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OC Leader Board: Huntington Beach – The Real Surf City

Editor’s Note: Dean Torrence led the battle for Huntington Beach to claim the title “Surf City,” a logo used by more than 200 local businesses. Torrence, who nowadays can still be found singing at concerts and private parties all around the U.S., and who serves on the board for the city’s main tourism marketing group, wrote this Leader Board for the Business Journal, including some excerpts from his book, “Surf City: The Jan and Dean Story.”

I’ve known Orange County since I was a child when every summer, my family would spend a month in a small, rented house on Balboa Island.

I’d sail small boats called “Snowbirds” in the harbor, surf at Huntington Beach and captain the Balboa ferry as a teenager. I also attended the 1954 International Boy Scout Jamboree in Newport at the site where the Fashion Island shopping center now sits.

My first impression of Jan Berry was as an arrogant teenager who had skipped class to smoke a cigar outside our high school classroom. He was blond, good looking, smart, an exceptional athlete on our high school football team and from one of the wealthiest families in West Los Angeles.

After football practice, we’d all hit the showers where we’d sing doo-wop songs popular in the day. The old tile shower room had a great echo! Someone needed to sing the falsetto. Nobody took it, so I did.

Jan met a couple songwriters who we hired as our managers and producers: Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. We knew they were extremely talented, but little did we know that both would become legends in the music industry.

They helped make our first record, “Baby Talk.” I can vividly remember the overwhelming feeling I had when I held my own record. It was beautiful. The label was blue, the vinyl was shiny black, and my name was spelled right. I couldn’t wait to take it home to show my mom and dad.

Dick Clark played it three times on his American Bandstand. The song is only two minutes and 17 seconds long but wow, that was fun! It was wild! The song soon hit the top 10.

One day, Jan and I were driving to the beach in my Corvette when we heard on the radio: “Surfin’ is the only way, the only life for me, so come on pretty baby and surf with me, yeah, bomp, bomp, dipadittydip bomp bomp dipadittydip.”

We looked at each other. Who the hell were these guys and why have they stolen our bomps and they even had the gall to swipe our dipadittydips just to rub it in! And why the heck were they singing about surfin’?

That’s when we first learned about The Beach Boys. When we met them, we were 22 and old compared to them.

Brian Wilson, a true genius, had given up on writing a song titled “Surf City,” so he gave it to us; Jan and I finished writing it. Glenn Campbell was our lead guitarist on that song, which became the first surf song to hit No. 1. We became one of the biggest fans of the Beach Boys.

An old buddy saw a commercial from a Southern California car dealer that featured an old lady driving a Super Stock Dodge.

So, we decided to write a song about her. “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” was a very cool song with a great hook, a great melody and it had the Jan and Dean humor front and center. It became our fifth top 10 record in a row.

One day in 1965, I visited The Beach Boys when they were recording their Live Party album. They asked me if I wanted to sing something. I said sure and they rattled off some songs that I knew would take some rehearsing and I didn’t have a lot of time.

I suggested “Barbara Ann,” which Jan and Dean had done a version of four years prior but didn’t release as a single. We did a quick three takes.

In about 12 minutes, we recorded the second best-selling single The Beach Boys ever recorded. Because of legal issues, my name wasn’t included in the album; I unofficially sang lead.

One morning in 1966, Jan got a draft notice that upset him. He took off in his Stingray and had his infamous accident that put him in a coma for a few weeks. The Stingray looked like it had been dropped out of an airplane. I remember staring at the passenger seat where I had often sat—it was obliterated.

A decade later, CBS made a movie about our careers, “Deadman’s Curve,” that was watched by 35 million viewers. We could have made up to $2 million on a soundtrack but didn’t because our music label executives told me, “One play on TV doesn’t sell records.”

The movie helped restart our music careers as we went back on tour. We worked with corporations like Budweiser to play free shows to the public at Spring Break Beach Concerts. Average attendance was 20,000 to 30,000 college kids.

Jan eventually recovered from his accident, sort of. The wreck caused Jan brain damage as his IQ plummeted from around 175 to 68. After he recovered from cocaine addiction in the early 1980s, we did more than 1,500 concerts in a 20-year period. Jan died from a massive seizure at the age of 63 in 2004.

Even though I was a star, I knew the music would stop one day. I earned a degree in advertising design from USC and started my own company, Kittyhawk Graphics, named after the place where the Wright brothers first flew their airplane.

As a recording artist, I was always frustrated by the almost total lack of attention given to music packaging.

Over the years, I designed more than 150 album covers for The Beach Boys, Steve Martin, Diana Ross and others. Two of my covers for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were nominated for Grammys.

I won a Grammy for a cover for the group “Pollution” that showed a chicken coming out of an egg with a gas mask on the back cover; the little chick looked dead, but it had actually passed out from marijuana smoke.

The cover, which I hated and was embarrassed about, beat others that should have won. BTW, I still haven’t won a Grammy for my music.

Since I had been doing the branding for rock musicians, I thought I’d help the beautiful beach town of Huntington Beach where I live by encouraging it to use the logo “Surf City,” similar to how New York City uses “The Big Apple.” I have been on the Visit Huntington Beach /Surf City USA board of directors for over 30 years.

In the old days, we made money mostly from sales of records, which were split 10%-15% to the artists, 5% to the record producer. The song writers and song publishers also got a percentage as well. The music business model of today couldn’t be more different.

Everybody can share music with each other for free. Now you can make a ton of money playing live. There is a company called SoundExchange that keeps track of plays on the radio and podcasts etc.; they do send some pretty healthy checks.

The future of the music industry could revolve around holograms, which Dick Clark was very interested in. Artists from the past and present could be playing in hologram venues 100,000 or 500,000 or more times a day all over the world.

I sense something big is coming, probably revolutionary from the tech world that nobody has thought about yet. AI will probably be the driving force.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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