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Barons 'n Bomps

Barons 'n Bomps

 

   

Beginnings . . .

 

In the summer of 1958, America's first satellites were in orbit, the country was in its worst recession since World War II, Hula-Hoops were a household item, Elvis Presley was in the army, and Buddy Holly was still alive. Rock-n-roll was barely three years old; and despite hard times, the recording industry was flourishing. New acts were emerging steadily, and fortune smiled on a kid from Bel Air -- a precocious teenager who took a strong musical ambition from after-school hobby to national prominence.


JAN & ARNIE

 

At University High School in West Los Angeles, Jan Berry (b. April 3, 1941) had a reputation. He was a gifted athlete, an acknowledged rebel who placed a high premium on defying authority and having a good time. Yet Jan was also gifted intellectually. Armed with an advanced IQ and a take-charge attitude, young Berry was on the fast track. But more than anything else, it was music -- and its associated gadgetry -- that fueled Jan's imagination. 
 
Jan 'n ArnieAfter football practice, the echo-laden shower rooms at Uni High were filled with harmonies, as Jan and his buddies crooned their versions of the latest hit records. They formed a singing group called the Barons (an offshoot of their school club of the same name), and it didn't take long for Jan to get serious about music. The Berry family garage became Jan's studio, complete with a piano and a beautiful Ampex tape recorder (courtesy of Jan's father, William). It was a natural hangout for the Barons and other friends. Jan was the leader, musically; and his aptitude for arranging multi-part vocal harmonies began to emerge.

Through an ingenious KJAN Radio scam, Jan was able to sample the latest "promo" records from labels around the country. With his Ampex machine rolling, Jan -- "the Voice of Bel Air" -- would spin these discs to share with friends, often surreptitiously throwing on the latest "biscuit" from the Barons. One such offering was "Jennie Lee," a catchy tune composed and performed by Jan and fellow Baron Arnie Ginsburg. The guys were excited about the song; and Jan had recently taken a rough tape of "Jennie Lee" -- featuring himself on piano and Arnie playing percussion on a high chair in Jan's garage -- to a professional studio to cut an acetate. With an acetate, they reasoned, it would be almost like having a real record; and girls at parties liked real records.

The BaronsWhat happened at the studio, however, could have been a scene straight from a Hollywood movie. As Jan conversed with the engineer, "Jennie Lee" was overheard by producer Joe Lubin, a sharp-eared Englishman who was vice president of Arwin Records (a small company owed by Doris Day's husband, Marty Melcher). Lubin, always on the lookout for a new sound, took the boys under his wing; and by June 1958, "Jennie Lee" -- by Jan & Arnie -- was a Top 10 smash on the national record charts. A real record, indeed.

The song (with backing vocals, plus additional instruments added by the Ernie Freeman combo) had a raucous R&B flavor, with a bouncing bomp-bomp vocal hook that would become a signature from Jan on future recordings. With Joe Lubin pulling the strings, Jan & Arnie became the next big rock-n-roll sensation to break from Southern California. As "Jennie Lee" burned up the airwaves, the duo made a number of high profile appearances -- both locally and nationally. They performed on ABC's Dick Clark Show in July; and in August they played with Bobby Darin, the Champs, and others -- in front of nearly 12,000 fans -- at the first rock-n-roll show ever held at the -- Hollywood Bowl. The boys appeared on CBS's Jack Benny Show that October, but their singles following "Jennie Lee" had not fared as well on the charts (due in part to lack of distribution). By the end of the year, Arnie Ginsburg had grown weary of the music business -- and would soon be studying architecture in college. It was time to move on, but the bond Jan formed with Joe Lubin would blossom into a lifelong friendship.


A NEW PARTNER

 

Enter Dean Torrence (b. March 10, 1940), fresh from a six-month stint in the army reserves at Fort Ord. Dean had been a member of the fold all along -- a friend, classmate, football teammate, member of the Barons, and a regular at Jan's garage hangout. By this time the Barons had disbanded, and both Berry and Torrence were entering college. But Jan & Dean decided to reconnect -- to continue with the music.

For new management, they turned to aspiring music moguls Lou Adler and Herb Alpert; and the boys promptly returned to Jan's garage to work on their next song. "Baby Talk" -- with Dean singing lead against Jan's bomp-bomp accompaniment -- was released in May 1959. By September, Jan & Dean's appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand had launched the new single into the national Top 10.

