The old spiders and snakes play is taking Jim Stafford’s new single SPIDERS AND SNAKES straight to the top of the charts. The single has bullets and stars in all three trades this week. Watch for the album being rush-released by MGM Records.
MGM Records advertisement, Billboard, December 8, 1973
Mike Curb was producer of the year for 1972 in Billboard, and at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles he was approached again by Phil Gernhard. “Phil was one of the top ten producers that year as well,” said Curb. “He said, ‘You know, I might take you up on bringing an act to you.’ And he came back to me and played ‘Swamp Witch’ by Jim Stafford.
“It was incredible. It was like a Tony Joe White record. A very bayou-sounding record. Very southern. We immediately made a deal, and we put out the single.”
In July ’73, “Swamp Witch” (on MGM Records) reached its peak chart position—a respectable thirty-nine—in Billboard. “‘Swamp Witch’ sold half a million copies,” Stafford recalled, “but it wasn’t enough for me to get a lot of work. I wound up doing the state college circuit. Up in New York or New Jersey, we opened for this guy, and I couldn’t figure out how somebody I’d never heard of had roadies and a big band. I was just flabbergasted that a complete unknown would have the same stuff you have on the road when you’re famous.
“The kid’s name was Bruce Springsteen.”
Stafford’s “road crew” at the time consisted of his friend Leo Gallagher, a Tampa writer and comedian who held a degree in English literature from the University of South Florida. Gallagher, as he would be known profes- sionally, had done voiceover work for radio commercials and documentary films at Charles Fuller Productions.
For now, he was on the road with Jim Stafford, setting up his equipment, hanging out with his buddy, and helping to write his stage routines.
From the start, it was clear to everyone that Gallagher heard the beat of a different drummer (although he wouldn’t start sledgehammering watermelons for another couple of years).
“I wrote a novel called The Mailman Cometh,” Gallagher said, “about the horn of plenty of sex in America, printed 5,000 copies on newsprint, loaded up my car and drove to every car race and rock concert on the Eastern Seaboard, selling them for what I could get. It was usually a dime. Sometimes a quarter.
“Sometimes I read to people. Sometimes I just got a beer and a sandwich. Eventually I came back home. My car was broke. I was broke.”
They were back in Venice, south of Sarasota, playing another pay-the- rent club gig when fortune finally smiled on Jim Stafford.
Gernhard was flying back and forth between Florida and California, meeting with Curb and his executives, setting up TV appearances and making tour plans for Lobo—and auditioning songs for Jim Stafford’s album. “Swamp Witch” had been enough of a success that the label was asking for more.
“Phil showed up with a reel-to-reel recorder and a tape of some of the things he had,” Stafford said. “I showed him what I had. He played me the whole tape and then asked my opinion. And I told him that the song with the ‘spiders and snakes’ chorus had real potential. In my opinion.
“It was acoustic and a little bit like a Beatles song: “And that ain’t what it takes to love me. Come on, love me!” I kept thinking of ‘Love Me Do.’ I took the thing over to my house in Winter Haven, and I worked on it. I worked a long time on it and every now and then, I’d go back in.”
Growing up on a cattle ranch in a little town called Darby, north of St. Petersburg in rural Pasco County, Howard Bellamy and his younger brother David knew the value of hard work (their dad, Homer Bellamy, ran a tight ship) and the importance of playtime (Homer was also a part-time country and bluegrass musician who taught his guitar-strumming sons how to whoop it up for an audience).
The brothers formed a rock ’n’ roll band called Jericho, and like so many hungry young Florida musicians they found their way north to Gainesville and the University of Florida, where fraternities always needed bands to entertain at their keg parties.
A cover band that also played some David Bellamy originals, Jericho enjoyed a couple of good years on a frat-party circuit alongside Jacksonville’s Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gainesville’s own Mudcrutch (which would morph, some years later, into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).
By 1973, the band was history, and the brothers were back tending cattle in Darby. David was turning out songs by the tractor-load and sending them out to producers, promoters, anyone who would listen; that’s how “Spiders & Snakes” got to Phil Gernhard and then to Jim Stafford.
