P.F. Sloan was a great songwriter known for hits like “Eve of Destruction” and “Secret Agent Man”. In a 3-year period, he wrote 30 chart records and recorded 250 songs. Yet in the midst of his success, he disappeared, and was not heard from for decades. A year before his death Michael Shelley spoke to Sloan about his life, his shortened career, what happened in those lost years, and his triumphant reemergence as a performer.
P.F. Sloan (born Philip Gary Schlein) made his first charting records while still a teen. He wrote, produced, played and sang on hundreds of songs (some of which became huge hits) while in his early 20s. His songs were covered by everyone from Gary Lewis to Ann-Margaret to The 5th Dimension and the Turtles. After making some fantastic solo records that fused pop with folk-rock, he completely disappeared. He was 25.
His real story, his factual biography, is bigger-than-life and filled with enough drama and trauma for two lifetimes, but the way he told his tale is even bigger than that – so it’s hard to know exactly what to believe. His fascinating memoir What’s Exactly The Matter With Me? reads, at times, like fiction.
After more than a decade away, P.F. Sloan periodically re-emerged just long enough to fuel the legend, but never quite long enough to set the story completely straight, which is perhaps for the best.
I spoke to him in August of 2014 and saw him play a triumphant set in New Orleans at The Ponderosa Stomp music festival (backed by a band led by guitar legend and PKM contributor Deke Dickerson) in October of 2015. When he died of cancer a few weeks later, in November of 2015, I was shocked – he’d seemed so alive.
PKM: You’re so closely associated with California, but you were born in New York City. Your Dad was a pharmacist and moved your family out there in 1957. Is New York City in your blood?
P.F.: Yes it is, and New Jersey as well, Union City. I used to go there every Sunday for family dinners. So the East, New York and New Jersey, are really in my blood.
PKM: So was it a little culture shock moving to West Hollywood?
P.F.: It was a long time ago to remember it. It was a new start. You know I was one of those kind of kids in school who, I don’t know, got under the teacher’s nerves, so it felt like a new start more than a culture shock.
PKM: Was there music in your house? Were your folks record buyers, radio listeners?
P.F.: No, surprisingly not. There really wasn’t any indication that there was any music in the family at all.
PKM: You ran into Elvis Presley at a Hollywood music store, is that correct?
P.F.: That is correct. I met him when I was twelve, and he taught me how to play “Love Me Tender” on guitar, and really taught me about love. Six months later, I naturally auditioned for an all-black record label called Aladdin Records and got signed to them.
PKM: You ran into Elvis in that store, and he taught you that song in the store?
P.F.: Yes. He was upstairs having his guitar fixed and I was downstairs asking the man behind the counter “How can I play these five other strings?” I only knew how to play on a one-string broken ukulele.
PKM: Was he a mind-blowing kind of a guy? He seems like such a huge force of personality, was he like that back then?
P.F.: Yes, and I didn’t know such things. I hadn’t really experienced anything like love. It was less about celebrity, I realized who he was immediately because my sister and my mother were in love with him, but the amount of love that he poured out on me opened up some sort of love centers inside myself, and a love for music.
PKM: How interesting. Do you think he saw something in you that made him want to touch you in some way?
P.F.: Who knows? But, I’m an Elvisphile, and I love to hear stories from anybody who’d met him, and it seems to be pretty consistent that he just poured out his love on everyone.
“It’s all about love and beauty. The search in music for me is that I found something beautiful in Elvis Presley’s voice, I found something beautiful in music and I wanted to find that beauty within myself to write that.”
PKM: Amazing. So you got signed, at age twelve, to Aladdin, which like you said was an R&B label, and by 1961 (at age 16) you were working as a staff writer at Screen Gems. How did you make that move, how did it happen?
P.F.: Persistence. I would go every day from junior high school. I would go over to Screen Gems Music and sit on the couch, and I had a 150-pound tape recorder with me with 150 songs and I would sit there every day and they would just walk around me like I became a piece of furniture there. It took about six months but eventually they invited me in to listen to the songs I’d written, and one of the executives decided to sign me for ten dollars a week.
