Wow. To use the old ’60s cliche, ‘what a bummer.’ Jan Berry dead at 62. While his passing did not shock me — like Dennis Wilson’s death in Marina del Ray in ’83, or the tragically premature death of Carl Wilson, in ’98 — still, the death of Jan on Friday, March 26, is a cold reminder of how fragile life truly is. You’re literally ‘here today, gone tomorrow.’
I turned 60 on Wednesday, March 24. Jan passed away on Friday. I’m still numb from it all. Tears are welling up in my eyes as I remember the great times we had through the years.
I met Jan & Dean three years before I met the Beach Boys. It was a Dick Clark Show being filmed at Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco Bay — 1960. I was 16. I was not involved in promoting ‘live events’ in those days . . . just a high school sophomore doing weekend deejay relief at a jazz station and still working for ‘free’ as a radio ‘gopher’ so I could ‘hang out’ at the Top 40 stations in Sacramento.
I still have the ticket to that Dick Clark Show. I still remember it as if it were yesterday. Jan & Dean were ‘cool.’ Unlike the Everly Brothers — who lived a million miles away in Nashville — Jan & Dean lived in California. They didn’t sing songs about ‘devotion,’ ‘bird dogs,’ or falling asleep at the drive-in movies. They sang about cars, surf, cruising, and having a crush on that ‘new girl in school.’
Their sun tanned good looks and youthful optimism personified the California lifestyle — two full years before Brian Wilson and ‘the boys’ would make it into a recording studio. In fact, within two years of that Dick Clark Show, the Beach Boys would be ‘opening’ for Jan & Dean!
After the Clark show I walked over to the two of them and introduced myself. In just a few brief minutes I felt I’d known them my entire life. They had had two major hits at that point, “Jenny Lee” [sic] and “Baby Talk.” Surf and car songs were still three years away, but they had already established themselves as a duo to be reckoned with.
Two years later — May 24 of ’62, to be exact — during my senior year at El Camino High School, a San Francisco concert promoter, Pete Marino, was bringing a ‘star studded’ outdoor concert to the Sacramento County Fairgrounds. Headlining was Johnny Crawford, of the hot ‘Rifleman’ television series. Also on the show was Bobby Freeman, who lived in San Francisco, and whose hit single, “Do You Wanna Dance,” would later be covered by the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Ramones. Also on the show were Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, including Smokey’s wife, Claudette. They had just had their first major hit, “Shop Around.” Rounding out the show were my two friends from Southern California, Jan & Dean.
El Camino High School was in the affluent north area of Sacramento and somehow — be it childhood bravado, or the fact that I was too naive to think they’d say ‘no’ — I approached the promoter, Marino, with this novel idea: why not bring the whole show out to our high school for a ‘free’ concert? If the kids like the ‘sneak preview’ many of them might talk their folks into attending the concert that evening. It worked!! Marino agreed to let me bring the entire cast to my high school for an afternoon assembly. It was my ‘first’ major concert event.
I had just turned 18. I met everyone at the Sacramento Inn . . . a nice hotel on the north side of the city. However, only Dean was on hand. Jan had missed the L.A. flight because of school commitments at UCLA. He was a ‘pre med’ student with a ‘genius IQ.’
Finally, Jan arrived and we all caravaned to the school — about a fifteen-minute drive. The kids had filled the “Boy’s Gym” to capacity. And, since school was now over — as it was well past three o’clock — word had gotten out that this big show was going on at El Camino, so kids from other area high schools were coming by the hundreds to partake of the free show!! The County Sheriff had to shut the doors to the gym. It couldn’t hold any more!
I was the school Commissioner of Entertainment, so I introduced the cast to the crowd and everyone did one song — lip synching to their hit record through a cheap PA system. That was not that uncommon in those days. Few acts carried full bands.
Ironically, exactly one year later, on May 24, 1963, I promoted the first Beach Boys concert at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. I’d found my niche: working as a part time deejay for $1.50 an hour — and booking teen clubs and concerts for the ‘big bucks.’ Back then, the ‘big bucks’ amounted to about $600 a concert — if it was successful. But with gas 14.9 cents a gallon, new cars selling for $1,500, and houses for $25,000, $600 was a lot of money for a nineteen year old in 1963!
When I persuaded Murry Wilson and Brian Wilson to record a ‘live’ album in Sacramento [in 1964], it became the Beach Boys’ first #1 album and first ‘Gold’ album. I received a phone call from Jan. “Fred, we want you to do a show for us just like you did for Brian and the band.” “You mean you want to cut a ‘live’ album in Sacramento”? I asked. “Yes, the kids there are great,” replied Jan, adding: “They scream their asses off! Get together with Lou (Adler) and work out the details. Will you do it?” asked Jan. “Are you kidding? Sure, count me in,” I replied. I was just 20 years old and having far more fun (fun, fun) than any of my high school peers.
