The way you produce a record is you hear a song, and at the same time you hear something in your head. You use all your technical skill, and skill with people, trying to come up with this thing you hear in your head.
Like the others on Gernhard’s payroll, Carl “Charlie Brown” Troxell had his ears to the ground. He haunted the teen clubs, listening out for fresh new talent—or a talented band that could be molded to Gernhard’s will—to take to the boss.
Troxell was hearing good things about a local group called the Beau Heems. When they landed an opening spot for the Royal Guardsmen at Tampa teen club the Inn Crowd, he caught their act. As it happened, Guardsmen guitarist Tom Richards’s father, Olin, was already friendly with Tampa plumber Bill Carson, whose son—fifteen-year-old Bill Jr.— was the Beau Heems’ drummer. So it was old-home night.
Fronted by twenty-one-year-old Howard “Hoppi” Symons on vocals, the band had a rough, primitive sound—almost as “dirty” as that of the Outsiders—and Troxell believed they were unique enough to recommend to Gernhard. Keyboard player Dickie Barrett sat behind a massive Ham- mond B3 organ, with the requisite revolving Leslie speaker cabinet. Not every garage band could afford one of those.
When he saw them, Gernhard could hear the possibilities. After convincing the band to enlarge its name to the “more commercial” Hoppi and the Beau Heems, he quickly arranged a two-single deal with Laurie.
He promptly took them into Fuller and had them record “I Missed My Cloud,” which he had knocked out one January afternoon with Johnny McCullough. Like many of Gernhard’s lesser efforts, the record was a fairly obvious second-generation clone of someone else’s success—in this case, the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” the point driven home with Symons’s sneering, Mick Jagger–esque lead vocal. The melody and promi-nent organ were similar to those in “96 Tears,” a recent hit by a band called ? and the Mysterians.
“Hey, getting a national record deal?” said Bill Carson Jr., laughing at the memory of the Beau Heems’s derivative debut. “We would’ve done the Star-Spangled Banner.”
The second single, a Symons original called “When I Get Home,” sounded nothing like its predecessor. The B3 had turned into something dark and sinister, the sort of organ music kids were hearing on records by the Doors—one of the biggest bands of the era.
The faux Jagger of “I Missed My Cloud” was gone. Symons sang “When I Get Home” as a booming, theatrical, oversized Jim Morrison impression, right down to the anguished baritone cries of “Yeeeeeaah!” during the minor-key instrumental breaks.
Although the Beau Heems singles got the usual airplay from local stations, they did not break nationally, and the group’s Laurie contract was not extended.
His coffers still plentiful with Snoopy money, Gernhard continued to poke and prod for his Next Big Thing. He caught the scent of The Ravens, which Charles Fuller Hunt himself had already produced, and their song “Calamity Jane.” Gernhard negotiated a low-risk, one-disc deal for The Raven (hip name change) on Rust Records, a Laurie subsidiary that had taken chances on two or three of his Briarwood masters.
“Calamity Jane” was an urgent, pleading pop song, embellished by Gernhard with fuzzed-out Yardbirds guitar, an evocative organ solo, Morse-code sound effects, horns, sitar, flutes, cowbell, and the unsettling ricochet of rifle shots.
Improbably, “Calamity Jane” would be one of Gernhard’s greatest audio achievements. Like “Stay” and “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” it is that rare bird, the perfect pop single.
Owing melodic nods to other great singles of the era, including the Association’s “Along Comes Mary” and the American Breed’s “Bend Me Shape Me,” it was two minutes and three seconds of fiery garage band intensity, almost a “Wall of Sound” worthy of Phil Spector.
It did not, however, set the world on fire. “Calamity Jane” was a hit in Tampa and St. Petersburg—and, strangely, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it reached number one on the local hit parade—but America and the world at large gave it a pass. The Raven never cut another record and disappeared, like so many before them, into the ether.
Gernhard Enterprises entered the concert promotion business in April, with a highly publicized appearance by Ray Charles—one of Phil’s idols— in Curtis Hixon Hall’s seven-thousand-seat arena.
The concert promoter puts up the money to bring a performer on tour to his area. He books the hall, pays for marketing and publicity, and arranges the distribution of tickets.
The financial risk is all on the promoter’s shoulders. The artist is guaranteed a certain amount; if not enough tickets are sold, the show loses money but the artist still has to be paid.
