Looking back on it, it would’ve been nice if you’d had enough sense to say, ‘Okay, this is not a fairy tale—I probably need a lawyer.’ But I think a lot of people don’t think like that—it’s such a dream come true that you just take the ride.
After Stafford’s “reinterpretation” of “Spiders & Snakes” became a smash, Gernhard was quick to solicit more songs from young David Bellamy. He and Scotti cut a deal with Warner/Curb for David to record as a singer/songwriter, and the single “Nothin’ Heavy/Baby, You’re Not a Legend” was hastily recorded in England, at the same time as the Petula Clark sessions, and released early in 1975.
In the meantime, Gernhard got older brother Howard Bellamy, who was spinning his wheels back in Florida, a job as a roadie for Jim Stafford.
Not Just Another Pretty Foot, the second Stafford album (the result of the sessions wherein Kent LaVoie got the cold shoulder from everyone) included four songs with the writing credit “J. Stafford—D. Bellamy.” Although the two writers were rarely in the same room.
“I did that with a few songs,” said Stafford, “and some of them I don’t think I really improved. I think ‘You’ll Never Take Me Alive’ was probably better the way he had it than the way I had it. And there might have been others that way.
“But you look at a guy like me, I’m out there, I’m getting lots of attention, sometimes you’re not as smart as you think you are. Some of those songs of Dave’s I was shaping, trying to fit out to be more like what I would do than what he would do.
“I made ‘Spiders & Snakes’—at least for me—a better song, but Dave’s a heck of a writer. There were some great songs in there.”
But Stafford—and Gernhard, Scotti, and Durgom—most certainly had bigger plans. The goal was to work Stafford into the Hollywood mainstream. On In Concert, Midnight Special, and the other performance-based shows of the time, and on The Bobby Goldsboro Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Stafford had come across as an affable guest and an extremely likeable performer. His sort of humor played well on television, and that’s where Bullets earned his Gernhard-Scotti salary: In May 1975, TV stars Dennis Weaver and Sandy Duncan, along with teen country singer Tanya Tucker and up-and-comer Jim Stafford, hosted Timex Presents Opryland U.S.A. on ABC, a sixty-minute commercial for Nashville’s new theme park. Subsequently, a deal was made for The Jim Stafford Show, a videotaped variety hour to air for six Wednesdays over the summer.
Gernhard and Scotti were executive producers of the program, to be developed and written by Rick Eustis and Al Rogers, the same team responsible for a recent series of John Denver specials. The “cast” included Valerie Curtin, Richard Stahl, Gallagher, the Carl Jablonski Dancers, and young, doe-eyed Tennessee songbird Deborah Allen. Stafford traded barbs with a wisecracking sidekick, Rodney the Robot, and the “voice inside his guitar” was provided not by Gallagher, who did the honors in Stafford’s stage show, but by cartoon legend Mel Blanc.
Except for the presence of Stafford himself, The Jim Stafford Show was virtually identical to every other cookie-cutter variety program in the mid-’70s, ubiquitous on all three networks. Over its six weeks, Stafford played host to the likes of Gavin McLeod, Bernadette Peters, George Gobel, and the Captain and Tennille.
“The likeable Stafford easily outdoes the canceled Mac Davis when it comes to being a down-home country boy and displays a greater feel for comedy than Tony Orlando,” said a reviewer in the Chicago Tribune.
Ultimately, however, Tony Orlando got the last laugh. The summer series was not picked up for a regular run. And that fall, the premiere of Saturday Night Live sounded the death knell for old-school TV variety hours. “Phil was in his element when he was producing records,” Stafford said, “but as far as TV he was out of his comfort zone. He didn’t know much about that. He didn’t know much about what’s entertaining to an audience. So we had to try to find me in the middle of all that stuff, to sort out what would work and what wouldn’t work.”
Gernhard often employed Neil Diamond’s touring band, when they weren’t out with the boss, for LA studio work. Drummer Dennis St. John thought Gernhard—always on the hunt for good songs—might like “Let Your Love Flow,” written by his drum tech, Larry Williams. Diamond himself had politely passed on the tune.
Gernhard heard the song’s potential immediately.
He took David Bellamy and the Diamond band into a Burbank studio and recorded the lighthearted, loping, country-esque pop song. But he wasn’t satisfied with the result, feeling that David’s version was missing something critical. He couldn’t put his finger on it. So on the shelf it went. But it was never far from his thoughts.
