“One of the all-time greats, P.F. Sloan wrote the soundtrack to many of our lives,” notes producer Jon Tiven, who produced Sloan’s 2006 album Sailover, and indeed, the songs that Sloan co-wrote with partner Steve Barri stand out among the finest rock and pop hits of the 1960s.
Barry McGuire’s anthemic 1965 chart-topper “Eve of Destruction,” Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” Herman’s Hermits’ “A Must to Avoid,” the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” and “Things I Should Have Said” and The Turtles’ “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” had such an impact that Jimmy Webb wrote a song about him, “P.F. Sloan,” that alluded to the troubles he experienced and long absence from the scene in the years following his biggest successes.
Sloan, 70, died Sunday, having only recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In addition to his hit songwriting and own recordings, he was a prolific session guitarist, notably responsible for the guitar into to The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
“Phil was more like a brother than a friend to me,” continues Tiven (Sloan was born Philip Gary Schlein). “As immense as his talent was, his heart was broad and open. Our musical collaborations were wonderful and divine, and our journeys to India, Europe, and elsewhere were life changing. I will miss him terribly.”
Sloan attributed his disappearance after the late ’60s to music business and legal setbacks, along with mental and physical illnesses.
“He was an unsung hero who did it all,” notes Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos, founder of the Ponderosa Stomp roots music festival in New Orleans, where Sloan performed last month.
“But where did he go? What happened? We always thought the Stomp would be the perfect thing for him since he’d done so much and no one knew [what happened], and we got him,” says Padnos. “He said he hadn’t played with an electric band in years, and put together a set and did everything you wanted him to play–and dedicated ‘Eve of Destruction’ to the victims of the Oregon college shooting the day before. I was amazed at his confidence in telling stories and doing his old material—for someone who was abused and spit out of the industry and disappeared for years. He said he’d been catatonic for years and went to India and got cured by [South Indian guru Sathya] Sai Baba, and he wasn’t bitter at all. But his influence was more pervasive than a lot of people who are more well-known.”
Producer Russ Titelman went to high school with Sloan, and reconnected with him this last summer.
“I hadn’t seen him in decades,” says Titelman. “He was an accomplished songwriter and guitarist, and a sweet person. I know he struggled for a long time, but when I saw him that last time he seemed happy and at peace. Jimmy Webb left us with that wonderful song, which was like a beautiful monument to the mystery of who he was.”
Sloan’s own compositions were “masterful pop songs,” says Titelman.
“‘Eve of Destruction’ wouldn’t have existed without Bob Dylan, but he used the style to make his point—which is what the great Tin Pan Alley writers did.”
Sloan has been a favorite of author and pop culture observer Gene Sculatti “ever since I replied to a postcard inside McGuire’s Eve of Destruction LP inviting folks to sample Sloan’s forthcoming debut,” Sculatti says. “In his way he was the West Coast equal of the great Brill Building writers, starting by grinding out made-to-order compositions for others to sing. So, when Time first profiled him as ‘the man who saw the “Eve”’ and questioned the sincerity of his coming-out as a singer-songwriter, I, too, was a little skeptical. But you know what? It doesn’t make a difference if his ‘new’ work was coming from his ow–as we later learned–tortured soul, or part of a hijacked ride on Dylan’s Harley: Songs like ‘This Mornin,” ‘I Get Out of Breath’ and ‘This Is What I Was Made For’ are just plain beautiful. Throw in what is a Dyl cop but great nonetheless, ‘Let Me Be,’ and ‘You Baby’—maybe the perfect pop tune—and there’s no denying his greatness.”
Singer/actress Donna Loren was close to Sloan, and says that in his last days he drank holy water given to him by Sai Baba.
“He was a faithful follower,” she says, “yet another possessed him in the end: Beethoven! For the past 20 years, all of Phil’s attention went toward writing the popera called Louie Louie–named from the compositions from his latest work My Beethoven. And at the end of his life he was the embodiment of the Master: Eyes drawn and dark, hair tousled and wild. Our Secret Agent Man who wrote ‘Eve of Destruction’ told me more than once, “I was called Satan for writing that song.”
But Loren, recording artist and star of ’60s rock TV show Shindig! and spokesperson for Dr. Pepper, and whose husband Jered Cargman was in the band the Fantastic Baggies with Sloan, adds, “He worshiped Love. The Turtles song ‘Let Me Be’ expressed it beautifully: “Don’t try to change me or rearrange me/To satisfy the selfishness of you/I’m not a piece of clay to mold to your moves each day/And I’m not a pawn to be told how to move/I’m sorry I’m not the fool you thought would play by your rules/But to-each-his-own philosophy/Let me Be….”
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