P.F. Sloan: One Of The Greatest Songwriters You’ve Never Heard Of

It was the mid-1970’s when I’d sit alone in our farmhouse on a Saturday night, while my parents were off at a polka dance hall in the area, that I’d listen to Joe Donovan’s “Saturday Night Revival” oldies program on WHAS Radio in Louisville.  One night, I heard a song that I’d never heard before, and it’d be one that stuck with me for almost 40 years before I’d hear it again.  It’s the song I spotlighted here: “The Sins Of A Family” by P.F. Sloan.  I heard the song, loved the lyrics and the wraparound melody of the song, along with the Dylaneque folk-rock quality of it.  I stored it away in my memory…as well as that name:  P.F. Sloan.

Later on, during my college years, oldies radio was just starting to fire up in Milwaukee, and the primary station playing an all-oldies selection refreshed my memory to a lot of songs I heard and enjoyed as a preschooler and early grade school student of the mid- to late-’60’s.  After hearing and really enjoying a number of these songs on the oldies station, I’d take a bus or a drive to Milwaukee’s Eagles Club to their occasional record collector’s shows and sales.  I’d bring a list of titles to see if I could find those songs I loved.  More often than not, I’d locate them, and purchase them for an agreeable price.  One that I purchased that I loved as a little one and was reconnected with was “A Must To Avoid” by Herman’s Hermits.  I looked at the writing credit on the single:  P.F. Sloan.  Another one, “You Baby” by the Turtles.  Writing credit:  P.F. Sloan.  Could this be the same P.F. Sloan that I heard that Saturday night in the mid-’70’s singing that Dylanesque song on WHAS?  Indeed, it was.

The more I learned about P.F. Sloan, the more I found that he was a talented and versatile songwriter.  Sloan (born Phillip Gary Schlein), along with partner Steve Barri, caught the wave of some of the best surf-rock records of the pre-British Invasion ’60’s, working with Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher on projects for Bruce and Terry (“Summer Means Fun”) and the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”).   Sloan and Barri also lent a hand on Jan and Dean’s surf-orchestral masterpieces, augmented by the legendary studio group The Wrecking Crew, in which Sloan lent a hand from time to time.  The Sloan-Barri team also broke out on their own as a surf-rock act called the Fantastic Baggys, forging such pop-surf classics as “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” and “Anywhere The Girls Are”.

Once the Beatles and other British rock acts penetrated the American pop charts, Sloan and Barri adapted and morphed into California’s emerging folk-rock sound.  Sloan’s songcrafting provided the Turtles with “You Baby” and “Let Me Be”, and he also wrote the song that he’s best known for in 1965, Barry McGuire’s smash hit “Eve Of Destruction”.  While working with McGuire, Sloan  Sloan created and played a guitar introduction as a hook to a new song by John Phillips called “California Dreamin'”.  In fact, the backing track used for Barry McGuire’s version of that song became the same backing track was used for the hit version by Phillips’ group, the Mamas & The Papas.  That connection led to Sloan being a regular in Mamas & Papas recording sessions, and led Sloan to, for the most part, playing the lead guitar tracks on most of the songs he wrote, including the legendary riff for a song that he co-wrote with Steve Barri, Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”

The next stage of P.F. Sloan’s life came when he and Steve Barri recorded together under the name the Grass Roots.  When the duo scored a hit in 1966 with “Where Were You When I Needed You”, the duo–who never really wanted to form a band to tour–recruited a real band to perform as the Grass Roots.  Sloan and Barri continued to produce the Grass Roots until the band members expressed their desire to write their own material…which led Sloan to choose to leave his partnership with Barri in order to pursue a solo performing career, and, for all intents and purposes, fall into musical oblivion.

P.F. Sloan died on November 15, 2015 after a bout with pancreatic cancer.

I wrote songs for a mighty long time…from the time I was eight years old until around the tend of the 2000’s.  Many of my songwriting influences are obvious, because they’ve influenced a lot of songwriters:  Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello to name just a few.  One of the more obscure names on that list would be P.F. Sloan.  He had a witty way with a lyric, and knew how to put together a great pop song.  And, two days after his passing, I recall that Saturday night and first discovering what would be my own personal unearthing of one nugget of his songwriting genius.