I decided to go to Tampa for the old three-year law program and then transfer to Stetson. It was going to be tough, but I figured I’d make my dad happy. He wasn’t too turned-on about music for me.
Almost as soon as he started attending pre-law classes at the University of Tampa, Gernhard was introduced to a pretty, doe-eyed blonde from St. Petersburg named Sandy Thompson. She was dating his roommate, and they were introduced at a party on campus. “As soon as my eyes locked onto his, I thought, ‘This is it for me. I’m done.’”
The romance began inauspiciously. “He asked my work cohort out for lunch, and that almost crushed me,” Sandy said. “He just did things like that to see if he could get your attention.” Phil, she came to find out, loved drama.
Soon enough, they began dating. Thompson, who’d grown up in a rigidly Catholic home, admired Gernhard’s quiet determination. “He never verbalized it,” she said. “He was one of those guys that just did it.” He was, she discovered, a thinker, a reader, a man with an almost insatiable curiosity about anything and everything. He always seemed to have a plan.
Phil regaled her with stories of the recording studio, where he felt like an artist face to face with a blank canvas; he created with sound. It was in the studio, he told her, that he put both the analytical and the creative sides of his brain together. There was no other feeling that came close.
And he romanced her, hard.
From a letter to Sandy, dated March 2, 1964:
It’s been a long time since I have believed in the really good things in life. All I have known is continued disillusionment and a whole lot of filth. The way I have lived for the last 4 years, I am deeply ashamed of. Ashamed because I know how one should live but I regretted it. Of course, I had good reasons I thought, but knowing you has made me wonder.
From a letter to Sandy’s Uncle Buddy, who was at the time studying for the priesthood:
She showed me a life that I had previously scoffed at. Life for me was a selfish world of pleasure, deceit, dishonor and sin. But this is what I had known, and I believed that the other type was fiction. . . .
But as time passed and she held firm, even though she loved me, I began to want to share her world with her. If this included her church, fine, for I had no God, let alone a church. . . .
We are now, as you know, in the process of trying to get my previous marriage invalidated, for we can be married in the church. To both of us this will in fact be my first and only marriage. I do not feel that what happened in the past was in God’s eyes a marriage, because there was no union of spirit or person or anything. I feel in my heart God knew that there was no marriage. I do not blame the church for not sharing my view because they don’t know or can’t know what really took place.
Despite what Sandy believed were Phil’s best efforts, he was never able to have that first “marriage” annulled, and the subject was dropped.
Eventually, Phil told Sandy about his love/hate relationship with his father. “Mom Gernhard was the one who really controlled the ship,” Sandy recalled. “Phil said, ‘Mom passed Dad the ball, and he fumbled.’ And that stuck with me forever.”
She found Boyd Gernhard intimidating. “He was really, really stern, a tough taskman. Phil never got as tall as his dad or any of those psychological principles. He was always a little bit shorter than him.”
Not only that, but “he was a staunch Republican, and he was a bigot. He didn’t like Jewish people, he didn’t like black people, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. He said the thing he liked best about me was my nose, because it was little.”
Nevertheless, Bud and his son had raised the white flag when Phil returned to Florida from South Carolina. They both wanted it to work, but they were both stubborn and didn’t like to admit it when they were wrong. “I entered Tampa with the same arch-conservative ideas that had been passed through my family for generations, you know, ‘love motherhood, hate blacks, make money, that kind of stuff,” Gernhard would tell the UT alumni magazine.
Eventually, his thinking changed, thanks to the ongoing political and social discourse at college (“in the midst of the rah rah Goldwater generation, under a professor with extreme rightist opinions,” he said).
Phil realized that “with such divergent views, obviously both can’t be right. But does that mean that either is totally wrong? Suddenly my black and white world started taking on new shading and color I had never noticed before.”
He made the honor roll at UT, and then the dean’s list, and he aced an early acceptance exam into Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg.
Gernhard told his girlfriend about his fantasy of becoming a great trial lawyer. “He wanted to be Clarence Darrow,” she recalled. “Dramatic, the kind you write movies about. That was his thing. He would’ve never made it as a corporate lawyer.”