He then flew to Florida to oversee a live segment for The Jim Stafford Show at the venerable Cypress Gardens water-skiing attraction in Winter Haven, Stafford’s hometown. When dark clouds began to roll in, Gernhard instructed Stafford’s audio crew to soundcheck the equipment on the outdoor stage so they could tape the segment quickly, before the rain fell.
A roadie strode onto the stage to test Stafford’s microphone.
“Tony and I were standing there talking,” Gernhard recalled, “and this voice drifted across from the other side of the lake where they were set up to shoot, and before I put two and two together, I said, ‘That’s the voice for ‘Let Your Love Flow.’ I turned around and it was Howard Bellamy, David’s brother.”
Back in LA, he got together with Curb.
“Phil would rub the top of his moustache when he thought he had something really good,” Curb laughed. “I don’t think he realized he was doing that.
“But right after ‘Who Loves You’ by the Four Seasons was a hit, Phil said, ‘I bet you don’t have a follow-up.’ I said, ‘Yes, we do’—and it was ‘Oh What a Night,’ the next Four Seasons record. I played it for Phil, and he loved it.
“Then he said, ‘I have something to play for you.’” He rubbed his moustache.
“And he played me David’s demo of ‘Let Your Love Flow.’ I told him I thought it sounded like a Doobie Brothers record. He told me that he liked the way Howard Bellamy sang it.
“I said, ‘We don’t have Howard signed.’ He said, ‘Well, we can do it.’ “I said, ‘What are they going to be called, David and Howard?’ Phil said,
‘Let’s record it. They could be the Bellamy Brothers. Or whatever.’”
And the Bellamy Brothers they were. It’s often said in the record business that brotherly harmonies—rooted in the ties of blood, bone, and a symbiotic growing-up—are the warmest, the closest, the most chill-inducing.
From the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers, from Tim and Neil Finn to Seth and Scott Avett, harmonizing brothers have created some spectacular and unforgettable music through the decades.
The Bellamys, of course, had been singing together all their lives, from Homer’s knee at the Dade City Rattlesnake Roundup to their Gainesville frat-band days in Jericho.
“Howard was on the road with me for a long time,” Stafford said. “I would tell the audience, ‘Hey, this guy and his brother have a song coming out—it’s really great, and let’s bring him up here to play it for you!’ And Howard would come on with an acoustic guitar and sing ‘Let Your Love Flow.’”
On January 31, 1976, “Let Your Love Flow”—the first recording by the newly minted Bellamy Brothers—entered the Top 100 in Billboard. In early May it became Gernhard’s second number one, after Maurice Williams and “Stay” sixteen years earlier.
(As testament to Curb’s own standing as a man with an ear for hits, the Four Seasons’ “Oh What a Night” had already spent three weeks on top of the chart, in March.)
Gernhard told an interviewer he’d received letters from church groups, praising the Bellamy Brothers song’s religious overtones. “What I envisioned was much more sensitive than that,” he said. “I never thought about the religious aspect.”
Said Curb: “Phil’s production on that record—it may be one of the greatest pieces of recorded music of all time.”
Its gently galloping beat was like a breath of fresh county air in those strobe-lit days of disco, and in short order “Let Your Love Flow” reached audiences around the world aching for that same breath: it was a massive hit in a dozen countries, including Germany, where it spent five weeks on top.
As with everything done under the Gernhard-Scotti umbrella, the “Let Your Love Flow” label read, “Produced by Phil Gernhard and Tony Scotti.” “I don’t know what the deal was that the Scottis cut with Phil,” Stafford said, “but I think they were very aware that he had some kind of gift for producing.”
The Scotti Brothers’ gift was promoting—making sure that the key people at the key radio stations knew that the latest Warner/Curb release was something they needed to play. A promotion man “worked” a record, making the calls, schmoozing the program directors, doing what it took to “break” a record in the markets that mattered, where airplay inevitably led to requests, which led to airplay in additional markets. Which—in a perfect world—led to national radio saturation, national record sales, and lots of money in lots of pockets.
“Phil was doing all the production,” explained Triplett. “I know, because I was the person booking the studios and the musicians. The Scottis were merely promoting, along with whatever Mike Curb’s involvement was at the time. Other than some deal made, Tony Scotti didn’t actually do any hands-on production. It was all Phil.”
David Bellamy: “That sold a couple of million records, and Phil suggested that we should move out to L.A. I didn’t want to at first, but when we started making money from the sales of that record, I knew things would be pretty good in L.A.”
