“Enigma, wunderkind, control freak, visionary, raconteur, artist advocate, shameless hustler and, in the end, kind heart, Gernhard spent four and a half decades chasing recording art and blatant novelty with the same dogged determination. Gernhard’s achievements in the music business rival those of Rick Hall, Mike Curb, Phil Walden, and perhaps even Sam Phillips.”—Rodney Crowell, singer-songwriter
“DeYoung hooks Phil Gernhard’s genius, discipline, and love of music right up to the side of his selfindulgent, carny, smarmy business practices. I had no idea what a huge swath of great work he’d cut, starting right in his own backyard.”—Stan Lynch, songwriter and producer
“A great rock ‘n’ roll story that’s been hiding in plain sight. It’s the last half century of American music wrapped up in the story of one man.”—William McKeen, author of Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles
“Captures one of the most unheard of and intriguing stories to come from the colorful world of American pop music—the life of Phil Gernhard, a driven hit-maker who never let anyone get in his way.”—Steve Huntington, DJ, Radio Margaritaville
In 1960, “Stay” reached number one on the charts. The song was impossible to get out of your head: Stay—aaah—just a little bit longer. The innocuously catchy R&B song was produced by Phil Gernhard for South Carolina doo-wop group Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. At just 19 years old and with no formal training, Gernhard was a go-getting, red-headed kid eager to break into the music business. “Stay” was just the beginning of a career that would span nearly fifty years’ worth of chart-topping songs.
Phil Gernhard, Record Man is the story of a self-made music mogul who dropped out of law school to open a tiny office and studio in Florida and went on to produce hits that would rock the airwaves and resonate throughout the country. He cowrote the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” America’s fastest-selling single of 1966. He revived the career of singer Dion DiMucci with the ballad “Abraham, Martin and John,” which sold over a million records. He discovered and produced hit records for Lobo, Jim Stafford, and the Bellamy Brothers. Through a long collaboration with music business icon Mike Curb, he launched to fame many others, including country superstars Tim Mc-Graw and Rodney Atkins. In Nashville and Los Angeles, Phil Gernhard was a legend.
Yet Gernhard’s private life was crumbling. He battled physical and emotional demons that he simply couldn’t overcome, struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. He also never quite overcame the scars left by an emotionally abusive father. He was in the process of divorcing his fourth wife when he took his own life in 2008.
Through interviews with Gernhard’s musicians, business partners, family members, friends, and ex-wives, Bill DeYoung offers an intimate portrait of an eccentric and troubled musical genius who channeled his talent, ego, and ambition into the success of others. A true “record man,” Gernhard did it all. He lived to make records into gold, to make unknowns into stars, and above all, to make music that lasted.
Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down. Nationally recognized for his music journalism, he was a writer and editor at various Florida and Georgia newspapers for over three decades.
In this interview Bill DeYoung talks about his experiences writing his new book and the life of music mogul Phil Gernhard.
What drew you to Phil Gernhard’s story?
I grew up in the Tampa Bay area, and my interest in the music business began while I was kid. Even then, I knew Phil Gernhard’s name—he was the brains behind Lobo, Jim Stafford and the Bellamy Brothers. And he was local! It was much later that I found out all the other things he was responsible for, especially the “Snoopy” songs. As a Florida success story, Phil’s was a natural to write about.
What were some unique challenges you faced while writing this book?
First and foremost, Phil being deceased was a challenge. As an intensely private man, he didn’t leave behind a paper trail to follow. He had no close friends and no confidantes. This story had to be reconstructed from the ground up.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Gernhard’s life while researching this book?
That he was such a canny—well, unsavory—businessman. He wrote contracts that ensured he made more money than the songwriters, the artists, or anyone else. Phil learned early that owning publishing rights to the song was key. Unfortunately, that meant his artists often got cheated.
What do you think motivated Gernhard to leave everything behind and become a record producer with only one hit—Maurice Williams’s “Stay”—under his belt?
I don’t think Phil ever forgot what it felt like when “Stay” went to No. 1. He returned to Florida, and college, when the money ran out. But he always thought of himself as a producer—even as a law student, he was bringing garage bands into the studio, looking for the next hit. All it took was “Snoopy” and the Royal Guardsmen to get him out of school once and for all.
Once Gernhard moved from Florida to California in the ’70s, how did the way he conducted business change?
Throwing in his lot with Mike Curb and with Mike’s brother-in-law, Tony Scotti, were very savvy moves. He wanted to become a player, and those guys had the connections. Unfortunately, his drinking and drug use also went through the roof in his L.A. period, and he never fully recovered. I think it’s very telling, too, that he all but abandoned Lobo once he went west, putting all his efforts into breaking Jim Stafford as a TV star. Turns out, he was cheating them both.
Of the songs Gernhard produced, which are your favorite and why?
Oh, that’s easy. I love “T Town,” his second Maurice Williams song. It’s pure doo-wop, but magical and weird, like so much of Maurice’s stuff. It has a great, slinky vibe, and you can dance to it. From the Tampa/St. Pete period, I think the Raven’s “Calamity Jane” is a spectacular pop single, as good as any from any American band in 1968. I’m also partial to Jim Stafford’s first one, “Swamp Witch,” and the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow.”
You touch on a lot of different people who entered and exited Gernhard’s life. Who among them do you believe influenced him most?
Certainly he learned belligerence and stubbornness from his father! Musically, though, he got a lot from Dick Holler, the boogie-woogie piano player and songwriter from Louisiana. Dick was as grounded as Phil was dreamy, and as business partners (and co-writers) I think they complemented one another. They worked together for 10 years, which was a pretty long haul by Gernhard’s standards.
For someone who made a career out of propelling others to fame, why do you think Gernhard remained such a private person?
From what his ex-wives told me, he was deeply insecure, most likely because of his father’s unrelenting verbal abuse. And for all his boasting about his golden ears, I believe that deep down he knew he wasn’t Phil Spector or Brian Wilson. Don’t forget, many of his biggest records were novelty songs—not the kind of stuff producers like to brag about.
As you were researching, did you find any information that might indicate why Gernhard would have taken his own life?
I cannot answer that, and neither can anyone in the book. It’s the last great mystery from a life that was, essentially, a series of mysteries.
What are you working on next?
Several projects, including another book about Florida music and hopefully something in-depth about the relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney.