Surf Music Pioneer Dies
Berry had a seizure and stopped breathing Friday at his home. He was pronounced dead that evening at a hospital, said his wife, Gertie Berry.
Berry, who would have turned 63 on April 3, had been in poor health recently from the lingering effects of brain damage from a 1966 car crash.
Jan & Dean had a string of hits and 10 gold records with their tales of Southern California’s laid-back lifestyle. Among them were 1964’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” about a hotrod racing grandma, and 1963’s “Surf City,” with its lines about taking the “woody” station wagon to a place where there are “two girls for every boy.”
Berry was considered the creative force behind Jan & Dean and pioneered, along with friend and The Beach Boys member Brian Wilson, the innovative “surf music” sound of driving drums and guitar and falsetto harmonies. Wilson co-wrote the lyrics for “Surf City” and “Deadman’s Curve.”
Berry, whose full name was William Jan Berry, was born in the wealthy Bel-Air area of Los Angeles to a large family. His father, William, was an engineer who helped build Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” airplane, Gertie Berry said.
Berry and Dean Torrence met while playing high school football in West Los Angeles. Teammates would harmonize on doo-wop songs in the shower room and eventually some friends formed an informal singing group called The Barons – named for their car club – and practiced in the garage at Berry’s home.
Berry’s professional singing career began in 1958 when he and friend Arnie Ginsberg recorded “Jenny Lee,” inspired by a striptease artist. It reached No. 8 on the U.S. charts.
Berry and Torrence were reunited the next year and began making hits. Over three years, they had a dozen songs in the Top 40.
“I was famous before my 18th birthday; and I relished all that came with that,” Berry said in a 2003 statement posted on his Internet site. “Hit records, national television, and beautiful women. We were golden boys in an era when things like rock-n-roll and television were in their infancy.”
He also entered medical school while the group was producing records and intended to be a doctor.
Those plans and Jan & Dean’s hit-making were cut short in 1966 when Berry’s speeding Corvette rear-ended a parked gardener’s truck in Beverly Hills.
He suffered severe brain damage that left him partially paralyzed and unable to talk. His recovery was slow, but eventually he was able to resume singing and writing songs.
“I was impatient and aggressive. I was childlike. I scared people,” he recalled in the Web site statement. “I caused problems for people, for my family, and I caused enormous sums of money to be spent in the studio. But guess what? I started producing music again; and in time I started singing on my own again.”
In 1973, Jan & Dean had their first show since the accident. In 1978, a TV movie called “Deadman’s Curve” based on their lives reignited their popularity and they went on tour with The Beach Boys. The pair broke up again in 1981 because of Berry’s acknowledged cocaine use. They reunited 18 months later and went on to perform around the country. Berry also made solo albums, including 1997’s “Second Wave.”
“He always liked to be out there doing something,” his wife said. “The only career he had left was the music career.”
He pursued it despite suffering from seizures and lingering problems remembering and pronouncing words. In recent years, he had cut back on his work because of weakness and pain, although Jan & Dean performed as recently as three weeks ago, his wife said.
Berry helped found the Jan Berry Center for the Brain Injured, a rehabilitation facility in Downey, and said he became something of a model to those with such problems.
“People who have had similar misfortunes come up to me after performances, some of them in wheelchairs, and explain how my story has inspired them to find their own way again,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Berry is survived by his parents, William and Clara Berry of Camarillo; three brothers and three sisters.
No funeral services will be held. Berry donated his body to medical science, his wife said.