Jan Berry: A Lasting Influence

Jan Berry in the Studio Brian Wilson and Jan's creative associates set the record straight

W hy have Jan & Dean been consistently overlooked or dismissed by historians and music critics over the years? The reasons are diverse. The first obstacle may well be the zany content of many of the strongest Berry productions. The comedy was an essential part of the package, but few have ventured to look beyond it to examine the intricate construction of the music itself. And along these lines, both Jan and Dean actually looked the part of the quintessential California surfer gods. They were too pretty to be taken seriously. And that's a dynamic that simply cannot be overlooked. One look at these guys in Lew Irwin's Surf Scene pilot from 1963 -- an interesting story in itself, stay tuned! -- and "Jan & Dean" seem light-years removed from the true circumstances under which the music was produced.

But even more damning are the surviving live performances. "Jan & Dean" were not a "live" act, in a strictly musical sense. They were first and foremost a studio act -- a complex act that stretched far beyond the concept of a "duo." Even though Jan took pains to write fuller instrumental arrangements for the road, and often used a large number of musicians to back them for live performances, Jan & Dean still didn't sound like the records. In the end, they were vocal records. And there was no attempt to duplicate that vocal complexity (which was often on par with what the Beach Boys were doing) in a "live" setting. The Beach Boys, on the other hand, would sing live and blow people away with four- or five-part harmony that sounded reasonably like their records.

And when Jan & Dean made live television appearances (which were not lip-synched), there were often numerous problems. These glitches have been well illuminated by Dean Torrence in recent years. Jan & Dean would take the stage, and there would be no visible band. And the lush vocal blends of the records would be reduced to thin, two-part harmony. To make matters worse, they were often situated at such distance from the musicians that it was hard to hear the music, and thus harder to sing accordingly. Glaring examples of this phenomenon can be seen in clips from The Steve Allen Show, and even worse in the T.A.M.I. film. While the Beach Boys, James Brown, or The Rolling Stones were well suited to "live" performances (and had plenty of time to rehearse), Jan & Dean were not. It was all Jan could do to study for school, attend classes, write new material, record music, and make occasional live appearances. Dean was also a full time student. Thus, they never toured on an extensive or consistent basis -- and as a result their visibility was significantly limited. Nevertheless, their comedic shtick was always a big hit with audiences.

And then there's the inevitable comparison with Brian Wilson. Jan Berry was not as gifted, vocally, as his friend and co-songwriter. (Indeed, not many people are). But it's important to remember that Jan had his own formidable strengths as a composer, arranger, and producer. Jan could read and write music. He had substantial technical knowledge; and he had the ability to conceive of complex arrangements, bringing the right people together (musically and technically) to see his ideas to completion.

See Jan's Pop Symphony Score (portion) Bars 1-20, copied (PDF, 138K)
See also Pop Symphony: "To Educate the Ears of the Sceptics"

Brian was an important factor in Jan's growth. What Brian got from Jan was more than an ego stroke. Brian benefited from Jan's technical expertise in the studio; and the two were able to discuss the deeper aspects of music in a way that neither could experience within his own act (especially early on). It was Jan and Brian together who truly brought the "surf sound" to the masses coast to coast. Together, and with their respective acts, they were at the forefront of the California explosion of the early 1960s. Nine of Jan and Brian's musical collaborations were issued as hit singles or strong album cuts for Jan & Dean (eleven, if "Sidewalk Surfin'" and the various incarnations of "Gonna Hustle You" are counted).

In the present era, under the shadow of Brian Wilson's legendary status, many fans and critics assume that Brian just "gave" completed compositions to Jan & Dean to record. It must be understood, however, that Jan Berry's creative ventures with Brian Wilson were indeed collaborations. They wrote songs together, and each was a major influence on the other in terms of arranging and producing.

"I'm convinced Jan had a lot to do with Brian's success," says Alan Boyd, who directed the Endless Harmony Beach Boys documentary. "Brian definitely learned a lot from him." And there's no question as to what Jan was able to absorb from Brian. Bones Howe agrees. "These are guys that had great abilities -- both of them -- very bright. Although I think Jan was a much smarter guy, in terms of business. Brian was all about the music." And Artie Kornfeld was in a good position to watch the two at work. "You're talking about two genius guys," asserts Artie. "To me, they were synonymous."

Moreover, it's important to realize that Jan (with two different partners) had major hit records before the "surf and drag" era; and he had additional hit records after that genre had faded. He was a Screen Gems writer and producer, and as such he honed his trade by writing for and producing artists outside of "Jan & Dean." Yet his biggest successes came from records he co-wrote, performed, produced, and arranged himself. Jan & Dean -- at the height of Beatlemania -- were one of the Top 10 selling "singles" artists of 1964. That's quite a legacy, considering the act was led by a writer and producer who did his best work as a full-time student -- first as an undergraduate in "pre med," and then as a full blown medical student at the California College of Medicine. How many of your favorite rock-n-roll acts gave music their full-time attention? Pretty much all of them. Jan Berry holds a well-deserved place as one of the founding fathers of the West Coast sound. His productions -- despite misinformed and knee-jerk statements from writers and critics over the years -- have stood the test of time. All from an artist, writer, arranger, and producer who dared to give music his part-time attention. When you get right down to it, music was a hobby for Jan Berry. Dig that, and remember it.