Once in a while, I even managed to get paid for it! But the real reward was getting to ‘hang out’ with many recording artists that just one or two years earlier, I had been listening to on the radio, or spinning their records on my own radio program.
Artists like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Freddy Cannon, my old buddy, Ray Peterson, who I still see almost every single week, The Surfaris, The Righteous Brothers, Dick and DeeDee, Paul and Paula, Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Rivers, The Dave Clark Five, and so many more.
So that was all happening around the time of Jan’s phone call. The album, recorded at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium on October 24, 1964, became the foundation of Jan & Dean’s Command Performance album. Since Jan was co-writing songs with L.A. deejay and television personality, Roger Christian, I was asked to introduce Roger, who, in turn, would introduce the duo. I remember Roger’s introduction: “Welcome to ‘Scream City.’ Guys, hang on to your girls. Girls, just ‘hang on.’ Here’s America’s #1 duo, Jan and Dean!!”
I had suggested using L.A. studio musicians, as Sacramento did not have a rhythm section the caliber of the L.A. session cats. Here was the lineup: Hal Blaine, drums; Glen Campbell, electric guitar. I paid Glen $200 for the show!! Of course, everyone but Blaine did ‘double duty.’ Glen sang a few songs, Steve Barri and Phil Sloan did their “Fantastic Baggys” show. A Canadian singer, Terry Black, also appeared. It was a great concert.
I booked Jan & Dean pretty regularly in those early ’60s days. Teen clubs, concerts, dances. We did them all. Most of the time they ‘lip synched.’ They did not carry their own musicians on many of those dates. That would come years later with the “Bel Air Bandits” and “Surf City All-Stars.”
My friend, Mack Choate, and I, drove over to Tunica, Miss., last June (’03) to see Jan & Dean perform at Sam’s Town. Jan had to be wheeled to the stage and assisted up onto the stage, where he was seated for the entire performance on a stool.
Dean, Mack, and I, had lunch together that afternoon, prior to the sound check. I could see that Dean was getting frustrated with the situation. Jan could barely get up the strength to do one show a week. The idea of doing a national ‘farewell tour’ was a physical impossibility. That early morning fateful 1966 accident had taken it’s toll.
The good looking teen idol of the early ’60s . . . the pre-med student with enormous talent . . . was no longer there. In a way it was sad to see the toll life had taken on Jan, but in other ways, it was uplifting and, in reality, ‘inspiring.’
Prior to the concert, as Jan sat in the backstage dressing room, I watched and listened as he spoke — and attempted to sing — the words to one of their biggest hits. He was struggling with every line but he would not give up. He was determined to ‘carry his share’ of the concert. After all, he was “Jan” of “Jan and Dean.”
He was one-half of one of the biggest vocal duets of the rock era. He was also one of the first to co-write and co-produce his own records. His partnerships with Roger, Lou, and Brian, were legendary.
Jan started singing: “I’ve-got-it-bad-for-the-new-girl-in-school, the-guys-are-flippin’-but-I’m-playing-it-cool.” Jan struggled with every word, often repeating a line two or three times before he moved on to the next. He’d look over at me every now and then for encouragement. I sat down next to him and started singing the lines with him, telling him it was gonna be great. He sang the same lines over and over. Over and over.
Then it was show time. He was wheeled to the stage, assisted to his stool, and the band started into the first song. It was “New Girl In School.” Jan had put a half hour into rehearsing his lines for that one opening number. There he was, pouring out his heart in song. For a brief moment, Jan was a ‘star’ again. For a brief moment, he was that sun-tanned teen idol from Southern California.
Lately, as I look at my own mortality, I think of Jan and those early ’60s days. I also think of our visit in Tunica and visiting with Jan & Dean during the making of “At The Drive-In,” the PBS special the duo filmed in Austin, Texas, just a few months before Jan’s passing.
And I think of Denny and Carl. I can vividly picture the three of them getting together and remembering the ‘good old days’ when true ‘God-given’ talent reigned supreme. When you could sing the lyrics to any song in front of your five or six year old — and not have to explain the words or make excuses for the ‘expletives.’
It was also a time when you didn’t have to Pro-Tool (tune) the singer’s lead vocals, and when the kids came to concerts decked out in suits and dresses. Going to a ‘live’ show was an ‘event’ back in those wonderful early ’60s.
I’m sure that right about now, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Jan Berry are doing a little ‘three part’ harmony. In many ways, I’m looking forward to our next show, and, as Pat Boone promised us in his Top 5 hit from 1958, “Everybody’s gonna have a wonderful time up there, (oh, glory hallelujah).”
You led a great life, Jan Berry. You deserve a good rest.
Your friend and fan,