Vincent Cole and Phil Bernhard [sic] have formed Cole Records in Columbia, S.C. Artists on Cole are Maurice Williams, the Zodiacs and the Royal Sultans.
“Music As Written,” Billboard, August 24, 1959
Johnny McCullough was a songwriter, a piano player, and a man on the move; he liked to drink, and he liked to laugh. In 1959 the fun-loving Florida native was in Nashville, gigging on the legendary Printers Alley and trying to place songs with somebody who might record them and make him rich. “I heard people talking about production,” he recalled. “So I asked what a producer was, and they told me. And I said, ‘I can do that.’” Soon McCullough and his older brother Jimmy had landed in Columbia. “I starting asking around—‘who here has ever written a hit?’ And somebody said, Maurice Williams.”
Born and raised in South Carolina, Maurice Williams grew up in the church and had channeled his love of music, and natural talent for theatricality and showmanship, into a decent career on the nightclub circuit. He was the songwriter, frontman, and lead singer for the Gladiolas, a sextet that blended doo-wop, rhythm ’n’ blues balladry, and the smooth pop harmonies made popular by other black vocal groups like the Platters, the Flamingos, and the Drifters.
Like many regional performers, they cut single records one at a time, on a series of tiny labels, as financing materialized. This was the Jim Crow South, and golden opportunities did not often present themselves, particularly for black musicians.
In 1957 the Diamonds—a white Canadian vocal group—had taken Williams’s quirky doo-wop song “Little Darlin’” to number four on the national chart, while the Gladiolas’ original had barely scraped the Top 40. Although “whitening” rhythm ’n’ blues records for radio play was common (if unfortunate) practice at the time, Williams was not exactly thrilled that his best song—at least he thought so—had been co-opted into a big hit for anybody else.
After a summer ’59 show in Columbia, Williams and his group, now called the Zodiacs, met USC roommates Vince Cole and Phil Gernhard. They introduced themselves as musicians—Cole played guitar, and Gernhard was a drummer. And as it turned out they were huge fans of rhythm ’n’ blues and doo-wop—and of the original records, which they heard at night via Nashville AM radio, and not the watered-down, whitened-up versions by the likes of Pat Boone or the Diamonds.
And they had a little money. And they were interested in using it to cut some sides for their “company,” Cole Records.
Just what Maurice Williams wanted to hear.
Recorded, like most tiny-budget records of the period, in tinny and single-take monophonic, neither “Golly Gee” nor its follow-up “Lover (Where Are You)” made a ripple outside of the dance halls in Columbia. Both were slow, romantic ballads.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine the young pals and their girlfriends, up late with the Hi-Fi and fueled by tequila, dancing and shaking to the Zodiacs’ exotic, erotic B-side “T Town” (that’s “T” for Tijuana) with its throbbing tenor sax solo, a record they’d made themselves. Getting excited about going to an early class the next morning? Probably not.
Stan Hardin, a local guitarist, introduced Johnny McCullough to Phil Gernhard, the go-getting, red-headed college kid with a passion for rhythm ’n’ blues. Over a couple of beers, McCullough explained that he was starting a Columbia-based production company.
“He found out I was a producer and he wanted to know if he could help, and be a part,” McCullough remembered. “He wanted to be in the music business. I knew he’d be a good promoter.
“I realized there was something there that I could pick up on. I knew he had some talent. I knew he could make it in the music industry.”
Gernhard had the added advantage of knowing Maurice Williams personally.
They named their company Briarwood Enterprises, after the street where the McCulloughs lived, Briarwood Road. The company consisted of McCullough and Gernhard, McCullough’s brother Jimmy, and the siblings’ dad, J.C. McCullough, who handled the books.
They started writing songs together and called their publishing division “Windsong Music.”
Phil took a job at the Star-Lite drive-in theater and booked a few concerts featuring local bands. McCullough and Hardin started a dance band they called the Archers.
And they all waited for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs to come back to Columbia.