Conversely, if the concert is a success, the promoter makes a decent profit.
Gernhard had hired Ronny Elliott, the affable bass player from the Outsiders (and, by default, the Soul Trippers), to serve as his “ears” in the teen clubs. Elliott was also tasked with seeking out talent and bringing the groups back to Gernhard.
“It was me and Dick and Johnny McCullough, and on the periphery there was also Kent LaVoie, Danny Finley, and other people who were sort of in and out, depending on the time,” Elliott said. “Our jobs were basically ‘Bring me stuff I can make hit records with.’ With me, the idea was ‘You’re a kid, so you can tell the stuff I can’t.’ I was nineteen. He was like a grownup and I was not.
“But there was this built-in hitch: If I took him something good, it made him mad and he was jealous. If I didn’t take him anything good, I wasn’t doing my job.”
The concert promotion business, Elliott explained, “always fascinated him. And honestly I think what caused him to go at it big time was, he resented giving me a salary and me having nothing to do most of the time. It wasn’t my fault! I’d bring him stuff and he’d pass on it.
“By the time that I began to realize that Phil’s ego wasn’t going to allow any of my artists to even record, we were both frustrated. He was paying me a hundred bucks a week and neither of us was getting anything out of it. So I became the chief gopher to promote all these concerts.”
Gernhard later explained that promoting concerts, for him, was merely a way of making sure the rock artists he liked, that he wanted to see, came to town. According to Elliott, nearly every show presented by Gernhard Enterprises—from Donovan to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elton John—lost money.
But Gernhard, who enjoyed the attention lavished on him, kept at it. He liked being the guy who delivered the hottest, hippest acts, including Jimi Hendrix (twice) and Janis Joplin, who was famously arrested for shout- ing obscenities at a police offer from the stage of Curtis Hixon Hall. Phil personally bailed Joplin out of the Hillsborough County Jail.
“Anybody like Joplin, who was making ten grand for one night’s work, should have some responsibility to the people who are paying her,” he later complained to the St. Petersburg Times. “But she encouraged the kids to start tearing the place up, then came around demanding her money. The kids take it out on the greedy promoter. I feel sorry for anyone trying to promote rock concerts nowadays.”
Tensions were mounting in the Royal Guardsmen camp, as every one of their non-“Snoopy” singles had failed miserably. Royalty checks were few, far between, and inevitably skimpy. SanPhil Music controlled the publishing on the band’s own compositions, and Gernhard did not open his company’s books for the teenage musicians to inspect.
Barry Winslow was the lead singer on the “Snoopy” numbers, and on all the other songs released as singles, too. The other band members had overheard Gernhard bragging about Winslow: “This kid’s going to make me a million dollars.” So they began to needle their lead singer, calling him the MDK—the Million Dollar Kid.
In the spring of 1968, Winslow quit the band. As it did for all healthy young American men, the draft dangled over his head like a guillotine ready to drop. Because he was out of high school, with no college deferment, he thought he was about to be called up. So he panicked and set out to rearrange (what was left of) his young life.
He kept in touch with Gernhard, however, and still drove down to St. Petersburg on weekends, to hang around the office, chat with Sandy, and listen to Holler try out his new tunes in the back room. Music remained Winslow’s first love.
Meanwhile, the presidential primaries were in full swing, which gave Gernhard another idea. They were still in Schulz’s good graces, despite their ever-decreasing record sales, and so a fourth “Snoopy” single was proposed. This time, the intrepid hound would make a run for the White House—with the deciding vote, coming at the very last minute, cast by the Red Baron himself.
Sure, it wasn’t “MacArthur Park,” but if they could just ride the political wave that was sweeping the country—Holler and Gernhard dashed off “Snoopy for President” and booked Allegro for fresh Royal Guardsmen sessions, including a fourth album.
With high school out of the way, the band was free to travel on short tours as time allowed. With Barry sidelined by fears of imminent induction, they played a few previously arranged dates as a quintet. Tom Richards’s parents, Olin and June, traveled in the big Dodge van serving as managers and peacekeepers.
“We were on the road when Gernhard and the record company had this idea,” Taylor recalled. “Olin came in and told us Barry was going to sing the songs, and they would use studio musicians. We would get our royalties as normal, even though we weren’t playing.”
Gernhard, it appeared, intended to make a star out of the Million Dollar Kid. Was this his plan all along?