And he began to frequent the St. Petersburg and Tampa-area nightclubs where live music was featured. Sure, he was on the straight-arrow track and bound for a law degree and the respectable career his parents wanted for him, but the allure of rock ’n’ roll, and of getting to be a part of it, was just too much.
“I went everywhere Phil went,” Sandy said. “Music, music, music.”
In July 1964, Dick and Marge Sexton opened St. Petersburg’s first teen nightclub. The Sextons already managed the outdoor Silver Star Skating Rink, which had live bands on the weekends—but as Marge Sexton told the Evening Independent soon after the new club opened its doors, they’d discovered a void.
“Many high school students come here,” she explained, “but 19-year-olds are the predominant age group. There seems to be a vacuum for them: too old for high school dances, and too young for adult night clubs. We’re trying to fill a community need.”
Located in a tiny strip of stores right on Madeira Beach, the Surfer’s Club became the place to go in St. Pete. Most of the beach was yet to be developed—the towering, view-blocking condominiums that would come to dominate the area were many years away—and so the kids built bonfires, played music, and danced on the beach behind the club into the wee hours (or until curfew).
With a capacity of four hundred and a strict no-alcohol policy, the Surfer’s Club was open six nights a week. Kids paid one dollar for a yearly “membership”—they were given a card personally signed by one of the supervising Sextons—and charged a seventy-five-cent admission on live band nights. Nonmembers got in for a dollar.
Chaperones lurked discreetly in the shadows, ostensibly to discourage dirty dancing, but trouble rarely reared its head. “Here they let us act like teenagers,” said a young man to the Independent. “It’s not like other dances, where adults patrol the dancing.”
In the wake of the Beatles’ arrival and the musical tsunami that followed, garage bands were popping up in every city and town in America. St. Petersburg, Tampa, and the surrounding municipalities were no exception. Bands with names like the Intruders, the Outsiders, the Enticers, the Tempests, the Surprize, and the Rovin’ Flames made the rounds of dances and sock-hops, and as 1964 turned into ’65, the Surfer’s Club was competing head-to-boot with the Spot, Tampa’s happening hangout for teens.
With members from both sides of Tampa Bay, the Tropics were an energetic, horn-based “show band” with stage uniforms, dance steps, and a talented lead singer named Mel Dwyer.
At their Surfer’s Club audition, the Sextons liked the Tropics so much they offered them a management contract and the gig as house band— with the proviso that they (a) get rid of the horns and (b) become more of a “Beatle-type” band.
The Tropics agreed.
Gernhard, meanwhile, was twenty-four years old and hungry. He wanted to re-experience that euphoric feeling he’d had when “Stay” hit number one. Law school was still his priority, he assured Sandy, but the next big thing was out there somewhere—he was sure of it. All he had to do was find it and work that Gernhard magic.
He was a frequent visitor to the Surfer’s Club. “Phil was a record producer, but he was out of work,” Marge Sexton recalled, “and he needed to find something to do. We had decided to expand Surfer’s Club, so we asked Phil if that might be something [he’d] be interested in. And he was very interested in that. So we opened a Surfer’s Club in Sarasota.”
The Sarasota teen club was open only on weekends. Phil and Sandy would drive down on Friday afternoons, after his last class of the day and after she clocked out at First National Bank, and open the place up. To save money, they stayed with Mom and Dad Gernhard at the family home on Bayshore Road, across the street from Sarasota Jungle Gardens.
It was, Sandy remembered, an amendment to the “temporary peace” between father and son. “He stayed in his room and I stayed in mine,” she explained. “He used to slide me these little love notes under the door.”
Whenever some national act with a fresh hit came through, the Sextons would double-book them, for one night at the St. Pete club and the next night in Sarasota. It was cheaper that way.
“He wasn’t really that ambitious,” Sexton recalled, “but he was pretty good. I liked him, but he really didn’t do a super job running the Surfer’s Club. It wasn’t what we expected out of him. He had high hopes that he would make a big success of it.”
The Sarasota club closed, inauspiciously. But Gernhard had his foot in the door. He was dying to get into a recording studio.
