He could hand out the candy when he wanted something. And he had everybody’s attention. But when it got down to the cuttin,’ well, if you were in the way, too bad. Phil was a ‘Me, Me, I’ guy—if it didn’t do him any good, he just wasn’t interested.
Because he spent more time with Gernhard than anyone did—even Sandy—Ronny Elliott got to know a darker side of the Man with the Golden Ear. For all his earnestness and enthusiasm, Gernhard was stubborn to a fault.
“It was more than that he was full of himself,” Elliott said. “He knew he was a hotshot. He had a real opinion of his ears, and that kind of thing, but it wasn’t that he thought he was better than anybody—he was an odd one all the way around.”
For a man in the “youth” business, Gernhard was—like his father— proudly conservative. “When the money was really starting to come in, because of ‘Snoopy,’ he bought a new Toronado. That was a lot of money. There was a bumper sticker on it, ‘We’re in. Let’s win.’ Meaning Vietnam. So he wasn’t your everyday hippie.”
In due course, the Toronado was replaced by a gaudy blue Cadillac.
To his clients, to the suits at the record companies, to the press, and to the public, Gernhard oozed confidence. Privately, it was another matter. “He could be a reasonably charming guy,” Elliott remembered. “He just usually chose not to be.”
Maurice Williams started calling from South Carolina. According to Elliott, “Phil would never take any of his calls. He really was not a believer in comebacks or second chances. To him, that was money that he’d made— and he had no interest in talking to Maurice at all. I don’t know if he ever took any of his calls.”
He could also be incredibly short-sighted. “I took him the Outlaws,” said Elliott. “He passed on the band. That was very frustrating. Dick and Phil and I took the Outlaws to Miami, because Phil had never recorded at Criteria Studios. We worked for one day; we just did stuff all day long. We were thrilled, they were thrilled, everybody was happy.
“Phil and Dick and I went to dinner that night, and Phil said, ‘I’ve decided I’m not gonna do anything with this stuff. I’m not going to shop any of the material.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, no one song jumps out at me.’
“One song was called ‘Cookie Man,’ and I don’t remember the others, but they were all great. I said, ‘Look, why don’t I pay for the sessions, and I shop this stuff?’ And he said, ‘It’s my stuff. It’s not for sale.’ That was the end of it. That’s the way he was.”
By the mid-1970s, the Tampa-based Outlaws—working with another producer—would go on to become one of the top-selling southern rock bands of all time, with a saddlebag full of hits like “There Goes Another Love Song,” “Green Grass and High Tides,” and “Hurry Sundown.”
American music and its attendant culture was changing at an unclock able clip in 1969. The clean-cut teen combos of the mid ’60s had morphed into shaggy-haired “rock bands,” playing longer and louder songs with more expressive lyrics and a new attention to the “freedom of expression” movement that was sweeping the nation’s young people into uncharted new areas.
The Outsiders, who’d become the Soul Trippers, now became Noah’s Ark. The Bay Area’s “heavy bands” had names like Bethlehem Asylum, Split Ends, GAP, and BOOT. They didn’t play the Inn Crowd or the Spot or the Surfer’s Club—the hippest club around was now the psychedelically painted Electric Zoo.
In the midst of such tectonic plate-shifting, Gernhard got Holler a one-off deal with Laurie for a bizarre novelty number. “Amos-Ben-Haren-Hab-Seti-14” was a comedy song about an ancient Egyptian romance gone sour. It adhered closely to the wacky, polysyllabic template created by funnyman Ray Stevens, whose “Gitarzan” was in the Top 10 the month Holler’s single was released.
The Royal Guardsmen, meanwhile, were still under contract with Gernhard and pleading with him to unharness them from the novelty yoke. They weren’t the same malleable schoolboys he’d signed to deliver his Snoopy song to the world.
Individualism was the order of the day. They too had grown their hair long and dressed in jeans and flowing hippie gear. Most significantly, after three years of nearly constant gigging, the Guardsmen had matured and coalesced into a tight band.
