As teenagers, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence first started harmonizing in the showers after high school football practice and soon moved on to form a garage band called The Barons, with Arnie Ginsberg, Chuck Steele, Wally Yagi and John Seligman. During the group's short existence, Sandy Nelson, Torrence's neighbor, played drums, and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston occasionally sang and played piano. Soon after performing in their high school talent show, the group splintered.
Shortly before being conscripted into the United States Army Reserve, Dean sang with Jan, Arnie Ginsberg and fellow University High student Donald J. Altfeld on a recording called "Jenny Lee", which executives at Arwin Records heard and offered to re-record and issue as a single. Released under the name of Jan and Arnie, "Jenny Lee" rose to #3 on the Cashbox Best Sellers chart, #8 on the Billboard Pop chart and #4 on the R&B chart in June, 1958. The duo became part of the Summer Dance Party that toured the US East Coast, and by the end of July they traveled to Manhattan to appear on ABC's Dick Clark Show. As a follow-up to "Jenny Lee", Jan And Arnie released a song called "Gas Money" which stalled at #81 on the Hot 100 that August. In September their third and final single, "The Beat That Can't Be Beat" was released, but failed to chart, even though they performed the song in front of a national audience on The Jack Benny Show. By the end of 1959, Ginsburg had become disenchanted with the music business and enrolled at the University of Southern California.
After completing his stint in the Army Reserve, Dean once again teamed up with Jan, who was still the guiding force musically, singing the leads in Arnie's absence as well as dueting 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 as Jan And Dean, became a #10 smash. While Jan still recorded demos in his garage and had them overdubbed later for release as he had with the old Jan And Arnie songs, the new sessions for the label were often under the supervision of Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. This started to lend a far more polished 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 And 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 would be hard pressed to separate their string of surf and car hits from The Beach Boys'. Small wonder, as most have Brian Wilson and the boys helping out in some way. Surf, Hot Rods and the California life-style were the in thing in the early 1960s, and the hits kept piling up for Jan And Dean, including, "Honolulu Lulu" (#11 in 1963), "Drag City" (#10 in 1964), "Dead Man's Curve" (#8 in 1964), "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" (#3 in 1964), "Ride The Wild Surf" (#16 in 1964), "Sidewalk Surfin'" (#25 in 1964), "You Really Know How To Hurt A Guy" (#27 in 1965), "I Found A Girl" (#30 in 1965) and "Popsicle" (#21 in 1966).
But on April 12th, 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 nearby 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 was, 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 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 seven years before Jan And Dean could even attempt to sing again on stage, and another five 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 TV Movie Of The Week based on the story of Jan And Dean titled Deadman's Curve. Many of Jan and Dean's friends were cast in the movie, including, Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. 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 And Dean got to play The Rose Bowl (four times), Three Rivers 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 duo 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.
In February 2010, the unreleased Jan And Dean album "Carnival Of Sound" was released on the Rhino Handmade label. The cover was designed by Dean Torrence. In 2012, Torrence teamed up with actor Bruce Davison, who portrayed him in the 1978 film Deadman's Curve, to perform with the Bamboo Trading Company on their "From Kitty Hawk To Surf City" album. The CD also included Dean's two daughters, Jillian and Katie Torrence.
As of 2016, Dean Torrence was residing in Huntington Beach, California and was still keeping the music of Jan And Dean alive by making personal appearances with The Surf City Allstars. They still maintained a busy touring schedule in 2017.
Jan Berry could boast an I.Q. of 185, which puts him in the genius range.
Be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Dean Torrence