Today Jan & Dean are best remembered for their 1960s series of surf and car singles that were second only to The Beach Boys in terms of commercial success. What people forget is that the duo placed 11 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 before they grabbed onto The Beach Boys’ coattails.
During the early 1960s, they opened for The Beach Boys in a number of concerts. Seeing the success of their type of music, Jan Berry asked Brian Wilson if he had any songs they could record. Wilson would not give them “Surfin’ USA” but did give him two unfinished songs, which he would share writing credit if Berry finished them. The first was “Gonna Hustle You,” which Berry changed to “New Girl in School.” The other song made history as the first number one surf song of the rock and roll era. “Surf City” first reached the Billboard Hot 100, June 15, 1963, and 50 years ago this week reached number one, where it remained for two weeks.
If there was one thing Jan Berry could do, it was produce a song. He may not have been in Brian Wilson’s league but he had the ability to create a virtual choir of sound from his and Dean Torrence’s voices. He would then layer in the instruments to create layers of sound. He may not have had the musical vision of Wilson, but he was able to create some of the catchiest and best singles of the era. The problem was Jan & Dean could not re-create the sound on stage without an array of backing vocalists.
The opening harmony on “two girls for every boy” was an attention getter. It was a brilliant piece of up-tempo pop that made one want to pack up and head for the shore.
Their commercial success came to an end April 12, 1966, when Jan Berry was involved in a serious car accident. He suffered severe brain damage, from which it took him years to recover. It took almost a decade before they began to tour regularly again. While the hits stopped, they were summer regulars on oldies tours until Berry’s death in 2004.
The music of Jan & Dean is part of that nostalgic eternal summer. They may not have changed American music but they made it a bit more pleasurable and fun and sometimes that is enough. No matter what people may think of their legacy, 50 years ago this week Jan & Dean ruled the American music world.