SNUFF—“(So This is) Happy Hour”—The group’s music falls in the vein of the Eagles, Poco and the Everly Brothers, with elements of traditional beach music. Snuff has built a regional following during the past five years, tallying more than 100 concert dates per year, in venues from New York to South Carolina. Their debut single was produced by Phil Gernhard, as is their debut self-titled LP on Elektra/Curb.
“New on the Charts,” Billboard, August 14, 1982
Every aspect of the record business was changing, none more than the preferences of consumers. They weren’t buying “just” singles any more— more specifically, although there were still plenty of hit singles whose success was driven by radio play, they were nearly always presented as short previews of the bigger package—the album.
Although the top-selling album of 1977, Saturday Night Fever, produced six massively successful singles, the album sold fifteen million copies and sat on top of the Billboard chart for an astonishing twenty-four consecutive weeks.
Hit singles from other period juggernauts—Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Billy Joel’s The Stranger and 52nd Street, or Hotel California by the Eagles— sent album sales soaring.
Gernhard’s method was decidedly old school: one single at a time. He’d sharpened his tools in the hit-driven days of AM radio and had never had much success with albums.
He produced a trio of 1978 singles for singer/songwriter James House’s band, re-naming them Prisoner (a name House despised). The first was a cover of “Fool (If You Think It’s Over”), then a U.K. hit for Chris Rea. The Prisoner record did not chart, but Rea’s version reached #12 when it was released in the United States.
Still, he tried to adapt. After Michael Lloyd had produced a non-charting single for Arrogance, a rock ’n’ roll band out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Gernhard went to Curb president Whitehouse and said he wanted to produce them. The deal was bumped up to album length, and Gernhard went to work.
Arrogance, fronted by songwriters Robert Kirkland, Don Dixon, and Rod Abernathy, was known around the Carolinas for its high-energy shows and thrilling vocal harmony blend.
“We were caught between being a coliseum rock act and a British pub-rock band, and I’m not sure Phil ever quite figured that connection out,” said Dixon, who was also the group’s bass player. “I know the people at Warner/Curb didn’t understand it at the time, because their biggest hit before that had been ‘You Light Up My Life’ by Debby Boone or something.”
Nevertheless, Gernhard—with carte blanch from Mike Curb—threw himself into the project. The band attended several pre-production meetings at the Gernhard-Scotti offices in California.
“That was always kind of an exciting and scary place to be,” said Dixon. “The Scottis came from the old hard-nosed, New Jersey payola, strong-arm promotion days. But not like ‘We’re gonna beat you up,’ more like the ‘Here’s some hookers and blow’ kind of promotion days.
“Friendly, but ‘If we give you X, we expect Y.’ That was very clear. They had the ‘If you agree to something, you better live up to it’ type of reputa- tion. Because they were totally independent, they could put money any- where they wanted to, to break something. The paper trail was different than it would have been had they been at the heart of the Warner Brothers operation.”
But the production deal was with Gernhard alone, and the members of Arrogance liked him. “He was totally into the song,” Dixon recalled. “It wasn’t like he thought he could market just any song or any voice.
“He had your classic record company dude look for the time—a little van dyke, a cigar, and a nice gold ring. He definitely looked like he fit with the Scotti brothers, when I would go over to the office with him.”
The Suddenly album was recorded, at Gernhard’s insistence, at Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, on the band’s home turf. They had recorded there before, and he knew they’d be more relaxed.
Although he seemed to be drinking all the time, Dixon said, Gernhard was focused and very much in command during the sessions. “I don’t think he was a particular taskmaster. I think he wanted to get his way because he wanted to have a hit.
“If you’re the producer and you’re not opinionated, you’re worthless. So I totally respected that side of him. In hindsight, I’ve always thought that he had a better idea of what the band really was than I did—the appeal and the dynamic and the potential of the band. When you’re inside the band, you can’t see it.”
The members of Arrogance also liked Deborah, who was around for many of the sessions because she had family in Charlotte.
Dixon, who would go on to a long and successful career as a record producer in his own right (R.E.M., the Smithereens, Guadalcanal Diary), said he enjoyed late-night talks with Gernhard in the control room. There, he heard all the stories—from Maurice Williams to the Royal Guardsmen, to Gernhard’s discovery of the Bellamy Brothers to their bitterness and defection.
“You don’t get something for nothing,” said Dixon. “Maybe you gave your publishing to him in order to have a career. People can say what they want to about ‘stealing,’ but if you don’t have a hit, you got nothing anyway. I bet Phil earned the publishing that he took.
“He certainly made a publishing deal for us that gave him half of our publishing, but I think we got fairly compensated, and I think it was a smart deal for us. And I have no regrets about those songs being copublished by Phil’s publishing company at the time.”
After a five-year courtship, Phil Gernhard and Deborah Triplett were married on December 6, 1980, at Mike and Linda Curb’s Hidden Valley ranch, in the Santa Monica mountains.
By then, she’d had a drunken earful about Boyd and Sara, back home in Sarasota. Phil, she discovered, had been making loans to the old man to help him with his real estate deals.
She never really understood the love/hate dynamic between Phil and his father. “I met them once,” Triplett said. “They came to Los Angeles and we all went to dinner. And it was clear that they didn’t like me. I don’t know why not! They just weren’t welcoming to me at all.
“And he broke it off with them not too long after that dinner. There was a phone discussion about buying some property in Florida. And there was a big, big fight. That night, he shut them out.”
