Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean gets people strumming ukuleles
The tall, bushy-haired man who lingered with his ukulele in the doorway might have been mistaken for a stranger — one who had arrived too late for one of the room’s few seats and strummed his instrument unassumingly with the class.
Even the instructor’s brief introduction, delivered half an hour into the session, was casual. “This is Dean Torrence,” Chris Farmer said, shortly before the nine participants began piecing together the chords to “Barbara Ann.” “He grew up in West L.A., surfing and chasing girls and riding hot rods.”
To anyone who knew the history of Southern California rock — specifically the Beach Boys, who were the class’ focal point — those words dashed any anonymity. Taking a seat on a stool, the latter half of Jan and Dean told a story about how he came to sing guest lead on the 1965 hit, which the Beach Boys recorded in an intentionally ragged manner for the “Beach Boys’ Party!” album.
“I tried to think of the easiest, stupidest song I could,” the 74-year-old Torrence remarked with deadpan humor, describing how he wandered into a neighboring recording studio while Brian Wilson and company laid down tracks. “I didn’t have much longer than about 10 minutes.”
Judging from this Thursday morning Strummers of Surf City class in June at the Hyatt Huntington Beach Resort and Spa, he picked the right easy tune. Farmer, a former bassist and musical director for the Beach Boys, taught the class the song’s few chords and then led a play-along, singing the falsetto lead himself while Torrence chimed wordlessly beside him.
The students, who ranged from teenagers to senior citizens, felt their way through the notes, checking the chord chart on the shelf to be sure of finger positions. The minutes in between the morning’s three songs — “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Barbara Ann” — sounded like extended tune-ups, with faintly echoing plucks filling the small, circular room, whose tall windows looked out on the Hyatt’s courtyard.
Before the class launched into a faster “Barbara Ann” toward the end, Farmer turned to Torrence and quipped, “You were in your 20s when you recorded this. So you’re in your 30s now?”
Learning the vibrations
About 20 minutes into the class, Peggy Howell, the owner of the hotel’s Gallery HB, walked in and propped against the wall a poster commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” a song whose lyrics inspired the gallery’s placement of a vintage T-bird outside the front door.
“Here’s some inspiration,” Howell said before letting Farmer continue.
The gallery owner, who wore an American flag shawl to the class, has little in common with Jan Berry, the late other half of Jan and Dean. She has no musical background, at least beyond high school guitar and piano, and has spent most of her career in architecture. But like the “Dead Man’s Curve” auteur, she’s on a mission — albeit in a different way — to help Torrence spread Brian Wilson’s music to new listeners.
Jan and Dean never won the critical hosannas of the Beach Boys, but over the years, the acts’ paths have crossed repeatedly. Berry and Wilson co-wrote the song “Surf City,” which later gave Huntington Beach its official nickname, and the Beach Boys mastermind contributed to a handful of the duo’s other originals. Now with Jan and Dean relegated to history — Berry, who was permanently disabled in a 1966 car accident, died in 2004 — Torrence is helping his old friends again.
When Wilson and his surviving bandmates embarked on a 50th-anniversary tour two years ago, Torrence designed poster art, a piece of which hangs in the Gallery HB. His own band, the Surf City Allstars, regularly features Beach Boys veterans Al Jardine and David Marks; it bills itself online as “the only ‘tribute’ band on the planet where each and every member toured in the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean.”
And Strummers of Surf City, which began in January, was Torrence’s idea as well.
The longtime Huntington Beach resident pitched the idea to Howell after watching a ukulele ensemble at the Blessing of the Waves, an annual interfaith event held by the city’s pier. Howell jumped on the idea as a marketing tool for Southern California as well as the Hyatt, and the classes began in the gallery three days a week — which later expanded to four.
Participants in Strummers receive a small stapled booklet, “The Beach Boys for Ukulele,” which features chords and lyrics for a short list of tunes. (It may go without saying that Wilson’s more symphonic works, such as “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” aren’t on the curriculum.)
At first, Strummers of Surf City held only beginners’ classes; it’s since added intermediate ones that include “California Girls,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and, sure enough, “Surf City.”
“Those songs are magic,” Torrence said. “So the more attention you can bring to them, the better.”
‘He hasn’t changed that much’
Attention is something Torrence encounters often — particularly in Huntington Beach, which officially adopted the moniker Surf City in 1991. One time, Howell said, a man who had performed onstage with Jan and Dean at a concert decades ago recognized Torrence and excitedly told about how the duo had pulled him out of the audience for an impromptu sing-along.
“I can tell you that I’ve seen 80-year-old men turn 16 years old when they come in here,” she said.
Talking about the 1960s surf-rock scene today, it’s hard to skirt the topic of age. The Beach Boys’ 50th-anniversary tour featured video performances by deceased founding members Carl and Dennis Wilson, and frontman Mike Love has been known to kid about the group’s advancing years in concert. The group’s 2012 reunion album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” ends with an elegiac ballad titled “Summer’s Gone.”
Farmer, one of several instructors for Strummers, is a decade or more younger than some of his former bandmates, and he tossed off his own running commentary throughout the class. Before one tune: “I’ve been playing this thing since I was 4 years old, and now I’m 85.”
Fran Stebbins, who was visiting the Hyatt from Arizona with her family, became a Beach Boys fan in the 1970s, a decade after the band scored most of its hits. As for Torrence, who loomed over her in the makeshift classroom, she recognized his face from photos and television appearances.
“He hasn’t changed that much,” said Stebbins, who added that she felt slightly cowed to play in a group with a Beach Boys touring member and former collaborator. “They act so normal and just join right in with the class. I’m sitting here going, ‘I hope he’s not listening to me, because I’m not strumming so well.’”
If the students don’t master the tempo right away, so be it. Howell and Torrence cared more about cultural outreach than prowess when the gallery ordered hundreds of multicolored ukuleles. Visitors who take a single class borrow an instrument for that session; those who pay $148 for the full package become official Strummers, with a T-shirt, membership card and ukulele personally autographed by Torrence. (As the year progresses, members can vote on the Strummers website for their most improved peers, as well as those most in need of improvement.)
After Farmer’s class ran through its repertoire one last time at the Thursday class, it adjourned to the T-bird in the courtyard outside the gallery. An older man sat in the front seat while a pair of young women perched on the trunk above him, and the group sang “Fun, Fun, Fun” once again. Gallery staff, keen on providing souvenirs, filmed the performance for DVD.
Torrence, who strummed his ukulele with the group, still didn’t sing. But as he swayed back and forth in the California sun, a smile crept intermittently onto his face.
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