PKM: And those early songs, are some of them songs we know?
P.F.: Nothing goes to waste. That’s what I’ve learned in music. A melody, a song idea, a rhyming couplet. Nothing goes to waste with musicians.
PKM: Were you writing with specific artists in mind?
P.F.: They would come in the morning and put up a list of songs, The Drifters, Lesley Gore, whoever, she needs a follow up, so write a song almost exactly like the hit she has, but a little bit different. So you begin to learn the craft. You begin to study the lyrics. It’s a great place to start, by mimicking everyone who’s ever written a song.
PKM: So, you’re working, churning out these songs, and at some point you meet Steve Barri, who becomes your partner for quite a while. How old were you when you met him, and was it somebody’s idea that you guys would work together?
P.F.: It was. I was 16. I think he was 21 or 22. He was married. He was working at a record store in Los Angeles and he had begun working with one of the girls from The Teddy Bears. They had made a record and he went up to Screen Gems to get a record deal. They didn’t want to buy the record but they signed him as a writer and they threw him into my little cubby hole and they said “You two write together.” The problem was that Steve didn’t know how to write music, he couldn’t play an instrument, but none of the magic really could have happened without him there for me.
PKM: So you and Steve Barri, besides writing lots and lots of songs, you start recording under different names, group names, duo names: Philip & Steven, The Rally Packs, The Wildcats, The Street Cleaners, The Rincon Surfside Band, The Lifeguards. What was the culture that allowed that to happen? Was it just: let’s see if we can get a hit by just throwing a lot out there?
P.F.: You have to try and wrap your head around this. This wasn’t about hits. This was simply about a small publishing company trying to sell masters. They were just trying to sell the master for a specific amount of money and then that was it. They were able to sell me as all these different groups to labels and get money up front, which the company got.
PKM: So were you using a studio owned by Screen Gems?
P.F.: We started working at Western Recorders where, later in ’64, ’65, all the hits were coming out of. But these were very inexpensive records. I played all the instruments and it was just 15 dollars an hour for studio costs. I would get Darlene Love to sing background for me for 15 dollars. Glen Campbell, all The Wrecking Crew, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborne, all working for 15 dollars an hour.
PKM: Were those demo rates?
P.F.: Exactly. They never did anything union.
PKM: It sounds like it must have been a super exciting time. You were so young at this point. Did it seem unusual to you?
P.F.: No. I was in love with learning the craft. Obviously you can’t listen to Little Richard’s records or Elvis’ early records or Chuck Berry’s records without it rearranging your DNA. To be honest with you, those records were so exciting that the idea of actually coming up with something original that exciting was the goal.
PKM: That’s still the goal!
PKM: So at this point Lou Adler starts using you for Jan & Dean, arranging, playing on some of their big hits and singing the falsetto parts. I believe that’s you on “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” is that right?
P.F.: Yes, I did all the falsettos on all the Jan & Dean hits, and Steve and I would be singing backgrounds as The Fantastic Baggys. It got to a point later in Jan’s career when he would actually have me sing his part as well. (laughter)
You can hear P.F. Sloan in this iconic Jan & Dean song:
PKM: You mention the Fantastic Baggys. This was sort of a surf group that was really just you and Steve, very much in The Beach Boys thing. How huge were The Beach Boys at that point, and was this your idea or did somebody say “You need to start a surf band”?
P.F.: The Beach Boys were just beginning to catch fire, but Jan & Dean were the big stars. I started writing surf songs, and again the record label said “We could make money just by selling them as another group, to Imperial,” but what happened was that The Fantastic Baggys actually caught fire, so the label didn’t want us to become record stars, so they had to get rid of The Fantastic Baggys, but kept us singing backgrounds for Jan & Dean.
Here are the Fantastic Baggys singing the Sloan-written “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’”
PKM: At that point was there a struggle whether or not to become an artist or stay behind the scenes for you?
