Jan Berry and Brian Wilson — The Songwriting Collaborations
By Mark A. Moore
Author of Dead Man’s Curve: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of Jan Berry
By August 1962 Jan & Dean had begun performing live with the Beach Boys, an up and coming band from the South Bay founded in 1961. Jan Berry and Brian Wilson (the new group’s leader) became fast friends, bonded creatively, and at the urging of Jan & Dean’s manager Lou Adler, soon began writing songs together. By that time Jan had been in the music business for five years with a string of original songs, arrangements, productions, and hit records to his credit. Moreover, Jan knew the Hollywood studio system inside and out.
Brian’s musical gifts, even at that early stage, were remarkable. Jan and Brian pushed each other and learned from one another, both technically and musically. They made a formidable team, with all of their collaborations being arranged and produced by Jan Berry.
While Brian was influenced by Phil Spector, he was never a member of Spector’s inner circle. Indeed, Spector has shown little more than disdain for Wilson over the years. Jan and Brian, however, were personal friends—and Brian spent more time in the studio with Jan, either watching or working with him, than he did with Spector. It was Jan who played a major role in steering Brian toward using the Wrecking Crew musicians for Beach Boys sessions.
Let’s take a look at the six hit records and five album cuts they wrote together.
(1) – Gonna Hustle You
Recorded in March and April of 1963, “Gonna Hustle You” remained unreleased until April 1966 when it was tacked onto the hodgepodge Filet of Soul LP. An alternate early title was “Get a Chance with You.”
(2) – Surf City
Recorded in March and April of 1963, “Surf City” was released in May and hit #1 in July (#3 R&B)—the Surf genre’s first #1 record.
Brian doubled the lead vocal with Jan and contributed to the backing vocals.
“Surf City” and “Gonna Hustle You” were the only Berry-Wilson collaborations that originated with Brian Wilson. These were the two unfinished songs that Brian brought to the table when Lou Adler first arranged to bring Jan and Brian together as songwriters. At the time of his first creative collaborations with Brian, Jan had been signed to Nevins-Kirshner Associates (based in New York City) as a songwriter and record producer since September 1961. His subsequent original material had been published by Aldon Music. Lou Adler headed the West Coast office of Nevins-Kirshner, based at 6515 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where Jan and Lou served as a California extension of the Brill Building team of writers and producers. By the time he started working creatively with Brian, Jan had been receiving official label credit as an arranger since 1961—for Jan & Dean and for other artists. He assumed the official producer’s role for Jan & Dean in December 1962 with the sessions for “Linda.”
In April 1963, a month before “Surf City’s” release, Nevins-Kirshner was acquired by Screen Gems-Columbia Music, a major entertainment corporation based in New York City. Jan’s artist, songwriting, and producing contracts with Nevins-Kirshner were absorbed and renewed by Screen Gems—and Lou Adler became head of the company’s West Coast office (still based at 6515 Sunset Boulevard).
By contract, all of Jan’s original compositions were owned by Screen Gems—both the publishing and the master recordings. This meant that anyone co-writing songs with Jan—including Brian Wilson—forfeited any publishing for their contributions. They did, however, receive a songwriting royalty.
The sessions for “Surf City” and “Gonna Hustle You” marked the beginning of Jan’s signature sound as an arranger and producer, using two drummers playing live in tandem, in unison, in the studio with multiple guitars and multiple basses.
For subsequent compositions with Jan, Brian was brought in as a member of Jan’s creative team.
(3) – She’s My Summer Girl
Recorded in March and April of ’63, “She’s My Summer Girl” was the B-side of “Surf City,” co-written with Jan’s longtime friend and collaborator Don Altfeld, whose many co-writing credits with Jan began with Jan & Arnie in 1958. Don never worked directly with Brian Wilson, whose involvement was strictly with Jan. “She’s My Summer Girl” was later included on the Ride the Wild Surf LP in 1964.
(4) – Drag City
Prior to becoming a contributing lyricist for Jan Berry’s compositions, disc jockey and car enthusiast Roger Christian had collaborated with Brian Wilson on “Shut Down” for the Beach Boys. Released in November 1963, “Drag City” reached #10 on the national charts in January 1964. Brian added his voice to the backing vocals.
Roger, whose first collaboration with Jan had been the hit single “Honolulu Lulu,” became one of Jan’s closest friends and continued writing songs with him throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.
The original copyright for “Drag City,” filed in November 1963, did not include Brian Wilson. His name was added a month later.
