Tag Archives: PF Sloan

Review – the Thomas Group

***** (5 stars out of 6)

The other day a much anticipated package from Spain arrived at Cue Castanets headquarters. The contents? The new CD release ‘Hollywoodland, 1966-1969’ by Hanky Panky Records which collects both released and unreleased recordings by the Thomas Group.

thomas group

The Thomas Group?

Some readers may scratch their heads upon meeting this unfamiliar band. However, if you are as much of a fan of 60s songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri as I am, the “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” career of the Thomas Group will be something you are well aware of.

I have already written here before about my appreciation of PF Sloan. As far as I’m concerned, PF Sloan, Brian Wilson and, you guessed it, Phil Spector make up the holy trinity of 60s pop. But where Brian Wilson and Phil Spector both carved out a very distinctive style and approach for their recordings, PF Sloan was much more adventurous or exploitative depending on how you look at his recordings. A musical chameleon with a capital C, Sloan and his songwriting partner Steve Barri could jump on any bandwagon and write tailormade songs for the latest dance or music craze. They dabbled effortlessly in vocal surf pop, merseybeat, girl group records, folk rock,… You name it, Sloan/Barri could write it!

sloan and barri
Steve Barri & PF Sloan working up a song.
The interesting thing is that as cynical as this may sound like, the duo churned out the most jubilant, first class pop records anyone’s ever likely to make. They were bonafide pop commandos. Need a hit? Call these guys! They may have written songs to order, but my god, the care, love and quality they instilled in their songs is in the grooves.

You can pick up a Sloan/Barri song a mile away; catchy riffs, clever word play, dreamy harmonies. Yet, despite knocking up hit records for a bunch of artists including the Turtles, Johnny Rivers and the Grass Roots, PF Sloan and Steve Barri have unfairly stood in the shadows of other, more celebrated 60s songwriters such as the husband & wife teams of the Brill Building.

Maybe Sloan/Barri just didn’t write enough monster hit records to get fully recognised? Maybe they were too young and inexperienced to really make their mark in the business? Or maybe they were held somewhat back because they were tied to a second-tier record label like Dunhill? We’ll never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter. The music speaks for itself and it speaks volumes in terms of the sheer talent on offer by these two young songwriters.

Sloan, of course, later went solo issuing a couple of brilliant albums until his career fell on the wayside due to personal problems. Steve Barri ventured into production work.

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Where does the Thomas Group fit into all of this? Well, seeing that the Sloan/Barri story is filled with examples of upcoming groups or one-off Sloan/Barri singles by established artists, the Thomas Group is a prime example of the former. 

The band came together in 1965 at the behest of drummer Tony Thomas who was the son of the TV producer and comedian Danny Thomas. Enlisting some friends to form a band, Thomas & friends were inspired by the current chart success of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, yet another band formed around the drumming son of a comedian, Jerry Lewis.

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Back then things happened fast. Almost immediately after getting together, the band was snapped up by Dunhill producer Lou Adler and assigned to Sloan and Barri leading an assortment of Wrecking Crew regulars in the studio. In typical mid-60s pop fashion hardly a Thomas Group member played on the resulting singles. Lead vocals on all were sung by Thomas Group keyboardist Greg Gilford, often sounding uncannily like Sloan. This also occurred with the Grass Roots where lead singer Rob Grill closely followed Sloan’s vocals on the songwriting demos.

Back to the Thomas Group; over a short time span 6 Sloan/Barri songs were recorded and issued on Dunhill but inexplicably none of them saw any notable chart action. However, the recordings are stellar and from a moment in time where Sloan/Barri had truly perfected their catchy formula.

Take a bit of Four Season-ish falsetto for the chorus, some jangling guitars, a heavy dose of Merseybeat-styled energy and, at times, even a pinch of garage group shakeup and you’ll get some idea of what these records sound like. To these ears, songs like ‘Penny Arcade’, ‘Ordinary Girl’ and ‘Autumn’ are among Sloan/Barri’s very best songs. Fun fact; Gary Zekley was so floored by ‘Penny Arcade’ that he by his own admission ripped off the opening verse melody for his own verses to Bonnie’s Wall of Sound classic “Close Your Eyes.”

