Growing up in Los Angeles’ wealthy Bel-Air neighbourhood, Jan Berry was an overachiever who at the age of 17 scored a Top 10 hit, Jennie Lee (before The Beach Boys were formed) as half of Jan and Arnie, and had 11 hits before 1963’s Surf City crested the surf music wave.
The gifted Berry (Brian Wilson once said, “I thought he was a genius in the studio”) shifted into overdrive, fashioning six studio albums in 16 months while taking pre-med courses. And though much of the material was formulaic, Berry’s music at its peak scaled the same heights as the era’s top American auteurs, Wilson and Phil Spector.
He and Dean Torrence celebrated Californian beach and hot rod lifestyle in a series of slick records including Surf City (which Berry co-wrote with his friend Brian Wilson and which contained the memorable line “two girls for every boy”), Drag City and Dead Man’s Curve – a chilling, lavishly orchestrated, block-by-block account of a race down Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills and Bel Air that ends in a tragic crash.
Prior to the surf boom the duo had experienced some success in 1961 – 1962 with a ridiculous version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Heart and Soul and Who Put The Bomp?
After the surf craze died out they recorded an odd collection of tracks including Batman and Bucket T (both later covered by The Who) and a version of The Beatles‘ Norwegian Wood which was a US-only hit in 1966.
Jan Berry was seriously injured in 1966 after crashing his speeding Corvette into a parked truck on a Beverly Hills street (pictured below).
Fighting brain damage and paralysis, he struggled to regain normal speech and mobility, but never fully achieved either.
Nonetheless, his strength and determination enabled him to record again – albeit haltingly – on a couple of singles in 1967, and later a series of singles on a label owned by his production mentor Lou Adler.
Torrence rejoined Berry for touring and occasional recording (they toured China in 1986 and performed together as recently as 2004).
Berry also pieced together a little-noticed solo album, Second Wave, in 1997.
Jan Berry died at the age of 62 on Friday 26 March 2004 in Los Angeles after years of health problems stemming from his 1966 automobile accident.
His wife, Gertrude, said he suffered an apparent seizure at his Brentwood home; the cause of death was not disclosed.