P.F.: I had wanted to be a recording artist. I had the dream of going out and performing, but the label found that I was a much more important property just being a songwriter and producer, so they kept me away from that as much as they could, until the birth of P.F. Sloan happened.
PKM: So the next few years you guys have tons of hits, tons of songs on records, and tons of covers of the hits. You become a sensation in that mid 1960’s period. “Eve of Destruction,” “Sins of The Family,” “You Baby” for The Turtles, “Must To Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits, “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for The Searchers, “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, etcetera. Tell me what your daily routine was like, what was your writing routine? How did you pump out so many songs? It’s really mind-boggling because when you look at the dates that these were all released in, it’s really not a long period.
P.F.: It’s a three-year period of about 30 chart records and 250 songs recorded. I was writing a lot of these songs by myself, but some Steve and I would write together. But it wasn’t until P.F. Sloan came that one night this consciousness came in to me and I wrote five songs including “Eve Of Destruction,” “Sins Of The Family” and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” and I played them for the head of the company and they threw them in the wastebasket, they said “These are not songs that we can publish,” so all of a sudden there was a split in my life. I wanted to write this kind of lyric and music, but I still had to be writing with Steve Barri, which was Pop, and I love Pop, I love all kinds of music. But when “Eve Of Destruction” took off it caused a rift in the company, because they didn’t want P.F. Sloan to become a star, but at the same time his songwriting and his music were selling so much that they didn’t know what to do. So it became a weird situation.
“Eve Of Destruction” was not the A-side, it was the B-side, and it just so happened that the B-side took off, the record label was unhappy about it because they were getting death threats because of the lyrical content. The song was banned all over the world.”
PKM: Tell me about the birth of P.F. Sloan. You were this guy writing in some cases novelty records or follow-up records, and you had an awakening to write a different kind of song, what was the physical sensation that happened to you?
P.F.: I was born. I felt as if something magical had happened. I remember waking my mother up at three in the morning wanting to read her the lyrics to “Eve of Destruction” and “Sins Of The Family” saying “Mom, something wonderful has happened,” and she said “Shhh, you’ll wake your father up, go back to bed.” So that kind of was the story: “Shhh, don’t mention P.F. Sloan.”
PKM: You were nineteen years old at this time. Stardom is hard for mature people. How were you handling it?
P.F.: As best as I could. There wasn’t much support. It sort of happened all on its own. “Eve Of Destruction” was not the A-side, it was the B-side, and it just so happened that the B-side took off, the record label was unhappy about it because they were getting death threats because of the lyrical content. The song was banned all over the world. So these three partners who wanted to make money in the record business are now getting death threats against them, so they wanted to get rid of Barry McGuire and they needed to get rid of P.F. Sloan, but P.F. Sloan was writing so many songs and they were becoming hits they just didn’t know what to do, but they didn’t like it. They didn’t like this hippie music.
PKM: How interesting. You do hear stories about the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, many of the bigger labels sat out the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and that’s why so many indies were able to score hits, because they thought it was going to be a passing thing, and by the time they got in, Mitch Miller and these guys who were heading these labels didn’t know a thing about rock ‘n’ roll, that’s why this early time is so interesting, and partly why a nineteen-year-old guy could have so much success, because the older guys just didn’t know what was going on. Was there some palpable feeling of that?
P.F.: You hit the nail right on the head. After the first three number ones by The Beatles, EMI put them up for sale. They thought, “Nobody has more than three number one records.” Nobody in the music business understood pop music at all, and they expected it to die.
PKM: It’s sort of the history of America in some way. So during that same time you were playing a lot of sessions. You played that famous guitar intro on “California Dreaming.” Tell me about working with these session guys, did they welcome a young kid who could not read sheet music? How did they let you into that little select group?