The only thing that could even pass for a recording studio in Columbia was a ribbed steel Quonset hut out on Shakespeare Road on property owned by WCOS, the local AM station. From 1953 to ’56, it was also the home of WCOS-TV, the very first television outlet in the entire state of South Carolina. An ABC affiliate, WCOS proudly beamed The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Lone Ranger, and other prime-time favorites from the nation’s “third” network to rabbit-ear black and white TVs all over Columbia and the surrounding rural areas.
Engineer Homer Fesperman wasn’t idle during the station’s six-year hiatus (it would roar back with a vengeance in ’61, then live long and prosper in the community). The place had a mono, single-track recording deck, so it was leased out for radio commercials, advertising jingles, and—if anyone were so inclined—cutting records.
Gernhard, of course, knew the “studio” from his Cole Records experience.
Since then, however, Williams and his group had traveled all over the Southeast, and made another single (“College Girl”) on another shoestring local label (Selwyn Records, out of Charlotte).
Sometime late in the summer of 1960, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs filed into the WCOS Quonset hut and cut a demo of “Stay,” an innocuously catchy song Williams had written back in ’53—when he was barely fifteen—but never got around to recording. It was Johnny McCullough’s first time in a real studio. At nineteen, Phil Gernhard was a veteran.
The instruments had to be balanced live in the room; there was no “mixing” to speak of. Nor was there the opportunity for overdubbing or “dropping in” edits to fix the occasional bum note or botched lyric. “One mistake, and we went back to the top,” McCullough said of the session. Stan Hardin played additional guitar.
At day’s end, all involved knew the WCOS demo of “Stay” was something special. It was impossible to get the song out of your head. And it practically begged you to dance.
McCullough took his bravado, and the tapes of Briarwood’s very first session, straight to New York to shop for a record deal. “I went to thirteen labels,” he said. “They all turned me down. But I knew I had a hit!
“I went in to see Al Silver at Herald Records, and the secretary said, ‘You can’t see him.’ So I sat down outside the door, and she said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to sit outside the door here, because eventually he’s gonna have to leave—and I’ll see him if I have to sit here all night long.’ She finally brought me in.
“We played the tape, and he said, ‘You got a hit record. I want to put it out,’ and I said, ‘We can do it better.’ He said, ‘Leave it alone.’”
Gernhard always told a slightly different version of this somewhat apocryphal tale: He’d been there in Al Silver’s office, too. “The song wasn’t recorded at a high enough level,” he said. “None of us knew what the hell we were doing. Silver drew a VU meter for us, and said, ‘Go back and re-record it, and keep the needle up in this area.’ We took the piece of paper with us.
“Also, it had a line in it that they found objectionable: ‘Let’s have another smoke.’ He said radio wouldn’t play anything that encouraged young people to smoke.”
Suitably chastised, the novice producers returned to Columbia, called in Williams and his group, and cut a second version—keeping Silver’s drawing on the console where they could see it. With the requested edits, “Stay” clocked in at 1:39, short even for the standards of the era.
Gernhard loved to relate how Silver had instructed them to record it “flat,” meaning without the use of echo or embellishment on the lead vocal, but they thought Silver was instructing Williams to sing it slightly off-key. This was seriously discussed at the session, but they agreed it didn’t make any sense.
Recalled Williams: “When he said to sing it flat, it hurt us, because from the time we were in glee club, all we knew was to sing on key. But Silver said, ‘If you want a contact, you have to sing it flat so the average man in the street can sing it.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll do it,’ and I came up with ‘Stay—aahhhh—just a little bit longer,’ and sang the first part flat.”
Zodiac Henry “Shane” Gaston provided the sky-high falsetto vocal that made “Stay” so indelible.
In time, McCullough related, “I went back up there, and Silver started playin’ the new tape. He just looked at me. He didn’t move a muscle, didn’t change his expression or anything.
“When it got through, he looked at me and said, ‘You know what you did, John?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’
“He said, ‘You took a hit record that you thought wasn’t good enough, you had to go and change it—you took a hit record and you turned it into a fuckin’ smash!’
