Jan Berry may not have been the most original musical force ever, but he definitely knew how to knock off someone else’s sound successfully.
He’d been hanging around on the edge of the music business for years, first as a member of The Barons, a doo-wop group that got no further than playing a handful of high school hops, but which had featured Sandy Nelson and Bruce Johnston on drums and piano, and then in 1958 as a duo with his schoolfriend Arnie Ginsberg.
Jan And Arnie had had one massive hit — Jennie Lee — which had reached number three on the Cashbox chart. But the follow-up had only reached number 81, and the single after that hadn’t charted at all, and Ginsberg had given up on the music business. Another former member of The Barons had just got out of the army, and so despite Dean Torrence’s manifest lack of singing ability, Jan And Arnie quickly became Jan And Dean.
But the new duo had an almost entirely parallel career trajectory to the old — a top ten hit with their first single, Baby Talk, and then a bunch of flops (with one fluke single just scraping the top forty).
They kept going for a few years, putting out singles with any label that would have them — Doré, Ripple, Challenge — with no success. These singles were nominally produced by two young men named Herb Alpert and Lou Adler, but Jan Berry was smart (he was studying at UCLA at the time, soon to transfer to the California College of Medicine to pursue a medical career in parallel with his musical one), and was watching and learning, as well as making sure that he got his fair share of the songwriting credit.
They’d even managed to release an actual album, on Doré records, on the back of their one hit. The Jan & Dean Sound had a cover photo of the two crewcut teens wearing their best sweaters, and contained songs like White Tennis Sneakers and My Heart Sings. It didn’t sell much, even by the small standards of the singles-dominated rock and roll market.
By April 1961 it had been almost two years since Baby Talk. Jan and Dean needed another hit. And so they got one by Jan’s favourite technique — copying someone else.
In February that year, a doo-wop group called the Marcels had had a massive hit with an uptempo cover version of the old standard Blue Moon, speeding it up and basing it around a new hook — bass singer Fred Johnson’s insanely fast “bom bop a dom, b-dang b-dang dang” vocal part.
Two months later, on the seventh of April, the Cleftones released a doo-wop cover version of Heart And Soul, another old standard — a song by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser that had been performed by almost everyone at one time or another. Their version was rapidly rising up the charts when Jan and Dean went into the studio.
Heart And Soul is based around the same I-vi-ii-V chord sequence as Blue Moon (and a million other songs — it’s the standard chord sequence used in almost every doo-wop ballad, which is why those two songs had been suitable for doo-wop revivals), so Berry took the basic arrangement idea from the Marcels’ single (the fast bass vocals, here “bom ba bom-bom ba dip-da dip-dip da du-da-da-dun-dun da dingidy dingidy”) and applied it to the other song, churning out a quick knockoff with very little musical merit — the most notable features being the honky-tonk piano break and the fact that both Berry (who sings the bass part and the abrasive lead) and Torrence (who harmonises and takes the brief falsetto) had quite unpleasant voices.
It is, by any reasonable measure, a far, far worse record than either of the Marcels or Cleftones tracks. The tempo drifts quite sloppily, neither Berry nor Torrence can stay on key, and the whole thing has a muddy sound from too much bouncing down for overdubs. It’s an amateur-sounding record, and certainly doesn’t sound like the work of a man with three years’ experience in the music business and several hits behind him.
But Jan and Dean also had a secret weapon — whiteness. While the Marcels were an integrated group, and the Cleftones were black, Jan and Dean were both clean-cut blonde-haired white boys with crewcuts. So while they didn’t overtake the Cleftones in the charts, they did suddenly have another hit — the single went to number twenty-five on the Billboard chart, and sixteen on Cashbox.
Soon they were signed to Liberty Records, a genuinely big label which had acts like Julie London, Henry Mancini and Bobby Vee. Liberty had turned down Heart And Soul, but had soon realised its mistake, and in 1961 and 62 Jan and Dean released a whole string of new tracks — a cover version of Who Put The Bomp?, a follow-up to Baby Talk entitled She’s Still Talkin’ Baby Talk, anything that would allow Berry to do his low bass scat vocals.
None of them charted. By August 1962 Liberty was releasing a greatest hits album — their career was over for a third time.
Jan Berry needed to find a new model to copy, and quickly — and he found that model in a band whose first single had borne more than a little resemblance to Jan and Dean’s own sound…
Heart and Soul / Those Words (reissued the next month with replacement B-side Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Composers: Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser
Line-up: Jan Berry and Dean Torrence (both vocals)
Original release: Challenge single 9111
Currently available on: Many, many multi-artist compilations, along with similarly public-domain works by the Beach Boys, the Surfaris and others.