Stafford turned what had been written as a straightforward, if a bit silly, rock ’n’ roll song and turned it into broad comedy, to suit his style.
“‘I don’t like spiders and snakes, and that ain’t what it takes to love me,’ I wouldn’t have touched that with a gun to my head,” Stafford said. “I thought that was perfect. I wanted it to be sassier, so I added, ‘You fool, you fool.’ Then sang it again and added, ‘Like I want to be loved by you.’”
Stafford committed his version to cassette and drove it from Venice up to the Gernhard Enterprises office in St. Petersburg.
“I walked in and gave Phil the tape,” Stafford remembered. “He put it on, he played it, and all he said was, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ So we drove around for a while and talked. I think that Phil knew that I had nailed that song, and he couldn’t sit still. He had to leave the office.
“He was sure that he had something. And he was excited enough that he wanted to get out of there. I don’t remember a lot of what we talked about, probably all kinds of stuff. He was probably thinking about planning trips, where he was gonna cut it and who he was gonna use.”
“Spiders & Snakes” became the first recording Gernhard made in Los Angeles (in this case, at the legendary Wally Heider Studios). Per their arrangement, Lobo would be credited as coproducer on the single. LaVoie had great ideas in the studio, said Stafford, and even sang high background vocals in places to create an octave-apart unison sound. A female singer was hired to provide the desired “sassy” vocalizations on the chorus.
The writing credit was changed from “David Bellamy” to “Jim Stafford and David Bellamy.” And Gernhard, through his company Kaiser Music (named after Sandy’s Siamese cat), assigned himself a share of the publishing. Kent LaVoie also got a cut.
David Bellamy was twenty-two years old with stars in his eyes, and oh so ready to shake the Darby dust off his boots. Naturally, he signed the contract without batting an eye.
In the closing week of 1973, “Spiders & Snakes” got to number three in the Billboard pop singles chart—a smash success for Stafford, LaVoie, Gernhard, and Mike Curb’s MGM.
The success of this single coincided with the end of Phil’s marriage to Sandy. He was spending more time in Los Angeles than in St. Petersburg, and was talking about closing Gernhard Enterprises for good and throwing in his lot with Mike Curb.
In California, he was turning into a big wheel. And he liked it.
New Jersey singer Tony Scotti, a square-jawed former University of Maryland football star, had large aspirations. He made a pair of flop singles for Liberty in the ’60s and also dabbled in acting (he played Sharon Tate’s paramour, also called Tony, in Valley of the Dolls).
He’d been trying to crack the showbiz nut for a while. “As an actor, I might have to work for years and years and maybe won’t get discovered until late in life,” Scotti told writer Al Aronowitz in a Saturday Evening Post article called “The Dumb Sound” in 1963. “I want to be a film star, but I don’t want to have to wait that long. My friends tell me I have a good voice, a good commercial sound. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start cutting records. I’m going to sing my way into the movies.”
After his “big break” in Valley of the Dolls came and went, the good-looking, smooth-talking sports hero gave it all up for a career in the business end of music. His older brother Ben, another ex–football star who’d played for the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles, was working as a vice president of the promotions department at MGM Records; Tony sold himself as a producer and promoter, joined his brother, and in 1971 was named a senior vice president, two years into Mike Curb’s tenure as president. He worked in both A&R and promotions capacities.
Scotti expanded his role in the Curb family, as part of a “Sunshine Pop” harmony group called “Heaven Bound.” With Joan Medora on lead vocals and a Mike Curb Congregation–type backup chorus consisting of Scotti, Eddie Madora, and Curb staff producers Tony Oliver and Michael Lloyd, a forgettable album—with Scotti credited as producer—was issued on MGM in 1972.
Scotti dated, and then married, Curb’s sister Carole, making it a genuine family affair. “On their honeymoon, they went to see Jim Stafford,” Mike Curb remembered with a chuckle, and that—presumably—was when Tony Scotti first met Phil Gernhard.
“I was transitioning out of MGM because Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to sell the record company,” Curb explained. “We had taken it over when it was losing a lot of money. It started making a profit with Donny Osmond, the Osmond Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., Lou Rawls, and the Sylvers.