(5) – Surf Route 101
This strong album cut from the Drag City LP was inspired by “Sugar Shack,” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, which received a mention in the lyrics. The track was recorded in November 1963. Jan’s girlfriend Jill Gibson made a vocal cameo, trading spoken lines with Jan. While his name was included as a writer on the album packaging, Brian’s name was not included in the copyright filing.
(6) – Dead Man’s Curve
The original copyright for “Dead Man’s Curve,” filed in December 1963, did not include Brian Wilson. His name was added to the copyright in April 1964, after the song had been released as a single in February.
According to Gary Usher, he and Brian contributed to the harmony vocals on the 1963 Drag City LP version of the song (which featured a sub-par lead vocal by Jan), before Jan upgraded the arrangement and vocals for the hit single version.
Jan and fellow Screen Gems staffer Artie Kornfeld had co-written the hit single “I Adore Him” by the Angels (#13 R&B, #23 Cash Box, #25 Billboard), which peaked on the charts in November 1963.
Following the success of “I Adore Him,” Artie Kornfeld had been sent from New York to Los Angeles by Charlie Koppleman and Don Kirshner to live with Jan for a few months and write more songs with him, leading to their collaboration with Brian and Roger Christian on “Dead Man’s Curve.”
Roger came up with the title. The Los Angeles landmark “Dead Man’s Curve”—a sharp bend on Sunset Boulevard near Groverton Place, where iconic voice actor Mel Blanc was injured in a 1961 auto accident—had been name-checked in Roger’s 1962 single “Last Drag.” Various lyrics in Roger’s spoken-word ditty were nearly identical to what he had written for “Shut Down” by the Beach Boys. “Last Drag” also ended in a car crash—complete with sound effects.
Brian was listed as a paid musician on the AFM contract for the tracking session that produced “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Surf Route 101” in November 1963.
The iconic opening of “Dead Man’s Curve” was inspired by the opening bars of “I’m Dying to Give You My Love,” a song Jan had co-written with Don Altfeld in 1961. In October 1961, Jan arranged and produced the track for “I’m Dying” in the Girl Group genre for an artist named Pixie. The song had been slated as a single for Epic Records but remained unreleased.
The harmonies on the Surf City and Drag City LPs were sung by the Matadors—Tony Minichiello, Vic Diaz, and Manuel Sanchez—high school classmates of Jan’s who were signed to Colpix Records, and thus part of the Screen Gems family. Jan & Dean’s voices were also part of the harmony stacks.
Released as a single in February 1964, “Dead Man’s Curve” reached #8 on Billboard and #9 on the Cash Box charts in May. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
(7) – The New Girl In School
“The New Girl In School” was the B-side of “Dead Man’s Curve.” Brian Wilson received a songwriting credit for “The New Girl In School” because it used the melody from “Gonna Hustle You,” one of Brian’s first two collaborations with Jan in early 1963. “Gonna Hustle You” was still unreleased at the time. Issued in February 1964, “The New Girl In School” reached #26 on Cash Box and #37 on the Billboard charts in April. Jan’s production featured a deeper arrangement and was recorded in a different key than “Gonna Hustle You.”
(8) – Ride the Wild Surf
“Ride the Wild Surf” was the title track for the Columbia Pictures film of the same name, released in August 1964. The film starred Fabian, Tab Hunter, Peter Brown, Shelley Fabares, Barbara Eden, and Susan Hart.
Jan’s employer, Screen Gems-Columbia Music, Inc., put him in position to write music for Columbia Pictures, and he brought Brian Wilson aboard to collaborate on “Ride the Wild Surf.” The song was recorded in early 1964, and Brian doubled the lead vocal with Jan in February.
Surviving session tape reveals Brian’s peripheral involvement and his unabashed admiration for Jan’s arrangement of the song. “Ride the Wild Surf” peaked at #16 on Billboard and #23 on the Cash Box charts in October 1964.
(9) – Surfin’ Wild
The tracking session for “Surfin’ Wild” was held in December 1963—one of the standout cuts on the Ride the Wild Surf LP, released in August 1964.
(10) – Move Out Little Mustang
The original title was “‘A’ Deuce Goer.” Like Jan’s earlier original composition “‘B’ Gas Rickshaw,” the title “‘A’ Deuce Goer” referenced a class of dragster known as a “gasser”—basically a stock car with a non-stock engine. Classes included A/Gas, B/Gas, etc. However, the title and lyrics were changed to reflect the new Ford Mustang, which debuted in April 1964.
