Surf, Rods, 'n Honeys . . .

Burn Up That Quarter Mile - Jan 'n Dean Part 3 of 5

1963 -- Burn Up That Quarter Mile

W ith all this discussion about producing, arranging, collaborating with Brian Wilson, and chart-topping singles, it's easy to forget that music was only a part-time endeavor for Jan Berry (and Dean Torrence, for that matter). Having progressed from pre-med at UCLA, Jan was now a full-time student at the California College of Medicine (CCM). He had been accepted to the prestigious school in March, and as part of his first-year curriculum was enrolled in a biochemistry course. This was Jan's other world, his other life -- the extreme other half of his spectrum.

During the month of October 1963 -- the same month that "Honolulu Lulu" peaked on the charts -- Jan took at least three exams in biochemistry. Occupying seat number nine (in section number two) for 8:00 a.m. exams, Jan was grappling with such un-rock-n-roll-like concepts as "the sequence of amino acids in the peptide chain;" and "cosubstrate and prosthetic group distinctions between coenzymes;" and the "careful examination of hydrolysis products of nucleic acids." Whoa.

By this time Jan and his inner circle -- part of the creative nucleus for "Jan & Dean" -- were living in a spacious penthouse apartment at 248 South Occidental Avenue, near downtown Los Angeles. Jan's roommates included the ubiquitous Don Altfeld, Vic Amira, and brief resident Artie Kornfeld. Jan's beautiful and talented girlfriend, Jill Gibson, had her own apartment in the building downstairs, but essentially "lived" with Jan in the penthouse digs. The place was enormous, with Jan's piano nestled comfortably in the living room. Don and Vic Amira were fellow medical students. Having taken Jan's sage advice that day years earlier in the library at UCLA, Don Altfeld was now ahead of Jan in med school (Don enrolled in 1962).

Vic Amira -  Jill Gibson. All rights reserved.
Don Altfeld (r) & Vic Amira
Jan's fellow medical students and Occidental roommates. Don wrote songs with Jan. Vic served as road manager for Jan & Dean in the summer of 1964.

At Occidental, Jan would hit the books to study. "But not like we did," marvels Vic Amira. "I mean, he was very, very preoccupied with other things. But I would help him, and so would Don. We'd be studying our stuff, a year downstream from what he was studying." Music (and its business end) was a constant pull on Jan's time and attention. "And we would help," continues Vic, "because we'd already done it. We already knew it. He was a smart guy. He got it. He was able to focus." Jan was constantly on the go. And when he was at Occidental, he was engrossed in either studying for school or writing and arranging music.

And through it all, Jan and his professional partner were still making occasional personal appearances around the country. "Jan & Dean were going to perform at the Brooklyn Fox, at the Alan Freed Show [in New York]," remembers Artie Kornfeld. Like Jan, Artie was a Screen Gems writer, based at the time on the East Coast. "Don Kirshner set it up for Jan to get a piano, because they wanted to put us together to write. They thought we'd be a good writing team." Jan and Artie hit it off immediately. And their first collaboration together -- released that busy October -- was "I Adore Him," by The Angels. "That was the follow-up to 'My Boyfriend's Back'," says Artie. "We beat out Mann and Weil, and all that crew. And we got the follow-up." Produced on the East Coast, "I Adore Him" cruised to the Top 30 the following month.

"And then they sent me out for two or three months to stay with Jan, and write with him," continues Artie. "It was a really nice group of people in that apartment. It just felt like home, the minute I was there." And Vic Amira remembers a flow of collaborators stopping by to work with Jan, including Gary Zekley and Roger Christian. The Occidental pad was so huge it covered the length of about six smaller units below it. Jill loved the place, but it was a little too far from the beach for her taste. "Jill was there about 90 percent of the time," recalls Vic Amira. "We had this big, huge porch. And we had . . . it had to have been . . . 600 pounds of sand brought in -- in 50-pound bags. We had it delivered. And out on the porch, we had them dump this 600 pounds of sand, so that we could all spread our blankets or our towels out!" The housemates brought the "beach" to the area they called "mid-town" Los Angeles -- about fifteen miles from the coast. If Brian Wilson had a sandbox in his living room, Jan Berry had one on his patio (although Jan's piano was tucked safely inside the penthouse living area).

In early November, Liberty released "Drag City" -- Jan & Dean's first serious foray into the realm of hotrod music. Brian Wilson had established that "boards" and "rods" would evolve together, dating back to "409" -- the B-side of The Beach Boys' first Capitol single, "Surfin' Safari." And the new Jan & Dean single was a formidable offering, penned by Jan and Brian, with lyrics from car fanatic Roger Christian.

The instrumental track for "Drag City" was Jan's strongest yet. It had the now-familiar elements, but featured heavy unison kicks from bass, guitars, and drums between the verse and chorus. And the bass line cooked, throughout. It was an exciting, hard-driving groove that was topped off by great backing harmonies. Brian himself participated on vocals (take that, Murry). And Jan's leads were complemented by a wailing falsetto from Dean Torrence.

