climb to superstardom, Jan & Dean changed gears and followed suit with a series of surf and hot rod hits that featured falsetto harmonies, chugging guitars, and Jan Berry's clean production. Brian Wilson himself sang backup vocals on their biggest hit (which he co-wrote with Jan), "Surf City," in 1963. "Surf City" became the first surf song to hit number one on the Billboard national charts . Murray Wilson, who managed the Beach Boys, was furious at Brian for giving away a hit record to a "rival" group, and forbid his son from working with Jan and Dean again, but Brian secretly continued to write and record with his friends.
Dean Torrence's wit and on-stage antics earned them a reputation as the Marx Brothers of surf music. Musically, you'd be hard pressed to separate their string of surf/car hits from the Beach Boys. Small wonder, as most have Brian Wilson and the boys helping out in some way.
Surf, cars and the California life-style were the "in thing" in the early 1960's, and the hits kept piling up for Jan and Dean, including,"Sidewalk Surfin'," "New Girl In School", "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena," and "Dead Man's Curve".
On April 12, 1966, everything changed. William Jan Berry, at the age of 25, at the top of his game, crashed his new Stingray into the back of a parked truck on a side street in Beverly Hills.
The Paramedics that arrived on the scene thought he was dead. They checked his vital signs and found he was still alive, but just barely. They cut him out of the car and rushed him to the near by UCLA Hospital where he underwent numerous major brain surgeries. He was in a deep coma for weeks and the doctors were not very optimistic at all about the outcome.
Like the fighter he is, Jan Berry beat the odds. He emerged out of the coma unable to walk or talk, but he pushed himself hard and with the help of his parents, friends and the many talented doctors and therapists, he made a remarkable recovery. He was still partially paralyzed on his right side, and still had trouble putting some words and thoughts together, but he was able to sing relatively well. The part of the brain where music comes from was not that badly damaged.
It was a very long process and it took 7 years before Jan & Dean could even attempt to sing again on stage, and another 5 years before they were ready to try an official comeback.
In the mean time, Dean formed the successful Kittyhawk Graphics, responsible for over 200 album cover designs including "The Turtles Golden Hits", nine for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and several for Harry Nilsson in the 1970s. He would win a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover of the Year in 1972 for the LP "Pollution" by the group of the same name and was nominated three more times.
In 1977, eleven years after Jan's accident, CBS Television made a television "Movie of the Week" based on the story of Jan & Dean, titled "Deadman's Curve". Many Jan & Dean friends were cast in the movie, including, Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys.
The movie generated so much publicity for Jan and Dean that they started to at least consider trying to perform again. Once again, their old friends The Beach Boys were instrumental in talking them into finally taking the plunge.
The Beach Boys offered to let them share the stage with them, and the "Gotta Take That One Last Ride" Summer Tour became a reality. Jan & Dean got to play The Rose Bowl (four times), Three River Stadium (three times), Mile High Stadium, Murphy Stadium, many sports arenas, hundreds of state and county fairs, lots of theme parks, and even Las Vegas.
Jan's health had improved enough that by the spring of 1983, he got married. Still, he remained partially paralyzed on his right side, and his speech was difficult to follow, but he recovered sufficiently to record a few singles, including "Fun Fun Fun" in 1986 and "Save For A Rainy Day" in 1996, but neither met with much success.
Into the 2000s, the team continued to concentrate on live appearances with their back-up band, The Belair Bandits. Sadly, Jan Berry died on March 26th, 2004, after after suffering a seizure at his home. He was a week away from his 63rd birthday.
As of 2012, Dean Torrence resides in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and two daughters and still makes personal appearances with The Surf City Allstars.
Jan Berry can boast an I.Q. of 185, which puts him in the genius range.
Be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Dean Torrence