The Ponderosa Stomp music festival celebrates the unsung heroes of American music. But one of this year’s most anticipated Stomp acts, P.F. Sloan — composer of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” — is not unsung.
Great American songwriter Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away”) wrote “P.F. Sloan.”
“I have been seeking P.F. Sloan,” the lyrics say. “But no one knows where he has gone. No one ever heard the song that boy set winging.”
For decades, Sloan was among the most mysterious major figures in American music. The mystery lessened with last year’s release of his autobiography, “What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? Memoirs of a Life in Music.”
The book, the Ponderosa Stomp-bound Sloan said last week, is about magic.
“To experience magic in a recording studio is inexplicable,” he said. “You see things that can never be seen. Music is an amazing place to experience these things.”
In addition to being the composer of songs recorded by Rivers, McGuire, The Turtles, The Grass Roots, Herman’s Hermits, The Fifth Dimension, The Searchers and more, Sloan played for hundreds of recording sessions. He created the classic guitar intro, for instance, to The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
“Meeting Elvis Presley, that’s what started it all for me,” said Sloan, who’s performing Friday at Rock ’n’ Bowl, this year’s Stomp venue.
In 1958, Sloan met Presley at a music store on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Presley gave the 12-year-old a guitar lesson, showing him how to play “Love Me Tender.”
Sloan made his recording debut the next year via Los Angeles blues label Aladdin Records. Earl Palmer, the New Orleans drummer who moved to LA and became a member of the top session musicians there known as the Wrecking Crew, played for Sloan’s Aladdin session. Little Richard’s producer, Bumps Blackwell, supervised.
Although the Aladdin single, “All I Want Is Loving,” didn’t hit, Sloan got his foot in the door. He was still a teen when he teamed with songwriting partner Steve Barri. Their collaborations include “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” The Turtles’ “You Baby” and The Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You.”
In 1965, Sloan released his album debut, “Songs Of Our Times.” A second album, “12 More Times,” followed in 1966. But because he was essential to Dunhill Records as a writer, producer and session musician, his solo career didn’t blossom.
“I did a little performing when ‘Eve of Destruction’ hit,” he said. “The record label didn’t like that, because I wasn’t working at the office writing songs.”
Sloan is philosophical about that period of his life. Likewise the lack of compensation for his songwriting.
“I had the opportunity to use the gift the divine had given me, to do music,” he said. “The money really was secondary. In the end, they took it all, and that’s the way that song went. It took me, like, 35 years to pull it all together with grace. But music’s in my soul, so I’ve got to express that.”
Sloan became more active as a performer in 2006, following the release of his album “Sailover.”
“It feels like I’m in the consciousness now, being out there as a performer. That has never really been the case before.”