Artie Kornfeld -  Jill Gibson. All rights reserved.
Artie Kornfeld
Jan's friend, Occidental roommate, and songwriting partner.

The new material Jan was working on during this period was a major step forward -- not only in terms of production quality but also in the amount of original compositions. With Jan's breakneck schedule, it might have been expected that fewer original compositions would be forthcoming. But suddenly, there were more than ever before. In addition to "Drag City," various combinations of the Berry-Wilson-Christian team accounted for six new original cuts. For the entire forthcoming album, Berry co-wrote eight; Wilson co-wrote three; and Christian co-wrote eight. Artie Kornfeld contributed to three, as well. The penthouse at Occidental was a hotbed of creativity, and Jan's powers of concentration didn't go unnoticed by his housemates. "I have a picture in my mind," relates Vic Amira, "of Jan sitting in the middle of the living room, on the floor, with a music score sheet out in front of him, writing parts. With people all over the place! You know, somebody's yelling at somebody, and somebody's eating, and somebody else playing the TV. And he's just sitting there in the middle of the room, writing these parts out in his head."

Jan's studio time during this period was substantial. And Brian Wilson was a familiar presence. "Brian was around a lot," confirms engineer Bones Howe. "Everybody hung out at everybody else's recording sessions, if they had the time. And people were working in one of two or three places in town [namely United Recording and Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard]. People would pass each other in the hallway, and come into each other's sessions, and sing on each other's records. So Jan was obviously listening to records other people were making. And he knew what Brian was doing."

One day, Brian Wilson and Artie Kornfeld were hanging out at Marilyn Rovell's mother's house (Marilyn was Brian's girlfriend). On a lark, Brian and Artie suddenly took off for a ride -- in tandem -- on Brian's little moped (courtesy of Honda). "Brian," yelled Artie, "these things aren't supposed to go 50 miles an hour!" In short order, the inevitable happened. "We went down right in the gravel," laughs Artie. "It was funny. We were bleeding from our arms and our legs. And we walked the bike back about a mile to the house." Later that evening, they decided to do some writing, and chose to work on a new tune -- the original idea for which had come from Roger Christian. Using Roger's title and lyrical concept, they put together the basics for a song about a drag race on Sunset Boulevard. Jan put the finishing touches on the arrangement, and by mid-November he was in the studio cutting the basic instrumental track for "Dead Man's Curve." "Brian had a lot to do with the stuff I was involved with," says Artie. "Jan would play it for Brian, and show him the arrangement. And Brian would throw in a suggestion like, 'Change a line here.' Or 'Let's go back to the chorus here.' Or 'Let's do a dissonant here.'" They spent a lot of time devising the famous instrumental opening to the song. "And I remember Jan sitting and thinking for hours," says Artie, "just what the drums would do during that opening section. Because he was very meticulous."

Meticulous, indeed. Jan was on a mission in the studio, and getting something right once wasn't good enough. He would interrupt the session players frequently during rehearsal. "Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!," he shouted during the instrumental sessions for "Dead Man's Curve." "Hey Leon, are you gonna play chords now? Are you gonna play the full chords?" Leon Russell demonstrated the full chords.

Jan Berry in the Studio
Jan Berry in the Studio

"Okay . . . Alright. From the top. Top! . . . . When all the rhythm comes in for the first time, right at the Intro, everybody really hit it. Ya know, when you first come in."

"There was a goof right there!" chided Jan after a bad start, whistling everyone to a stop.

And in communicating ideas, Jan would sometimes throw out cryptic directions that only his famous musicians would understand: "Uh, Billy Strange?" called Jan to one of his guitarists. "Don't play that 'jing-ching-a-jing-ching-a-jing' thing, okay? It tends to . . . ya know . . . 'ching-ching-ching-ching!' Try and get that!"

"And Glen?" called Jan to guitarist Campbell. "Give it whatcha got!"

And after a flawless take for the "Dead Man's Curve" track? "Okay, perfect. That's perfect! Now, from the top! Great. Great. Just like that."

"It was always Jan who came to the recording studio totally prepared," remembers Billy Strange. "He was, for the most part, very business-like in the studio. He was very aware when one of us would be getting uptight, because we couldn't do something musically that fit what Jan had envisioned as the end product. And he would invariably find something humorous to say, or do, to lighten the moment. It always seemed to work." Lou Adler, confirms Billy, "realized the talent in Jan had to be guided by someone holding a very loose leash."

Billy Strange
Billy Strange
With Hal Blaine (r) and
keyboardist Don Randi

During this period, Jan's pace and schedule were absolutely grueling. Teamed with either Lanky Linstrot or Bones Howe, Jan was working in the studio at all hours of the morning. "We had been working almost 24 hours," marvels Lanky. "We were in the disc-mastering room. And he went out to get his coffee. And Jan came back, and he said, 'Hey, it's the weirdest thing. There's a bunch of musicians sittin' out there with radios up to their ears.'" About an hour later, Jan went out again, and this time he learned what all the fuss was about. He went back to Lanky: "They said that the president's been shot." "And we were both so tired," remembers Linstrot, "it didn't really sink in until much, much later."