After the Arrogance experience, Gernhard championed a Richmond, Virginia, sextet called Snuff. He liked the band’s polished harmonies—he’d been a sucker for close harmonies ever since the days of Dick Holler and the Holidays, who’d left Baton Rouge, appeared in Columbia, and proceeded to become the most popular band in town because, as Holler liked to boast, they could sing rock ’n’ roll harmonies better than any of those homegrown Carolina shag-dance bands.
The sessions took place at Electric Lady in New York, which Gernhard had first used back in 1971, for “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.” An entire album was recorded—and the twenty-four-track master tapes were subsequently ruined by a studio engineer who inadvertently used them while calibrating the machine, superimposing a test tone over the entire, expensive project.
Gernhard sued the studio for five hundred thousand dollars for gross negligence, claiming that “delaying placement of the master tapes with a label will result in Gernhard’s loss of his option with Snuff due to the time period outlined in his agreement with them.”
A settlement for the case in hand, Gernhard block-booked Alpha Audio in downtown Richmond. He rented a place for himself and another for California-based engineer Ron St. Germain, who was hired to assist.
As with the Arrogance sessions, it was clear from day one that Gernhard was the boss. “I would recuse myself from the control room during the mixdown, because he was very much in control of any project he was in,” recalled Chuck Larson, Snuff’s singing-songwriting frontman. “What he said went, and that’s the way it was. He was an absolute producer—you did it his way, or you didn’t do it.”
Like father, like son.
“I’m not saying he was bellicose,” Larson insisted. “He was very quiet, but he had definite ideas on everything and that’s pretty much the way it was.”
And despite his proficiency at the board, Gernhard didn’t always get it right. “Sure, he had a sense about what was good music, but at the same time had kind of a heavy hand to where he would destroy what he was making,” according to Larson.
In other words, he occasionally overproduced—dubbing in so many vocal harmonies, for example, that the track began to sound artificial—but was astute enough to realize it and pull back.
They spent weeks together in Richmond, piecing together the Snuff album, which Gernhard—not surprisingly—placed with Curb, under its latest affiliation, with Elektra Records (the label went totally independent in 1983, once Curb exited the lieutenant governor’s office).
Like Don Dixon, Larson had many long talks with the famous producer. “Phil had almost an obsessive nostalgia for the doo-wop era, and he was always trying to capture some feeling he had in his youth,” Larson said.
“I think he was one of those people who spent a lot of time alone, and he was very much a romantic. There was always some kind of an air of regret that you could sense about Phil. He was breathlessly looking for something.”
He might have been looking for trouble when he ventured into one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. “One night, Phil had his car parked out in the alley,” Larson remembered. “He always carried a gun in his brief- case. This guy comes up to his window, pulls a knife and says, ‘Give me your money.’ Phil says, ‘It’s in my briefcase.’
“He opens his briefcase, pulls out the gun, and sticks it in the guy’s face and says, ‘Is this enough?’”
Snuff was released in 1982 on Elektra/Curb, and while it moved forty thousand copies in Virginia and North Carolina—in areas the band toured frequently and had amassed followings—on a national level, it stiffed.
In ’83, Gernhard was back for Snuff’s second album. Somehow, NightFighter—which focused on the band’s harder, rockier side, rather than the country/rock of the debut—was released as a six-song EP, sort of a half- album. It’s conceivable that Curb, which was severing ties with Elektra in the run-up to becoming a fully independent label—was simply washing its hands of another failed artist and turned off the finance faucet.
Whatever the reason, Snuff, and NightFighter, got no promotion and were abandoned by the label.
Not that Gernhard hadn’t poured all of his talent and studio expertise into the project.
“I think he had a lot of pressure to continually produce hits,” explained Larson. “I don’t think you can really tell a story about Phil Gernhard without Mike Curb in it. He was more or less Mike’s production lieutenant, for lack of a better word.
“Phil would give me an amalgamation of what program directors were looking for, and then I was supposed to come up with their ideas as he saw them. Whether it’s right or wrong, it was hard for me, because I’m an old hippie songwriter.
“In Snuff, I really think Phil saw another Eagles. But we could never, ever get it right in the studio. He said to me one time, ‘If this project doesn’t go well, I may have some serious career problems.’”
Although he remained a key Curb employee for the rest of his life, after NightFighter Phil Gernhard never produced another record.
“Phil never had friends, and that was one of the problems with our relationship,” said Deborah Triplett. “He had so much invested in me that when I hurt him, it really cut him deep. So deep that he almost couldn’t forgive me for it.”
To this day, she feels a tremendous sense of guilt and regret for a moment of infidelity in the early ’80s, during Gernhard’s time with Snuff. “He even went to therapy with me for a while, to try to work through it,” Triplett said. “But he just hit a point where he said, ‘Deborah, I can’t do this because I can’t stop seeing it in my mind.’”
The divorce was finalized in 1984. “Part of our problem also was that Phil was an alcoholic,” she explained. “That played into the breakup of our marriage also.
“He told me once that he drank so that he could feel more socially comfortable, because the truth was that when he did drink he WAS more socially comfortable. But Phil didn’t like bullshit. In life, you’ve got to do a lot of bullshit to ingratiate yourself in the world.”
Eventually, Triplett moved back to North Carolina and settled in Charlotte. “I can’t speak for the other women,” she said, “but when I was with him I felt like there were two things that were important in his life: Me and music.”
It would be a full two years before Phil would even speak to her again.