At home in Florida, Kent LaVoie got a copy of the “Let Your Love Flow” single in the mail. He liked the record well enough, but when he flipped it over, he was surprised to see that the B-side, “Inside of My Guitar,” named David Bellamy and Jim Stafford as songwriters.
“Back then,” LaVoie said, “that was maybe ten or twelve grand for the flip side of a million seller. It wasn’t any big money. But I called my publisher, Sid Herman, and I said, ‘That’s a nice deal.’ And he says, ‘Ohhh— that was a mistake. You’re not publisher on that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? It’s Stafford.’
“And he says, ‘Phil has a different agreement with us on songs that Jim doesn’t record.’ He went behind my back and made a deal, when I took it to him! If I’d have been in the room when I found that out, I would’ve killed him.”
Once they came west from Florida, David and Howard Bellamy moved into the ground floor of the Hollywood Hills home, two rooms over from Gallagher. Stafford and Calder were on the upper level. “The heater was in my part, so I could hear Jim and Madeline argue—sometimes about me,” Gallagher said.
In short order, Madeline moved out and Stafford began a relationship with Deborah Allen, the pretty young singer from his TV cast.
They were wild times, according to Stafford. “If success just slugs you, I think that you don’t always behave good,” he said. “Everything’s easy. And so there were lots of women, and parties, and famous people all over the place.”
The Bellamys’ debut album for Warner/Curb, Bellamy Brothers (Featuring “Let Your Love Flow” and Others) was released in April. One of the tracks was “Nothin’ Heavy,” and it was the same master recording that had already been released as a solo David Bellamy single.
The brothers made the usual rounds of TV appearances, put together a band of their own, and toured incessantly (particularly in Europe, where they were instant superstars because of the single’s success).
Almost immediately, however, their relationship with Gernhard deteriorated.
After “Let Your Love Flow,” David Bellamy told People magazine, “we hit bottom because we lost control. We had people working for us we didn’t know, and managers wouldn’t let us do our own music. We ended up in debt because of that record.” Added his brother: “There were so many fingers in the pie that there was no pie left.”
Although they never publicly discussed the details, the brothers all but implied that Gernhard had cheated them by making one of his lopsided deals; one that gave him power over them and their publishing, and the direction of their recordings. “We learned not to trust a damn soul in the business,” reflected Howard.
(The brothers finally addressed this era in their 2020 autobiography, Let Your Love Flow: “Gernhard,” David wrote, “was getting stranger all the time, so we avoided telling him little things like the fact that I’d got married. He’d get very dramatic and melancholy in the studio sometimes, like he was carrying the weight of the world on his back. We had another good reason not to rattle him too hard. He carried a loaded pistol in his briefcase, along with a bottle of Quaaludes and those little mini-bottles of Jack Daniels they used to serve on airplanes.”)
After Plain and Fancy, a second Gernhard-produced album, the Bellamy Brothers severed their ties with Gernhard, Scotti, and Kaiser Music (a song from this album, the Dick Holler-penned “Crossfire,” gave them another major hit in Europe, although it didn’t chart stateside).
“Phil did the second album, but then he turned it over to Michael Lloyd,” said Curb. “Phil might have retained some publishing interests at that point.
“It’s not that Phil is wrong, or the artist is wrong, it’s just that his expectation there might not have been met. I thought they had a good relationship, but obviously not.”
Said Deborah Triplett, “He made the Bellamy Brothers. I seem to recollect that Phil owned a lot of their publishing, and that might’ve pissed them off.
“But to defend Phil, why would he have done all this work? I always thought that he was smart that way—that he didn’t just produce artists, he owned in most instances some of the publishing. Not all of it, but part of it.”
(From the Bellamy Brothers’ memoir: “If you even made a hint about something like, “Do we get any of the money that we’re making?” Gernhard would say, “Ah, I gotta talk to Curb.” And we’d hear nothing. They were pretty heavy intimidators, you know, they were kinda bullies. We were really alone out there in L.A. Everybody we thought we could go to for advice was in bed with them as well.”)
Opined Stafford, “I think it was common with him and the bunch that he was with. That’s sort of how they operated. They would set it up in a way that you were gonna get this, this, and this, and they were gonna get that and that—basically, they got the lion’s share. And that’s just how it was.”
David and Howard began to cater their songs, and their records, to the country market. They landed their first country number one, David’s “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold it Against Me” in 1979, produced by Michael Lloyd, on Warner/Curb.
