Richard Nisley

The Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Pop Culture Released - Jan 08, 2013

Yes, singing in the shower CAN make you a star.

In the case of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, singing in the shower at University High School in Los Angeles after football practice put them on the road to stardom. At first, they were part of a singing quartet, four golden-locked jocks clowning around until someone told them, “If you guys would quit the clowning you might be pretty good.”

While attending college, they harmonized at dance hops and talent shows until it stopped being fun. Then it was just the two of them, Jan and Dean. When Dean enlisted for a six-month hitch in the Army Reserve, it was just Jan.

Jan retooled an old Civil War tune called “Aura Lea” and came up with “Jennie Lee.” His father bought a two-track Ampex recorder and helped him convert the garage into a makeshift recording studio. Jan hooked up with a Dean Torrence sound-alike named Arnie Ginsburg and the two recorded “Jennie Lee” in Jan’s garage. They took the tape to a Hollywood record company to have it transferred to acetate disc. By chance the owner heard their recording and liked it. He invited the boys to rerecord the song with his studio band for commercial release.

Released in May 1958, “Jennie Lee” became the surprise hit of the summer, climbing to number eight on the pop charts. A national tour followed coupled with a fruitless search for the proverbial follow-up hit, which never materialized. Arnie lost interest and was replaced by Dean Torrence, who by now had returned from active duty.

It might have ended there had lightning not stuck again, with “Baby Talk” which reached the top 10 in the summer of 1959. A second national tour commenced followed by yet another fruitless search for a follow up hit. They began working with Herb Alpert and Albert Moss as producers (founders of A&M Records) and a studio band that would become famous as “The Wrecking Crew” and scored a third top-ten hit in March of 1963 with “Linda.”

It was around this time that Jan and Dean met Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and discovered they had much in common: they loved singing harmony, surfing, and fast cars, in about that order. Jan and Brian wrote “Surf City” which in the summer of 1963 became the number-one hit in the country. Surf music had arrived and Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys were riding the crest.

Now it seemed Jan and Dean couldn’t miss. For the next two years they scored 16 top 40 hits, and wrote the title song for the movie, “Ride the Wild Surf.”

One of their biggest hits was “Dead Man’s Curve” a song that proved prophetic when Jan Berry crashed his Stingray near the actual Dead Man’s Curve. It put him out of action for nearly a decade. By the time he fully recovered the music scene had changed considerably and Jan and Dean were now an oldies act. No matter. They were delighted to be performing together again. Singing and clowning like the old days in the shower at University High, Rolling Stone Magazine dubbed them “The Clown Princes of Rock ‘n‘ Roll.” They loved it. The fun continued until Jan’s death in 2004.

Don’t knock singing in the shower.
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