They flew to New York with Gernhard and cut three songs: A new, “socially conscious” song of Holler’s called “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter,” a cover of the venerable Rolling Stones ballad “As Tears Go By,” and a screaming psychedelic freakout, credited to all six band members, titled “Magic Window.”
Taylor, who’d originated the latter melody during soundchecks while the band was touring, played a thunderous church organ—a nod to his hero of the moment, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker. Richards howled like Clapton on guitar, and both Winslow and Nunley had adopted rock’s new full-throated, bare-chested singing style.
“Mother, Where’s Your Daughter / Magic Window” was issued by Laurie in the spring, immediately after Dick Holler’s comedy record and a boiling, three-minute stoner rant by the Sarasota-area trio GAP. The Royal Guardsmen single was the only one of the three to stand a chance, commercially.
Ah, but it was a classic case of too little, too late. “He was just throwing us a bone,” Taylor believed. “We had bitched so much about it—and he knew we could do so much better than that Snoopy stuff. He knew were capable of that.
“We ate it up—but we didn’t even know ‘Mother, Where’s Your Daughter’ had been released as a single.”
It was, although it never got within spitting distance of the charts. “We were pissed off at Gernhard and the record company. They wouldn’t do anything. Gernhard just kept saying, ‘My hands are tied.’ They were tied from counting all that money!
“We could do stuff like ‘Mother, Where’s Your Daughter’ and ‘I Say Love’ and ‘So Right’ and ‘As Tears Go By,’ we could do way better things than that, and they just wouldn’t let us do it.”
Under pressure from his parents to return to college fulltime, and weary of the grind anyway, Billy Taylor quit the Royal Guardsmen. Similarly burned out, Barry Winslow bailed too, encouraged by Gernhard’s vague promises of a solo career. After a string of summer tour dates, including two nights at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in June, opening for Canada’s Guess Who, Richards and Burdett walked away. Nunley and Balogh limped along for a while, using replacement members.
But it was all over.
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, when the Royal Guardsmen broke up, the Royal Guardsmen were the only ones who knew they’d broken up.
Gernhard, however, had one more trick up his sleeve—and he didn’t need the band to help him pull it off.
In the summer of 1969, America was in the grip of lunar fever. NASA had sent its Apollo astronauts to orbit the moon, and the big moment— when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the lunar surface— was scheduled for July.
It was to be another watershed moment in the country’s history, and Gernhard sensed fresh opportunity. He and Holler dug Snoopy and the German out of the closet, dusted them off, and wrote another song, with yet another variation of the melody and the old Johnny Horton march tempo.
They called it “The Smallest Astronaut (A Race to the Moon with the Red Baron),” and booked time to record it, using Barry Winslow and the same gang of studio musicians, at Allegro.
But Schulz, no doubt as weary of the whole franchise as the public, refused to let them use his dynamic dog in another of their songs.
“We told him hey, this could be good for everyone,” Holler recalled, “but Schulz said no, he’s already been to the moon. One of the astronauts brought a Snoopy doll on a flight around the moon, and Snoopy had on a toy astronaut suit.
“We said, ‘But he only flew around it!’ Nope. End of Schulz association.” Poof.
The lyrics were hastily rewritten, and “The Smallest Astronaut” was recorded in the same basic style as the “Snoopy” hits, with no mention of the beagle at all. Released in July, in time for the historic moon landing, it was credited to Barry Winslow, not the Royal Guardsmen. “We were hoping that the Royal Guardsmen fans, and the Snoopy fans, would recognize the sound and the same lead vocalist,” Holler said. “But it didn’t fly.”
Elliott, meanwhile, knew how to push Gernhard’s buttons. “Phil said, ‘Hey Ronny, don’t you want to get in on the pool?’ Everybody kicks in ten dollars and guesses how many units their new release would sell in its first week.