“Phil told me one time that he didn’t like the ‘Beautiful Body’ thing,” Stafford recalled. “Because he felt that if they’d left the steel guitar out, they’d have had a pop hit. That’s what Phil told me. He said the country-fied version of it made it a country hit, but it could’ve been a crossover.”
The Bellamys moved back to the family ranch in Florida, where they hired their mother, Frances, to keep the books. Howard and David both raised large families on the ranch and continued to raise market cattle for many decades, and at the same time they were becoming one of the biggest-selling duos in country music history.
Neither the brothers nor Gernhard ever discussed their falling out in the media. Over the ensuing years, they re-recorded their first—and biggest—hit several times, eventually all but erasing the original Gerhard arrangement.
Stafford put some thought into that. “Listen to ‘Let Your Love Flow.’ That’s a good example of taking a song that everybody knew was a hit, but nobody knew what to do with,” he said. “Why wouldn’t he have given it to Dave Bellamy? He was the guy. Instead, Howard gets it.
“Dave wrote the songs and Dave sang the songs, and that’s how he wanted it. So I don’t think there’s any love lost there. I know I don’t get calls from those guys.”
Not Just Another Pretty Foot wasn’t the last album issued on MGM Records, but it might as well have been. Although Jim Stafford had peaked at a respectable—if not spectacular—number fifty-five on Billboard’s longplayer chart, its successor never cracked the Top 200. The album got lost in the shuffle when European conglomerate PolyGram, which had purchased MGM, reassigned the existing MGM artists and catalog to its Polydor Records subsidiary.
The album’s disappearing act was hastened by the nonperformance of two singles; the first, “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne,” a Stafford-Bellamy “collaboration,” only got to number twenty-four.
Another small controversy surrounded the second, Stafford’s cover of Shel Silverstein’s “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” (which eked into the Top 40).
Phil and Tony took out an ad in Billboard:
Jim Stafford, Phil Gernhard and Tony Scotti acknowledge that the lyrics in the version of “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” as recorded by Jim Stafford on MGM Records is [sic] different from that version written by Shel Silverstein, the author of “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and to the extent that the Jim Stafford version was changed from the original version without Mr. Silverstein’s consent, they regret the change. . . . No claim of ownership, authorship or entitlement to writer’s royalties was made by Jim Stafford with respect to such version.
Stafford wasn’t new to “altering” other people’s songs—as David Bellamy found out—but he’d also red-penned Silverstein before. On his self-published 1971 album Live at the Elbow Room, a recording of his nightclub act at the time, Stafford performed Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous a few years earlier by Johnny Cash.
Stafford’s version was played for cheap laughs. When rough-and-tumble “Sue” meets his father, with murder on his mind for saddling him with such a feminine name, the two start lisping at each other in over-the-top, exaggerated “homosexual” lingo. Dad evens sings “Hello Dolly” to the boy.
To Stafford’s credit, the bar crowd at the time found it a laugh riot.
Gernhard was still 100 percent in the Jim Stafford business, arranging his TV appearances and trying to secure him a record deal now that MGM, for all intents and purposes, no longer existed.
A one-off deal with Polydor resulted in “Jasper,” a story-song about a backwoods lothario infamous for sleeping with other men’s wives. Although it echoed the spooky bayou atmosphere of “Swamp Witch,” Stafford’s first hit, the record—whose label, significantly, did not bear the names Scotti, Lobo, or Curb—was not successful.
Next, he and Stafford coproduced a Warner/Curb single for Stafford’s girlfriend, Deborah Allen. “Do You Copy,” a love song written in CB radio lingo (a big craze in 1976), did not register.
Allen would go on to have a number of country hits, without Stafford or Gernhard involvement, in the 1980s.
Two Stafford singles on Warner/Curb were next, both of them suitably bizarre: “Turn Loose of My Leg” and “You Can Call Me Clyde.”
Phil also managed to convince a skeptical Kent LaVoie—now living in Malibu—to put their past difficulties behind and try to recapture lightning in a bottle by cutting a pair of Lobo singles for the label; like the Stafford attempts, both “Afterglow” and “You Are All I’ll Ever Need” came and went with nary a ripple.
“Phil was very Hollywood,” said LaVoie. “He was, ‘Let’s take my Rolls to the studio.’ Fairyland, you know? We weren’t buddies, but we’d had a good thing and thought maybe we could keep it alive. We cut a couple of really nice records, but I had passed on. It was over.
“The superstars stay around. I was never a superstar. I probably wouldn’t have been if I’d had twenty hit records.”