Gernhard’s first local production was a Tampa pop quartet called the Sugar Beats, one of his favorites from the local club circuit. One night, he aproached singer and rhythm guitarist Kent LaVoie during a band break. “Phil was hustling and trying to get it done,” remembered LaVoie. “We were there in the right place at the right time; that’s all that amounted to.” He took the band into H&H Productions, a tiny, two-track studio in Tampa used primarily for radio jingles and commercials, operated by disc jockey Chuck Harder and his business partner, Phil Kempen. (Harder would go on to fame as the creator of the Peoples Radio Network and longtime host of the widely syndicated political talk show For the People.) For the A-side, the potential hit, Gernhard chose “What Am I Doing Here with You,” a song he’d heard on Johnny Rivers’s first album, In Ac- tion. “The way it worked out,” LaVoie said, “was I was the only one who sounded good singing on tape, so I just overdubbed all the harmony parts. It’s over-fast and it’s hokey, but it was ‘original,’ from the Tampa / St. Pete area.”
Gernhard cut a deal with Knight Records to press the single; he ordered five hundred copies and hand-delivered it to all the local Top 40 stations. Others he mailed out, although “What Am I Doing Here” (as it was called on the label) did not cause a stir of any sort outside Florida.
From a letter to Sandy, dated August 25, 1965:
The Beats record is selling better. Ron’s Record Shop has sold out & wants another 30 more. Great huh. Wish it would move in St. Pete as well.
For LaVoie, a native of Winter Haven who’d flunked out of both the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg Junior College, having a hit— even something so relatively insignificant as a regional hit—was enough to make him tune out just about everything else. The Sugar Beats went from making sixty dollars a show to three hundred dollars, simply because they had a record. “Everybody did it, but no record was played as much as ours,” LaVoie recalled. “You couldn’t get away from it.”
With “What Am I Doing Here,” Gernhard had made his first pure rock ’n’ roll record, and was undeterred by the Sugar Beats’ relative failure. He was intoxicated by the experience, and he enjoyed his newfound notoriety. At the urging of Marge Sexton, he approached the Tropics, then the biggest band in the area.
“Phil was an energetic, creative guy with lots of great ideas and of course, he had a way in to record companies,” said the band’s bassist, Charlie Souza. “So we were stoked.”
Gernhard drove out to the Surfer’s Club on a weekend afternoon, where the Tropics were rehearsing. During a smoke break in the parking lot, he suggested they come up with an all-new song to record, with him, at H&H.
“As the sugar sand was blowing in the breeze, Phil came up with the idea of the song ‘I Want More,’” said Souza. “He practically wrote it for us on the hood of his car as the five band members threw in an occasional line, and came up with some licks and chord changes, and a melody line to match the lyric ideas. After a quick hour or two, we had it worked up in the club and were ready to record.”
Gernhard produced the Tropics’ version of “I Want More” at H&H. Again, it went out via Knight Records. The band’s dominance of their home turf continued, as the single was all the rage on local AM stations WLCY and WALT.
The Tropics’ single—a guitar-riff raver rich with echo and energy—sold in great numbers to their loyal Tampa Bay–area fans, and it always drew the kids onto the floor at dance shows. But that was about it.
Gernhard then turned his attention to another band of hopeful young scruffs, the Outsiders. It was Surfer’s Club matriarch Marge Sexton who made the introductions, recalled band bassist Ronny Elliott. “She said, ‘We’ve got this great new connection. He’s going to come and start doing stuff with us. He’s got all these connections and he’s going to want to record you.’”
The OutsidersThe teenaged Outsiders looked up to their new Svengali. “He was basically a kid,” Elliott said, “but to us, he was an old businessman.”
The band had a swampy, back-alley sound, with sharp, stinging guitars playing boogie and blues riffs and a singer who sneered and drawled (the Rolling Stones were at the peak of their Top 40 popularity at the time).
In the first months of 1966, the Outsiders cut two Gernhard-produced singles on Knight: “She’s Coming on Stronger” and a remake of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” which had become a mid-’60s teen party anthem.