“Tony was my brother-in-law, so I wanted him to have a nice transition, and obviously Phil, too—I thought the relationship was a good one.”
Although Gernhard-Scotti Enterprises wasn’t registered as a corporation until July 1974, Gernhard and Scotti had decided to throw in together much earlier. Gernhard was starstruck, and he wanted to be a part of the big record-making machine in LA. Nearly all of Gernhard-Scotti Productions’ work would come under the Curb umbrella, as part of the label’s newly minted distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records.
They leased three small white bungalows at 9229 Sunset Boulevard, a hip neighborhood in the ’70s, when appearances were crucial. Ben Scotti’s promotion business—which would go on to work records at radio for the likes of ABBA and Barbra Streisand—was installed there, too.
With her husband gone so much of the time, splitting his efforts among Lobo, Stafford, and now the Scottis, Sandy Gernhard—sitting at home in St. Petersburg—was questioning some of the choices she’d made.
When Phil swept her off her feet back in ’63, she’d been cloistered, virginal Catholic schoolgirl eager to get away from an overbearing mother. She’d loved him then, not just for his brilliant mind and his handsome, all-American good looks but also for the way he included her in all of his activities, finding the artists, running the office and making the records. She’d thought of them as partners.
Ten years had gone by, and Sandy was a different woman, just as Phil was a different man. She began to wonder what he was up to out there, and whether he was being faithful. Whether he was indulging in drugs and the other Bacchanalian trappings of the record business.
Phil’s new business partners, so Sandy believed, saw her as the only impediment to his permanent relocation to La La Land. “The Scotti brothers hated me,” she said. “They wanted him in California, but he didn’t want to go—I didn’t want him to go.”
But, of course, he went. “I feel guilty, because the friends that know me say I never should have divorced him. Because if he had that anchor here, it would have at least kept him a little distracted and he’d come home. In retrospect, he had to grow up, to go to California, cut his own records and do his own studio work. It got bad when he was out there.”
Meaning the drinking, the drugs—and the shady business deals. According to Sandy, Phil was truly crushed when she divorced him, instead of agreeing to the trial separation he’d proposed. “I had to break away. I had gone from being Mama’s little girl to his little girl. I was the baby. This was the same thing, and I knew that.”
Gernhard hired a lissome young brunette, Deborah Triplett, as his assistant. Triplett had escaped her one-horse North Carolina hometown to see the world as an airline stewardess, eventually settling in New York City. Triplett landed at a job at 914 Studios, in Blauvelt, just outside the city, where Bruce Springsteen would record his first two albums.
When that relationship ended she went to Los Angeles, where she met a man and married him. Triplett was in the later stages of a nasty divorce when she started work at Gernhard-Scotti’s offices on Sunset.
“I had a very physically and verbally abusive husband,” she said. “At one point he actually knocked out my front teeth. He was calling the office and threatening everybody. He was a complete maniac. He knew no fear.”
Cue the white knight. “Phil Gernhard saved my life,” Triplett explained. “It was really hard at the time to get any kind of protection. Phil got me a car and paid for a bodyguard to be with me 24/7. He hadn’t even known me that long! He said, ‘Deborah, I just knew somebody needed to help you, or you were gonna be dead.’ He was such a good man.”
She had a desk in Gernhard’s bungalow, the first line of defense when visitors appeared; the Scottis worked together in the next one over. At the end of the strip was legendary Hollywood agent George “Bullets” Durgom, a four-foot-nine fireball of Lebanese ancestry who’d started out as “band boy” for Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey in the ’40s, the latter of which resulted in a lifelong friendship with Frank Sinatra.
For eleven years, Durgom managed Jackie Gleason. His other clients in the mid-1970s included Merv Griffin and the stage comic Mort Sahl.
Durgom had just the sort of show business connections Gernhard understood were necessary to make a full-fledged star out of Jim Stafford. The energetic, affable agent told everybody that Stafford reminded him of “Gleason in his heyday.”
Phil was starting to swim with big fish, and he was enjoying it. Suddenly there were gold rings on his fingers, and perpetual sunglasses, and expensive cigars in place of the plastic-tipped minis he’d become addicted to in Florida. He mastered hip-speak and double-talk.
