DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
By the mid-1960s, the era of the contract songwriter on New York's Tin Pan Alley was coming to a close. It lived on, however, on the West Coast, where music publishers still hired teenage songwriters to make hits. P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri were the stars of that scene, and today, rock historian Ed Ward has a story of their many hits.
(Soundbite of song, "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'")
THE FANTASTIC BAGGYS (Rock Band): (Singing) Hey, mom, if any of the guys from my baseball team ever call me on the phone to ask me to play in an important game, just say their captain ain't at home.
Tell 'em I'm surfin'. Don't care about hitting home runs now. Tell 'em I'm surfin'. Gonna have me some fun, fun, fun, now. I'm trading in my bat and balls and I'll see 'em in the fall. I'm going surfin'.
And if that pretty little...
ED WARD: The Fantastic Baggys had their brief moment in surf music history with "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'," being a very well-made, if unsuccessful song. If it sounds familiar, it should: The song was re-cut by Jan and Dean, and the singers had already done local arrangements and performances on other records. In fact, the Baggys didn't exist. They were just another manifestation of the songwriting team of Phil Sloan and Steve Barri, who'd been thrown together by the West Coast office of Screen Gems Music to write follow-ups to hits. They'd already made records as the Lifeguards, Willie and The Wheels, Themes Incorporated, and several other groups, and Lou Adler, their boss, had faith in them.
Sloan was born Phil Schlein in 1945, and Steve Barri was born Steve Lipkin in 1942. But although they were both New Yorkers, their parents moved the families to Los Angeles, where Sloan started writing and recording songs for some small labels and Barri got a job in a music store, where he heard lots of records and learned some guitar chords. Sloan was Screen Gems' token teenager, and as well as writing songs, he was supposed to listen to records. In 1963, a British guy named Brian Epstein sent him some records by a group called The Beatles, and he was floored. Adler tossed them, at which point Sloan offered to buy them from him. Adler was impressed enough to get on the phone with Vee-Jay Records, who wound up buying the rights.
In 1965, Sloan had another revelation: Bob Dylan. The kind of formulaic songwriting shops like Screen Gems produced was definitely over, and a new day had arrived. Sloan sat down and wrote a bunch of new songs, one of which was immediately recorded by a band from Liverpool, The Searchers.
(Soundbite of song, "Take Me for What I'm Worth")
THE SEARCHERS (Rock Band): (Singing) Don't try and understand me. You never could do that. Ah, and in the end you'd wind up being hurt. I'm a man with too many problems that keep pounding on my brain.
So if you want me, then take me for what I'm worth. If you want me, you'll take me for what I'm worth.
WARD: At this point, Lou Adler saw what was happening and left Screen Gems to set up the Dunhill label and music publishing firm, offering Sloan and Barri double their present salaries to come work for him. Sure enough, one of their first efforts was another fake band, The Grass Roots, who had a big West Coast hit with its first record.
(Soundbite of song, "Where Were You When I Needed You?")
THE GRASS ROOTS (Rock band): (Singing) Don't bother cryin', don't bother crawlin'. It's all over now, no use in stallin'. The love I once felt, I don't feel anymore for you. This time I'll even open the door for you. You walked out when I was down. Well, now I'm well off, and look, look who's comin' round.
Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when I wanted you? Where were you when I needed you? Where?
WARD: But another artist on Dunhill didn't need a fake name. Sloan's discovery of Dylan was pushing him further from pop and closer to what he called people's music. In 1965, Dunhill released the first album by P.F. Sloan, "Songs of Our Times," which included a track he'd written for a former member of the New Christy Minstrels.
(Soundbite of song, "Eve of Destruction")
Mr. P.F. SLOAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) The eastern world, it is exploding, violence flarin' and bullets loadin'. You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'. You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'? And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'.
But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend. Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction. Don't you understand...
WARD: "Eve of Destruction" was a number-one hit for Barry McGuire, while Sloan's version stayed on his album. And while the McGuire record was banned by many radio stations, the single Sloan released was banned by almost all of them.
(Soundbite of song, "Sins of a Family,")
Mr. SLOAN: (Singing) She had a bad childhood while she was very young, so don't judge her too badly. She had a schizophrenic mother who worked in the gutter, would have sold herself to the devil gladly. What a sad environment, a bug-ridden tenement. And when they couldn't pay the rent, it's 'cause her father was out getting sicker.
Oh, the stone's been cast and blood's thicker than water. And the sins of the family fall on the daughter. All the sins of the family fall on the daughter.
WARD: Dunhill packed Sloan and McGuire off to tour England, where both records had taken off, and when Sloan returned, he saw things very differently. The kids wanted protest music, he'd decided, but in America, the man was keeping it from them.
In retrospect, though, it looks a little different. "Eve of Destruction" didn't really have a viewpoint, and "Sins of a Family" clubs you over the head with one. What Phil Sloan and Steve Barri did best was pop, and throughout 1966, they wrote hits for Herman's Hermits, The Mamas and Papas and The Turtles. But eventually, Sloan simply walked out and disappeared. For years, all people knew of him was his name, thanks to a song by Jimmy Webb, whom he'd helped get started in the songwriting business. Steve Barri kept producing for Warner Brothers and Motown, and Sloan reappeared with an album in 2006 and has done some touring. But the last great song factory in L.A. was closed.
BIANCULLI: Rock historian Ed Ward played music from two Sloan and Barri collections, "You Baby: Words & Music By P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri" and P.F. Sloan, "Here's Where I Belong: The Very Best Of The Dunhill Years 1965-1967."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.