INTRODUCING LOBO. Big Tree’s first million seller, Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” made Top Five on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Easy Listening Chart. The group’s first LP extends the gentle rock sound, with such memorable cuts as “We’ll Make it—I Know We Will,” “A Little Different,” “Reaching Out for Someone,” “She Didn’t Do Magic” as well as the song that started it all.
Album Reviews, Billboard, June 5, 1971
As head of A&R for Laurie in the mid-1960s, Doug Morris helped nurse the struggling label back into the pink of its glory days. Not only had he worked closely with Gernhard on the Royal Guardsmen records and on Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” but he’d also bought the master recording of a song called “Little Bit O’ Soul,” by an Ohio group called the Music Explosion and watched it sail up the charts to lodge in the number two spot. It spent two weeks there, unable to upset “Windy” by the Association, but it was nevertheless a bona fide smash.
Morris left the Schwartz Brothers’ employ in 1970 and started an independent label called Big Tree Records. A distribution deal was struck with Ampex, the reel-to-reel tape manufacturer and a pioneer in the development of the prerecorded cassette tape.
Phil Gernhard, his man in Florida, was one of the first independent producers Morris called. “Got anything for me?” Morris asked.
As a matter of fact, he did. Unfazed by the failure of “Happy Days in New York City,” Gernhard had continued to press his latest protégé, former Sugar Beat Kent LaVoie, for songs.
Nineteen seventy was the year of the sensitive singer/songwriter, the hip, long-haired, heart-on-the sleeve troubadour. With James Taylor as the flagship artist, a movement had begun, and labels were rushed and panicked to find the next big soul-baring, money-generating acoustic artist.
Gernhard, of course, had aided ex–teen heartthrob Dion in his quest for acceptance as an acoustic singer/songwriter, and he’d just started producing Dion’s album projects for Warner Brothers, James Taylor’s label.
As an independent, however, Gernhard was not contractually bound to Warner or any other record company. He was free to work with whomever, whenever, wherever, as long as they wanted him.
And he and Dion hadn’t developed much of a relationship outside of the studio.
Kent LaVoie had just presented Gernhard with a gently strummed paean to the simple life called “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.”
“Phil thought Kent had hit records in him,” said Ronny Elliott, who was still hanging around the office, despite the dramatic reduction in Gernhard Enterprises concerts for him to work on. “And I did, too. When Kent brought ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ into the office, Phil and I looked at each other, I didn’t say anything because he wasn’t saying anything. When Kent left, Phil said, ‘That’s a big hit,’ and I agreed. He said, ‘I don’t want to waste it on Kent, though. I want you guys to do it.”
“You guys” in this case was Duckbutter, Elliott’s latest band. Playing a rocked-up blend of country, gospel, and blues, the group was a showcase for vocal harmony—which was all the rage, because of the success of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and company—and, of all things, redneck jokes and slapstick comedy. Even in those times of independence and individuality, Duckbutter’s music was an unusual amalgam of styles. Elliott: “A Duckbutter show had comedy, magic, drama, and rocked and rolled like nothing else. It was dumb and it was sweet.”
Elliott and his band took “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” into the Charles Fuller studio to make a demo. “What I brought him back was all bottleneck guitar,” according to Elliott. “Turned it into something I would love today! But it was no longer a hit record. I could tell that.”
Gernhard nevertheless flew Duckbutter to New York, ostensibly to showcase the band for record labels. Also on the flight out of Tampa International were Kent LaVoie and his acoustic guitar. And “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.”
LaVoie played a handful of songs for Doug Morris and subsequently became the first artist signed to Big Tree Records. “By that time,” said Elliott, “Phil knew he was not gonna record it with us.”
Released in the early days of 1971 as Big Tree 112, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” was not credited to Kent LaVoie. Instead the artist on the single was listed as a single word: Lobo.
“We used my real name on ‘Happy Days in New York City’ and it didn’t do anything,” LaVoie said. The decision was made to start all over, using a pseudonym.
“Phil said, well, think of some names. So I made a list. I’m reading ’em, and I said, ‘Lobo.’ He asked what it meant, and I said, ‘It’s Spanish for wolf.’ And he said, ‘That’s it.’ Just like that.”
“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” reached number five in April 1971. “Phil came into the studio and said, ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ did sixty-seven thousand performances the first quarter,” LaVoie said. “You might as well have said to me, ‘I’m going to Czechoslovakia on a bus,’ cause I didn’t know what it meant.”
When a song was played on the radio and reported to the industry trade papers, that was a “performance.” In today’s money, LaVoie says, “that translates to about five hundred thousand dollars.”
LaVoie was in St. Petersburg, driving at night to visit his wife at her place of employment, the first time he heard his little song over the airwaves. It was on the Chicago AM station WLS—the same station that had debuted “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” all those years ago—and the signal, as usual, was dicey.
“WLS was fading in and out,” he said. “It faded back in, and there was ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.’ It was the strangest thing. It was an affirmation. It had nothing to do with money. It had nothing to do with being a star. I was pleasing Phil.”
