Years before they found fame as the surf music duo Jan & Dean, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence honed their sun-kissed signature sound by singing in their football team’s shower room at University High School in West Los Angeles.
“We’d just stand around and sing doo-wop songs wherever we could find tile,” Torrence recalled, noting the space had “great acoustics and great echo.”
Berry and Torrence went on to become one of the best-selling acts of the 1960s, releasing a string of chart toppers including “Surf City,” “Drag City,” “Dead Man’s Curve” and “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”
According to Torrence — who lives in Huntington Beach and helped the city secure its “Surf City USA” status — Jan & Dean owed their success partially to their image. With their clean-cut looks and carefree songs about fast cars, cute girls and catching waves, the duo represented everything desirable about California culture.
“It was the whole lifestyle: the water and the sky and palm trees and kids in bathing suits out in the sun,” said Torrence, whose partnership with Berry was cut short by the singer-songwriter’s death in 2004.
Berry and Torrence got their start in high school as members of the doo-wop group The Barons.
The Barons recorded their early efforts in the garage of Berry’s Bel Air home using Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorders given to his father by boss Howard Hughes. They’d play the results during house parties.
“All our friends were smart enough to say, ‘Oh, that’s really good,’ or they’d get kicked out of the party,’ ” Torrence recalled, but the recordings showed promise. “We did realize our songs could stand up to other people’s songs.”
He nearly missed out on the fun. When Torrence was conscripted into the U.S. Army Reserve, Berry and Barons bandmate Arnie Ginsburg were forced to record the single “Jennie Lee” without him. The song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard charts in June 1958 and earned Jan & Arnie an appearance on ABC’s “The Dick Clark Show.”
By the time Torrence completed his six-month stint at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay, however, Ginsburg had lost interest in show business. Berry and Torrence united as Jan & Dean, and scored a No. 10 slot with “Baby Talk” in 1959.
More hits followed, culminating with the No. 1 single “Surf City,” written by Berry and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Torrence said the song’s success came as a surprise.
“We just never figured anyone outside the West Coast would be interested in a song about surfing,” he said, but they were wrong. Listeners eager for sand and sun went wild — much to the chagrin of Southern California surfers.
“Surf culture didn’t want people to glorify (surfing) because that just meant more people,” Torrence explained. “All the gremmies, all the hodads would grab a surfboard and head to Malibu and take up all the parking spots.
“I could see their point, but that didn’t mean we were going to stop making records.”
By 1966, Jan & Dean were at the top of their game, riding high on the success of a 1964 concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” and a handful of hit albums. The duo was even eyeing an ABC sitcom, “Jan & Dean on the Run,” slated to debut the same season as NBC’s “The Monkees.”
Then, in April 1966, Berry was involved in a serious car accident that left him with brain damage and partial paralysis on his right side.
“When Jan had his accident, it was over in a day,” Torrence said, adding that the change in his partner was noticeable. “He went from an IQ of 177 to 68… Some things he still did very well. Music, lucky for us, was one of them.”
As Berry recovered, Torrence released several singles and the 1966 concept album “Save for a Rainy Day,” featuring rain-themed songs. (Another Jan & Dean concept album, the psychedelic “Carnival of Sound,” wasn’t released until 2010.)
He also launched a graphic design company, Kittyhawk, and began creating album covers and logos for the likes of The Beach Boys, Steve Martin, Linda Rondstadt, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Torrence, who has a degree in advertising design from the University of Southern California, shared a 1971 Grammy Award for Best Album Cover with photographer Gene Brownell for a Pollution album.
Return to touring
Jan & Dean’s return to touring came in 1978 in the wake of the CBS television movie “Deadman’s Curve,” starring Bruce Davidson as Torrence and Richard Hatch as Berry.
“That movie helped tremendously… It was pretty powerful,” Torrence said. “Within six months of it first airing we went directly from not doing anything musically to performing with the Beach Boys at Three Rivers Stadium” in Pittsburgh.
Although Jan & Dean enjoyed more than 20 additional years together before Berry’s death, Torrence acknowledged performing proved difficult near the end.
“It got to the point it wasn’t physically working anymore,” he said. “I had to try and find some graceful way of winding down, which wasn’t easy.”
Still, he added, “It was a nice run.”
Now Torrence carries on Berry’s legacy as “The Jan & Dean Show” backed by the Surf City All-Stars.
“It’s basically the same band,” said Torrence, who joined the Beach Boys onstage during their 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour in 2012. “The only one that’s missing is Jan.”
IF YOU GO
Dean Torrence and The Surf City All-Stars
8 p.m. Saturday
Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande
$39 to $48
489-9444 or www.clarkcenter.org