Jan Berry, of the surf duo Jan and Dean, recently died at terribly young age. Jan was Class of ‘58 at University High School (UniHi) in West L.A.; I was Class of ‘59.
Nancy Sinatra was in Jan’s class at UniHi. Tommy Rettig, the star of Lassie
(who insisted on being called Tom), was in mine. Sandra Dee, who filmed Gidget
in 1959, and went to our Summer ‘59 prom but graduated Class of ‘60. James Brolin (Bruderlin) was earlier, probably ‘57. Singer-songwriter Randy Newman was Class of ‘61. Beau Bridges was my classmate at Webster Junior High, but he went to Venice High.
To thwart gangs, UniHi encouraged more supervised groups affiliated with the YMCA (HI-Y) and YWCA (TRI-Y). These clubs varied in status, like fraternities and sororities, and Jan and Dean were in a top group, the Barons. I belonged to a totally unsupervised lowbrow group, the Ladds, which was supposedly a car club except few of us had cars. Paul Sessums was often the designated chauffer in his cool ‘49 Merc. In 1985, Sessums created a legendary blues club in Austin Texas, the Black Cat Lounge, before dying tragically in an auto accident a few years back.
Half the Ladds–the more muscular half–were from Hamilton High. A few Barons, not Jan or Dean, used to tease and intimidate UniHi Ladds. We were supposed to fight it out one weekend, but somebody had the good sense to bring a football. The game turned out to be unexpectedly close, which generated mutual respect and ended the tension. I nonetheless thought of Jan as physically intimidating at parties, a big football player with a persuasive scowl. It was good to be bad in those days, and some were more convincing actors than others.
Biographies of Jan and Dean note that they first used the Barons as the name of their singing group, but there were really three dozen Barons and they didn’t all sing. It was Jan and Arnie Ginsberg at first, then Jan and Dean Torrence.
The late Fifties and early Sixties was a time of rapid transformation in the definition of cool–in music, cars, clothes and hairstyles. Those with a sense of fashion like Jan and Dean, were switching to khakis with a buckle in the back while my friends were still wearing low-riding Levis and rolled-up shirt sleeves. We listened to black R&B on Hunter Hancock’s show (the Ladds’ party favorite was “High Blood Pressure” by Huey Piano Smith). Jan and Dean’s favorites were what we’d have dismissed as white bread, such as “Book of Love,” “Little Star” and “Hushabye.” Greased hair combed into a jellyroll (early Jan Berry) or waterfall (Dean), was on the way out. Shorter blonde hair, like Dean’s later flattop, was on the way in. I was still swing dancing in 1958 with my “American Bandstand” dance partner Romelia Guevara. By 1961 swing was dead in L.A., replaced by the twist and the surfer stomp.
Paul’s Merc was dropped in back, by torching the springs. That was still common practice on what was called (with inadequate cultural sensitivity) a “taco barge.” That vintage Merc, which resembles an upside-down bathtub, was a favorite with the Falcons de Sotel, a Chicano group, but a ‘49-54 Chevy was a close rival. Some needed casters on the rear bumper to get up a driveway without scraping the twin tailpipes.
Rich kids’ cars, by contrast, soon became inclined rather than reclined. Rather than being lowered in the back, they were raised in back–”raked”–with fat rear tires. Spoiled teens had ‘55-58 Chevys pin-striped by von Dutch. As a poor imitation, I helped my fellow-Ladd Don Brown rake his ‘50 Ford by moving the rear axle to below the rear leaf springs. It looked hot, but the wildly bent U-joints did not last long.
Coming of age in L.A. in the late Fifties was pretty cool. But today’s cars, movies, and fashions are really much better. Restaurants are better too, with the exception of the Apple Pan on Pico, which is still as good as it ever was. Pop music is probably better too, but not nearly as magical. There was something uniquely special about hearing Chuck Berry for the first time at Venice beach, Little Richard opening the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, and catching the debut of Heartbreak Hotel at a roller-skating rink. Some of us stuck in that groove too long. I was still singing “Slippin’ and Slidin” with a garage band from Santa Monica College in the early Sixties, which was downright retro.
But music suddenly caught a new big wave when Dick Dale (who is still an astonishing guitarist) released “Let’s Go Trippin’” in 1961- the same year, the Beach Boys came out with their first hit, “Surfin” and Jan and Dean with their second, “Heart and Soul.”
Surf music came into its own at the same time twist clubs and coffeehouses sprung up. The Forty Thieves coffeehouse in Venice had silk hung from the ceiling and flat mats like a harem, with occasional poets and Mose Allison’s “Seventh Son” on the jukebox. It was a fabulous time to be young in L.A. And a lot of the credit for all that fun goes to Jan Berry. The unique sound of Jan and Dean created continues to put smiles on the faces of everyone who hears it.
As Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers put it, “if there’s a rock’n'roll heaven, I’ll bet they have a hell of a band.” Jan Berry and Bobby Hatfield just made it even greater.
–Alan Reynolds, an economist and writer, is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute in Washington D.C.