And so, with nary a whimper, another partnership ended.
Curb, meanwhile, ran for the California lieutenant governor’s seat in 1978—and would serve, under Governor Jerry Brown, through 1983.
While he was away playing politics in Sacramento, Curb had issued a dictum to his label president, Dick Whitehouse: If Phil expresses an interest in producing anybody, any artist, just make it happen. Give him what he wants.
Rock superstar Jackson Browne had included a rendition of Maurice Williams’s “Stay” on his multi-platinum Running on Empty album, and Gernhard was drawn to another song on the longplayer, a rocking Browne original called “You Love the Thunder.”
He asked to produce it as a one-off single for country singer Hank Williams Jr., who’d been with Mike Curb since his days at the helm of MGM Records. In the late ’70s, Curb Records was trying to turn Williams into a star, in the wake of a near-fatal mountain-climbing accident that left him disfigured and miserable. He was looking for a strong new image.
Gernhard waxed a Williams-sung rendition of “You Love the Thunder,” and although it showcased his strong baritone voice on a song about male sensitivity, that wasn’t the sort of thing country fans were snapping up in those days. The record stiffed.
The B-side, Williams’s own “I Just Ain’t Been Able,” was subsequently included on his Curb album Family Tradition. This hard-nosed collection—credited to three different producers—proved to be just the introduction the newly rough and rowdy Williams needed, as it climbed to number three and became the second gold album of his career (more, and more significant, successes were to come for the son of country music’s most iconic figure).
For a while, Stafford remained Phil’s primary point of focus. In a January 1978 profile, Fred Wright of the St. Petersburg Times wrote,
Stafford and Gernhard have become street-wise in California and have learned how to deal and barter and play the game of celebrity politics. Now there are more conversations about television specials and variety series and situation comedies and feature films. Jim Stafford’s star is on the rise again.
Florida, it seemed, was still on Gernhard’s mind. In the newspaper piece, he announced that he was in the planning stages of a $1.5 million, hundred-thousand-square-foot “restaurant-showroom complex” in St. Petersburg, to be Stafford’s home base when we wasn’t playing in Las Vegas or on the road somewhere.
Gernhard told the Times that the place, when it opened late in 1979, was to include a main showroom (with seating for up to 250), a semi-private restaurant, a private dining room, and a semi-private disco.
The showroom, he said, would also serve as an out-of-town stage for “different people who don’t normally come through the area and want to try out new things and material but not in Los Angeles.”
When the showroom was dark, the restaurant and disco would be for members only.
“The combination of private and semi-private facilities basically seems to the something the area needs,” Gernhard explained. “A place people can go and not contend with crowds.”
The project never got off the ground, however. In 1978, Stafford met “Ode to Billie Joe” singer Bobbie Gentry, who’d just been signed to a lucrative Warner/Curb deal. In short order, they were married, a Gentry single was issued, they divorced, and Gentry gave birth to a son named Tyler. And that was that.
He and Gernhard didn’t have an official partnership to dissolve. They simply stopped working together.
Stafford was hired to host the series Those Amazing Animals with Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley and rode the charts one last time with a song from the Clint Eastwood movie Any Which Way You Can, produced by someone else.
Although it was an amicable split, Stafford recalled, “I think it would be fairly safe to say we weren’t even friends. He saw the value in what I was doing and thought he could make some money. Or however you want to look at that. We were kind of thrown in together. But I don’t know too many people that hang with their producers. If they do, that’s a nice thing.”
Stafford eventually sued and won back the publishing on his songs. When things were happening, he said, “I really didn’t think about it. I didn’t care much about all of that. I figured, ‘Well, that’s what he does, he gets that money; I’m the performer, I’ll get my money.’ I didn’t worry about it.
“You would’ve had to have been there in that time period, having all that attention. A guy just out of playing these little joints, and all of a sudden you’re doing lots of TV work and all kinds of stuff you’d never dreamed of doing. So you can look back and say, ‘Man, I let a lot of money get away,’ but when you start looking at the divorces and the women and all the stuff that went down—somebody’s always ready to take the money.”
According to Stafford, Gernhard told him he’d been “screwed” by the junior-high deals he’d made with “Stay,” his first hit. “So he went back to school and learned about the law. Because he wasn’t ever gonna let that happen again.
“This is what made Phil what Phil was: He didn’t want to ever get screwed again, so he learns enough about the law not to. But even though he knew how bad it was to get screwed, it was okay for him to screw people.”