They were a team, Gernhard and LaVoie. “Phil called and said, ‘It’s a smash.’ And my heart fell in my foot. I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“He said, ‘We got an order for records out of Chicago.’ Now, Phil was the one who’d had five hundred Sugar Beats records pressed that he was selling out of his trunk. That’s what a record deal was to me. So I asked him, ‘How many records?’ And he says, ‘The first order was twenty thousand.’”
Doug Morris was over the moon. Lobo, Big Tree’s first artist, was already making money.
An album, Introducing Lobo, was hastily recorded. Because LaVoie didn’t have enough songs to fill it out, Gernhard had him cut three from the Dick Holler catalog.
What LaVoie didn’t realize was that Gernhard had backroom-brokered a deal giving him ownership of LaVoie’s songs.
“He had a piece of the publishing, which I didn’t know till later,” LaVoie said. “Doug Morris had a piece of it. Big Tree had a piece of it. I did all of the writing, and I had none of the publishing.”
What did Kent LaVoie, twenty-six years old and selling millions of records, know about publishing deals? He said, “As Roger Miller famously said, ‘I got the first check that had a comma in it.’ And when a quarter of it is equal the yearly salary you were making playing six nights a week, it changes your life.”
Before the publishing arrangement was modified, in time, he only made money from record sales.
According to LaVoie, he’d learned how to deal with Gernhard: “I read Phil correctly, from early on, and that’s the reason I was one of the few successes from Tampa. I read him that he had to be in control. You had to do it the way he wanted it done. If you crossed him, you were dead. There was no forgiveness. None.”
Introducing Lobo—which didn’t have a single photo of Kent LaVoie on the front or back covers—barely broke the Top 200 that summer, but work was already underway on a second album, to be called Close Up.
Ampex, meanwhile, was hemorrhaging money and getting out of the record business, and Morris had negotiated a distribution deal with Bell Records to take effect in 1972. “Phil didn’t want me to write any songs for the album, because he knew they were going to bury it,” LaVoie said.
“Phil made a deal. All he said was, ‘We’re changing distributors, you need to sign,’ so I did. I’m not stupid, but I knew where I was compared to where I started.”
All the recording costs for Close Up—which would never be released— came out of LaVoie’s advances.
Although he made money from live performances, Lobo toured infrequently. In fact, he rarely did interviews, enjoying the anonymity that came with hiding behind a stage name. He and Kathy remained in St. Petersburg; Mrs. LaVoie became close friends with Sandy Gernhard. “If ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ was the only hit, I could have lived off it my whole life, the way I live,” he said.
Flush with Lobo cash, Gernhard flew the members of Duckbutter to record a one-off single he’d brokered with Paramount Records, the newly minted music division of Paramount Pictures. He loved the demo Ronny Elliott had played him of a contagious, good-timey original song they called “Gospel Trip (Medley).”
Before that, according to Elliott, “Everything to him was too country. ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ by the Eagles came out and I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’ve won this argument.’ I went to Phil and said, ‘Look at this.’ He said, ‘Okay, and I’ll tell you what: It’s a regional hit. Let’s talk about this six months from now.’”
Gernhard was chastised—although he would certainly never admit it— and when Ronny and the boys came up with “Gospel Trip,” he thought he might just have his own Eagles. “He thought that Duckbutter should be the biggest thing in show business,” Elliott said. “So he didn’t want to put out something that would be just a hit record. He wanted us to be the Beatles.”
“Gospel Trip,” as the title suggested, was a medley of three separate songs, all of them tied to the then-current “Jesus Rock” trend. Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” had recently been a Top 5 smash, and the straight-gospel Edwin Hawkins Singers won a Grammy for their record “Oh Happy Day.”
So off they went, full of high hopes and adrenaline, to cut their single at Electric Lady, the very same studio where “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” had been committed to tape.
“And when we walked out of there, he turned to me and said, ‘Your demo’s better.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
“So Duckbutter fell apart, and that was basically the end of my real relationship with Phil. I wasn’t mad at him, but I was disappointed. Again.”
The actual second Lobo album, Of a Simple Man, appeared late the next summer. This one included what would be LaVoie’s biggest career hit, “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Although it stalled at number two in the States (behind “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash), “I’d Love You to Want Me” went all the way in Germany (thirteen weeks at the top) and Australia (two weeks). “It was number one in Cash Box and Record World, but not in Billboard, thanks to Johnny Nash,” LaVoie laughed.
LaVoie hired a California-based manager (Ruth Aarons, who also handled David Cassidy) and threw himself into public appearances. He was developing professional muscles.
He also began to examine more closely his contracts with Gernhard. “What Phil got for me was $275,000 up front, plus $175,000 for each of four albums,” LaVoie said. “They cost about thirty to make in those days. So add it up, it’s over a half-million dollars. Of which he was assured to have $125,000 in costs after that.
“Zero for me. That’s when the hammer fell.”