“I would imagine it would be simple to manage one person,” said Burdett. “The MDK was and still is the most vocally talented man I know. If anybody deserved stardom, it would be Barry.”
“By that time,” added Taylor, “a lot of negative attitude had begun to shift in. We knew we weren’t gonna get to do anything serious, so we said, ‘Bring it on.’ I don’t think it probably meant a lot of financial gain for us.”
The single was recorded first, using, as promised, studio musicians. Gernhard again cooked up a “gimmicky” intro—a radio announcement, a la the Christmas album, with a German-accented news announcer rattling off the names of the candidates then in the race for the White House: “President, United States, Kennedy, Nixon, McCarthy und Rockefeller, Schnoopy, Humphrey Schnoopy? Ach du lieber meine!”
The single was released late in May, in advance of the still-unfinished album.
Snoopy for President bears little resemblance to the other Royal Guardsmen albums. For one thing, there are no original compositions on it, and only the title song bore the familiar names of that famous songwriting team, Gernhard and Holler.
The rest were divided between tepid rock covers (the Fireballs’ “Bottle of Wine,” a medley of the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and “The Letter,” Georgie Fame’s campy “Bonnie and Clyde”), saccharine pop ballads of the day (“Honey,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”), and latter-day bubblegum hits (“Simon Says,” “Yummy Yummy Yummy.”)
Gernhard had discovered the lilting, country-ish folk song “Biplane ‘Evermore’” on an Irish Rovers album earlier in the year and had Winslow record it to provide a tenuous link to the band’s earlier airplane-related titles. It’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. It’s the least grating thing on a decidedly grating longplayer.
It’s likely that the Schwartz Brothers had demanded a more commercial set than Snoopy and His Friends, with its faux-news bulletins, so Gernhard pulled out all the stops. Slick, polished—and almost totally without substance—Snoopy for President was just undistinguished 1968 pop, like so many others, without identity. A Barry Winslow solo album, disguised as the Royal Guardsmen, it could have been anybody.
“We felt slighted, but relieved we didn’t have to record,” said Burdett. “Probably the way the Monkees must have felt. Playing live and recording was often a real timing issue.”
Holler and Gernhard were in New York the first week of June, polishing the final LP tracks with John Abbott. “It’s a three- or four-day project, so we’re at a hotel,” Holler recalled. “I’m asleep, and Phil comes in. He says wake up, they just shot Bobby.”
Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles.
“We turn on the television and we stay up for a pretty long time. Then we decide to cancel the session and go back home to St. Petersburg.”
Laurie Records was forced to withdraw the “Snoopy for President” single, which been gaining momentum at radio. The spoken intro naming the presidential candidates—including Kennedy—was excised.
By the time the 45 was re-serviced to radio and retail, nobody was in the mood. And the album, even though Schulz had provided another Snoopy image for the cover, was likewise stillborn.
Back home in Florida, “We didn’t really feel like working, but Phil said, ‘Let’s go in and check our calls,’” said Holler. “The first day, I went into the back room and I wrote ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ in about fifteen minutes. I did a treatment like the Kingston Trio might do it.”
Holler’s song paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and, just when you thought the song was over, the recently murdered Bobby. (No one minded that the names were not in sequence, as “Abraham, John and Martin” didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.)
Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham? Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people, but the good die young. I just looked around, and he’s gone.
“Abraham, Martin and John” would be a game-changer—for Holler, for Gernhard, even for the Royal Guardsmen.
Somehow Winslow had managed to avoid the draft and was about to rejoin the Guardsmen for a series of late-summer dates. After the failure of “Snoopy for President,” Laurie had re-released “Baby Let’s Wait,” the band’s very first single, and it was getting some attention.
The band members, for their part, were grateful for anything that didn’t have “Snoopy” in the title.
“The real turning point for me was when I drove down to St. Pete, from Ocala, to work with Dick on some demos,” Winslow said. “I liked working with him, because I wanted to learn more about writing myself. Dick was playing his little upright, out-of-tune piano, and he was singing this little 6/8 shuffle: ‘Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?’ And I am just dying. I said, ‘This is cool! This is a really of-the-times song, man, but can we do it 4/4?’ And Dick’s getting into it—‘Yeah, this works good.’