“He knew people,” said LaVoie. “He had connections that were unbelievable. I don’t know how he did it. He could pick up the phone and make things happen.”
Gernhard leased a big house in Beverly Hills and developed a “friendship” with the actress Elke Sommer, who lived nearby.
Still, Stafford said, “he never seemed to be happy with any women in his life that I know of. Phil was really not that interested in getting next to anybody. That would be my opinion. I don’t think he was all that friendly. Kind of a strange guy. He drank an awful lot; he was a little bit self-destructive.”
In the Hollywood Heights section of Los Angeles, within spitting distance of the Hollywood Bowl, Phil and Bullets set Stafford up in a two-story house of his own. “Jodie Foster lived down the street secretly,” said Gallagher, who had the first floor to himself. “Across the street was a house built for Charlie Chaplin’s girlfriend Pola Negre.”
Stafford lived with Madeline Calder, a woman Gernhard had hired as an independent promoter in the early days of “Swamp Witch.” A New Yorker who’d once worked for filmmaker Mel Brooks, Calder had joined Stafford, Gallagher, and Gernhard in Dayton, Ohio, where William Morris agents had flown to catch Stafford’s act.
The agents signed him, Calder and Stafford got involved, and everybody went west for what Calder would always remember as “The Hollywood Adventure.”
She can still see Gernhard, smoking one of his pretentious little cigars and pontificating as they all stood on a hotel balcony overlooking LA. “One day,” he said, gesturing, “all this is gonna be ours.”
Gernhard then became romantically involved with Scottish singer Eve Graham, whose group the New Seekers had recorded for MGM. He and Scotti flew to London to meet with her and attempt to coax her into signing with them as a solo artist.
Graham signed, and before long she was living in Gernhard’s house in Beverly Hills.
“Tony worked with me on my stage show, while Phil recorded me,” Graham recalled. “I then had to kick my heels while they were setting up their record deal.”
Several sides were recorded for Gernhard-Scotti Enterprises, with Phil—alone—at the console. “I never once saw Tony anywhere near a studio,” Graham recalled, “even in the couple of years the New Seekers recorded at MGM, when he was vice president. Everybody in an American company is a vice president.”
Graham described Gernhard in this period as “a loving, caring and gentle man. And although I was happy living with him, he could become withdrawn. There were long hours in the studio, I sometimes got lonely, and eventually I went home to Scotland for Christmas, and stayed there.” They saw each other once, in Las Vegas after she rejoined the New Seekers. Gernhard was there with Stafford, who was performing at Harrah’s.
They had a long and friendly conversation.
“We spoke on the phone when he was in Nashville, and he said he was sorry, and that things would have been different had he not been an alcoholic. I confess I was so naive in 1974, I hadn’t realized he had a drink problem.”
Things were moving fast in the cocaine-and-champagne record business of the mid-1970s. Through Scotti’s connections, Gernhard was able to record the British pop singer Petula Clark in Los Angeles. Clark and Gernhard made a single—it was the dawning days of sparkly, strobe-lit dance records, before the word “disco” had been formally introduced—and wouldn’t you know, it was a Dick Holler song, with an awkward, impossible-to-remember title: “Never Been a Horse That Couldn’t Be Rode.” In all, Clark—a million miles from her “Downtown” heyday in the ’60s—recorded four unremarkable songs with Gernhard, one of them a Kent LaVoie original called “Let’s Sing a Love Song.”
A veteran of musical theater, Clark liked to record as if she were onstage—sing a song all the way through to the end, then do it all again if necessary. She was annoyed by Gernhard’s patch-and-punch studio technique, crafting a tune sometimes one line at a time. They reportedly did not get along.
Deborah Triplett had been Gernhard’s assistant for almost two years. “I started to fall in love with Phil because of that generosity of spirit that he had,” she said. “Also, speaking as a female, I always found him very sexy. Because he was his own man. Phil owed nobody. Phil Gernhard made Phil Gernhard. And I never saw him kowtow to anyone in the music business—or any business, for that matter.”
And so Deborah moved in with him. “Phil always said I had great ears, too,” she said. “So any time he had a song, he’d bring it home and play it, and he’d say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And then he’d go on and on about it.”
