Dean Torrence

Dean Torrence turns 81 today. Just saying that is a reminder to us boomers that pages in the history of Rock and Roll are turning.

My one encounter with the gifted artist who founded Kittyhawk Graphics and was the gently sarcastic half of Jan and Dean was at the duo’s concert in Holland, Michigan in the late 1970s. By then, he was doing the talking for the team. Jan Berry was still recovering from the car wreck that left him with brain injuries and partial paralysis. But that didn’t stop the show. Interest in the team had been rekindled by a 1974 Rolling Stone article, an anthology LP and a 1978 CBS docudrama, “Deadman’s Curve,” Dean was philosophical about it all, grateful for the second chance and still in awe of the magic that happened whenever the two took the stage. He was generous with the time he gave to a 23 year old disc jockey who was more than a little star-struck. Somewhere I still have the tape of that encounter.

Dean Torrence came into the world ahead of the curve. His parents were scouting jobs in LA when Dean decided to make his appearance. Taking that as a sign, Maurice Torrence took a gig with the Wilshire Oil Company the first of many fateful twists and turns that would lead the son toward show business.

Jan and Dean in 1959

Jan and Dean shared an affinity for football when they met at Emerson Junior High School in Westwood, Los Angeles. At University High School, they shared adjoining lockers and joined other team members, including future actor James Brolin, harmonizing in the showers after practice. Jan and Dean helped form “The Barons”, a doo-wop outfit created for a high school talent contest. The group rehearsed in Jan’s garage, recording their best stuff on Maurice’s two track Ampex tape recorder.  Sandy Nelson, lived next door to Dean and played drums, while future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston would sometimes sing and play piano.

The duo’s fortunes bifurcated for a time when Dean was drafted into the army reserve. Jan, as ever the organizer, recorded “Jennie Lee,” a tune written by fellow Baron Arnie Ginsburg, with Arnie as his partner. It became a surprise hit. Both Jan and Arnie were under 18, so their dads had to sign the contract with Arvin records, who added instrumentation and released the single in the Spring of 1958. Three singles later, Jan & Arnie performed “The Beat That Can’t Be Beat” on CBS’s Jack Benny Show, on October 19, 1958.

By the time Dean returned from his six-month hitch, Arnie had become disenchanted with show business and Jan and Dean began their career together in earnest,. They sought the assistance of  record producers Herb Alpert and Lou Adler, who helped craft their first top ten hit, “Baby Talk“. Despite the success, both Jan and Dean went to college, Dean getting his first taste of the design skills that would become the essence of his art at Kittyhawk, while Jan considered medical school.

Wikipedia records that, “Jan and Dean reached their commercial peak in 1963 and 1964, after they met Brian Wilson. The duo scored sixteen Top 40 hits on the Billboard and Cash Box magazine charts, with a total of twenty-six chart hits over an eight-year period (1959-1966). Berry and Wilson collaborated on roughly a dozen hits and album cuts for Jan and Dean, including Surf City, co-written by Jan Berry and Brian Wilson, in 1963. Subsequent top 10 hits included Drag City (#10, 1964), the eerily portentous Dead Man’s Curve (#8, 1964), and The Little Old Lady from Pasadena (#3, 1964).

“In 1964, at the height of their fame, Jan and Dean hosted and performed at The T.A.M.I. Show, a historic concert film directed by Steve Binder. The film also featured such acts as the Rolling StonesChuck BerryGerry & the PacemakersJames BrownBilly J. Kramer & the DakotasMarvin Gayethe SupremesLesley GoreSmokey Robinson & the Miracles and the Beach Boys. Also in 1964, the duo performed the title track for the Columbia Pictures film Ride the Wild Surf, starring Fabian ForteTab HunterPeter BrownShelley Fabares, and Barbara Eden. The song, penned by Jan Berry, Brian Wilson and Roger Christian, was a Top 20 national hit. The pair were also to have appeared in the film, but their roles were cut following their friendship with Barry Keenan, who had engineered the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping.”

When Jan Berry’s Corvette slammed into the back of a truck on April 12, 1966, on Whittier Drive, nearby Dead Man’s Curve in Beverly Hills, California, Dean Torrence’s fortunes shifted again. He released several solo efforts before turning to graphic design.

His company, Kittyhawk Graphics created album covers and logos for many notable artists including Harry NilssonSteve Martin, the Nitty Gritty Dirt BandDennis WilsonBruce Johnstonthe Beach BoysDiana Ross and the SupremesLinda RonstadtCanned Heat, and the Ventures.

An urban legend arose that Dean created the iconic logo for Chicago. Rate Your Music correct’s that misconception: “Jim Guercio, aka James William Guercio, worked in the same building as Dean Torrence and asked him to create a logo for the first version of Chicago’s name: Chicago Transit Authority. Kittyhawk Graphics started this logo design (this is the close-up used on the CD reissue), and envisioned the style to be like the Coca-Cola logo. However, as Dean’s specialty was art direction and not illustration, completion of the logo was performed by John Berg of the NYC offices of Columbia records, who finished it just as Jim and Dean had envisioned.”