“And that was the first time he changed his expression. He smiled. And I thought I had screwed up.”
“Stay,” produced by “Briarwood Enterprises,” was released in October, and in a few weeks—on November 21, 1960 to be precise—it reached the top of the national pop charts. Johnny and Phil were number one with their first collaboration.
(Thirty years later, after its inclusion on the multi-platinum Dirty Dancing soundtrack album, the Record Industry Association of America announced that the Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ recording of “Stay” had sold some eight million copies.)
Not long after “Stay” became a smash, and the Briarwood brain trust had finished up with buying rounds and congratulating each other on their infallible ears and business acumen, the search began for the next big record. Al Silver paid McCullough and Gernhard to produce an entire Stay album for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and ten out of the fourteen tracks included were published by Windsong, but Gernhard was already restless. He wanted a new challenge.
It came in the form of Don Smith, the garrulous bass player for a Louisiana rhythm ’n’ blues quartet called Dick Holler and the Rockets. Smith was hitchhiking back to Baton Rouge; Gernhard picked him up along a South Carolina highway.
When the ensuing conversation revealed that Smith was a musician, Gernhard naturally asked him whether he had written any songs. Smith replied that yes, he was a writer, but the guy Gernhard really needed to connect with was Dick Holler himself, a singer and boogie-woogie piano player, a soulful man, and a songwriter with a steamer trunk full of cool tunes.
In the late ’50s, Holler—who played rollicking barroom piano Professor Longhair–style and sang in a swampy, hep-cat swagger of a voice like a white Fats Domino—cut a handful of unsuccessful sides for a tiny Louisiana label. Like most regional musicians, he and the band were eking out a living playing nightclubs and hiring out, and crossing their fingers that something would click.
Every one of Briarwood’s post-“Stay” singles by Maurice Williams flopped—there was no momentum to speak of, and Gernhard and McCullough had to sell their share of the song’s publishing to keep the lights on. McCullough played Archers gigs, and Gernhard produced and promoted local dance shows.
But they never stopped looking for their Next Big Thing.
Gernhard heard something he loved in Dick Holler’s stax-o-wax and summoned the group to Columbia to cut a couple of sides in the Quonset hut studio. The band’s name was changed to the more commercial Dick Holler and the Holidays.
Holler and his three bandmates rented a house together and settled in. A deal was forged with Comet Records, a subsidiary of Al Silver’s Herald. Their first single, “King Kong,” was part rhythm ’n’ blues—in fact, the four white guys sounded they might have been the Zodiacs under another name—and part novelty record (with “jungle” sound effects provided by McCullough and Gernhard).
Now, who is the toughest cat we know? (King Kong from the Amazon!)
He’s sixty feet tall from head to toe. (King Kong from the Amazon!)
The follow-up, “Mooba Grooba,” was pure New Orleans rock ’n’ roll fun, catchy and silly with nonsense lyrics, and unabashedly dance-ready.
Great googa mooga shooga, thought I saw a mooba grooba walkin’ down the railroad track.
It ain’t been gone for very very long and I hope it won’t come back!
They both should’ve been big hits with the jive-crazy Columbia kids. But they weren’t, and neither was Holler’s third collaboration with Gernhard and McCullough. Written by Smith and another Louisiana rocker, Cyril Vetter, “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” was a party sing-along, with a Mardi Gras, carnival atmosphere and vaguely sexual lyrics.
Columbia radio loved the Holidays’ single, but the nation at large never caught on. “Double Shot” would become a Top 20 hit in 1966 with a watered-down version by the Swingin’ Medallions, another South Carolina group.
The Holidays sometimes played backup on other artists’ Briarwood recordings, although they had quickly become an extremely popular live act in Columbia and were drawing steady paychecks. In the Carolinas, the dance-pop hits of the day were known as “beach music.”
Holler, being from Louisiana, wasn’t altogether sure what “beach music” was, but he was more than happy to appease the locals because they kept the money flowing. He loved Columbia.
