A dear friend and one of pop music’s greatest songwriters has passed.
P. F. Sloan was born Phillip Gary Schlein. Phil’s father changed their surname to Sloan to avoid anti-Semitism. Phil’s sister called him Flip (the “F” in “P. F.”)
I first met Phil through one of my models, Helena Rowe. She was Phillip’s girlfriend at the time and, like Phil, a devotee of Indian mystic Sai Baba. During my figure drawing workshops I play tapes and CDs I’ve made. One of them was a cassette I had made of P.F. Sloan songs. Upon hearing my tape, Helena asked me if I would like to meet Phillip. I enthusiastically responded in the affirmative.
P.F. Sloan at home in L. A.
If you’re unfamiliar with P. F. Sloan, you can’t be blamed. Phil was more of a behind-the-scenes kinda guy. Here are some of the hits he wrote:
“You Baby” and “Let Me Be” (The Turtles)
“A Must to Avoid” and “Hold On” (Herman’s Hermits)
“Take Me For What I’m Worth” (The Searchers)
“Secret Agent Man” (Johnny Rivers)
“Where Were You When I Needed You” (The Grass Roots; The Bangles)
“Summer Means Fun” (Jan & Dean; The Fantastic Baggies)
“(Here They Come) From All Over the World” (Jan & Dean)
“Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’” (The Fantastic Baggies)
The Fantastic Baggies. Phil is second from the left.
He’s most famous (or infamous) for writing “Eve of Destruction”. That song got him into a lot of trouble. His record company hated it, calling it un-American commie trash. They tried to bury the song, but couldn’t.
A reluctant Barry McGuire had the hit with Phil’s protest classic.
Bob Dylan heard the song and asked to meet Phil. The record company (Dunhill) refused. They last thing they wanted was for Phil or “Eve of Destruction” getting any more attention. Phil found out that Dylan wanted to meet him and was crushed when the record company refused to cooperate.
The next day, Dylan arrived at Dunhill, accompanied by a very straight looking gentleman wearing an expensive suit. Dylan asked to see the president of Dunhill.
“How much for your record company?”
“I said how much for your record company. This is my accountant; tell him the amount and he’ll write you a check. If buying your company is what it will take for me to meet P. F. Sloan, then I’ll buy your company. I want to meet P. F. Sloan.”
Dylan called Dunhill’s bluff. Bob got to meet Phil. They got together at Dylan’s hotel room. Dylan said, “I think you might find this interesting.”
Bob placed a record on the turntable. It was an advance copy of Highway 61 Revisited.
Phil listened intently to the amazing new Dylan songs.
“Bob watched my face. He could see that I clearly ‘got it’. I got the humor, I understood all the metaphors, the subtleties and nuances of what he had written.”
After it was over, Dylan told Phil, “I’m going to give you a gift. Pick any song on the LP . You can be the first to record a cover version of that song.”
Phil picked “Ballad of a Thin Man”. He promptly recorded it as The Grass Roots (basically, Phil and the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector’s stable of great session musicians) and released it as “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)”.
It was a big hit here in Los Angeles but only made it to 121 on the national charts. It’s a great version of the song.
Dunhill was furious that Sloan was recording and releasing his own songs. They wanted to keep him confined to solely being a Dunhill songwriter. They forced him to find another band and call them The Grass Roots, which he did (Dunhill was reputedly Mafia-owned. They told Phil he could continue to have his solo career — but only if he’d let them take one of his testicles, right then and there at the meeting).
Phil played with lots of groups. One group, The Mamas & The Papas, were fellow Dunhill stablemates. They played him “California Dreamin’” at their first Dunhill session. They didn’t really have an arrangement yet. Phil listened to the song.
“Great song, but you need an intro. How about this?”
Phil (who founded the surf band The Fantastic Baggies) took the introductory descending chords of The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” and slowed them down. Voila! A pop classic was born.
Phil was a gentle, sensitive — and some might say tortured — soul. He claimed the lyrics to “Eve of Destruction” were mysteriously dictated to him. A voice told him to grab a pen and write as the voice spoke the lyrics. During the process, he had questions.
“Think of all the hate there is in Red China…”
“China?” asked Phil. “Not Russia?”
“Trust me”, the voice said. “It’s China. Keep writing.”
Because many of Phil’s personal stories seemed so fantastic he had lots of doubters.
“There’s reality,” one music biz insider told me, “and then there’s P. F. Sloan’s reality.”
My heart always went out to him whenever we’d meet. The pain inflicted upon him by the record business was all over his face. Whether his many bizarre tales were true or not, there’s no denying P. F. Sloan’s talent as a songwriter, arranger and producer. And from personal experience, I can tell you that he was also a kind and generous friend.
Phillip, my dear amigo, you will be missed.
All the leaves are brown…