Surf, Rods, 'n Honeys . . .

Go Granny Go !! Kathyrn Minner, the Original 'Little Old Lady' Part 5 of 5

1964 -- One Last Ride with Granny

B etween June and October 1964 -- at the height of Beatlemania -- Jan & Dean released three more strong singles (including one double-sided hit). And Liberty threw out two supporting albums within weeks of each other. The success of these outings would be the high water mark for Jan & Dean's involvement with surfing and hotrod music.

In June, Liberty issued "The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)." By late July, Don Altfeld's drag racing Granny had burned all the way up to #3 on the national charts. It was a monster hit -- and it would be the final Top 10 offering from Jan & Dean. The production was immaculate. And the song's famous, soaring falsetto was yet more evidence that Jan Berry presided over a complex studio act -- known publicly as "Jan & Dean."

Jan Berry in the Studio, ca. 1964
Jan Berry in the Studio
From a Photo by Chuck Boyd.

"It was a secret for a lot of years," says Phil Sloan of his falsetto vocal on "Little Old Lady." And it's Phil Sloan and Steve Barri -- songwriters themselves -- who confirm the complete handle that Jan Berry had on the music (both vocally and instrumentally). Like Brian Wilson, Jan would sit at the piano, describe his vision for a given song, and deal each of the vocal parts accordingly. "Jan had it all mapped out," continues Phil. "We would sit down at the piano, and he would play our parts for us, and teach them to us individually. Even the falsettos." "Exactly," agrees Steve Barri. "He would give everybody their parts. And then when we would actually record, Jan would sit at the piano and hit his notes so that he could hear them. And then we [Sloan and I] would stand at a microphone nearby. I thought Jan was quite knowledgeable, in terms of doing harmonies and background vocals. Because I had a decent voice, but I didn't know parts. I mean, Jan taught me all the parts that I sang." Phil Sloan was blown away by Jan's productions, past and present. "Just incredibly produced stuff," marvels Phil. "And with 'Little Old Lady,' to me that really was a nicely produced record. Jan was just a marvel to watch. Besides the harmonies and stuff that we did. Just to watch him spend hours and hours and hours -- I mean, hundreds of hours -- dubbing it down to stereo. Nobody in the business ever saw anything like that. He was motivated." It was an era when the mono version of a recording ruled -- the all important version that would be played on the radio. "Stereo sort of became an afterthought in the midst of all this," explains engineer Bones Howe. Each Jan & Dean album was indeed issued in both mono and stereo versions. And Jan loved experimenting with stereo, which ultimately made for additional subtle differences between songs of the same name.

'The Liberty Record' - Vol. 1, No. 6 - April 1964 - Header - Jan Berry Private Collection

The problems on Jan's business end came to a head in mid-June, when Screen Gems instigated a long and complicated civil action against Jan Berry, Lou Adler, and almost everyone else in Jan's orbit at the time. The suit even named Alvin Bennett and Liberty Records -- not to mention Lou Adler's business partners at Dunhill and Trousdale Music. At its simplest level, the legal action centered around a publishing dispute. Jan was legally obligated to Screen Gems as a writer and producer. But at the same time, he questioned their accountings and other practices. And he'd withheld his name from certain compositions and sought to place part of his publishing with Lou Adler's Trousdale Music. Big problem.

Sloan 'n Barri in the Studio, ca. 1964
Phil Sloan & Steve Barri
In the Studio, ca. 1964
Sloan & Barri -- in the guise of The Fantastic Baggys -- provided lush harmony vocals on many Jan & Dean recordings. Sloan (right) also provided many of the distinctive falsetto leads.

Executives at Screen Gems played hard ball and made some hard-core accusations of their own. But that's another story. For now, suffice it to say that the case was settled out of court in mid-July. Both sides compromised on a few issues (a quota was set for future Screen Gems publications), and Jan was forced to sign an agreement giving the publishing in question back over to Screen Gems. And more importantly, Paragraph Nine of the "Settle Agreement" forced Jan to relinquish all claim to the songs mentioned in the suit (including the tunes mentioned earlier on DEAD MAN'S CURVE). This also included the recent hit, "Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)." Officially, this composition was credited to Don Altfeld and Roger Christian -- the song's lyricists. But the actual music was composed primarily by Jan Berry. Thus Jan lost writing credit for one of his biggest hit records, not to mention several strong album cuts -- a fact that has ultimately diminished his legacy as a songwriter. At the time, however, Jan wasn't much concerned over it. After all, as he saw it, he'd be a doctor soon anyway. But the war with Screen Gems -- and with Liberty, for that matter -- was only just beginning. Jan and his powerful attorney would continue to butt heads with opposing legal counsel for the foreseeable future. Simply put, Jan's vision for the business end of "Jan & Dean" didn't jibe with the realities of working for Screen Gems and Liberty. And he had some legitimate arguments. "Jan was easy to get a long with," confirms Jill Gibson, "unless it had something to do with business!"

In August, Liberty issued "Ride the Wild Surf," backed with "The Anaheim, Azusa & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association." Take a breath and say that again. The A-side was another doozy from the Berry-Wilson-Christian team. And as the title track for Columbia Pictures' beach flick of the same name, it was the final hit single by Jan & Dean that featured "surfing" as the subject matter. The song had some great guitar, and a strong falsetto from Dean Torrence. It was a sweeping arrangement -- with exquisite use of strings -- that climaxed with a powerful ending.