Paul Morantz’s “Road back from Deadman’s Curve” article appeared in Rolling Stone in 1974. The story would have been front page news in the magazine, had Richard Nixon’s resignation not bumped Jan and Dean from the cover. But Morantz’s piece drew eyeballs and lead to the deal with CBS for the docu-drama that rejuvenated Jan and Dean’s career. There were ups and downs. Jan struggled with addiction and the pair split for a time. But Jan and Dean ultimately reunited in 1983, and continued to tour for the next 21 years until Jan’s death on March 26, 2004.

In a 2005 piece in the Orange County Register, reporter David Farrell wrote, “In one of those surreal instances in which life and art intertwine, Dean Torrence became a catalyst in turning his adopted town, Huntington Beach, into the official Surf City. He spearheaded the push in 1991, when the City Council voted 6-1 to use the nickname as part of a major marketing campaign. The effort involved spending $2,500 to copyright the slogan.”

Dead Man’s Curve in 1961

Every time I travel to Los Angeles, I make several pilgrimages. I walk the Santa Monica Pier, where Route 66 terminates. And I visit the turn on Sunset Boulevard immortalized as “Dead Man’s Curve.” A footnote: Legendary cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc was severely injured there in 1961, and later sued the City of Los Angeles, which ended up reconfiguring the road to make it less deadly.

I imagine what it must have been like to be a young Dean Torrence, in a time when he was an age mate with The Beach Boys (Dean sings the falsetto on the hit single “Barbara Ann”), and how talent and tenacity made it possible for two young men with a dream to make important contributions to the soundtrack of my life.

You learn as you age that every soul who crosses your path has both gifts and flaws. How we use the tools we are given and how we recover from the inevitable setbacks we face are the brush strokes that add our personal pigment to the ever evolving tapestry of time. Dean Torrence’s adventures remind us of how fate and will often intersect to create fascinating art that will be remembered long after we’ve painted the last picture.

Dean Torrence takes in the sunset on the beach at the Huntington Beach pier. 5/19/15 – PHOTO CREDIT: BILL ALKOFER – ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Today in History: Mar 10

1876: The First telephone call is made; Alexander Graham Bell says ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you’ to his assistant Thomas Watson.
1956: RCA Records buys a half page ad in Billboard Magazine claiming that Elvis Presley is ‘the new singing rage.’
1958: ‘Our Song‘ is released by a teenage duo from Queens, New York billed as Tom and Jerry. They will gain worldwide fame in the 60s as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
1960: Record Retailer magazine releases the first First UK album chart. The LP ‘The Explosive Freddie Cannon‘ is first No. 1
1964: Simon and Garfunkel record ‘The Sounds Of Silence‘ as an acoustic duo. It isn’t until record company producers add electric guitar, bass and drums, without the duo’s knowledge, that the song would becomes the next year. (Original) (With Guitar and Drums)
1973: Pink Floyd releases ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ in the US. It will spend 957 weeks on the Billboard LP chart.
1978: ‘The Incredible Hulk‘, starring Bill Bixby as David Banner, premieres on CBS
1984: Ian Gillan, former lead singer for Deep Purple, leaves Black Sabbath.
1988: Singer Andy Gibb dies of an inflammatory heart virus in Oxford, England.
1997: The PalmPilot, as developed by Jeffrey Hawkins, is released

Today’s Birthdays:

Jon Hamm

1918: Heywood Hale Broun, TV commentator and sports correspondent, born in NYC, New York (d. 2001)
1940: Dean Torrence (Jan and Dean) (Surf City, Drag City , Dead Man’s Curve, The Little Old Lady from Pasadena)
1940: Chuck Norris, American martial arts actor (Missing in Action), born in Ryan, Oklahoma.
1947: Tom Scholz (Boston) (More Than A Feeling, Don’t Look Back)
1955: Bunny DeBarge (Debarge), born in Grand Rapids Michigan.
1958: Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct, Sliver, Casino), born in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
1971: Jon Hamm (Mad Men – Don Draper), born in St. Louis, Missouri
1977: Robin Thicke (Blurred Lines)
1983: Carrie Underwood (Some Hearts) born in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

One for the Road: In the mid 1950s, Kathryn Minner and her husband, Sam, followed their son from New Jersey to Southern California when his insurance job transferred him there. in 1957, at age 65, she made her first television appearance in the “Big Switch” episode of Dragnet. For the next decade, she played the archetypical little old lady in a wide array of television and movie assignments from “I Spy” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” to Disney’s “Love Bug”. Her work in a series of TV commercials for the Southern California Dodge Dealers, inspired KHJ DJ and songwriter Roger Christian’s collaboration with Jan Berry to create “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit