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The Tragic Life and Death of William Jan Berry (Jan and Dean)

Jan and Dean was the name of an American rock duo that consisted of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence. The duo helped pioneer the sound of surf rock, alongside contemporaries and friends the Beach Boys. Riding on the success of hit 1960s singles like “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve”, the duo continued performing together successfully up until William’s death in 2004. Join Facts Verse as we take a look at the tragic life and death of William Jan Berry.


William Jan Berry was born on April 3, 1941, in Los Angeles, California. His father was an aeronautical engineer that worked with aviation legend Howard Hughes as the project manager of the Hughes H-4 Hercules, or Spruce Goose. Dean Ormsby Torrence was also born in Los, Angeles, California, and was a little over a year William’s senior.

William and Dean met while the two were attending class together at Emerson Junior High School. Both boys were on the football team, and continued playing football during their high school careers. The pair attended University High School, and it’s there that they began practicing singing in harmony while preparing for practice in the locker room.

After the two realized that they had a knack for harmony, William and Dean got the idea to enter a talent competition that was being held by their school. With the help of a fellow student named Arnie Ginsberg, the duo began practicing popular doo-wop songs in preparation for the event. They practiced in William’s parents’ garage, and William’s father provided the group with the necessary musical equipment.

It was in 1958 that the group of William, Dean, and Arnie performed for the talent competition at University High School, and the performance resulted in much acclaim. The three of them thought that they might have a chance at becoming stars, so they wrote an original song and started practicing it in hopes of recording it. While the trio was practicing the song, Dean was conscripted into the United States Army Reserve. Because of this, William and Arnie ended up recording the original song without him.

The original song that the trio had come up with was called “Jennie Lee”. Arnie had gotten the idea for the song after seeing a poster for a burlesque dancer with the same name. William and Arnie recorded the song without Dean, and it became a modest success. Subsequently, the pair of William and Arnie released a few more singles before Dean eventually became available to record. Dean’s return came at the perfect time, as Arnie had decided that he was no longer interested in recording and wanted to focus on school.

It was after Dean’s return from the United States Army Reserve that he and William officially formed the duo of Jan and Dean. The two recorded a single with record producers Lou Alder and Herb Alpert called “Baby Talk”. Released in 1959, “Baby Talk” peaked at the No. 10 spot on the charts. The two continued recording, and started touring California. It was during this period that they met and befriended the Beach Boys and began working with Brian Wilson.

The most successful period for the duo of Jan and Dean came in the middle of the 1960s, not long after they had met and begun working with Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson helped the duo come up with some of their most successful songs, including 1963’s “Surf City”. As well, the duo found itself greatly inspired by the Beach Boys’ sound.

At the peak of Jan and Dean’s success, both William and Dean were still adamantly working on their college education. While most other musical acts at the time were interested in partying, William and Dean were focused on their studies. Dean was studying architecture, while William was studying science and medicine. William also took some music classes, which helped him with his songwriting and allowed him to exert his influence on the duo’s production.

The success of Jan and Dean’s music led to several multimedia ventures, some of which turned out much better than others. One of the duo’s more successful attempts at branching out into other mediums was The T.A.M.I Show, a concert film the duo hosted and performed in that also included several other major acts of the time, such as James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, and Chuck Berry. The film was released in 1964. That same year, the duo also recorded a song for the film Ride the Wild Surf.

If The T.A.M.I Show represented an incredibly successful multimedia venture for the duo of Jan and Dean, there were other ventures that were not so successful. The duo were said to have filmed two separate failed television pilots, one in 1963 and another in 1966. The first one was called Surf Scene, and the second one was called On the Run.

Although William and Dean had vibrant personalities on the stage, they didn’t seem to transfer that well to television. Perhaps this is why the duo ended up being portrayed by other people in the 1978 made-for-television biopic film Dead Man’s Curve. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! As well, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

In addition to the two failed television pilots that Jan and Dean had filmed, the duo also attempted to film a movie for Paramount Pictures that was going to be called Easy Come, Easy Go. The failed project was aptly titled, as production ended up stopping long before the film finished. The cause of the abrupt halt to production was a railroad accident that had left the director of the film and several members of it’s crew seriously injured. William and Dean thankfully managed to get off unscathed, though William would later suffer some serious injuries of his own a year later.

Production had halted on Easy Come, Easy Go in 1965, and William got into a serious car accident in 1966. Notably, the accident took place on Dead Man’s Curve, a curve on Sunset Boulevard that had been the titular subject of one of the duo’s most popular songs. After the accident, William was in a coma for a period lasting over two months. He eventually awoke from the coma on June 16, 1966.

After waking from the coma, William had a lot of recovery time ahead of him. His brain had been severely damaged, and his body was partially paralyzed. He had very limited range of motion in his right arm, which meant that he had to learn how to write with his left hand. As well, he had to completely relearn how to walk.

Dean had continued his recording career without William, releasing the album Save for a Rainy Day in 1966. However, Dean began working with him again as soon as William had recovered adequately enough from the accident. The duo signed an agreement with Warner Bros. Records in 1967, and subsequently released three unsuccessful singles. The duo then recorded an album titled Carnival of Sound that was shelved until 2010, years after William’s death.

By the 1970s, the duo of Jan and Dean had found their fame waning in favor of new psychedelic acts. However, a Rolling Stone article published in 1974 detailing William’s accident and his recovery process helped renew interest in the duo and their music. The article led to the filming of the 1978 made-for-television biopic Dead Man’s Curve.

With the release of 1978’s Dead Man’s Curve, Jan and Dean were immortalized as true surf rock legends. The duo continued performing throughout the 1980s, and even throughout the 1990s. As the years raged on, people developed more and more nostalgia for the surf rock sound that Jan and Dean authentically exemplified. In 1991, William married a woman by the name of Gertie Filip. The two married at the Stardust Convention Centre in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Dean served as the ceremony’s best man.

William and Dean performed together to varying degrees of success for several decades before their time as a duo was cut short by William’s death in 2004. The surf rock icon passed away on March 26, just days before he was set to turn 63. The legendary musician’s body was cremated.

Following William’s death, a celebration of the late singer’s life was held at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California. The event was held on April 18, 2004, and many of Jan and Dean’s contemporaries were present.

Dean is still alive today, and is currently still living in California. The elderly surf rock musician lives with his wife and their two daughters at their residence in Huntington Beach. While the duo of Jan and Dean may not be the ubiquitous entity that the Beach Boys are, their music and image still continue to have an impact on the culture at large.

William and Dean are routinely referenced in media, and are always some of the first figures brought up when surf rock is the topic of discussion. Alongside the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean helped shape the sound of the genre as we think of it today. Without William Jan Berry, surf rock wouldn’t exist!


Jan and Dean had many successful hits as a recording duo, including “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve”, both of which were co-written by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Comment down below to share what your favorite Jan and Dean song is, or if you were surprised to learn about the tragic life and death of William Jan Berry, the man that made up one half of the beloved surf rock duo. As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

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