Jan and Dean racked up an impressive 26 Billboard Not 100 hits between 1958-66, cementing their reputation as one of the best loved duos of the era. Their biggest hits – “Baby Talk,” “Surf City,” “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena” and the prophetic “Dead Man’s Curve” – are still popular today on oldies radio stations and anywhere classic rock ‘n’ roll is played.
They were still enjoying their popularity in April 1966 when Jan Berry was involved in a serious car accident that nearly cost him his life. Traveling at a high speed, Berry car slammed into a parked truck near “Dead Man’s Curve,” the same twisty turn in the road he and Dean Torrence had sugn about just two years earlier in one of their biggest hits.
The accident left Berry comatose for a month, and after regaining consciousness, he had to learn to function all over again because he could no longer walk or talk.
After a lengthy convalescence (during which time no new material was being generated), Jan and Dean were all but a memory on the national music scene. While Berry spend most of his time recuperating at home and in various hospitals. Torrence tried his hand at a number of projects, and for a while in the ‘70s he owned a successful graphics company.
In 1973, Jan and Dean staged an ill-fated reunion concert – Berry was not yet physically or psychologically prepared to reenter the fray – but a couple of years later they began a long, slow comeback that finds them still active as a pair to day. Berry still walks with a noticeable limp and has difficulty communicating, but together with his partner of over 30 years, he still has the capability of entertaining enthusiastic crowds all around the country and abroad. Today Jan and Dean are hoping to fully resume their career and show the public that they’re more than just a blast from the past.
Goldmine: Why don’t we start by getting a little background on yhow the two of you met?
Dean Torrence: Well, actually, we met for the first time about an hour ago! No, seriously, I guess we knew one another in junior high, but weren’t formerly introducted until high school. We were on the football team together and also had lockers next to one another.
Goldmine: When you decided to hook up musically, how did it all begin?
Dean Torrence: Jan had two home Ampex-type tape recorders that were just two-track stereo.
Jan Berry: Two tracks is all it was in those days, so we started working with our music in the auditorium of University High, and then perfected it from there.
Goldmine: There’s been some confusion as to shy your first record, “Jennie Lee,” came out with the billing of Jan and Arnie. Supposedly, Arnie Ginsburg joined both of you on the session, but when Dean went into the service, his name had been omitted from the recording.
Dean Torrence: Well, at different times, there were five, six or seven guys singing. We’d lay down vocals every time we west to Jan’s house, and then after we went home, he’d play around with the tapes for hours, combining different takes. So with that kind of a hybrid, we didn’t really know who was on what by the time he’d put something together.
And I don’t remember being overly disappointed when the record dame out without by name on it. It was just one of those things that happens, But I had a sense that once I got out of the service we would be able to put it back together and all be involved (in the group) again. But that wasn’t necessarily true. As it happened, instead of all of us being back together, Arnie left and did his thing, and it was more a case of all’s well that ends well.
Goldmine: You placed over two dozen songs on the charts, singing about everything from fast cars and surboards to little old ladies from Pasadena. Was there a real person you patterned that character after when you sat down to write that song?
Jan Berry: It was patterned partly after my grandmother who lived in Pasadena, as well as being influenced by the saying that was going around in those days.
Dean Torrence: That term – “the little old lady from Pasadena” – had been used as long as I can remember. It’s almost public domain. And I think what really motivated us to write the songs was seeing a character on TV who was a real little old lady driving a race car. Not that it was really her car – that scenario was the creation of an advertising agency for Dodge. But we thought it was a national commercial and we figured with the exposure on TV, the song would be a natural as far as becoming a hit.
But we later found out that it was only a local spot, and after Dodge learned that we had written a song about it, they pulled the commercial. Nowadays people would kill for that kind of a tie-in. Advertising agencies would probably give the writers a couple of million dollars for a song like that. But in those days they didn’t want to be associated with rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe we were just 20 years ahead of our time.
Goldmine: It also seems you were ahead of your time when you recorded the song “Linda.” Is there any truth to the rumor that it was written about a young Linda Eastman (McCartney)?
Dean Torrence: Actually, I think the guy who rote it had another Linda in mind because nobody goes around writing songs about four-year-olds, unless it happens to be their four-year-old. And from what I understand, he had written the song about a particular Linda, but thought it would be cute to have a picture of a small girl on the sheet music. You’ve gotta remember that in those days, they didn’t have album covers. So he was friends with the Eastman family who had a little daughter, and Linda got to be the girl who was pictured on the sheet music. But I don’t think the song was written specifically about her.
