Jan Berry, the singer and writer who pioneered the Southern California surf, sun and cars sound in tandem with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, died Friday after suffering a seizure in his Brentwood home. He would have turned 63 on April 3.
Berry, who crooned “two girls for every boy” in his first No. 1 hit, “Surf City,” with partner Dean Torrence, was declared dead at UCLA Medical Center. He had been in ill health recently, having never fully recovered from a 1966 car accident that left him with brain and physical damage.
He was among the first recording artists to handle production and arrangements, and his technical abilities would have a great effect on his friend and collaborator, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
Having earned a degree in zoology from UCLA, Berry was a pre-med student at California College of Medicine balancing studies with his music endeavors as “Surf City” became a No. 1 hit.
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Raised in Bel Air, Berry formed his first band, the Barons, with Torrence, future Beach Boy and Hondells member Bruce Johnston and drummer Sandy Denny at Emerson Junior High School. After the group broke up, Berry recorded with Arnie Ginsburg as Jan & Arnie and in 1958, their homage to a local stripper, “Jennie Lee,” reached No. 8 on the U.S. singles chart. Torrence was still singing with the duo, but didn’t get credit as he was drafted just prior to its release.
A year later, however, Jan & Dean emerged with “Baby Talk,” a No. 10 hit. Produced and managed by Lou Adler, they continued to record in a style reminiscent of 1950s vocal groups and teen idols. They changed significantly with 1963’s recording “Linda,” Jack Lawrence’s tune from 1940, which only reached No. 28. They sang all of the backing voices themselves and, via overdubs, layered the vocals with a single falsetto as the lead.
The paths of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys crossed in 1963, when the Wilson clan was opening a teen hop show for Jan & Dean. Brian Wilson, who had nicked a vocal hook from “Baby Talk” for “Surfin’,” and Berry became fast friends and collaborated on an album’s worth of material to surround “Linda.” Included in the album “Jan and Dean Take Linda Surfin'” were versions of “Surfin'” and “Surfin’ Safari” featuring Berry singing bass, Torrence singing lead and the Beach Boys handling the rest of the vocals.
Wilson had started to write “Surf City” and gave it to Berry to finish. Berry crafted, via overdubs of instruments and voices, a single that came to define the Southern California surf ethos and, technically, would be the blueprint for all of Jan & Dean’s records. Berry and Wilson, who sang the lead on the tune with Tony Minichiello, would later collaborate on “Drag City,” “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Ride the Wild Surf.”
Roger Christian, Berry’s disc jockey friend who would play new Jan & Dean recordings on KFWB so Berry could hear them in his car, also collaborated on many of Jan & Dean’s hits, including “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” which he co-wrote with Don Altfeld.
Jan & Dean continued to have top 40 singles through mid-1966 with “Popsicle” and released albums that exposed the breadth of Berry’s talent — a symphonic record, a folk rock record, “Jan and Dean Meet Batman” — even if they caused rifts with label execs at Liberty and its parent company Screen Gems. ABC even offered the duo a sitcom.
On April 12, 1966, Berry’s career came to screeching halt after he crashed his Corvette Stingray in Beverly Hills. In a coma for months, Berry was partially paralyzed on his right side and had irreversible brain damage.
Once Berry came out of the coma, he worked with a speech therapist as Torrence found himself a substitute Jan as well as concentrating on a career in advertising design.
Warner Bros. inked a deal with Berry in 1968 and he guided a recording of his music from the sidelines; it was never released. In 1972, Adler, who owned Ode Records, signed Berry and released several singles. In June 1976, Berry joined Dean onstage at North Hollywood’s Palomino nightclub, paving the way for a reunion that would peak following a 1978 TV movie called “Dead Man’s Curve.” Their last show together, with Berry in a wheelchair, was on March 6 in El Cajon.
Berry fought depression and drug battles in the 1980s. He recorded a solo album, “Second Wave,” in 1997.
In addition to his wife, Berry is survived by his parents, three brothers and three sisters.