P.F.: They actually didn’t. It was Jack Nitzsche, the great arranger. When I had written “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann” and Jack had The Wrecking Crew in a circle and he put me in the center with my guitar and he told the musicians, “I want you to follow this sixteen-year-old kid,” they looked at him like he was crazy and they all got up and walked out. Jack told them, “Unless you do what I say, you’ll never work for Phil Spector again,” so they bit the bullet and they actually thought I might have had something. I was a very enthusiastic guitar player. Slowly they began to accept me. There’s nothing like hanging around musicians to hear the greatest jokes in the world. I realized then that I really wanted to be a musician and I wanted to know what it feels like to be light-hearted and have a beautiful spirit. So I really learned a lot from these great musicians.
PKM: Tell me about the writing sessions. How disciplined were you guys? How many hours a day did you write songs? Was it tough labor or was it just something that was flowing out of you?
P.F.: Well Steve was married and had a child and was working eight hours a day at a record store on Fairfax Boulevard, so I would be able to get him at my house for an hour a day and we would come up with the song title and we would write two lines and Steve would go back to work and I would finish the song up. A song like “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots, Steve came up with the title for that and then I would write the lyric and write the music.
PK: Did you feel that was a fair distribution of labor?
P.F.: I was a young kid and I really thought that Steve was my older brother, and Steve wanted 50 percent of everything that I wrote as P.F. Sloan which I didn’t really think was fair, but he wound up getting that. We were young. We didn’t think that were going to succeed. I was in love with music. I wanted Steve to be successful. I didn’t question it until everything collapsed.
PKM: In 1965, you start a solo career, or P.F. Sloan starts a solo career. Kind or folk-rock but with a real pop feel. The lyrics, feel of the songs and the performances do a great job representing what was happening in the mid-sixties. Was there a plan to do folk-rock, or was it just what was happening inside you?
P.F.: It was really happening inside me. The first P.F. Sloan album was done in about four days. It was a demo album. When “Sins Of The Family” got accidently released and started hitting the charts, the record label pulled it back. You have to understand that Bob Dylan wasn’t really happening, he wasn’t selling albums, so there was really no call for this.
PKM: You and Steve start The Grass Roots, and “Let’s Live For Today” becomes a huge hit, but soon after that the end of the 1960s becomes the end of P.F. Sloan. You break up with Steve Barri and with Lou Adler and with everybody. What happened?
The Grass Roots: P.F. Sloan’s “Where Were You When I Needed You”
P.F.: What it came down to was greed, monstrous greed. I was earning millions of dollars for the company and they resented the fact that they had to pay me for the work. So they pulled a Jackie Wilson, they pretty much put a gun to my head and said, “We’re going to kill you and your whole family unless you sign away all your rights and give us all the rights to all of your songs from now until forever, and we want you out of town in 25 hours or we’re gonna kill you,” and that was the end.
PKM: This was 1967?
P.F.: 1967 yes.
PKM: But that stops the money train cold there. It seems like a… well obviously it’s a strange move
P.F.: Yeah, I know. Here you have, let’s call it the golden goose, and the golden goose has been laying 25 golden eggs, they’re not thinking about the future, they just want the 25 golden eggs to themselves. So they decided to kill the golden goose.
PKM: So this was a literal threat and you took it very seriously.
P.F.: Oh yes. The head of the record label was from Chicago, and he showed me pictures of body parts all over the street and he said, “We have a way of getting what we want.” So I was forced to leave Los Angeles. I was forced to sign away everything.
PKM: Legally how much can you sign away? Can you sign away your future mechanical royalties to everything?
P.F.: Yes, everything, yes.
PKM: So if somebody uses one of your songs in a car commercial, you don’t benefit at all?
P.F.: That’s correct. But Steve still gets paid.
PKM: You still get your BMI money, I assume?
P.F.: Yes, that they couldn’t have me sign away.
PKM: Was that enough to tide you over through the years?
P.F.: No not really. Believe it or not, back in those days I was only earning about $4,000 a year from BMI. So I had to do odd jobs. I began delivering beer. I tried to become a life insurance salesman. Eventually it got to be too much and I just broke down.
PKM: The idea of writing songs under a different name or starting over, was that an option for you?
