Previously, I posted that 'California Dreamin'' and 'Crocodile Rock' were the two best covers that the Beach Boys had recorded. Oops! This song is so associated with the Beach Boys that I forgot it was a cover.
'The John B Sails' is an old Bahamian folk song which Carl Sandburg included in his 'American Songbag' in 1927. In 1958, The Kingston Trio made the song "known" with a popular version in 1959.
Al Jardine took the tune to Brian during the recording of Pet Sounds.
"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."
Brian was at his creative peak in 1966 and producing brilliant stuff. I do believe he may well have put this tune together in 24 hours, as Al claims. If so, it's a testament to his amazing talents.
Though the tune doesn't thematically fit in on that album (I've seen it said that it was like "a debutante at the wrong ball) Brian produced a masterpiece. It hit #3 in the US and was a top five hit in many other countries. A version with Brian singing all of the lead and another with Carl singing lead on several verses is included on the excellent The Pet Sounds Sessions.
This video has promo footage, which was a pretty rare concept back in 1966.