The records, per the pattern, didn’t do anything outside of Tampa Bay, nor did a second Tropics single, a raver called “You Better Move,” with vocalist Mel Dryer in full screaming-bloody-hell Mick Jagger mode.
“You Better Move” was significant for Gernhard, however. Because of his previous dealings with them, he was able to convince brothers Gene and Bob Schwartz of New York–based Laurie Records to release the single nationally.
And with “You Better Move,” Gernhard had moved up in the world, leaving the cramped, two-track mono studios of H&H behind. The track was recorded at a brand-new facility on MacDill Avenue in South Tampa: Charles Fuller Productions.
Charles Fuller Hunt was a sound engineer who’d produced a few bands at H&H for his own label, Boss. Charles Fuller Productions, a four-track recording studio (state of the art for the mid-1960s), opened for business the summer of 1966.
Most of Fuller’s work came from the world of advertising—radio jingles, commercials, marching band recordings, and soundtracks for school productions.
Once word got out that Fuller had four tracks—and a nice-sized studio floor—nobody booked H&H anymore.
By the time the Outsiders cut their third single, there’d been an upset. A band from Cleveland—also called the Outsiders—had released a single called “Time Won’t Let Me,” on giant Capitol Records.
Gernhard had told the Tampa Outsiders when “Time Won’t Let Me” had first appeared that it would never be a hit and that they wouldn’t have to change their name, because the Ohio group would sink and be forgotten. But his golden ear let him down, and “Time Won’t Let Me” by the Outsiders from Ohio was a smash, spending ten weeks on the chart and peaking at number five.
And so the Outsiders—the band from Tampa—became the Soul Trippers.
For the band’s debut single on Providence, Laurie’s rhythm ’n’ blues subsidiary, they chose a blues standard—the sexually charged “I’m a King Bee,” by Louisiana singer, songwriter, and blues harmonica player James “Slim Harpo” Moore.
Ronny Elliott: “When we went in to record ‘King Bee,’ the Laurie people said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a little explicit for radio. Let’s see if we can get some more vanilla lyrics.’ So Phil wrote a letter to Slim Harpo saying, ‘Is there any chance you could give us some lyrics that might get on radio?’
“It was too late, anyway. We’d come up with our own watered-down version and recorded it—and this letter comes to Phil. It’s three or four pages, all hand-written, from Slim Harpo. All new lyrics to ‘King Bee’—the vilest, filthiest, most disgusting things.
“Now, how much would I give to have that letter! If for nothing else just to sell it on eBay. But Phil didn’t keep it. He just didn’t have any interest in that kind of thing. He didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body.”
Gernhard was having so much fun “discovering” and recording Tampa Bay bands that law school—and pleasing his father—went on the back burner. “His mother said, ‘He’s chasing that pie in the sky,’” Sandy Gernhard remembered. “And she’d plead, Sandy, it’s up to you—you’ve got to make him stop.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, Mom, I’m working on it.’”
She had no intention of trying to “stop” Phil, because she knew he couldn’t be swayed. Still, she said, “he wanted it to work so badly here. He wanted the family thing to work that much. We’d go down there for Christmas, and they’d come up to our house for Thanksgiving. Phil wanted that tight-knit family situation.”
Gernhard discussed this period of waffling in his interview with the University of Tampa alumni magazine. “Law school,” he said, “was a big disappointment. I had expected it to take off from the great experience I’d had at UT, but it was a bore, memorizing law after law.
“Some of the older guys said stick around, it gets better in the more advanced courses. But by the end of the first year my average had dropped to a C, and I had lost my scholarship. So I was operating a teenage nightclub in Sarasota and booking dance bands to pay my tuition.”
ADDITIONAL LISTENING for Chapter 4 “I Want More”:
WHAT AM I DOING HERE by the Sugar Beats
IT’S YOU I’LL MISS by the Tropics
SUMMERTIME BLUES by the Outsiders
JUST LET ME BE by the Outsiders
GIRL OF MINE by the Soul Trippers
GOODBYE MY LOVE by the Tropics
During the month of May, Phil Gernhard Record Man is on University Press of Florida’s “Quarantine Reads” list. The entire book is available to read online for free (without the music links) here.