When summer meant fun
P.F. Sloan may be the most famous songwriter you never heard of. But for those who grew up in Southern California in the golden glow of the mid-'60s, back when the music really mattered (to us, anyway), for a brief incandescent moment he produced the soundtrack of our lives.
Sloan's range was phenomenal: starting with 1950's rockabilly, he cycled through a little R&B, short-order surf and hot rod tunes, British-invasion-styled pop songs and ballads, jangly folk-rock "protest" music, shimmering sunshine pop, and by the end of his run, had even wandered off into the garden of psychedelia. Sloan's output was prolific, and no genre seemed beyond his ability to master.
His songs have been widely anthologized, and many are not just good, or even great: they're certifiable classics, instantly familiar to even the most casual oldies fan. But Sloan was more than an unusually adroit young hack in Tin Pan Alley's West Coast branch: besides writing or co-writing so many memorable tunes, he played electric and acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, sang both leads and high harmonies, produced and arranged with such polish that even his demos could become hits.
Sloan's career was meteoric in every sense - it flared as briefly as it did brightly before it suddenly burnt out. The bulk of his output spanned only four years, from 1963-1967, with only fitful attempts at a comeback since then. And despite his fantastic early success, when he had the Midas touch and his work seemed to be everywhere, within a few short years Sloan had faded away in the industry so completely that others could claim with impunity to have created his licks, written his songs, and in one bizarre case, even invented his very identity. By 1971, in fact, he'd become such a ghost story that fellow composer Jimmy Webb (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman) codified the legend in a poignant tribute song, P.F. Sloan:
Last time I saw P.F. Sloan He was summer burned and winter blown He turned the corner all alone But he continued singing
Born in New York in 1945 to middle-class Jewish parents (his father Harry was a pharmacist), in the mid-1950s young Philip Schlein relocated with his family from Long Island to Los Angeles. They took an apartment on Crescent Heights just off Sunset and half a block from Greenblatt's Delicatessen. But almost perversely, the Schleins inaugurated the move into their new Fairfax neighborhood by dropping their Jewish surname in favor of the more safely assimilationist "Sloan."
Not unlike Jerome Felder -- the lonely and polio-stricken Jewish son of Brooklyn who fell in love with rhythm and blues and reinvented himself as the celebrated songwriter "Doc Pomus" -- young Philip became infatuated with popular black music. Encouraged by his family's supportive black housekeeper, Freddy, "Flip" Sloan won an audition with a tiny local R&B indie called Aladdin Records to cut his first record while still a bar mitzvah boy attending John Burroughs Middle School. A pubescent homage to his idol Elvis Presley (whom Sloan once chanced to meet at Wallichs Music City), it was cut in Presley's favored RCA Hollywood studio with some of the King's own session players, under the legendary producer Bumps Blackwell, known for his work with Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.
The record flopped, and not long after, so did the label. No matter: he was only 13, but Sloan was already on his way.
He spent the next few years listening obsessively to hundreds of records, seeking his own musical voice and trying to unlock the mystery of crafting a hit. Sloan formed a little band and started gigging at local teen parties to earn record money. He began hounding record labels for free promo copies of the latest releases, and dumpster diving for unsold discards outside Columbia Records ("That's where I got my first Bob Dylan album," he tells us), which also included albums by Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
By 1963, Sloan had wangled a gig as a young contract songwriter working for Lou Adler at Screen Gems Music, Columbia's publishing arm - which also happened to be the West Coast headquarters of Aldon Music, the legendary NY publisher founded by Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, whose Brill Building roster of powerhouse songwriting teams included Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.
Before long, Sloan and his new songwriting partner Steve Barri (born Stephen Lipkin) were writing and cutting several demos a week seeking that elusive payday. Many featured the cream of LA's session musicians, the legendary Wrecking Crew of Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Bill Pitman, Carol Kaye and others, who can be heard on literally hundreds of the era's biggest hit records. Increasingly proficient and gaining confidence, the budding Sloan-Barri team finally scored with Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann, a bouncy calypso number by a rotund black singer from South L.A. calling himself Round Robin. It was released on the tiny Domain label, whose offices were across the hall from Screen Gems, and intended to cash in on a short-lived local dance craze called "The Slauson."
Sloan writes that their song -- actually not an original, but a remake/remodel of an old mountain music tune first recorded decades earlier -- had previously been rejected by Harry Belafonte. But in fact, Belafonte had already performed the song "Shake That Little Foot" live at the Greek Theatre earlier that same summer, and he would later release it on a double album (the liner notes call it a traditional folk song, but Belafonte and his arranger took a publishing credit.) Sloan, a fan of Belafonte's, might even have attended. But graced by top notch-production and a swinging gospel arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, and powered by the Wrecking Crew, the Sloan-Barri team had cast their spell and racked up their first hit.