Between 1961 and ’63, Johnny and Phil took running jumps at the brass ring again and again, one record at a time. The prevailing logic was to throw everything against the wall and see what stuck. With luck, they’d get another “Stay” out of somebody.
They produced doo-wop and pop vocal singles by the Monograms, Dale and the Del-Hearts and Julie Gibson, and a teen-dream pop confection by Elvis soundalike Jimmy Rand.
Using the pseudonym Clark Summit, electric guitarist Dennis Coffey cut two twangy instrumentals in the Quonset hut, for May Records. Neither side set the world on fire, but Coffey did go on to some success later in the decade. As part of Motown Records’ studio band, the Funk Brothers, he played guitar on a dozen million-selling records, by the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Edwin Starr, and others.
Johnny and Phil were constantly on the lookout for ways to snag a few extra bucks by sharing (or co-opting) their artists’ publishing. The B-side of the Holidays’ “Mooba Grooba” was the McCullough-penned “Hey Little Fool.” Both sides of Jimmy Rand’s single were written by McCullough, McCullough, and Gernhard, and—of course—published by Windsong.
They “discovered” Columbia-area rhythm ’n’ blues vocalist Thelma Bynum, who performed locally under the name Linda Martell. Paired up with a group called the Anglos, Martell recorded McCullough’s “A Little Tear (Was Falling from My Eye)” for Fire Records. With the McCullough-Gernhard composition “The Things I Do For You” on the B-side, this would years later become one of the most revered, and sought-after, early ’60s “girl group” records to be created in the Carolinas. Even though it didn’t sell in ’62.
In the middle of all this excitement, Gernhard simply stopped going to class. He’d lost interest in anything but music and the bohemian lifestyle he was living with his friends.
He brought a pretty, dark-haired girl home to Sarasota and introduced her as his wife. Boyd, Sara, and Judee—home on break from Florida State University—greeted her warmly, but with genuine surprise. He’d never mentioned her before.
Since no record of a legal union exists in any available database, it’s possible that Phil just lied to his family so they’d allow his girlfriend into the house. Although his parents assured him they were proud of what he’d done with “Stay,” Phil was in hot water for abandoning college—and the military—to pursue record-making.
But that wasn’t going well, either. “We were trying to make hit records,” said McCullough. “We tried to write songs together—we did a lot of stuff, but the only ones that we really hit on were Maurice’s.”
In early 1963, Briarwood breathed its last with the one and only record by the Archers, the Columbia show band featuring Stan Hardin and Johnny McCullough. Written by all three band members, “Hey Rube” was performed in the goofy, call-and-response style of the Coasters.
On the other side, “Unwind It” (credited to McCullough-Gernhard) was a 180-degree turn, a frat-house sing-along, Wonder Bread white and undistinguished. The two songs might as well have been recorded by two different groups.
Briarwood was able to get “Hey Rube” released on Laurie Records, a New York–based national label that had made its name through teen dream and doo-wop hits by the likes of Dion and the Belmonts and the Mystics.
Like everything else since “Stay,” however, the Archers’ single was destined for the compost heap.
Gernhard had no choice but to go home to Florida, placate his father, and re-enroll in school. He chose pre-law, which he figured would make Bud happy.
Said sister Judee, “He’d gotten off track. When you’re eighteen, nineteen years old, everything is visceral. He was living a double life—it wouldn’t have been anything they’d have chosen for him. Dad and Mom didn’t know anything about the business.
“The Coles and the McCulloughs weren’t businessmen—it was very much artist-by-artist and song-by-song. He made a ton of money, and he lost a ton of money trying to make some more money with what he had.”
When Phil arrived home, tail between his legs, Bud Gernhard was just finishing up a three-year term as a Sarasota county commissioner, a proud and loud achievement he never let anyone forget. Bud magnanimously “allowed” his son to re-enter the family, despite his failure in South Carolina.
Additional listening for Chapter 3: Oh Won’t You Stay