Music News & Reviews

Music: For Dean Torrence, surf’s always up

Before becoming the vocal surf music sensation known as Jan & Dean in the early 1960s and churning out such classics as “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence used to sing doo wop together in the locker room shower.

Berry, who died in March 2004, and Torrence, who brings his Surf City Allstars to the Harris Center on Sunday afternoon, first bonded as football players in the late 1950s at University High School in West Los Angeles. After practice, they and a dozen or so of their teammates would harmonize the hits of the day while washing away the residue of the gridiron.

Berry, also coaxed his fellow vocalists into his family’s garage for rehearsals for a talent show. The group was called the Barons after the YMCA-sponsored Car Club in which most were members, and they performed such tunes as the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” and Danny and the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.”

“Most of that music was from the East Coast,” said Torrence, 74, during a phone call from his Huntington Beach home. “This was way before the media was paying any attention, so we wouldn’t have known much about the artists. It wasn’t until Dick Clark that we got to see the artists. Part of that big deal was we realized how young some of those artists were, which all of a sudden translated into ‘Hey, we’re that age’ so I suppose we could do that too if we wanted.”

Berry and Torrence had that desire. Berry and fellow Baron Arnie Ginsberg landed a song on the Billboard charts while Torrence was serving six months in the Army Reserve. Jan & Dean reunited and worked with arranger-trumpeter Herb Alpert and manager Lou Adler. Their first single “Baby Talk” went gold in 1959 after an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Berry continued to study pre-med and Torrence enrolled in USC’s design and architecture program.

In spring 1963, Jan & Dean headlined a concert with the Beach Boys, who had just released “Surfin’ Safari, as their opening and backup band. The groups became friends and collaborators. Berry talked of recording surf music, too. Brian Wilson gave him his blessing along with the uncompleted song “Surf City.”

“We always wanted to use multiple tracks and as many vocals as we wanted,” said Torrence. “Those are the ones (songs) with 30 or 40 different vocal parts and instruments that weren’t normally used on rock and roll records. ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ has tons of vocals, has everything from castanets to a harp. I think that’s what made the Jan & Dean sound. Nobody would have thought to put French horns on a skateboarding record. We did.”

Berry cherry-picked musicians from L.A. session players who would later become famous as the Wrecking Crew (including guitarist Glen Campbell, keyboardist Leon Russell and drummer Hal Blaine). And the duo released a string of Top 10 singles and albums that included “Drag City,” “Ride the Wild Surf” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” The album “Command Performance,” recorded live in 1964 in Sacramento, oddly features cover photos from the “T.A.M.I. Show” the boys hosted. It is saturated with the screams of teenage girls.

In April 1966, tragedy struck. Berry crashed his Corvette into a parked truck in Beverly Hills and suffered major paralysis and brain damage. It was more than 12 years before Jan & Dean would sporadically tour together again. In November 1967, with a degree in advertising design, Torrence opened Kittyhawk Graphics, specialized in music packaging, and was nominated for several Grammy Awards.

The December 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. by Barry Keenan landed Torrence in the courtroom as a witness to either a crime or hoax. “Barry was a Baron,” said Torrence. “Every Baron had a code that they didn’t rat on each other and were almost blood brothers and all that came into play. He proceeded to tell me he was planning this crime. I just thought it was bizarre and a fantasy. Damn if he actually didn’t do it.”

(Kennan and two others were convicted and served prison time for the kidnapping of the younger Sinatra, who was released after two days when ransom was paid.)

Torrence, who tours with the Surf City Allstars, says he has been working on a Jan & Dean book “for the past 10 or 15 years.” During that time he also has been involved with a development project in Louisiana.

“When we break ground, that’s going to be the last chapter,” Torrence said. “This project has entertainment as a component, along with NASCAR super speedway, motorplex, theme park, and amusement park all tied into one. It’s got tons of music, graphic design, even surfing and cars. Everything I ever did is wrapped up into this project. That’ll become the last chapter where I kind of tie it all together.”