P.F.: No. The poet that was in me, that became P.F. Sloan, was something that I really believed in. I believed in P.F. Sloan as much as I believed in Elvis Presley and The Beatles. I had to go follow that dream.
PKM: So you’re living in New York, doing some opening act stuff, delivering beer and trying to get a new career going, and you just couldn’t take it, which is perhaps the sane reaction to what had happened.
P.F.: Well I did get signed to Atlantic Records, from working in New York and released a record on Atco, but I had a nervous breakdown during the making of it. Atco believed in me, but I just really couldn’t live away from my family, and living in New York was a tough thing for me and I just broke down. I developed all sorts of illnesses, some life-threatening, and went into a state of catatonia for 12 years.
PKM: Were you taking drugs at all?
P.F.: The beautiful thing was that up until this time there was really no drug usage. Not that I want to talk about the drugs, but Greenwich Village was a very dark place in 1968. There was a lot of heavy drug usage going on there, and if you wanted to earn any credibility with the New York scene, you had to be doing those drugs and I got involved in it, unfortunately. I was able to get off of it. Basically, I was a simple home guy. I just missed California and I missed my family. I didn’t feel like I was cut out for that kind of lifestyle, so I just shut down for about 14 years.
PKM: So what did you do during those years? You really did disappear. Where were you?
P.F.: Noel Paul Stookey, from Peter, Paul & Mary, saved my life. He saw that I was dying and he called my parents up in 1970 and said “Mr. and Mrs. Sloan, you have to get your son home, but he doesn’t want to leave.” So they flew to New York and took me back to my childhood house and I stayed in bed in my bedroom for about 14 years.
PKM: Did you watch television?
P.F.: No, I was catatonic.
PKM: Were doctors bought in?
P.F.: I was diagnosed with severe hypoglycemic catatonia, but there was no cure for it. They put me in a couple of mental institutions as well, but that didn’t really work, we called it the vegetable garden.
PKM: So how did you snap out of this? How did that period end?
P.F.: Catatonia is an amazing thing. It’s sort of like being in a coma, and yet you’re aware of everything, but you can’t remember anything. What happened was, a holy man in India named Sai Baba came to me in a dream. I had never heard of him, and he said, “Come to me and I will heal you.” I did go to India and he began to heal me. Within a number of years I was able to walk and talk and began writing songs again.
PKM: It’s a bigger than life story. In catatonia the man came to you in a dream, and he actually existed, and you found him?
P.F.: Yes. I flew to India and he came over to me and tapped me on the cheek and said “You’re a brave brave boy, and I’m going to heal you,” and he did.
PKM: You have a record called “My Beethoven.” Was Beethoven a huge influence on you?
P.F.: Not at all. I had never really heard Beethoven. It just so happens, believe it or not, that I was contacted by him, and he asked me to find out why he tried to commit suicide.
PKM: What do you say to people who, part of their life is not talking to Beethoven or getting answers from a bigger voice? How do you explain that to people?
P.F.: It’s all about love and beauty. The search in music for me is that I found something beautiful in Elvis Presley’s voice, I found something beautiful in music and I wanted to find that beauty within myself to write that. When I discovered Beethoven, I discovered the real heart and soul of beauty.
PKM: So what’s next for you? Are there more projects like this in your head, or are there pop songs?
P.F.: I don’t know. I’m in the process of touring with my book and the album. It seems that the Good Lord has me going out every 7 or 8 years. I can’t tell you why that is, but whenever I perform people are amazed that it’s a great show, because I don’t perform that often. So I’m just enjoying life and performing and talking to you, Michael, about a really roller coaster ride of a life.
PKM: So are you happy? That’s the basic question.
P.F.: You know – that is the real question. And the answer is 1000% yes. The spiritual training as a warrior that I’ve gone through being with Sai Baba over the last 27 years has taught me the purpose and meaning of life, and the ups and downs just don’t interfere with my happiness. It’s all part of the play. Everything turns out for the best, it’s all for the good.
P.F. Sloan at Ponderosa Stomp October 2, 2015.
He passed away six weeks later November 15, 2015.