Sloop John B 1966

Released March 21, 1966
Format 7-inch single
Recorded July 12–December 29, 1965
Studio United Western Recorders, Hollywood
Folk rock Pop
Length 2:59
Label Capitol 5602
Writer(s) Traditional, arranged by Brian Wilson
Producer(s) Brian Wilson

“Sloop John B” is a traditional folk song from the Bahamas, also known as “The John B. Sails”, which was included in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 collection of folk songs The American Songbag. It is best known for its folk rock adaptation by the Beach Boys, which was produced and arranged by bandleader Brian Wilson. Released two months before their 11th studio album Pet Sounds (1966), it served as the lead single for the album, peaking at number 3 in the US and number 2 in the UK. In several other countries, the single was a number one hit.

Wilson based his version on the 1958 recording by the Kingston Trio, but took some liberties with the song’s arrangement, changing a few lyrics, and at the suggestion of bandmate Al Jardine, modified one part of the song’s chord progression to include a supertonic chord. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, his brother Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine all share lead vocal duties. The instrumentation was provided mostly by the session musician conglomerate nicknamed “the Wrecking Crew”.

The song remains one of the group’s best-remembered recordings of their mid 1960s period, containing an unusual and elaborate a cappella vocal section that was unlike anything in the pop music of its era. In 2011, the group’s version of “Sloop John B” was ranked #276 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

The Kingston Trio’s 1958 recording of “The John B. Sails” was recorded under the title “The Wreck of the John B.” It was the direct influence on the Beach Boys’ version. The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine was a keen folk music fan, and he suggested to Brian Wilson that the Beach Boys should do a cover version of the song. As Jardine explains:

Brian was at the piano. I asked him if I could sit down and show him something. I laid out the chord pattern for ‘Sloop John B.’ I said, ‘Remember this song?’ I played it. He said, ‘I’m not a big fan of the Kingston Trio.’ He wasn’t into folk music. But I didn’t give up on the idea. So what I did was to sit down and play it for him in the Beach Boys idiom. I figured if I gave it to him in the right light, he might end up believing in it. So I modified the chord changes so it would be a little more interesting. The original song is basically a three-chord song, and I knew that wouldn’t fly. So I put some minor changes in there, and it stretched out the possibilities from a vocal point of view. Anyway, I played it, walked away from the piano and we went back to work. The very next day, I got a phone call to come down to the studio. Brian played the song for me, and I was blown away. The idea stage to the completed track took less than 24 hours

The instrumental section of the song was recorded on July 22, 1965 at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California, the session being engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The master take of the instrumental backing took fourteen takes to achieve.

The vocal tracks were recorded over two sessions. The first was recorded on December 22, 1965, at Western Recorders, produced by Wilson. The second, on December 29, added a new lead vocal and Billy Strange’s 12-string electric guitar part. Jardine explained that Wilson “lined us up one at a time to try out for the lead vocal. I had naturally assumed I would sing the lead, since I had brought in the arrangement. It was like interviewing for a job. Pretty funny. He didn’t like any of us. My vocal had a much more mellow approach because I was bringing it from the folk idiom. For the radio, we needed a more rock approach. Wilson and Mike ended up singing it.” On the final recording, Brian Wilson sang the first and third verses and Mike Love sang the second.

Kent Hartman, in his book The Wrecking Crew, described Billy Strange’s contribution to the song. Brian Wilson called Strange into the studio one Sunday, played him the rough recording, and told him he needed an electric twelve-string guitar solo in the middle of the track. When Strange replied that he did not own a twelve string, Wilson responded by calling Glenn Wallichs, the head of Capitol Records and owner of Wallichs Music City. A Fender Electric XII and Twin Reverb amplifier were quickly delivered (despite the shop they were ordered from being closed on Sundays), and Strange recorded the guitar part in one take. Wilson then gave Strange $2,000 to cover the cost of the equipment.

During the summer of 1965 Wilson met future Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks after Parks invited by David Crosby to listen to an early mix of “Sloop John B”.

Sourced from liner notes included with the 1999 mono/stereo reissue of Pet Sounds,except where otherwise noted.

The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson – lead vocals
Mike Love – lead vocals
Dennis Wilson – backing vocals
Al Jardine – backing vocals
Carl Wilson – 12-string guitar[citation needed], backing vocals
Additional musicians and production staff
Hal Blaine – drums
Ron Swallow (uncertain) – tambourine
Lyle Ritz – string bass
Carol Kaye – electric bass
Al Casey – acoustic guitar
Jerry Cole – guitar
Billy Strange – guitar, overdubbed 12-string guitar
Al De Lory – organ
Frank Capp – glockenspiel
Jay Migliori – clarinet
Steve Douglas – flute
Jim Horn – flute
Jack Nimitz – baritone saxophone
Chuck Britz – engineer