The Kingston Trio and Ludwig van Beethoven usually aren’t mentioned in the same sentence — unless you are P.F. Sloan.
Sloan, the legendary West Coast songwriter, producer, and pop music recluse, tells me that the most influential concerts he has attended were “the Kingston Trio in my youth and, as an adult, the Los Angeles Philharmonic doing an evening of Beethoven.”
Sloan, probably best known for writing Barry McGuire’s 1965 No. 1 hit song “Eve of Destruction,” says both performances made him realize “how divine music can be and make you feel.”
The Kingston Trio concert “showed me what a simple song and a guitar can do to elevate your spirit and a feeling of belonging to something larger than my everyday life.”
Sloan believes the performance by the renowned folk group was in 1962 in “an old folk venue” in the Los Angeles area — maybe The Ice House in Pasadena or McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.
Listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform the works of Beethoven more recently also set off a spark within him.
“While listening to the Beethoven concert,” he says, “I experienced a re-stirring of my soul for music that had become hardened due to a business that fostered conceit and selfishness and was completely money driven.”
Last year, he released My Beethoven, an ambitious, often brilliant concept album with nine original songs about the late 18th-century and early 19th-century composer.
“I was able to complete an album without any exterior time restraints,” he says. “I was able to accomplish by grace a song cycle that was seemingly impossible to do at the time or, for that matter, any time.”
Sloan, who wrote or co-wrote with Steve Barri many 1960s songs of Johnny Rivers, the Turtles, the Grass Roots, Herman’s Hermits and others, says his first three solo albums were his greatest works as a singer-songwriter.
His first album, Songs of Our Times, was influenced by Bob Dylan and featured “Eve of Destruction” and other songs more serious than the earlier compositions he wrote for other musicians. His second album, Twelve More Times, was more rock oriented and included “Let Me Be,” which was a hit for the Turtles. His third album, 1968’s Measure of Pleasure, added touches of jazz and blues to his folk-rock palette.
Sloan says his greatest works as a musician were his guitar playing on the first three albums of the Mamas and the Papas and the first three albums of the Grass Roots. He says he played all the electric guitar solos and six-string acoustic guitar leads on the first Mamas and Papas album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, which spawned the huge hits “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.”
His greatest works as a producer?
Sloan says his productions of the Grass Roots and Barry McGuire albums would be at the top. Sloan and Barri actually founded the Grass Roots — and used that group name as a pseudonym — while working for Dunhill Records’ publishing division. They penned the Grass Roots’ hit song, "Where Were You When I Needed You," and it was sung by Sloan. The song became a radio hit, so the duo had to find a band to fill the Grass Roots mantle. Under their direction, a Los Angeles group, 13th Floor, became the Grass Roots.
Another popular 1960s song that Sloan wrote was Rivers’ hit, “Secret Agent Man,” which hit #3 on the Billboard charts in 1966. It also was the theme song for a CBS television series with that title, starring Patrick McGoohan.
Other Sloan-penned songs included the Searchers’ “Take Me For What I’m Worth" and Herman’s Hermits’ “Hold On!” and "A Must to Avoid.”
Sloan released a solo album in 1972 and then disappeared from the music scene for many years. He released albums in 1993 and 2006 before last year’s My Beethoven. He was joined on his 2006 album, Sailover, by Lucinda Williams, Felix Cavaliere, Buddy Miller, and Frank Black.
Sloan did a mini-tour of the United Kingdom last year to promote My Beethoven and his book of memoirs, What’s Exactly the Matter With Me. Rumer warmed up for Sloan at London’s St. James Church. She sang Jimmy Webb’s song, “P.F. Sloan,” and Sloan emerged mid-song to sing it with her.
Many critics through the years have praised Sloan for his songwriting excellence, and Sloan says he was struck by the excellence of another songwriter — Tom Petty. Sloan saw a concert by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Oakland Coliseum and says it was “personally touching and musically superior."
“Tom and the Heartbreakers played with such sincerity, as if it was their first gig,” he recalls. “The musicianship was so above what I was expecting that I realized their commitment to excellence was what it is about.”
Editor's note: We are sad to share the news that P.F. Sloan has passed away since this article was written. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.