P. F. SLOAN
(SEPTEMBER 18, 1945 – NOVEMBER 15, 2015)
By Steve Fjeldsted, Director Of Library, Arts & Culture, City Of South Pasadena
November 16, 2015 was probably my saddest day at the South Pasadena Library. Sorrow enveloped me when I opened an email from S.E. Feinberg, the playwright and script doctor, informing me that the great singer-songwriter and record maker P.F. Sloan had died the night before. The tragic death of P.F. Sloan occurred a mere eight days after he was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time of his very untimely passing, Sloan was in the midst of a remarkable comeback and returning to the spotlight after an absence for more than 30 years from the music industry. P.F.’s disappearance from the public eye and ears in 1968 was shrouded in mystery. It was especially surprising because of only a few short years before, he was one of the most prominent figures on the American rock music scene. In 1970 singer-songwriter Jim Webb, the GRAMMY-winning composer of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Wichita Lineman,” and “MacArthur Park” wrote and recorded a song called “P.F. Sloan” that lamented Sloan’s vanishing completely.
On September 18, 1945 Philip Gary Schlein was born in New York City. In the 1950s he and his family moved to Los Angeles and changed their last name to Sloan when his pharmacist father experienced anti-Semitism when trying to purchase pharmaceuticals for his drug store. Phil’s sister had called him Flip and his nickname later became P.F., shorthand for ”Philip Flip.” At age 12, P.F.’s father bought him a guitar, and it led to a chance music lesson with none other than Elvis Presley that same year at Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood. By age 14, Phil Sloan signed with Aladdin Records and when he was 15 his song Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann was recorded by Harry Belafonte. By his mid-teens P.F. was writing polished songs and he was teamed up with Steve Barri, an older music industry professional who would remain his co-writer for more than a decade, often in name only. With Barri he attempted to score a hit single under such names as “Philip and Stephan,” “The Rally Packs,” and “The Lifeguards” before finally breaking through.
In the 1960s P.F. Sloan wrote a flood of topnotch songs, including such hits as You Baby and Let Me Be by the Turtles, Take Me For What I’m Worth by The Searchers, A Must to Avoid, by Herman’s Hermits, Another Day, Another Heartache by the Fifth Dimension, and Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers. On that track he played the unforgettable opening guitar riff. Sloan also played the iconic acoustic guitar refrain on California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas and ghosted the falsetto vocal for Jan and Dean’s Little Old Lady from Pasadena. P.F. Sloan was a highly accomplished musical jack- of- all trades whose name and distinctive stylistic stamp could be found on some of the most popular records of the day.
Some of Sloan’s other numerous music industry triumphs include bringing an unknown British group named The Beatles to the attention of tiny Vee Jay Records in Chicago, and producing “Paint It Black,” a landmark record by the Rolling Stones. P.F. Sloan is probably most well known for writing Eve of Destruction in 1965 for Barry McGuire. The groundbreaking song was extremely controversial at the time because it referenced the Vietnam War and civil rights and depicted a world of injustices and impending doom. Politicians decried the catchy song and some stations even banned it, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a Number 1 hit around the country. Eve of Destruction also is credited with lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 because of its searing line, “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’” which led to the introduction of the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
P.F. Sloan also experienced extraordinary career and personal heartaches, like having a knife drawn on him by Papa John Phillips backstage at the Monterey Pop Festival and confrontations with record mogul Lou Adler. In June 2014 he returned from a tour of England where he was enthusiastically received by capacity audiences.
In 1966 P.F. Sloan also recorded the album Where Were You When I Needed You? by the Grass Roots, even though the group did not yet exist. When the title song became a hit, members for the group were recruited and the Grass Roots went on to record eight Top 40 hits including Midnight Confessions, and Let’s Live For Today which are still frequently played on oldies stations around the country. In their prime the Grass Roots appeared on more than 50 TV shows and sold more than 20 million records.
Two of the recruits for the original Grass Roots were Warren Entner and Creed Bratton and they teamed up with P.F. Sloan for his 2014 concert at the South Pasadena Library. Iit was the first time they’d performed together in 45 years! Their musical simpatico was immediately evident, not only because of their former association but also because they’d been recently rehearsing vigorously. Warren Entner was the unannounced surprise guest for the concert along with Creed Bratton, a fellow original member of The Grass Roots. Bratton is now also known for his stellar work in the long-running hit ABC TV series, “The Office.”
More than 200 enthusiastic audience members attended the Library’s P.F. Sloan concert and it was there I met John York, formerly of The Byrds, who was later one of the headliners for the Library’s May 3, 2015 Eclectic Music Festival concert. P.F., Warren, and Creed were in fine form that night and received several standing ovations, including one for Eve of Destruction. My friend Carol Schofield, owner of Ms. Music Productions, deserves much of the credit for initially obtaining P.F. for his appearance here. Her company had just released “My Beethoven,” P.F. Sloan’s first new album in ages and his wonderful autobiography, “What’s Exactly The Matter With Me?: Memoirs Of A Life In Music,” co-written with Feinberg, had just been published. The riveting book revealed a wealth of highly personal, fascinating background details about the major inspirations, successes, and frustrations of one of the most prolific and influential musical geniuses to emerge in the 60s.The book also explained the shocking reasons for Sloan’s 30 year retreat from the music industry after he had already rapidly scaled its heights while still in his early 20s.
I’d been staying in touch with P.F. since his magnificent performance at the Library in October 2014. In an email to me around that time, P.F. revealed that the Library’s “Carnegie Stage” was among his favorite venues. He was already practicing for a return engagement to the South Pasadena Library in the spring of 2016 and for the first time before a live audience he would be playing the wonderful songs from his brilliant 2014 album, the classical “popera” “My Beethoven,” on which he combined his sterling vocals and piano playing with a string section to provide an intimate portrayal of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of his heroes. During a radio interview with me and standup comic and writer Carl Kozlowski ‘s “Kozversations” podcast show that can still be heard here, P.F. revealed that he didn’t like to go a single day without listening to Beethoven. I’d told him on the show that I thought his autobiography made Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles Volume 1” seem like a rough draft by comparison.
P.F. Sloan was clearly in fine spirits the last year and working hard to try to make up for some of the time he’d lost. Despite his decades-long absence from the music industry, during which he’d been spent time selling insurance and making a spiritual pilgrimage to India, his singing voice had astonishingly remained strong and clear.
During my 9+ years as the Director of the South Pasadena Public Library I’ve coordinated more than 250+ events consisting of Author Nights, concerts, film screenings, plays, and living history performances. The P.F. Sloan concert was easily one of my favorites, not only because of his prodigious talents, but especially because he was so friendly, personable and approachable. These qualities are not always seen in persons blessed with such great talents.
In March my wife Peggy and I had attended a terrific concert in the Masonic Hall of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where P.F. had opened for Rumer, the female British singing sensation. After parking next to Mel Blanc’s gravestone with its famous “That’s All, Folks” epitaph, we entered the beautiful hall and witnessed an intimate, unforgettable concert. P.F. Sloan played a brief opening set, accompanying himself on guitar. His set may have been short but it was unforgettable and for the first time I really heard the Elvis influence. Afterwards he signed my poster confirming again that he would be making an encore performance at the South Pasadena Library in 2016. Sadly,, that now won’t be happening, but I’m extremely grateful that the Library was able to present him when we did. P.F. Sloan will be missed for a long time by many, although at least the world will still have lots of great music that he left behind.