Jan & Dean's Dean Torrence on the Birth of Surf Rock

Frank Mastropolo

Liberty Records

With high school friend Jan Berry, Dean Torrence formed the vocal group Jan & Dean in Los Angeles in 1959. Their first Top 10 hit, "Baby Talk," only hinted at what was to come. The duo’s tight harmonies would evolve into a sound that was synonymous with the Southern California lifestyle of hot rods and surfing.

Jan & Dean befriended the Beach Boys in the early 1960s. The “friendly competitors” would become pioneers of surf music. Brian Wilson sang on many of the duo’s hits and was Berry’s writing partner on Jan & Dean’s "Surf City," "Dead Man’s Curve" and "Drag City." But Jan & Dean’s career came to a sudden halt in 1966 when Berry suffered severe head injuries in a car crash.

Torrence continued to perform as Berry recovered. Torrence, who had studied advertising design at the University of Southern California, was frustrated by the lack of control musicians had over their album cover art. In 1967 Torrence founded Kittyhawk Graphics and designed album covers for musicians that included Nilsson, Chicago and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Torrence’s work for the band Pollution won a Grammy Award for Album Cover of the Year in 1973.

Berry was again able to write and produce by 1967 and returned to the stage in the early 1970s but hits were elusive. Berry passed away in 2004.

Today Torrence occasionally appears as a guest star with the Surf City Allstars, whose members have played with both the Beach Boys’ and Jan and Dean’s bands. Torrence performs Jan & Dean’s anthems of summer along with "Barbara Ann," the No. 2 hit that he sang on the Beach Boys’ Party! LP.

In this 2015 interview, Torrence explains that in the beginning, Jan & Dean’s vocal style was far removed from the California Sound that they helped create.

Dean Torrence: We were trying to copy guys from the East Coast. I just worked with Dion maybe four or five months ago and I told him that Jan and I wanted to be Dion & the Belmonts. We had no desire to be the Everly Brothers or any sort of duo. We wanted to be in a vocal group, in a boy band I guess you’d call it nowadays. When we first started doing music we probably had at least six guys and then we had up to eight or nine or ten at any given time. We just wanted to do vocal records. We wanted to do doo wop.

"Baby Talk," your first big hit, was a doo wop song.

Absolutely, it was doo wop but it had nothing to do with the Southern California culture in any way, shape or form. Obviously by the time we got to the cars and surfing, definitely that was the Southern California culture. But up until then, I’d say our first three years recording, we either sounded somewhat like any of the East Coast doo wop groups.

I think our song "Linda" was kind of our Four Seasons attempt and that seemed to work out OK. That’s when we started stacking vocals and started singing our own background vocal parts so we could become a vocal group without having to actually be in a group and split the pie that many ways. Even Dion figured that out. Have somebody else sing the background parts, pay them to sing the background parts and then they go home.

"Linda" by Jan & Dean

"Linda" was a 1946 song. How did you choose that?

We had crossed paths with the Teddy Bears [Phil Spector’s first vocal group] and Marshall Leib. Marshall was the taller member of the Teddy Bears.

He came up with the idea of "Linda." And had formulated the “Lil-Lil-Lil” parts. I don’t know if he intended to get paid or wanted to be a co-producer. I don’t think we even ended up giving him credit for it. I don’t know how all that worked. But it was his idea. I hope we gave him credit. I don’t know, I never heard from him again.

So he won’t be the first guy screwed by the record industry.

He won’t be the first guy. I hope we gave him a hearty handshake [laughs]. Basically it was his idea but by the time Jan got it and tweaked it and then brought in at least the basis of the Wrecking Crew and then added in his own guys, 95 percent of it was done by us, but it was Marshall Leib’s idea. I don’t know if anyone even remembers that.

So early on you recorded with the Wrecking Crew.

It was pretty much Jan that I think put together the most successful version of the Wrecking Crew. Now Phil Spector did use at least three of the core guys in the Wrecking Crew but Jan expanded it to six to eight to ten guys that became the nucleus of the Wrecking Crew.

One of the guys that took the lead on keeping everybody together was Hal Blaine. He came from the Spector group and then we added in Earl Palmer, another drummer.

Tommy Tedesco was the guitarist, he played all sorts of string instruments. He was probably from the original group but then we added in Glen Campbell. Ray Pohlman was the old school bass player and then we discovered Larry Knechtel, a bass player, and a keyboard player, Leon Russell. These are all great players that went on to have solo careers.

Then we heard Larry Knechtel, who ended up in Bread, play piano. We said, "You didn’t tell us you played piano.” He’s the guy that played piano on Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge over Troubled Water" along with another bass player that we used to use, a guy named Joe Osborn.

Jan and Brian Wilson wrote many of your hits together. How did you get together with the Beach Boys?