Round Robin on "American Bandstand," 1964 (from Los Angeles)
In short order, Adler bailed from Screen Gems to found Dunhill Productions (and still later, Dunhill Records), taking Sloan and Barri with him. Throughout the rest of 1964, the team were cranking out -- as well as singing playing on, and producing -- a staggering number of surf and hot rod hits for established performers like Jan and Dean, studio groups like The Fantastic Baggys (Summer Means Fun and Tell "Em I'm Surfin'), and various one-off cash-ins like The Wildcats, the Rally-Packs, The Lifeguards, and Willie and the Wheels.
But toward the end of 1964, something strange was happening to Sloan. As he describes it, he heard a voice, "perhaps an angel's," who began issuing songwriting instructions. A man possessed, over the course of one feverish night, he tells us, he wrote the music and lyrics to "The Eve of Destruction," The Sins of A Family, This Mornin', Ain't No Way I'm Gonna Change My Mind, and What's Exactly the Matter With Me? And just like that, folk-rock was born.
Over the next several years, Sloan's career accelerated into hyper-drive. Against Adler's better instincts, by 1965 his new Dunhill label found itself in the protest music business: former New Christy Minstrels lead vocalist Barry McGuire, who only cut Sloan's Eve of Destruction" as a reluctant afterthought during another session, suddenly found himself with a B-side that had become a #1 worldwide smash, leading to several follow-up singles and two more albums. While hanging out in a hotel room with Bob Dylan, Sloan was given Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" to record -- the Sloan-Barri team stripped it down and recorded the song as Mr. Jones under Adler's cooked-up name, "The Grass Roots." Adler may have intended little more than a fast buck, but the project proved so successful it spawned not only a subsequent Sloan-Barri "Grass Roots" album, but required them to go out and create a real group to tour and record behind the fake name. So they recruited a group called The Thirteenth Floor, christened them as the new Grass Roots, and built themselves another hit machine.
McGuire with the moody Hullabaloo Dancers in 1965.
The Sloan-Barri hits continued - Take Me For What I'm Worth by the Searchers, Let Me Be and You Baby by the Turtles, A Must to Avoid by Herman's Hermits, Secret Agent Man for Johnny Rivers, and others. A lucky contact with Brian Epstein early in the Beatles' career, long before Beatlemania swept the nation, led to Epstein packaging and underwriting a UK and continental tour for Sloan and McGuire. Paul McCartney's brother Mike was dispatched to personally show Sloan the sights in London. He hung out with the Stones.
Heady stuff. But increasingly, Sloan found himself in trouble, struggling to reconcile the two sides of his creative personality: Phil Sloan the commercial tunesmith, and P.F. Sloan the more introspective, politically engaged poet and social commentator who had leveraged his songwriting success into two albums of his own. Meanwhile, pressure was mounting from Adler, who was eager to dump McGuire for good, shed the waning protest-music fad that was becoming increasingly problematic for him commercially, and concentrate on relatively safer, more promising commercial prospects like The Mamas and the Papas, who had originally come to his attention as McGuire's hippie background singers.
Greed and drugs, too, were taking their toll. At one point or another, the Byrds' David Crosby, "Papa" John Phillips, and even one of Sloan's Dunhill bosses, Jay Lasker, all threatened to kill Sloan over various business or personal perceived transgressions. It was getting to be all too much. And so by 1967, Sloan found himself washed up in the business.
Musical fashions were changing again: bright, happy sunshine pop had chased away the doom-laden clouds of protest music, and psychedelia, quivering with anticipation, was poised to erupt and completely engulf the pop scene. To save on royalty payments, Sloan suggests, Adler and his venal business associates decided to retain the more commercial and compliant Barri, but virtually blackmailed Sloan into signing away his royalties and fleeing town for New York under threat of violence. Musically adrift, emotionally fragile, and falling into serious substance abuse, heroin addiction, and eventually mental illness, Sloan plunged into decades of darkness.
Throughout the wilderness years, however, Sloan's music has never faded. The key to its enduring appeal is the combination of sunshine and shadows: loneliness, doubt and vulnerability wrapped inside a shiny, beautiful and irresistible package. When Sloan describes John Lennon refusing to be in the same room with him, or Pete Seeger declining to share a stage with him -- clearly Sloan wasn't considered "authentic" enough -- the pain is palpable. His prodigious talent and outsized commercial success only undermined his street credibility and lowered his standing among some of those he most respected.
But as Orson Welles used to say, "if you want a happy ending, that depends on where you stop your story." The P. F. Sloan story continues, and there's much more to it -- his eventual salvation, redemption, sobriety, spirituality and creative rejuvenation. Fortunately, Sloan himself is still with us to tell it -- offering a poignant remembrance of a vanished era when summer meant fun, and a gifted young songwriter could take a little ray of sunshine, a little bit of soul, add just a touch of magic and get the greatest thing since rock 'n' roll.