Goldmine: Your biggest single was undoubtedly “Surf City,” which spend a couple of weeks at #1. How did that song come to be written?
Dean Torrence: Well, the song was written by Brian Wilson, who was also working on “Surfin’ USA” at the time. He knew that the two songs were somewhat similar and that he couldn’t use them both. And the one he had the most enthusiasm for was “Surfin’ USA.” Well, luckily for us, we had met Brian right around this time and asked if he had some tunes he was working on that maybe he lost interest in, or needed some help finishing. So he went through the rejects and gave us “Surf City.” And we played around with the arrangement a bit and Jan wrote a couple of verse for it, and the next thing we knew, we had a #1 record.
Goldmine: The friendship that evolved between you and Brian Wilson was certainly evident in the songs you wrote, not to mention in the tunes you sang together. What were the reactions of your respective record companies when you started swapping vocals on each other’s records?
Dean Torrence: They weren’t all too happy about it. They often said if they could prove anything, they were going to hold up our royalties. But they could never prove it, and we weren’t about to help them. We just like to keep them confused.
Goldmine: You guys make no bones about having been real pranksters throughout the years, so why don’t you recount a typical Jan and Dean media stunt?
Dean Torrence: Well, you’ve gotta understand that not everything we did was our idea, but a typical stunt was the promotion we did for a newly-opened Kinney Shoes. We went around to the stores singing autographs and lip-synching tunes, and our manager – who realized that we needed to get publicity off of this – would go out of his way to make sure that a riot got started. Then he’d high-tail it down to a pay phone and call the police to tip them off that there was trouble at the local Kinney’s. And then all these riot cops would arrive and find themselves surrounded by a bund of 12-year-old girls.
Goldmine: Speaking of pranks that got out-of-had, is there any truth to the rumor that you were involved with the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Dean Torrence: Well, it wasn’t a rumor. We were involved. We just thought it would be a real challenge to kidnap somebody. I don’t think any of us really thought our friends were going to go through with it, and we certainly didn’t know it was going to involve Sinatra. We just assumed they were kidding, and it seemed like fun until they actually did it. Then it became very serious.
Goldmine: How did you come out of it unscathed?
Dean Torrence: We were very lucky. Extremely lucky. I think the authorities finally realized that we didn’t ever think it was really going to happen – that it was a fantasy that had gotten out-of-hand.
Goldmine: On an equally serious note, over the years there has been a lot of speculation as to what led to Jan’s accident. Do you recall what happened just before the crash?
Jan Berry: People have told me different things about it, but my memory is hazy. From what I gather, it was the day I had gone to the draft board, and I was on my way back to a business meeting afterward.
Dean Torrence: When I heard about it, somebody had come up to me in school and asked, “How’s Jan?” And I said, “Fine, thank you.” And he said, “Gee, it sure sounded serious.” And I asked what sounded serious, and he said he heard that Jan was in a bad automobile accident. So I went to the telephone and found out that it was indeed true.
Goldmine: After recovering, and realizing that you had to learn everything all over again, must have been absolutely devastating for you.
Jan Berry: It was, and I know that I will never be the same as before the accident. I had to relearn reading and writing, among other things. But this is the way it is, and the experience goes on.
Goldmine: Now that you’re back on the concert circuit, what are your shows like? Are they a combination of old material along with the new?
Dean Torrence: No there’s no new material in the shows because the audience isn’t there to hear new material. Audiences want the most recognizable tunes. That’s standard. If they want new music, they buy your record.
Goldmine: Are there any plans to record some new material?
Dean Torrence: Maybe, Every now and then we work on a new song, but I only believe in recording if we have some reason to do it. Without a promise of distribution, promotion and all that stuff, then it can be a waste of time to do something on spec.
Goldmine: Did you ever give any thought to what might have been if the accident hadn’t happened?
Dean Torrence: Kind of. Just before the accident we had sold a television series and it was going to be on the same time as The Monkees. We would’ve been on ABC and they were on NBC. And actually, we were all friends so we would’ve cross-collateralized our shows somehow. And I sense that our show would have been as zany – if not zanier – than the Monkees’ in some regards. I’m sure it would have been a success for a while, at least until we got tired of doing it. But then Jan crashed, and there was no reason to air the pilot. So it’s really hard to say what might have been.