“And Gernhard’s in the other office. I said, ‘Phil, we need this song. The Guardsmen need this song. This will bust us loose. We love the puppy, but this may give us a real, legitimate shot.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you guys can have it! But go ahead and cut it the way Dick’s doing it, the 6/8 thing.’ So we did it, a little piano, guitar, and me on a little two-track Wizard machine. I was loving it. I said, ‘Wait till I tell the guys!’”
Gernhard and Holler spent a month trying out singers for “Abraham, Martin and John.” Even Carl “Charlie Brown” Troxell was given an audition. Laurie Records artist Hank Cardell cut a spec version. Still, Gernhard wasn’t hearing what we was looking for.
“We thought about getting the proper representation for the song, and making sure it was reverent enough,” Holler said. “We didn’t want to just throw it to anybody.”
Then Laurie boss Gene Schwartz asked Gernhard to do him a favor. The label’s top-selling artist was in a serious slump, both commercially and personally. New Yorker Dion DiMucci—whose career at Laurie had started in the late 1950s as the lead singer of Dion and the Belmonts, with “A Teenager in Love” and “Where or When”—had fallen on hard times. After solo hits with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue,” his career had been washed away by the cultural tsunami of the British Invasion, and in an instant Dion (as he was professionally known) was a has-been.
By 1968, he was a recovering heroin addict—and a newly minted born-again Christian—playing acoustic guitar for short pay in South Florida folkie clubs. Laurie’s head of A&R, Doug Morris, promised the label’s one- time golden boy they’d re-sign him if he came up with the right song.
And so Gernhard and Holler took “Abraham, Martin and John” to the fallen star.
“We went down and saw him in Hialeah, in a little place out by the racetrack,” Holler said. “He had just gotten out of rehab, so we didn’t know what to expect. We were certainly worried about it. But other than being extremely shy and nervous about performing again, he still sang well. It struck Phil and me that his voice was still extraordinary. His druggie days hadn’t taken that away from him.”
Recalled Gernhard: “He was doing all these folk songs for me. Some he wrote, some were by Nilsson, Leonard Cohen—he had a very mumbly kind of style. I thought, oh my God, this guy’s voice is perfect for that song, because he won’t telegraph it.
“I said, ‘I’m going to send you song, and I want you to work it up in this same style. The writer’s version is bouncy.”
According to Gernhard, DiMucci insisted he didn’t like “Abraham, Martin and John” and adamantly refused to record it. “His wife talked him into working it up with guitar and vocal—perfect,” Gernhard said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to cut it.’ I said, ‘I’ll fly you to New York; all you have to do is sing it one time. It’ll all be done before you get there.’ I told him it’s a free trip, you can go to the Bronx and see your friends.”
In his memoir The Wanderer: Dion’s Story, DiMucci said he thought “Abraham,” on first listen, was “opportunistic” and distasteful. He wrote, “I don’t know why, but when I picked up a gut-string guitar and started putting it together, I started seeing the song differently—as a three-minute piece of hope.
“It was a real restless time in the country then. These senseless assassinations seemingly took the hope out of people, but here was this song that said, ‘You can kill the dreamer, but not the dream: People are going to carry it on.’”
A week later in St. Petersburg, Barry Winslow, down from Ocala, strolled through the front door of the Gernhard Enterprises office. “I walk in the hall and there’s Dion DiMucci,” Winslow said. “He was real clammy and looked horrible when I met him; he was braced up against a wall, sitting on a stool. And Gernhard’s just drooling all over him, you know?
“I walked into the kitchenette and I heard him [singing]: ‘Anybody here?’ And I’m thinking oh my God, he’s done it. He’s gonna give this to Dion. We are screwed.
“When he left, I just came unglued. I yelled at Gernhard and made a real scene. And that was pretty much it for me.”
Undaunted, Gernhard—with the full support of the Schwartz Brothers and Morris—made good on his promise and flew Dion from Florida to New York. Session time had been booked at Allegro.
“I knew once I got him in the studio, there’d be no problem,” Gernhard explained. “And he came in, played guitar and sang, and as I was listening to the playback, I had him punch in one line to correct it. He left. He did one take! That was the deal. He was gone.”
John Abbott’s arrangement for “Abraham, Martin and John” was lush, almost saccharine, with full orchestra, a lone, melancholy oboe, and, most memorably, the sound of an angelic harp running between nearly every line of lyrics.
Maudlin? Certainly. But it was undeniably moving. This was a record designed to get your attention and focus it on the tragedy of America’s murdered leaders.
