Jan Berry, youthful rock ‘n’ roll addict, attended University High in L.A. in the late 50s. Don Altfeld, youthful music writer for a national teen magazine as well as for the Uni High school newspaper, also attended Uni. Puzzled by the way the “pick hit of the week” in his column seemed to change each week between the time he submitted his copy to the school paper and the time the paper hit the school corridors, Don went down to the school print shop one day to look into this matter. There he ran into a boy with printers’ ink all over his hands and face. It was Jan.
Young Jan Berry was so in to music that he had been resetting the news type to reflect his own choice of hit of the week. Don forgave Jan; “From that point forward, Jan and I used to hang out in the garage daily.”
Yes, young Jan Berry had converted his parent’s garage into a makeshift recording studio. Jan’s tape recorded was an Ampex reel-to-reel machine, used on the movie “The Outlaw,” and given to his father Bill Berry by his employer, movie producer Howard Hughes. Jan’s microphone was a specimen “borrowed” from the Uni High school auditorium.
Exactly what did Jan and Don record in the garage? Once they recorded/”produced” a girl group singing a song called “Apollo.” The group included Mary Sperling (who later became DeeDee in Dick and DeeDee of “The Mountain’s High” fame”) and three other girls from a school club called The Flairs.
Jan’s own school club was The Barons. In the garage, the Barons recorded DJ shows, little radio programs on tape for school parties, with Jan and Don and other club members as the DJs. Over time, Jan and Don became fast and life-long friends. Don even ultimately earned composer credit on at least 30 songs that Jan & Dean recorded (“Dead Man’s Curve” for one), as well as songs for other artists such as Johnny Craford and Shelley Fabares.
Don Altfeld recalls those days with vivid and extreme fondness. “The second time I met Jan after the print shop incident was when he forged the vice principal’s signature on a note saying to report to the principal’s office. There was Jan waiting for me. We cut school, ended up drunk for the first time in my life, went to a drive-in movie, then down to the beach. We found a black group there singing a song called “Stranded In The Jungle.’ This was a group that was later known as the Jayhawks.
“Jan also stole an M-1 rifle from the armory of the ROTC. Jan was walking trouble. He had the FBI and the whole world looking for him. He punched a cop down at Pacific Ocean Park, an amusement park that no longer exists. Jan was trouble.
“Late at night, Jan would throw stones at my window on Montana and then he would climb in the window and work on songs. It was a devastating blow to me what happened to him, and there is no telling what he would have done had he not had that crash. He was so advanced.
“Jan even printed up stationary for our garage, calling us KJAN Radio, ‘The Voice of Bel-Air.’ There were a bunch of Baron Club brothers on the letterhead, Jan was the owner, I was K. Donald Adler, the program director. We sent a letter to all of the record companies saying that we were a new radio station and we were breaking in records in Bel-Air, California and we would get tons of records. At one time we had about 8,000 45s.”
The Barons’ tapes featured largely R&B waxings, including obscure classics such as the Monotones’ “Book of Love,” Duane Eddy’s “Movin’ and Groovin’,” Wee Willie Wain’s “Travlin’ Mood,” the Teen Queens’ “I Miss You,” Bill Bodaford and the Rockets’ “Tear Drops,” the Avons’ “Bonnie” and “Baby,” the Clairemonts’ “Angel of Romance,” the Lovers “Let’s Elope,” the Junior Misses’ “Never Never,” Sugar Pie and Pee Wee’s “Let’s Get Togethre,” and the Moonglows’ “Soda Pop,” “Sincerely,” and “I Knew from the Start.”
Every couple of weeks The Barons would take the surplus 45s up to a hill overlooking the Bel-Air golf course and play frisbee, going for distance and height. Somewhere up there in a little canyon there are thousand of old 45s.
“In fact, it was music that straightened Jan out,” assures Don. “When I met him, he was stealing hub caps - not because he needed the money. Just for the thrill. He’d steal them, then throw them away. He legitimized himself by stealing songs! Safer, and more rewarding!
The Barons’ membership included Jan, Don, Arnie Ginsberg, Dean Torrence, Wally Hagi, drummer Sandy Nelson, and Jimmy Bruderlin (later known as James Brolin). The Barons sang songs like “In the Still of the Night,” “Get a Job” and “She Say.”
Arnie wrote an original song for the Barons called “Jennie Lee,” inspired by a local burlesque queen. The Barons sang it, Jan recorded it, and spliced the song into their DJ tapes. Finally, tired of splicing, Jan went to a real studio to have the “Jennie Lee” tape transferred to acetate disc. There, he was “discovered” by record vet Joe Lubin, who had Jan re-record “Jennie Lee,” without Dean (who was going into the Army reserves that week) and the rest of the Barons, except Arnie, who started the whole “Jennie Lee” affair. But Jan was the spark plug for the record.
Don explains Jan’s fire this way, “One day when we were in Wallich’s Music City, Ricky Nelson was there. I don’t believe that Jan had recorded up to that point. When he saw Rick Nelson, who was great looking, and Jan was also great looking, Jan saw Ricky and said, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’ And that was the beginning of Jan seeing himself as a star. That was the turning point in Jan’s life.”
Jan & Arnie
“Jennie Lee” was released on Arwin Records by Jan & Arnie. Don Altfeld helped Jan get the song on the charts.
“ ‘Jennie Lee’ came out in Los Angeles and Jan and I did about every kind of hype thing we could think of. We’d go into Wallich’s Music City music store, where Jan would steal some, smuggling them out under his Barons jacket. He would also hide copies around the store in other records’ slots. Sometimes he would actually pay other kids to go in to the store and buy ‘Jennie Lee.’ “
Jan and Don also organized 40 friends to meet after school every day and call in requests on Wink Martindale’s radio show. In one afternoon, “Jennie Lee” became the #1 requested and was soon a Top 10 hit nationwide.
Two disappointing follow-ups later, the kids quit buying Jan & Arnie records, Arwin Records quit releasing Jan & Arnie records and Arnie quit making Jan & Arnie records.
With Arnie gone, Jan needed a new partner. Don Altfeld, a logical choice, ruled himself out. “I couldn’t sing, and I was way too shy. So, instead, in the interim between Arwin and Dore, Jan and I produced a record with a group called the Matadors called ‘Jumpin’ the Line’ that Lou Adler placed on Liberty Records for us. It didn’t go anywhere, but it was nice, we made some money.”