Ride the Wild Surf
Ride the Wild Surf

"Anaheim, Azusa" (penned by Jan, Roger Christian, and Don Altfeld) was nothing less than phenomenal; and it remains one of Jan Berry's most complex and pleasing arrangements -- both vocally and melodically. The track was exotic, with horns and woodwinds featured prominently. And the groovy harpsichord accompaniment on the verse was the ultimate embellishment. Vocally, the tune boasted one of Jan's most complex arrangements -- a blend that well illustrated the depth of harmonic structuring that he was absorbing from Brian Wilson. That summer, Jan was also taking a class at UCLA on composer J. S. Bach -- which had a direct impact on Jan's approach for the new composition. Jan's arrangement for the opening and ending of "Anaheim, Azusa" featured a melodic structure quite similar to portions of Bach's chorale, Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich (a traditional German Christmas song). The powerful opening (and refrain) of Jan's composition was belted out with an interesting combination of 4/4 and 2/4 time signatures. It was a stellar piece (with another smooth falsetto from Sloan) that once again highlighted the "paradox" of Jan & Dean -- an aural feast that juxtaposed a deep, intricate harmonic arrangement with goofy content about hotrod crazed senior citizens. The mixture took Don Altfeld's "little old lady" shtick to its farthest extreme -- and the result was brilliant.

Bach, Jan Berry, and Anaheim, Azusa (68K)

The material for the supporting albums was recorded at virtually the same time, and featured some fantastic album cuts. RIDE THE WILD SURF boasted one of Jan's best surf outings in "Surfin' Wild," which he co-authored with Brian and Roger. The beautiful ballad, "A Surfer's Dream," was also significant -- a duet sung by Jan and Jill Gibson that featured one of Jan's finest string arrangements. The Berry-Gibson instrumental, "Walk on the Wet Side," was a sax- and horn-driven rocker that featured a guitar bridge reminiscent of the bridge in "Penetration," by the Pyramids. And the sheer comedy of "The Submarine Races" made for a classic gem. In this partly sung, but mostly spoken ditty, Jan played foil to the over-the-top, Tommy-Smothers-on-acid shtick of Dean Torrence. And the result was absolutely hilarious. Dean was a natural comedian, pulling off material that might have fallen flat with a lesser delivery.

Little Old Lady from Pasadena
Little Old Lady

THE LITTLE OLD LADY FROM PASADENA offered one last stab at "surf" with Sloan and Barri's "Summer Means Fun." The cover of this tune contained one of the best vocal blends for Jan & Dean, with a great lead from Jan and a strong falsetto from Dean. And Jan's bass parts gave the backing vocals a full lower end. Interestingly, this song -- with all the classic surf hooks -- sounds the most like modern interpretations of the vocal "surf sound." And the track was formidable, with Phil Sloan playing guitar and a driving quarter-note bass line. Two additional Sloan-Barri compositions -- "Horace, The Swingin' School-Bus Driver" and "One-Piece Topless Bathing Suit" -- also remain some of the finest vocal outings for Jan & Dean. The latter, in particular, was amazing. The backing harmonies were outstanding -- a lush blend fully on par with any of the early Beach Boys compositions. In all, the two albums featured four Sloan-Barri compositions. Around this period, a reporter inked Jan's technical description of the layered "Jan & Dean" sound (so well in evidence on "One-piece Topless Bathing Suit"): "Sudden, expected vocal modulations . . . like orchestrations . . . different types of instruments . . . a heavy drum sound. We use two full sets of drums on every session. We use three guitars. A high piercing falsetto voice, and full 4-part harmony." When asked how this compared with The Beach Boys, Jan replied simply: "They have a more natural sound."

Sidewalk Surfin'
Sidewalk Surfin'

The final single of the year appeared when "Sidewalk Surfin'" was released in early October. The skateboard craze was just taking off, and this anthem had been featured on both recent albums. Within weeks, it shot into the Top 30. Brian Wilson's "Catch A Wave" provided the musical framework, with a lyrical update from Roger Christian. The song began with the sound of Jan's board hopping on the pavement, which had been recorded outside the studio. And with Phil Sloan belting out falsetto answers to Jan's leads, there was plenty of board-speak and a classic "bust your buns" warning to skate rats across the nation. "And I learned to ride a skateboard!" laughs Bones Howe, recalling antics around the studio with Jan & Dean. "We rode skateboards around the recording studio. I mean, it was that silly. That loose."

By the end of the year, "Ride the Wild Surf" had peaked in the Top 20 at #16, while "Anaheim, Azusa" made a modest showing in the lower half of the Top 100. It had been a good year -- good enough to count Jan & Dean among the Top 10 singles artists of 1964. They weighed in at number six -- one notch behind Elvis Presley and one in front of Marvin Gaye. The Beach Boys were solid at number four, with the Fab Four from Liverpool occupying the top spot. Jan & Dean were in good company, by any standard. And as the halcyon days of long-boards and cherry rods steadily receded toward becoming a pleasant memory, Jan & Dean were steadily exploring additional career avenues. The landscape of music was changing, and the music of Jan & Dean would roll with the times.

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