They weren’t terribly social, preferring to stay home most nights. “I was so gregarious and outgoing, I was his opposite,” said Triplett. “I think that was part of his attraction to me. But on some levels we were very similar.” Phil’s beverage of choice was Jack Daniel’s over shaved ice. “He would get drunk at home,” she said, “but when he went to work he was very clear-headed.” He and his crowd were also fond of Quaaludes, the unofficial drug of the decade.
By the end of ’74 Stafford was an across-the-board smash. After “Swamp Witch” and “Spiders & Snakes” came more comedy hits, “My Girl Bill” and “Wildwood Weed.” They all appeared on the MGM album Jim Stafford, rounded out with the rest of the tunes Stafford had played for LaVoie that afternoon at The Shack Upon the Beach in Clearwater. The songs LaVoie thought were lame. Gernhard put them on the album anyway.
“After ‘Swamp Witch,’ this is when Phil started pulling back from me,” LaVoie remembers. “All of a sudden, Jim was more important than me. And all of a sudden it’s really starting to piss me off.”
He started looking more closely at the way Gernhard did business. “We got a checking account on Jim Stafford,” LaVoie said. “Phil said, ‘You take care of it.’ The checks came in, we signed them, and I put them in the account. Which I thought was just eerie.
“The first check we got for Stafford was $101,000. Jim got I think $1,600. That’s the way Phil Gernhard’s record deals were. I got 50 or something like that, and Phil got 50. I did it, I put it in the bank, and I kept it, but I felt slimy.”
With his already-severe distaste for the record business and the success of his old buddy Jim Stafford—and the way Gernhard was gleefully profiting from it—LaVoie began to get nervous. Following a late Lobo session at Mastersound, the Atlanta studio, the two repaired to the hotel bar. This was their usual routine while recording: After work, get positively legless before stumbling back to their respective rooms, sleep it off and do everything again the next day.
LaVoie began to seethe until he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I said, ‘Phil, listen. I’m probably not going to want to do this much longer, and I’d kind of like to have control of my own self. Why don’t we just trade? I’ll just take myself, and you can have Stafford.’
“I don’t remember how the physical fight started, but all of a sudden we were down on the floor and I had him down by the neck, and I said, ‘You don’t want to do this anymore!’ And he backed off. He was a chicken- shit.’”
The fact that Gernhard had been making money from Lobo publishing—with LaVoie himself getting only record sale profits and money from live appearances—had been eating away at him. “When Phil and I finally worked out an agreement, when he finally had to pay the money he owed me and the split was this and the split was that, I just gave him Stafford and I was released.”
Contractually, however, LaVoie was still committed to working on the second Jim Stafford album, Not Just Another Pretty Foot.
The sessions, held in Los Angeles, stretched out over several weeks. “Nobody said a word to me in the studio,” LaVoie recalled. “Not Gernhard. Not Stafford. And I took Stafford to him! But I had to be there, to be the producer.”
Not Just Another Pretty Foot was released within weeks of A Cowboy Afraid of Horses, the very last Lobo album. Lobo’s final Gernhard-produced hit, reaching number twenty-seven in late April, was titled “Don’t Tell Me Goodnight.”
Before things between them had gone south, Gernhard and LaVoie entered into another kind of business venture. Back in Sarasota, Boyd Gernhard now had a realtor’s license and had somehow convinced his son to invest in a land deal he had going. “I’ll double your money in six months,” the old man promised. Phil and Kent, separately, each forked over twenty thousand dollars.
Bud, for once, was as good as his word. “It was totally legitimate,” LaVoie said. “He took us out to see the property and everything. Phil’s mother was there but didn’t say a word.”
A year later, “I had to go to Sarasota for the closing, and Bud’s going on and on about, ‘I made you all this money’ and blah blah blah, but he made a 20 percent commission going in and out.
“He goes in to get the papers, and Phil’s mother is sitting over there in a chair. A little meek woman. And she whispers, ‘Kent, have you seen Phil?’ I said, ‘Not recently.’ And she whispers, ‘If you see him, tell him his mother said hello.’
“And that summed it up. That guy was such a jerk. He was a real asshole.”