“Laurie was just releasing ‘The Smallest Astronaut.’ I guessed two hundred; Phil said, ‘Two hundred thousand?’ And I said, ‘No, two hundred units.’ He still took my money, but that made him so mad! And I won the pool.”
Gernhard Enterprises was still producing concerts. “I did more than Phil did when it came to actually doing the shows, but Phil was obsessive about the radio promotion,” Elliott said. “It was our biggest expense, number one. He would sit for hours with the sales people from WFSO and WLCY, buying spots—and then they meet for a couple hours changing it around. Last-minute things if it looked like we weren’t going to do well.”
His behavior could be erratic and impossible to predict, Elliott explained: “He’d say, ‘I think we’re going to do well tomorrow night—if we do, there’s a big bonus for you.’ Then we would sell out. OK, we couldn’t do better. And he would never mention any bonus.
“We would lose ten thousand dollars in a night—it wasn’t my money, but it would just kill me. In some ways, it’s harder to lose other people’s money than it is your own. And then out of the clear blue, he would write me a three-thousand-dollar check and slide it across the desk. So none of it ever made sense. None of it ever made business sense. Why did he do it? I don’t know.”
Gernhard the entrepreneur cast his eye toward more civic matters in the fall of ’69 by negotiating with the city of St. Petersburg Beach for a retail concession building on Pass-a-Grille, a spit of public beach popular with locals and tourists. The lot in question—a half-mile south of the legendary Don CeSar Hotel, one of St. Petersburg’s few actual landmarks—had been the site of the historic Pass-a-Grille Hotel, which had burned to the ground two years before. Now the city was trying to figure out what to do with the parcel, which was strategically located right on the sand. It was a primo spot, and Gernhard wanted it.
A group of citizens took the city to court, arguing that the old hotel site had been part of the public beach and as such was not city-owned and not available to the highest bidder. “We already have enough beer places on the beach,” resident Ben Rugglero argued.
At one particularly contentious meeting, comments by Stanley E. Butler, treasurer of the Pass-a-Grille Community Association, were followed by cheers and applause that drowned out the commissioners’ gavels.
“Pass-a-Grille is disgusted with the drunkenness and rowdyism associated with the many booze joints near the former beach hotel site,” Butler crowed. “Most residents of Pass-a-Grille want a clean, green park, where they can sit and enjoy the beauty, particularly the gorgeous sunsets.
“I want to put down this idea once and for all,” Gernhard said. “What we want to build will be beautiful, particularly the landscaping. And it will be a whole lot better than having the kids run across a busy street and go into a bar and buy soft drinks.
“Sure we want to sell beer. People like it. But our lease would not permit a juke box there, or anything conducive to loitering, and we must close at sundown.”
He told the assembled that Walt Disney World, when it opened in a year or so, was going to changed tourism everywhere, including St. Petersburg Beach.
“It may surprise you, Phil,” countered Stanley Butler, “that the overwhelming majority of our residents don’t want a flood of people here from Disney World, and consider it somewhat of an intrusion rather than a business opportunity.”
Kent LaVoie, the singer and guitar player for the Sugar Beats, had been pitching songs to Gernhard Enterprises since the office opened in ’67, hoping to get something recorded. Phil wasn’t a big fan of the young Floridian’s quiet, breathy singing voice. “You’ll never get a deal as a singer,” he told LaVoie. “If you want to get anything in this business, you gotta write it.”
Challenge accepted. “That was all he needed to say to me,” LaVoie explained. “For the next three years, if his car was there, I was there.
“I followed along behind him, like a little doggie. Because I had to do what he wanted, and what he wanted was songs. And I wrote, and I wrote. He wouldn’t be there ten minutes and I was there. If he wasn’t there, if he was gone to California or something, it would kill my day. Horrible.”