Gernhard mixed the single in twenty minutes. “I wanted a very subliminal record, that wouldn’t make any entreaty to cry,” he explained.
He said it had come out the way he’d heard it in his head back in June— subtle, but impossible to forget. “It was the record I wanted. I didn’t want them to understand it until the fourth or fifth listening.”
It didn’t take off right away. A DJ friend of Dick Holler’s said the Dion single was too subtle. “You know, Dick,” he’d said, “you’ve got a really good song here, but you can’t understand what this record’s about. It’s not going to work.”
Holler complained to Gernhard. “You made a record nobody can understand,” the composer told the producer. “This is terrible.”
Gernhard hung up the phone and put his head in his hands. “Christ, this is awful,” he thought.
“Four days later, boom. Orders from everywhere.”
“Abraham, Martin and John” sold a million records, reached number four on the Billboard singles chart, and resuscitated Dion DiMucci’s career.
And Phil Gernhard, who assigned himself half-ownership of the song’s publishing, got richer.
“I don’t want to brag,” reflected Holler, “but ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ got Phil off the snide of being Mr. Novelty. I represented the publishing company on several trips to New York, and a lot of people wouldn’t take us seriously because all we were doing was ‘Snoopy,’ and our other songs were songs like ‘The Airplane Song’ and ‘Bye Bye Biplane,’ all these teenybopper songs. So we didn’t get too much respect.”
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, CBS, Sunday, November 17, 1968:
Tom smothers: “We first heard this next song on the radio, and we thought so much of it, we thought it was such a great song, we thought we’d like to have it on the show so that more people could hear it and see it performed.”
Dick smothers: “That’s right. The song is entitled ‘Abraham, Martin and John.’ And we’re very proud to present the man who has this hit record—ladies and gentlemen, Dionne!”
Smothers pronounced Dion’s name de-YON, as though he was an effeminate fashion designer, and coupled it with a theatrical hand flourish, as if the brothers were bringing out an opera star or some great maestro.
The idea, clearly, was to not tip off the viewers that this was Dion (DEE- yon), the washed-up teen star of “Runaround Sue” fame.
Dion performed it live with the same gut-string acoustic guitar he’d used on the recording. Because of a musicians’ strike, the Smothers Brothers’ orchestra was absent when this episode was taped, and so the Jimmy Joyce Singers provided a new backing for the song—a heavenly chorus humming what sounded like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a few gospel-type “Amens” just before the verse about Martin Luther King.
The intention was to drive the song’s emotional point home, in a way only television could do. In the process, John Abbott’s soft arrangement was jettisoned—so much for the subtlety that Gernhard had so meticulously worked into the record.
The era of the single record’s dominance was almost over—the album was taking over in a gradual shift that had begun with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and increased with the arrival of Hendrix, Cream, Joplin, and their ilk.
So there would need to be a Dion album, featuring “Abraham, Martin and John.” At Gernhard’s suggestion, DiMucci drew up a list of the covers and original tunes he’d been performing in the Miami area. He sang each one into a cassette recorder and sent the tapes to Gernhard in St. Petersburg. The recordings were forwarded to John Abbott in New York, who wrote lead sheets for the chosen songs.
The Dion album took two to three days to record at Allegro. Along with the hit single, it included “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “The Dolphins” by Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (still unknowns, Mitchell and Neil were frequent performers in the same Miami-area folk clubs as Dion), Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” and Dion’s peculiar but eerily evocative acoustic adaptation of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix.
Gernhard wrote the album’s liner notes:
During the past five years, DION went from the top to obscurity. However, in the process he has become seasoned by this experience. The result is the birth of an extraordinary artist. His singing now expresses his personal world. . . .
Working with DION has become a very real personal experience for me, because Laurie and DION together have created a LP that we hope will provoke you as it does me to thinking about all those things that in our day to day existence we continue to push in the background. When you listen to this album, we hope it gives you a good kick in the gut.
His comeback secure, Dion’s first move was to bite the hand that had helped him. He left Laurie Records for a big-royalty deal with Warner Brothers. Between 1970 and ’72, he would cut three acoustic albums for the label—Sit Down Old Friend, You’re Not Alone, and Sanctuary, all of them produced by Phil Gernhard. They all flopped. He and Gernhard never quite bonded as friends, either, and when the contract expired, so did their tenuous relationship.