Jan & DeanJan & Dean cut a striking figure on television. Tall, blonde, and physically handsome, the duo typically sported loafers, casual slacks, and ultra-hip matching sweaters or jackets. By all accounts, the finger-snapping, shuffle-stepping Jan & Dean stood out in sharp contrast compared to the dark-haired, suit-and-tie crooners who were cranking out hits on the East Coast. In Jan & Dean, Lou Adler had found a definite "West Coast" marketability -- and the ride was just beginning.

 

 

'A Righteous Trip': In the Studio with Jan Berry

By the time he started working creatively with Brian Wilson in 1963, Jan Berry had been in the music business for nearly five years -- an eventful period, with an assortment of highs and lows that nurtured Berry's steady rise as a budding arranger and producer.

Jan & DeanHis growing musical talents had also taken Jan beyond the realm of "Jan & Dean." In May 1961, with a deal secured by manager and producer Lou Adler, Liberty Records released a single by The Gents called "Jump in the Line," backed with "Why Do I Love Her." The songs were written primarily by Tony Minichiello and Manuel Sanchez -- both of whom, like Berry, were alumni of University High School. Both sides were produced by Jan Berry, with assistance from Don Altfeld -- and both tunes were quite a departure from the established Jan & Dean sound. "Jump in the Line" was a Chubby Checker-like rocker (with perhaps a hint of Harry Belafonte?) with tight, three-part backing harmonies. The flipside, "Why Do I Lover Her," was a slow ballad with a beautiful multi-part vocal arrangement reminiscent of "There In The Night" -- a song Jan had experimented with during his garage days with The Barons. Lou Adler was given official credit for producing The Gents' single; and while it didn't burn up the charts, it nonetheless showcased Jan's burgeoning talents in the studio. He was twenty years old.

But other important things were also occupying Jan's time during this period. Music was merely a part-time endeavor for Jan Berry, and it had been that way from day one. He had the kind of Type-A personality that, together with his high intellect, thrived on managing a lot of different things at once. It seemed the more his mind had to chew on, the better he fared. Both Jan and songwriting partner Don Altfeld had enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Music aside, they were both full-time college students.

As a kid who demonstrated a penchant for minor delinquency as an adolescent, Jan Berry had an extremely high intellect, with a genius-level IQ. Grades were never a problem in high school. "And I'm a witness to that," marvels schoolmate John Seligman, "because, I mean, we had a physics class together. And I was struggling. And we used to sit next to each other. And I would cheat off his [paper]. He would let me cheat. He would show me the answers to the test, and I would still not do well on it. But he would get straight As. And I swear to god, he never cracked a book! He just kind of knew it. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Jan, how do you know all this stuff?' And he said, 'I don't know. It just comes naturally to me.'"

In college, he was even more determined to succeed academically. One morning, Jan bumped into his best friend in the library at UCLA:

"Still studying the Shakespeare," poked Jan, sarcastically.
"Sure," replied Don Altfeld.
"Well, what are you doing that for?"
"What do you mean?" asked Don, defensively.
"Well, who cares how many 'thes' are in Chaucer or Shakespeare?" scoffed Jan. "It's just a bunch of bullshit. It's so inexact. You want to do something exact. Like be a doctor. That's what you should do. Go pre-med. Study chemistry and physics. No questioning. Everything is precise in these worlds."


'We Go Together' - Picture Sleeve - 1960Doubtful of his abilities, but swayed by the powerful personality of his best friend, Don Altfeld -- already well into the undergraduate English curriculum -- abruptly switched gears to pre-med. Talk about a power shift. "Jan rattled my mind," declares Altfeld, "in a way that was never to change. I went home and couldn't get his words out of my head. This was a rather abrupt change. But hey, if my best friend Jan Berry could do it, and he was writing and recording hit songs and playing football, and had all the chicks (or just one named Jill), then I could certainly do it." Naturally, Jan himself was pre-med, majoring in physics (a major he would later change to zoology). He also joined a fraternity (the "Fijis") and found time to play intramural football at UCLA -- all while living a second life as "Jan & Dean." This confidence booster for Altfeld is evidence of a powerful trend. Jan's dynamic personality allowed him to sway people, a fact witnessed and attested to by more than a few friends. And not surprisingly, this trait was not always accepted positively by others. And that was fine with Jan. It came with the territory.
In addition to science

and football, Jan Berry had another interest in college. And this, of course, was music. Beyond his major-related courses, Jan took classes in music theory. He began to learn how to arrange and conduct, and how to make session charts for various instruments. This knowledge, together with what Jan was absorbing from Lou Adler, would soon be put to good use.