Sloan/Barri fans have of course known and cherished these pop gems for decades but what’s special about this new release is the fact that we now have the 6 Sloan/Barri songs in crystal clear, glorious stereo for the first time. And it is a revelation to hear these recordings with fresh ears! The lead vocals and cool backing harmonies especially benefit from stereo.

These new mixes are basically a must-hear for any pop fan. You’ll also get your hands on a wealth of unreleased songs by the Thomas Group recorded while at Dunhill or later on while shopping for a deal under the new name Morning Sun. These tracks are interesting and include some really good songs overall, though none come close to the Sloan/Barri singles.

‘Is Happy this Way’, released as a single by Dunhill, is prime sunshine pop and a really strong recording and you’ll also get two versions of Greg Gilford’s catchy ‘Someone’. He turned out to be an interesting songwriter himself as songs such as ‘Is it Over’ and ‘New People’ show – maybe he learned a trick or two from Sloan/Barri?

You need this release for the 6 stereo Sloan/Barri songs alone! And better place your order now since the print run by Hanky Panky Records is limited to 500 copies.

Now, if some enterprising label out there could only do something similar with Sloan/Barri’s remaining 60s songwriting demos or the two albums with a wealth of Sloan/Barri songs by Canadian singer Terry Back? (hint hint)

Read more about the new release and order your copy here: http://hankypankyrecords.bigcartel.com/product/thomas-group-hollywoodland-1966-1969-cd-digipack

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Post # 100!

Well, whad’ya know?

Today’s post marks post # 100 since starting Cue Castanets in the fall of 2014. Here’s to the next hundred! And I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far.

Some of you have written me directly to give your thumbs up, others have left positive comments on the blog. I really appreciate your feedback and I’m glad that you enjoy my ramblings on all things Spector & the Wall of Sound. Thank you.

And with that, indulge me in a bit of a ‘what if’ scenario if you will. The thing is, I’m sure that all of us know songs from around the time of Spector’s golden 60s period that we deep down wish the Tycoon of Teen had taken a liking to and decided to give the full Spector treatment in Gold Star.

Basically, what I’m thinking about are either released 60s recordings by artists not in Spector’s stable or even obscure song demos that didn’t see an actual release at all. The mind boggles thinking about what could have been when hearing songs that would have worked particular well beefed up with a grandiose Wall of Sound backing. Off the top of my head, here are five examples that could easily have been turned into ‘little symphonies for the kids’ – I’d love to hear your suggestions…

 – – – – – – – – – – –

Neil Sedaka – ‘Tonight Will Tell’

As far as I know, this awesome ‘does he love me or not’ teen angst anthem by the superb Neil Sedaka was never released by anyone. What a shame – the melody is great and the lyrics work very well.

As bare bones as this recording is, imagine the monster this song could have been had Spector enveloped it with the majestic sound of the Wrecking Crew in Gold Star. Would have been a perfect fit for the Ronettes. I can almost hear Ronnie croon that chorus with her gorgeous vibrato!

 

The Cinderellas – Baby, Baby (I Still Love You)

This classic girl group cut was actually the Cookies under a pseudonym. Written by Spector’s friends Cynthia Well and Russ Titelman, this is as good as it gets when it comes to the girl group genre, if you ask me. Yet, as good as this recording is – and Titelman’s production is very sympathetic – I have always felt it lacked a bit of punch.

Had Spector had a go at it, he’d probably had the drums be much more pounding in the ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’-vein and no doubt had a gigantic rumble drone beneath, courtesy of a legion of guitarists strumming along in unison. And don’t even get me started thinking about what a sweeping Jack Nitszche string arrangement could have brought to all this! File under ‘perfect for the Crystals’, then.

 

PF Sloan – “Cry over You”

I wrote about this fantastic, jaw-droppingly great demo when I wrote my tribute to PF Sloan last year the day after he passed. Sloan was a music chameleon capable of writing within any genre. For some reason though, he never seriously dabbled in big Wall of Sound recordings, but if he did, this song seems tailormade for the Righteous Brothers.