Gernhard rejected one song after another, but LaVoie was undeterred. Finally, in the summer of ’69, he came into the office with something Gernhard could not ignore: A sweet, country-flavored pop song about the New York Mets, who were having an unprecedented season after a lengthy losing streak. The team’s spring training camp was in St. Petersburg, just a few blocks from the Gernhard offices (and not far from LaVoie’s house), and so the city caught a serious case of baseball fever as the underdog team battled its way toward the World Series.
With a few lyrical tweaks by Gernhard, “Happy Days in New York City” was recorded at Allegro, with an arrangement by John Abbott and crystalline background harmonies from members of the Left Banke.
LaVoie’s single, the last Gernhard would ever make for Laurie, dropped just as the Mets were clinching the series in October.
“Happy Days in New York City” never caught on, but it hatched a professional relationship that would take them both to bigger and better places—places Gernhard had only dreamed about—in the dawning decade.
In January 1970, Gernhard told the Evening Independent that his company was getting out of the concert promotion business (Sandy, who found the whole rock promotion thing distasteful and full of sleazy people, was thrilled).
Gernhard Enterprises’ last concert, he said, would be the February 20 Rock & Roll Revival Show at Curtis Hixon Hall. The oldies-but-goldies bill was to include Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley and His Comets, Gene Vincent, and the Coasters.
Duckbutter, Ronny Elliott’s newest band, was in the opening slot. “After that,” Gernhard said with that exaggerated importance he often used when talking with reporters, “we’re suspending any promotional activities, because in the last two weeks we’ve landed five major record contracts, and that’s more than enough.”
Along with his deal to produce Dion albums for Warner Brothers, he was to record a single for that label with a band from Birmingham, Alabama, called Chair.
For MGM, he would record former Royal Guardsman vocalist Barry Winslow, and for Bell Records, Columbia Pictures’ newly created music subsidiary, the Jacksonville-based M.O.U.S.E. would cut a pair of singles. And because of the success of “Abraham, Martin and John,” Atlantic Records had agreed to pony up for a full Dick Holler album.
He also spoke vaguely about a contract with a movie company called Afro Embassy Pictures. “We’re hoping to go into motion picture production someday,” Gernhard explained (the “royal we” had started to creep into his conversations around this time, too).
“We did what we wanted to (with concert promotions),” he said. “We wanted to create some different kinds of music in the area, and we believe we did.”
Booking time at New York’s Mirasound Studios, and back at Criteria in Miami, Gernhard assembled a small band of studio players for Holler’s album, Someday Soon.
Of course, “Abraham, Martin and John” was included (in a respectful arrangement) among the album’s ten songs, as was “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter,” which had been the Royal Guardsman’s final single the year before.
On his first album for Atlantic Records he turned his talents to a graphic illustration of many of the tragic failures of the American social system.
Revolution is no longer a word from our past—it lives today— possible, some say probable in the 1970’s. Voices are calling, peace- ful change is still desirable—is anybody listening?
Liner notes, Someday Soon
As it turned out, nobody was listening at all, and Dick Holler’s name wasn’t added to the list of history’s great recording artists known and respected for their calls for social upheaval.
In February, the St. Petersburg Beach City Commission approved Gernhard Enterprises’ request for conditional use of their Pass-a-Grille site for food and beer sales. The usually lethargic Tuesday-night commission meeting turned into a near-riot, as those Pass-a-Grille residents who opposed the deal shouted over the mayor and the commissioners. Gernhard was not in attendance.
After investing fifty thousand dollars on construction of the Pass-a-Grille concession stand, he would manage it until 1973, when he finally left Florida for the music business fast lane in Los Angeles.
Sandy’s nephew Ed Wright worked at the stand for four years. “I was about 14 when Phil gave me a ride home from the concession stand,” Wright recalled, “and as he would pass hitchhikers on the road, he would roll down the window on his Cadillac and yell, ‘Get a job.’ He was not a patient man with lazy people. I admired that.
“I remember when Hurricane Agnes appeared in the Gulf of Mexico in 1972, it was (only) a Cat 1 storm, but it surely did a lot of damage, particularly at Pass-A-Grille beach. Phil risked his life to save the concession stand during the night of the storm, which destroyed his prized Cadillac, but saved his business.
