It was 54 years ago today (July 12th, 1965) that the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson began recording the group's 1966 hit “Sloop John B,” the first song tracked for the group's legendary Pet Sounds album. It was the group's rhythm guitarist Al Jardine, the folk music aficionado in the band, who suggested the group cover the standard, which had been recorded by the Kingston Trio, among many others. In the group's 1998 documentary Endless Harmony, Jardine recalled, “I tried persuading Brian to record the track a year before we finally cut it. I sat and played these chord progressions, basically three chords done on a guitar, banjo and keyboards. I knew it had to have keyboards, otherwise I knew it wouldn't get his attention.”
Despite Jardine providing the inspiration and basic arrangement of the tune, he was shut out of receiving a “traditional copyright” credit for the tune along with Wilson.
For the vocal sessions for the song, Wilson recorded versions with lead vocals by each of the Beach Boys — Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Jardine, and himself — and ultimately selected his own and Love's vocals for the final version. The song, which was released on March 21st, 1966, peaked at Number Three. In Britain, it hit Number Two.
Brian Wilson told us that he included the band's then-current single “Sloop John B.” on Pet Sounds at the Beach Boys' record company's request: “No, I wanted it to be a single but when they said 'album,' I said 'fine,' that was okay with me. I said it would help the album. Y'know, it would help it sell and it would fit perfectly.”
In 2005 Jardine released an illustrated children's book based on the song, titled Sloop John B – A Pirate's Tale, and explained why he thinks the song continues to appeal to fans of all ages: “Well, it's an escapist fantasy, y'know, and that's probably what the appeal was in the beginning, when I first heard it. It kinda took me away from my present circumstances, y'know? And now the story, from a children's point of view would be compelling because it's about hero worship. We revere our grandfathers — and if we can be a hero to them, that's what we'd all like to be.”
“Sloop John B” has been a mainstay of the group's live show for over 50 years. During the '60s, Jardine often took the lead; in the early '70s Carl Wilson took over lead vocals; and in the '80s, Jardine and Brian Wilson often performed it as a duet.