Jan wasn't content to simply play piano by ear (though he did take lessons briefly as a child). He had taught himself to read music, and was ready for the next step. And it's easy to understand how Jan became interested in the actual mechanics of music, which basically consists of two separate but related components: pitch and rhythm. Music, as an experimental science, follows a set of basic laws. This fit perfectly with Jan's ordered outlook on life, and he became fascinated. He gave it his all, and immersed himself in learning the basics of music theory.

Jan & Dean Onstage, Early 1960sDuring this period, a frequent companion for Jan was what must have been a well-worn paperback text. "I know the book, The Professional Arranger, probably had more impact on him than any other," remembers Altfeld. Written by well-known composer Russell Garcia and published in the mid-1950s, The Professional Arranger-Composer, Book 1, was quite influential. And though original copies are rare today, Book 1 is still considered a primary text. It started from the ground up, and progressed to an advanced level. Relating concepts in a style without stuffy academics, the book covered techniques for several musical genres, and taught concepts that could be applied in a more general manner. Jan carried this book around with him, and consulted it frequently. It wouldn't be long before the pupil began to surpass the teacher.

Having parted ways with partner Herb Alpert, Lou Adler signed on with New York music publisher Nevins-Kirshner. It was a major business development, with Lou becoming the West Coast representative of Aldon Music (named for Al Nevins and Don Kirshner). On September 11, 1961, Jan & Dean signed a recording artist agreement with Nevins-Kirshner -- a one-year deal for at least six sides, with the company's option to renew. Two weeks later, on September 25, Jan Berry signed a "General Agreement" with Nevins-Kirshner for services rendered as a writer and producer. By November, Lou Adler had succeeded -- through negotiations with ace producer Snuff Garrett -- in getting Jan & Dean a coveted deal with Liberty Records.

The Professional Arranger-ComposerBy February 1962, Jan was tinkering with the idea of producing a female artist known as "Pixie." He had also recorded a couple of sides for "Judy & Jill" -- featuring girlfriend Jill Gibson, and Dean's companion, Judy Lovejoy. The Judy & Jill recordings remained unreleased, but Jan was experimenting -- and gaining valuable experience as a session leader working with some of the best musicians in Hollywood. That April, Liberty released Deane Hawley's "Queen of the Angels," backed with "You Conquered Me." The A-side was co-written by Hawley and Lou Adler. Lou once again produced, but Jan Berry arranged and conducted both sides.

Throughout this period, Jan had of course begun to exercise his talents on the music of Jan & Dean. On the early sides for Liberty, when Lou was still producing, Jan was actually given label credit for arranging the compositions (which were becoming increasingly complex, with interesting horn and string embellishments). By the end of 1962, Jan (as an artist, with two different partners) had scored two major Top 10 hits, one Top 30 single, and seven other chart records scoring in the lower half of the Top 100. There had also been two albums, on which were six original compositions co-authored by Berry.

But perhaps most importantly, the last months of 1962 marked the final releases for Liberty and Nevins-Kirshner that would feature the name of Lou Adler in the producer's role. It would be Jan Berry's show from this point forward, and for the next three years he would remain in complete control as the creative and technical force behind a new and exciting brand of "Jan & Dean." Up to this point, the duo's style had been firmly rooted in the rhythm and blues sound -- very much in the vein of what would later become known as doo-wop. It was two-part harmony; a "black" sound, to be sure, and record buyers who had never seen the very white Jan & Dean assumed that the guys were African American. The sound and style had been relatively successful, but Jan was ready to take his act in a new direction. The budding producer had methodically learned his trade in the studio, and a major wave was about to break.

 

Source: "'A Righteous Trip': In the Studio with Jan Berry, 1963-1966." © 2001-2011 by Mark A. Moore. All rights reserved. (Dumb Angel #4, 2005).