The track (as “‘A’ Deuce Goer”) was recorded at the same session as “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)” in March 1964. Though originally intended for Jan & Dean, Jan slated this song for the “Rally-Packs” (singer-songwriters Phil Sloan and Steve Barri) and credited the production to Dunhill Productions (Lou Adler’s firm), released on the Imperial Label.
Sloan and Barri had been staffers at the West Coast office of Screen Gems, hired by Adler. The pair sang harmonies on many of Jan & Dean’s recordings beginning with the Dead Man’s Curve / The New Girl In School LP in early 1964. The main nom de plume for Sloan and Barri was the Fantastic Baggys. When Adler founded Dunhill Productions with Pierre Cossette and Bobby Roberts, Sloan and Barri followed Lou to Dunhill and Trousdale Music.
Jan purposely withheld his name from the “Rally-Packs” release, not taking credit for the songwriting or the production (but still getting paid in those capacities through Dunhill). The ruse was part of Jan’s scheme to bypass his obligations to Screen Gems while writing and producing for additional “outside” companies. Unfortunately for Jan, Screen Gems called him on it, and “Move Out Little Mustang” became part of the infamous Screen Gems lawsuit against Jan, Lou Adler, and others in June 1964.
The suit was settled out of court in July, but Jan lost his official writing credit as a result. After the settlement, “Move Out Little Mustang” still counted against Jan’s production quota for Screen Gems (the legal owner of the track), so he included it on the Little Old Lady from Pasadena LP in September of ‘64, even though Phil Sloan sang lead. Jan simply put the “Rally-Packs” version on the Jan & Dean album.
The Little Old Lady album jacket and disc label correctly listed Jan’s songwriting credit. In addition to arranging and producing the song, Jan sang bass on “Move Out Little Mustang.” The female voice is his girlfriend Jill Gibson.
(11) – Sidewalk Surfin’
Brian Wilson received a songwriting credit for “Sidewalk Surfin’” because it used the melody from Brian’s composition “Catch A Wave,” a strong non-single album cut from the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl LP, released in September 1963.
Since “Catch A Wave” had already been published by Sea of Tunes, the company established in 1962 to handle Brian’s original compositions, Jan could not claim a songwriting credit. Jan’s Screen Gems contracts strictly prohibited him from working with, or associating with, any outside production company or music publisher. Thus the publishing for “Sidewalk Surfin’” went to Sea of Tunes instead of Screen Gems.
Brian received a writing credit for use of the melody, which left the lyrics, the full credit for which went to Roger Christian. If not for the legal restriction from Screen Gems, this likely would have been a Berry-Christian-Wilson composition, per Jan’s previous collaborations with Brian and Roger.
“Sidewalk Surfin’” was recorded in July 1964 and peaked at #25 on Billboard and #28 on the Cash Box charts in December. The famous skateboard anthem marked the end of Brian’s songwriting connection to Jan & Dean.
A Formidable Team
Brian Wilson’s collaborations with Jan Berry were Brian’s only successful ventures as a songwriter outside of the Beach Boys in the early to mid-1960s. Between 1962 and 1965 Brian wrote, arranged, and produced material for a string of “outside” artists—Bob & Sheri, the Honeys, Sharon Marie, the Survivors, the Castells, Paul Petersen, and Glen Campbell. However, none of these releases charted, despite being issued on major labels (Capitol and Warner Bros.) when Brian was at the height of his powers.
Brian never worked with outside collaborators for lengthy periods of time, and his tenure with Jan fit that mold. Jan holds an interesting place in the string of outside songwriters that Brian worked with—Gary Usher, Bob Norberg, Roger Christian, Jan Berry, Tony Asher, and Van Dyke Parks. All but Jan worked on Beach Boys records with Brian.
Murry Wilson (Brian’s insecure, domineering father and the Beach Boys’ early manager) successfully pushed Gary Usher out of Brian’s creative orbit. But Murry could not stop Brian from working with Jan.
While Murry saw Jan as a “Hollywood” interloper and detested Lou Adler for bringing Jan and Brian together as songwriters, Brian thumbed his nose at his father and relished the songwriting success he achieved with Jan.
Brian truly wanted to maintain a creative outlet outside of the Beach Boys. He wrote and produced for other artists, and enjoyed doing it, but he also wanted those endeavors to be successful, to build his resume. Unlike Jan, Brian was not signed to a major entertainment company as a producer. Brian had to fight Capitol Records for full production authority over Beach Boys sessions, and to be able to record outside the confines of Capitol Studios.
On the songwriting front, Jan helped Brian achieve one of his goals by providing a successful creative channel beyond his own band. The hit records and strong album cuts they wrote together have stood the test of time.
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