“Once every so often, he would say things to me…… One was if/when you become successful and/or wealthy, don’t overwhelm folks with it. It offends people, and it makes you out to be a fool. He said, ‘People always admire hard work, not those who ask for a handout. Kids need to get off their lazy backsides and work for it.’”
In autumn 1970, Phil Gernhard booked what would be one of the Tampa Bay area’s most historic concerts. Nobody knew it at the time.
“Phil called me at home one night,” Elliott recalled, “and said, ‘What do you think about doing Eric Clapton?’ I had pretty much lost my enthusiasm for all the things we’d done so badly on so many shows, but I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Let’s do it.’
“He said, ‘Well, there’s a hitch. He’s put together a new band that they’re calling Derek and the Dominos—apparently he’s Derek, but we can’t use his name. The only way we can say “Eric Clapton” in radio spots, ads, and billboards is to list him as a member of this band, Derek and the Dominos. Everything has to be alphabetical. There can’t be a picture of him, just the band.’”
The Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs would arrive in November, but if the show (Curtis Hixon had an open date December 1) was going to happen, it had to be booked immediately.
Gernhard booked the show. “Nothing was on the radio yet,” said Elliott. “What the hell are we gonna do? It was touchy.” Initial ticket sales, not surprisingly, were sluggish.
Meanwhile, one of Ronny’s musician buddies was Berry Oakley, bassist for the Florida-based Allman Brothers Band, who hadn’t quite hit it big yet—at that moment in time, they were touring behind their second album, Idlewild South.
On the afternoon of November 28, the Allman band played an outdoor show at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg. Elliott had heard that Duane Allman—the band’s brilliant, incendiary slide guitarist—was featured on nearly every track of the soon-to-be-released Derek and the Dominos album, offering fiery counterpoint to Clapton’s passionate leadwork. Clapton had seen Allman live in Miami, during a break in recording sessions, and, awed, invited him into the studio to play with the Dominos.
Elliott told Oakley that the Dominos’ tour would be stopping there in a few days. Oakley, in turn, told Allman, who made plans to stay in the Tampa Bay area for a while, as the Allman Brothers Band’s tour was taking a break until December 4.
“I didn’t see Barry or any of the band after that, but the next week, when Derek and the Dominos came strolling in, there was Duane with Eric,” Elliott said.
“In the meantime, we had a terrible scene. Some little jackass with an attache case and a British accent came in yelling and screaming and flailing his arms about, saying, ‘That’s it! Nobody’s playing! We’re going home!’”
In an attempt to be helpful, the Curtis Hixon staff—well aware of the show’s pokey ticket sales, and unbeknownst to Gernhard or Elliott—had changed the marquee out front to read “ERIC CLAPTON.”
The little man, who was obviously someone important, was hysterical and ready to pull the plug. “After a lot of arguing and begging and pleading, he said all right, okay, and the show went on.”
Gernhard was nowhere to be found during all the afternoon drama. He did, however, make it to Curtis Hixon that night to witness the first of only two concerts that Duane Allman would play as a member of Derek and the Dominos (he jumped on the band bus and went onstage with Clapton and company in Syracuse the following night) before rejoining the Allman Brothers Band in Columbia, South Carolina.
In less than a month, Derek and the Dominos would cease to exist. In less than a year, Duane Allman would be dead (Clapton described him “the musical brother I’d never had but wished I did”).
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was an unmitigated flop upon its release, but over time it came to be considered the high-water mark of Clapton’s recorded output. A lot of the credit was due Duane Allman, who, critics believed, drove and challenged the British guitar god to new heights of greatness.
Of the two Dominos shows that included Allman, only Tampa was recorded—albeit by an audience member on a hissy cassette tape. Still, because of its historical relevance, it is one of the most cherished bootleg recordings in existence.