Oh man, Bill Medley on the first verse, Bobby Hatfield stepping up to the mike on the second. And both of them belting out together on the chorus – swathed in a gazillion strings and bombastic backing reverberating in that big, fat Gold Star echo. It’s incredible that no one seems to have recorded this superb song!

 

Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

This choice may be a bit cliché since ‘Reach Out’ has often been likened to the tour-de-force that was ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ in intensity and impact. Two monster productions that came out only two months apart. As tasty as Holland-Dozier-Holland’s production is, imagine the stratospheric heights Spector could have taken this superb song to. The tune in itself I like much more than ‘River Deep’, so I really fantasize about the mad Tycoon of Teen tackling this pop gem in the midst of a sweeping strings, booming drums and a 30-member chorus.

We know for a fact that Spector really dug the Four Tops – singling out ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving’ and ‘Reach Out’ in particular during interviews. Levi Stubbs of the four tops; gosh, one of the greatest singers ever – it’s a shame his over-the-top vocals never graced a Spector production! As for Spector’s own stable of acts, I guess only Darlene Love or Tina Turner could have supplied the type of juggernaut vocal required, had Spector covered the song.

 

The Staccatos – “Cry to Me”

Time to slow things down a bit here at the end,… ‘Cry to Me’ was a hit by Solomon Burke in the early 60s and was covered quite a lot. One version that has struck a chord with me is this one by South African band the Staccatos – not to be confused with a Canadian band by the same name.

The SA Staccatos slowed down the song considerably and had some very soulful vocals on top. But come on, this way of doing the song is just begging for someone like Spector or Jack Nitszche to go completely over the edge, building up the backing track as some sort of audio Tower of Babel. Everything but the kitchen sink would be their modus operandi, I suspect. Nothing less! Perfect for Bobby Hatfield or Bobby Sheen!

 

Any suggestions from you? Let’s hear them!

Malibooz – Call of the Wave (2002)

When Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound ruled the early to mid 60s airwaves there was another distinct musical path trodded out by a variety of acts; the path of vocal surf pop.

Today, only the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean are remembered by the general music-loving public but there was a plethora of releases by different acts from around the US that took the harmonies emenating from Los Angeles as a rallying cry for celebrating the sun, the sea and the mighty surf.

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Doesn’t get any better than PF Sloan’s and Steve Barri’s surfsploitation act the Fantastic Baggys.
Dive into releases by, say, Bruce & Terry, the Fantastic Baggys or Ronny & the Daytonas and you’ll find great songs and at times also productions that sort of veer off into pseudo Wall of Sound-territory. None did this more often of course than Brian Wilson whose studio creativity would in time surpass even that of Spector himself.

All this builds up to the introduction of the next entry in my long, on-going line of modern Spector soundalikes, because today’s entry is precisely the kind of weird amalgamation of surf and Wall of Sound that only seldomly occured in Spector’s golden period.

Fittingly, the song in question is from a band that grew out of this very scene. The Malibooz formed in 1964 in New York and took its cue from the sun-soaked sound of the Golden State, trying their best to spread the sunshine to the East Coast.

An EP and a single came out as early as 1965 and since then the band has been active, putting out albums and still performing to this day.

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2002 saw the release of ‘Beach Access’ with a nice and predictable selection of surf/summer/sun-themed tunes – but there was also a song that really stood out right away and immidiatedly caught my attention; the mighty ode to surf that is ‘Call of the Wave’ – as epic a surf-themed track you’ll here this side of Jack Nitszche’s ‘Lonely Surfer!’

I really, really dig this production by John Zambetti and Walter Egan who are the main-stays and creative force in the Malibooz. The lyrics are great in all their wide-eyed, heartfelt praise of the sea’s lure and the gradual build of the majestic backng track is majestic, – very much in line with the type of sound Bruce Springsteen nailed in his most Spectoresque songs during the 70s.

You’ll find much to like here – from the pounding drums over the blatant rip-off of the ‘Then He Kissed Me’ riff to the tinkling glockenspiel. Go ahead, dip your toes into ‘Call of the Wave.’