Thank God we did. We were still full-time college students. We didn’t stop going to school because we knew that this rock and roll crap would probably not last [laughs] and we had to have some real careers.

But nonetheless we didn’t really have time to sit down and write songs. That’s a whole different discipline and you have to have time to do that. I’m not even sure if we had the talent to write. It didn’t come really naturally although to take songs that were partially in place and then tweak ‘em, I mean, we were really good at that. So that’s what we preferred to do.

Just the luck of the draw we ended up playing with the Beach Boys pretty early on. Even before they had had a national hit. And we appreciated the records they were doing because quite honestly that’s how we wanted to be.

They weren’t doing doo wop but they were doing sophisticated four-part harmonies and we liked singing harmonies too. So to collaborate with them, man, we were back in the vocal group that we always wanted to be in. We all seemed to get along. We were competitors but friendly competitors.

"Surf City" by Jan & Dean

Brian started to write "Surf City" and then somehow got sidetracked onto "Surfin’ U.S.A." He liked "Surfin’ U.S.A." better than "Surf City" and they were kind of alike. He picked "Surfin’ U.S.A." to be the one that he was actually going to spend most of his time on and kind of threw the other one in a drawer.

Luckily for us, he knew we were looking for songs and he said, “Well, I’ve got this one here, this would work for you very well.” And he handed us a song that was probably at least fifty percent done. At least the structure was done and I think most of the melody at least was done. They hadn’t finished writing it completely so he just said, “You finish it.” OK, we’d gladly finish that sucker.

So we went into the studio, cut a track using our newly-developed Wrecking Crew and then we called up Brian and said we finished that song. I don’t even remember if he remembered. He probably said, “Hey, what song?”

“You know, that 'Surf City' thing you gave us three months ago. If you’d like, we finished the track and we’re gonna start working on the vocals and we would love to have you come sing some vocals with us.”

We’d done some vocals together probably three months previous and really got along in the studio. We liked them, they liked us, it was really fun to sing with them and so we said, “Brian, this is your song. If you want to come sing, we’d like your overview. Feel free to give us some ideas if there’s something we haven’t thought about or just come sing.”

So he came. He heard the track and he was blown away by the track. And he was almost confused. He said, “How’d you do that?” because he knew we could play instruments but not to that caliber. And we said, “Brian, there are guys called studio musicians that — here’s a phone number. This guy’s name is Hal Blaine, he’s a drummer. He would be the leader of the bands and you call him. We had a list of all the other guys who’d played on "Surf City." And he said, “He’ll hand-pick those guys and put them together?”

“He’ll make the calls, he’ll be the contractor and guess what, Brian. He’ll come into a studio, the guys will knock out those tracks in two or three takes. He’ll probably get three songs done a night. Right now you’re writing and arranging and then you have to sit around and wait for the rest of your group to get off the road. They’re gonna need three or four days to recover and then you’re asking them to come in the studio and play a bunch of background tracks. Then you’re gonna work on all those intricate vocals. You’re gonna burn ‘em out.”

It was a perfect situation where Brian could stay at home and create the music and the other guys would be out playing live, which you needed to do to build a fan base. So Brian takes the number and calls Hal and the next thing you know, all of his tracks exponentially got a lot better than "Surfin’ U.S.A." which is pretty basic.

And that all came from Jan. Jan taught Brian studio tricks that he had never thought of and Brian taught us vocal tricks that we had never thought of. We all worked together very well, including in the studio using two drummers. I don’t think anybody was doing that. We said we had an old drummer left over from the doo wop records, a guy named Earl Palmer, who was one of the best. I said, “Earl’s been on all the old doo wop hits and we need to continue with him, why don’t we use both drummers?”

Jan would write out every part anyway so he wrote out the drum parts, made copies of them and said all you gotta do is just play along with one another. You could barely tell that two drummers were playing although the drum track sounded absolutely huge compared to one drummer.

Brian’s father Murry wasn’t pleased that you recorded "Surf City."

Yeah, well, he’s a dumbass. That’s why he got fired. Brian tried to explain, “Dad, don’t we have a publishing company? That was a song that probably I was never going to get back to. I have 10 other songs I’m working on and I lost interest in this song. So here’s a group that comes along, has a No. 1 record, and it’s our publishing. How can that be bad?”

His dad said he didn’t want us to ever be around the studio when the Beach Boys were recording because he called us “record pirates.” It was just Murry, he didn’t understand and that’s why he did get let go. He wasn’t sophisticated enough once the hits started to be the manager and the producer.

Did you and Jan sing together in the studio or were those harmonies double-tracked?

Oh God, they were doubled and tripled and quadrupled. One time I tried to figure out how many vocals were on "Dead Man’s Curve" and it was something like 43. A lot of stuff was doubled and some were tripled and then a lot of moving stuff that moved against other harmonies. And it was all pretty much done on two-track.