Two days after President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas, medical students Don Altfeld and Vic Amira -- with two other classmates -- were studying quietly at Occidental. It was Sunday morning, and Jan was working at the piano. "And I took a break and went into my bedroom," says Vic. "And I was watching TV, and I saw Oswald get shot." Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's alleged assassin, was himself gunned down on live national television by a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. The nation was in deep mourning, struggling to come to terms with what had just happened in Dallas, and this latest spectacle seemed almost surreal. Vic ran out to tell everyone. "And of course everybody came into the bedroom and sat and watched the coverage with me," he says. Everyone, that is, except Jan -- who remained at the piano. "He just stayed with what he was doing," says Amira. "I remember he didn't even bother." Jan's time was at a premium, and he had none to spare. While the nation mourned, Jan Berry remained focused -- glued to his latest creation (and no doubt thinking of the next day's activities in school). "It was about what he was working on," explains Vic. "It was what he was doing. There just wasn't that much that would take him away if he was really focused on it."

DRAG CITY - 1963
Drag City

Three days later, Liberty released the DRAG CITY album -- the highlight of Jan's production career to date. In addition to the hit single, this compilation featured a number of stellar (and original) album cuts. The best of these -- in terms of a strong blend of instrumentation, lead vocals, and backing harmonies -- included "Surfin' Hearse," "Popsicle Truck," "Surf Route 101," and "Drag Strip Girl." The "Popsicle" cut was Jan's cover of the Cason-Russell original -- the same writers who had provided Jan & Dean with "Tennessee" the previous year. The previous year? Seems more like light-years removed from the current state of Jan & Dean arrangements. And Jan once again made prominent use of horns on various tracks.

"Popsicle" remains one of Jan Berry's finest productions. The lead vocal was strong and full. When Jan's leads were on, double-tracked and crystal-clear, they were on par with anything Mike Love was doing with The Beach Boys. And the intricate harmonies stood out well, with good, thick falsetto accents from Dean Torrence. The tune also featured a smoking, chord-style guitar solo from Glen Campbell, who made his six-string sound like a banjo. "Glen played on a lot of things," confirms Lanky Linstrot. "And he would take a solo, and he was just wailin' off the top of his head! Just whatever chords were there, he was playing notes to fill in the chords." The first stab at "Dead Man's Curve" was also included on the album -- but time would soon reveal that bigger plans (and a better arrangement) were in store for this epic drama. There was a nice cover of The Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe," featuring Dean Torrence on lead vocals. And the album featured a cover of "Sting Ray" -- the first "instrumental" that Jan ever put on a "Jan & Dean" album.

Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco
Glen & Tommy
Glen Campbell (l) and the late great Tommy Tedesco -- two of the best guitarists in Hollywood -- were regular contributors to Jan's tracks.

The DRAG CITY package also solidified the notion that comedy would be a big part of the "Jan & Dean" persona. And herein lies the incongruity of "Jan & Dean." Contrast this notion with Jan's steadfast intensity as a writer, arranger, producer, and medical student. And dig that, while the content of some of the songs began to take on a decidedly offbeat and goofy character, the sound remained dead serious. "Surfin Hearse" will make you smile, but its construction and vocal blend will blow you away.

And if some of the tunes bring a smile to your face, the "Schlock Rod" cuts will make you laugh out loud. These gems were penned by Jan, Roger Christian, and Dean Torrence -- and featured spoken trade-offs on top of full backing harmonies. These hilarious cuts are indicative of the silly Ban and Spleen comedic alter egos that the pair presented to the public. And the comedy angle, in general, was largely pulled off by Dean Torrence. He carried the load, and dropped it on record buyers and audiences with a bang. Jan & Dean appearances, "live" shows, radio spots, or advertisements were all fertile ground for this mien -- which ultimately helped define the legendary status of "Jan & Dean."

By December 1963, yet another outside production featuring input from Jan Berry had been released. "Judy Loves Me" -- penned by Jan, Don Altfeld, and Artie Kornfeld -- was performed by fading teen idol Johnny Crawford, and issued on the Del-Fi label. Jan and Artie produced the A-side, and The Matadors -- who had once again been featured prominently throughout the DRAG CITY LP -- provided harmonies for Crawford's single. Screen Gems was getting a lot out of Jan Berry.

As the year 1963 drew to a close, Jan & Dean basked in the success afforded by a solid Top 30 hit, two Top 10 blockbusters, and a very successful album. And a new single and album were steadily climbing the charts. Stoked by The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, America's youth bought into the California myth, incorporating the Endless Summer into their own dreams and relationships. The ultra-white bread realm of sand, surf, and souped-up rods proved irresistible in an era that was suffering from a growing degree of social ugliness. And little did fans realize -- in the case of Jan & Dean -- that the two California gods on the album covers masked a "power act" that featured a healthy mixture of the finest white and black musicians around, not to mention three very talented ethnic kids from West L.A.

Things were just getting interesting. The coming year would bring additional highs -- and more than a few headaches.

© 2001-2003 MARK A. MOORE. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.