Take Him for What He’s Worth

As of typing this latest blog post, Cue Castanets has been active for a year. I hope that those of you who check in here from time to time or, even better, subscribe to my posts via e-mail alerts have found some interesting writing on all things Spector and beyond.

I wish I’d been more active during the past two or three months but I’ve been busy with other things in my life which will make future posts on here more infrequent. But keep checking in – I have lots of ideas for interviews, reviews, song run-throughs and what not and I will eventually get around to those, I’m sure.

I had originally planned to post about something else tonight but then yesterday evening I learned about the sad passing of P. F. Sloan – one of my all-time musical heroes.

If I were to name my own, deeply personal holy Trinity of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and PF Sloan,… or Philip Schlein as he was known before donning the P.F. Sloan moniker. Naming Sloan along with those two musical giants should give you all the proof you need that he is a musician I hold in extremely high regard. I’ve been deeply in love with his music ever since discovering it in the early 00s.

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It’s always difficult to put into words the effect your favorite music has upon you. With Sloan, a great part of it has to do with his overwhelmingly emotive and expressive vocals. I’m continually amazed at the urgency that seems to simmer beneath each and every lead vocal of his. And the hooks! Sloan equals hook heaven! Oh man, the stuff he wrote alone or along with partner-in-crime Steve Barri is the stuff of legends as far as I’m concerned.

Merseybeat knockoffs? Check. Beach Boys-styled surf pop? You got it! Elvis soundalikes? No problem. Girl Group songs? Sure, how many d’ya need? Jangly folk-rock or Bob Dylan type social commentary? Why, I have a bunch of songs scribled down right here!

One type of music that Sloan actually didn’t take a stab at was fully fledged Wall of Sound productions. Which is no surprise really. Along with Steve Barri Sloan was on such a tight, grueling recording schedule that he probably never really had the possibility to spend time developing bombast productions. But I’ll bet he could have worked wonders within that type of genre too. There’s a demo floating around among Sloan collectors – ‘Cry over You’ – that’s just begging for a over-the-top dramatic production. And Sloan gives it his all on the demo. It could have been a monster record, – either with his lead or someone else singing it, as was often the case with his early-to-mid 60s output.

 

Basically, Sloan could – and did – it all. He was a master at being versatile and inventive – a musical chameleon whose talent for spitting out hooks far outshone most other songwriters of the era. That’s my opinion of course but really, take a listen to any Sloan-Barri song and Sloan’s solo material and you’ll be amazed at what was achieved within a few, frantic years. Heck, the Fantastic Baggys album alone beats a few of the otherwise classic early 60s Beach Boys albums!

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Yet, as fantastic as Sloan was he never achieved the amount of fame or recognition he should have and sadly withdrew during the 70s due to personal problems. To me, that’s one of the saddest tales in rock’n’roll. There was so much promise there, – so much talent that should have kept flowing and graced our ears. Why it didn’t happen probably amounts to a bunch of reasons, but it’s tragic all the same.

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Anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Sloan legend should seek out Andrew Sandoval’s lovingly compiled ‘Trousdale Sessions’ demo collection that came out in 2001. It’s mindblowing! The sound quality is top-notch and listening to these rough demos you really get a sense of how good and versatile a pop singer Sloan was when he allowed himself to loosen up some of the Dylan voal mannerisms that dominate his two 60s solo albums. (‘Songs of our Times’, ‘Twelve More Times’)

Trousdale Sessions

There are actually more demos out there, passed on between collectors, but sadly with a sound quality that’s only so-and-so. Apparently, Sandoval had located enough demos to comprise a second demo collection but it never came out. What a shame! I hope that someday, somehow, other unreleased Sloan demos, known or unknown, will come out with the love and care that characterised the Trousdale Demos collection.

Sloan was one of a kind. A great talent, – one whose music has given me so much joy I can barely express it. Music that I know I’ll return to time and again for decades to come. So with this, allow me to bow my head and pay my respects to the one and only P. F. Sloan.

RIP & thank you for the music.