To hear those songs today on modern equipment, it’s obvious some of the quality of the harmonies was lost listening on those tinny transistor radios back in the day.

That was the tough part. Sitting in the studio with the best equipment made, you’d go, "That sounds great.” But then you had to remind yourself you’re listening through headphones or listening to those great speakers. We’d always have this little speaker and the engineer would go, “OK, unfortunately we have to listen to it through this speaker.” And this was a little car speaker. And you’d spent all that time making it sound like a choir and now half of it was missing.

But that was the reality of it all. You would sometimes have to rethink some stuff. We can’t get it all so you do the best you can, get as much without compromising. You can’t compromise the leads and you can’t compromise some of the other stuff to have some subtle part that you were hoping would pop through. So it was just the nature of it all.

"Barbara Ann" (album version) by the Beach Boys

How did you come to sing on the Beach Boys’ "Barbara Ann"?

Totally by accident. Brian was working on Pet Sounds. He was starting to get super-complicated in his arrangements, very time-consuming. And obviously Pet Sounds was not one of those that you’re gonna knock out in a couple of days, like most pop songs were.

So of course you have the record company that doesn’t care about art, they just care about getting the product through the pipeline. That’s their job. Get it manufactured then distributed.

Brian’s working on a record that ended up being one of the most important records ever made and the record company doesn’t care. “You’re spending too much time, you’re spending too much money. We need product, where’s the product? Why can’t you keep giving us 'Little Deuce Coupe'? That’s all we want, 'Little Deuce Coupe.'"

And Brian said, “I don’t want to do 'Little Deuce Coupe.' I want to do 'God Only Knows.'"

Brian had an epiphany and remembered there was a project he always wanted to do with us, which was a party record. Brian wanted to do a record with us and some of our other friends, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston. This is just kind of a fun party jam session with people throwing out tunes and then just playin’ them. Without even rehearsing them.

And man, that’s something that you can knock out in at the very most, two nights. Give it to them, you’re gonna buy yourself at least two months.

So we agreed to do it and Liberty Records said, “If you’re gonna sing on their record, we want a contract with them saying that they’ll sing on your next record.”

And we said, “We don’t do stuff by contracts. They’ll do it. Brian’s been all over these records that you’ve already put out including 'Surf City' and 'Drag City.' God, he sang on most all of those songs.”

“Well, unless they do that then you cannot participate on their record.”

Jan had just bought a new Bel Air home and they said they would be very unhappy and they would punish us somehow. I think money had something to do with it. So Jan said, “They’re not gonna let us do it.” So I said, “I didn’t buy a new house. I’m still living at home with my parents [laughs].”

We just happened to be in the studio together. We were in Studio A and they were in B and we were recording something I wasn’t very interested in. I couldn’t stand it that the Beach Boys were like 30 yards from us and havin’ a good time playin’ some really fun oldies, and so I said, “Hey, I’m gonna go down to Studio B, hang out for a bit, I’ll be gone 10 or 15 minutes and then you’ll be ready for me to do my vocal.”

Jan goes, “OK but don’t sing.” I said, “No, I won’t sing. I’m just gonna go listen.”

So I walk in. “Let’s do a song! What kind of stuff are you doing?” At that moment, they were doing some doo wop stuff. Jan and I had done a version of "Barbara Ann" maybe two years earlier. I said, “We did a little album filler a couple of years ago, 'Barbara Ann.' It’s simple, it ain’t that complex. We can knock it out and it should be fun, it’s a fun song to sing.”

And Brian said, “Great idea, OK.” Somebody started the “Ba-Ba,” probably Mike [Love] because he used to do most of the bass stuff. We started and then we stopped and changed the key, started it again and then sang it straight through. And then we ended it and somebody said, “One more time.” Everybody cracked up, had a good time and I said, “I gotta go back to the studio” and as I’m walking out the door they say, “Thanks, Dean” and I say, “You’re welcome” and I left the studio.

And I’m thinkin’ Brian and I were singing together, the falsetto part, although his falsetto has a lot more midrange and it’s kind of airy, it’s got more air to it and mine’s kind of more like Frankie Valli’s, which is all top end, cuts through. So when the record came out, it sounded like all me. Now most people didn’t know the difference, so it was OK.

It was all forgotten ‘till the record came out [laughs]. It was pretty obvious and especially on the LP version where they say, “Thanks, Dean” as I’m walkin’ out the door.

It was very hard to deny there was another Dean who just happened to be in the studio at the same time. I learned my lesson though that record company guys are too stupid. They don’t really listen to anything. They’re much too busy, I don’t know what they’re doing. And would they actually sit down and listen to a recording all the way through and catch that part? And I knew I didn’t really have to worry about that ‘cause they would never do that. And they never said a word.

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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