Understand, too, that there was no "Psychedelic Era" for Jan & Dean. Jan had embraced the burgeoning "post-surf" era, evidenced by two Top-30 singles -- with a new sound -- in 1965. But cruel fate intervened to assure there would be no act led by Jan Berry (as it existed prior to April 12, 1966) that might have developed further during the infamous period when "everything changed" in music; when a line was slashed through time, and a new breed of writers and critics looked backward and declared which artists were to be taken seriously (or cast by the wayside).

Jan Berry's finest productions resonate loudly from the "era" in which they were produced; and it's within this context that they must be examined and appreciated. All too often, critics don their "Psychedelic glasses" and look back at 1963 and say, "Jan & Dean are square!" Or, "Jan & Dean had no influence. They weren't important." This flawed cycle of thought is especially fashionable among aficionados of Brian Wilson's own drug-ruined "psychedelic era." But the value of Jan's productions cannot be swept into the "dustbin of history" (to quote Greil Marcus) simply because he was nearly killed before the "Summer of Love" happened.

We'll never know, of course, what "might have been" (or might not have been). But it's remarkable that several people who went on to become important record producers were first introduced to the profession by either observing Jan at work, or working directly with him in the studio. In this light, Jan Berry was quite influential. Gary Zekley, who went on to produce one of the most amazing California pop albums of the 1960s (The Yellow Balloon), got his start by watching both Jan and Brian at work in the studio. Gary also wrote with Jan early on. Prolific writer and producer Gary Usher -- who always remained on the fringes of Jan's orbit, but worked closely with many of his associates -- likewise spent time watching Jan at work in the studio.

And then there are those who had direct involvement with Jan. These are the individuals who provide the context needed to understand Jan's true legacy as an influential producer. "Let me tell you," says Phil Sloan emphatically, "Jan's a very underrated record producer." "Two things get in Jan's way," agrees old friend and mentor Lou Adler. "One is that people think of me as the producer of Jan & Dean. And my stature as a producer has sort of overshadowed Jan. And there weren't a lot of acts at that time who were producing themselves. That had just started to come into play." And that's another area where Jan and Brian were pioneers.

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson
Photo by Neal Preston

Ironically, Jan and Brian destroyed themselves in different ways. Yet each of them rose from the ashes to not only start anew, but to reach new milestones of creativity. And for his part, Brian Wilson has always given Jan Berry his due -- both in print and in personal interviews. "We both were good at music," says Brian of his relationship with Jan. "We were both good producers. He knew how to produce records very well. He was a great producer. I learned to make cleaner background tracks [from Jan]. He got very much in to the technical side of it. I thought he was a very talented singer. A great singer, and a great friend . . . . He could sing regular leads, and he could also sing bass parts, too. Like Mike Love. He was very much like Mike Love." On top of that, continues Brian, "Jan was a very good pianist." And like many others who knew him, Brian Wilson admired Jan's unique blend of ability and determination: "I learned something from him. I learned to be ambitious from Jan. His spirit . . . He had a very strong spirit for recording music."

(For more comments from Brian about Jan, see the section titled "Two Girls for Every Boy.")

"I thought Jan made really powerful records," agrees Bones Howe, who went on to become a major producer -- for important acts such as The Turtles, The Association, and The Fifth Dimension. It was Bones' engineering work with Jan and others that laid the foundation for that smooth transition. "And whatever benefit I got from watching Jan do what he did," says Bones, "and being around all of that, I'm grateful to him for it. You know, it was all training ground for me. I didn't know I was going to become a producer." Steve Barri, who sang with Phil Sloan on many of Jan's records, likewise went on to work as a producer with some of the biggest names in show business. "I definitely learned quite a bit from Jan in the studio," asserts Steve, who also watched Lou Adler closely. "Very much so. In those days, that's kind of how you learned [by watching others]. And everybody was experimenting, which was fun!"

(For more comments from Phil Sloan and Steve Barri, see the section titled "One Last Ride with Granny.")

"I just couldn't believe I was writing with Jan," reflects Artie Kornfeld on their time together. Artie, of course, went on to produce records, and was one of the key figures in producing the historic Woodstock festival in 1969. "Jan was one of the pleasures of my career. Jan and John Lennon. I put him right up there -- not spiritually there with John Lennon, but I put Jan right there as far as the real meat . . . . He definitely gave me a quantum leap in my career. Even though I've had bigger records, that sold more, my favorite -- even though I didn't produce it -- is 'Dead Man's Curve.' 'Eye of the Tiger' sold eleven million. But I still look at 'Dead Man's Curve' as my statement. It's the first record I really felt like a real part of. And when I hear it on the radio, that's a bigger kick than seeing the Woodstock movie."

Stay tuned for the whole story . . .

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