The friendship began to teeter on its heels. “If he had given me $50,000 out of the $175,000, and advanced me $25,000 an album, he would have been making a hundred thousand, or two hundred and I wouldn’t have questioned it. It was more like me saying, ‘Hey, I helped! Throw some this way.’ No way.”
Gernhard was spending increasing amounts of time making deals and signing contacts in Los Angeles, where the music industry was based. It was around 1972 that he was introduced to Mike Curb, the boyish young president of MGM Records.
The California native had been writing songs, playing piano, and producing records since the early ’60s. “I was the first artist signed to the label after Warner/Reprise merged in 1964,” Curb said.
“And I was their first artist that they didn’t pick up the option on, too. [Label head] Mo Ostin said to me, ‘I think you might be better off just being a producer.’ I guess that was a nice way of saying, ‘You’re not an artist.’ Anyway, I listened to him.”
Curb and MGM were hot stuff in ’72, with smash hits from the likes of the Osmonds and Sammy Davis Jr. (Davis’s Grammy-winning recording of “The Candy Man,” produced by Curb, prominently featured backing vocals by a clean-cut, multi-generational, all-American apple-pie singing group called the Mike Curb Congregation).
Curb and Gernhard spoke briefly at an industry event. “Phil, if you ever have a hit that you don’t have a home for, let me know,” Curb told the newly famous Floridian.
Lobo hit the Top 10 for the third time in January of ’73 with “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend,” from Of a Simple Man. LaVoie and Gernhard spent several months in Atlanta, recording the next Lobo album, Calumet, at Mastersound Studios.
Ex–Royal Guardsman Barry Winslow was struggling financially, so Gernhard hired him to run sound for a Lobo tour. Gernhard still thought he could break the Million Dollar Kid into the mainstream, so he convinced Big Tree to bankroll a test single.
He and LaVoie took the “Snoopy” singer into Mastersound and produced a Lobo-esque ballad, “Get to Know Me.” Even though Winslow wrote the song, the publishing was split fifty-fifty between LaVoie and Gernhard. “Get to Know Me” was one more hit-that-should-have-been.
Another flop. Nobody made a dime.
LaVoie remembers the day he received a phone call, out of the blue, from a guitar player he knew in his Winter Haven teen days. Jim Stafford had even been in a band with him, the Legends (the group also briefly included future real-life legend Gram Parsons). Since the success of Lobo, Kent LaVoie had become Winter Haven’s only “native celebrity.”
Stafford’s solo act—just him and his guitar—was a hit in Gulfside beach bars and seafood restaurants. He’d self-recorded a live album at the Elbow Room, a touristy supper club in a swanky Sarasota suburb called St. Armand’s Key, and sold it out of the trunk of his car.
“I happened to be in Clearwater doing a photo session, and he was playing on the beach,” LaVoie remembered. “He found my number and called to see if I’d come out to hear his songs; he wanted me to record them.”
LaVoie really, really didn’t feel like it. But he was intrigued. And he hadn’t spoken with Stafford in years.
Stafford was booked at the Shack Upon the Beach, a combination motel, bar, and restaurant.
“We were drinking beer,” recalled LaVoie, “and I’m thinking, ‘I told him I’d come; I’m gonna hear this shit and get out of here and I’ll be through with it.’ He turns the tape on and it goes, ‘Blackwater Hattie lived back in the swamp where the strange green reptiles crawl. Snakes hang thick from cypress trees, like sausage from a smokehouse wall.’”
Gulp. LaVoie had not expected anything so weird, and yet so damn cool. “I said, ‘You got anything else?’”
The song was a talking blues provisionally titled “Blackwater Hattie,” what the composer called “a poem set to music.” Layered with acoustic slide guitars, it was eerie and atmospheric, almost southern gothic in flavor.
He didn’t care for any of Stafford’s other songs, like “I Ain’t Sharin’ Sharon” or “Nifty Fifties Blues,” and eventually the conversation returned to “Blackwater Hattie.” A Lobo record, with that haunted-house vocal? Prob- ably not.
LaVoie: “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one I thought you could do.’ I said, ‘Jim, you’re the artist. I couldn’t do this song. You need to record this yourself.’”
And then he had an epiphany: I’ll get Phil in on this.
The next night, he brought Gernhard, and together they caught Stafford’s performance—equal parts music and comedy—in front of an audience. “It was in this little bitty club, just him and a guitar,” LaVoie explains. “Now, growing up, all he did was play Chet Atkins guitar. I didn’t know he told jokes. It was the way he said it—the delivery! I couldn’t believe that was him.”
At twenty-nine, Stafford had been kicking around clubs in Florida and Georgia for nearly a decade when he first crossed paths with Gernhard. “I worked at trying to figure out how to entertain people,” Stafford said. “I worked hard on the guitar, and I had tried to figure out how to sing.” What he wanted to be was a showman, an all-around entertainer. The Victor Borge of the guitar.
Stafford was a guitarist of considerable prowess. He’d carved his niche—such as it was—by writing and singing funny, sometimes off-color or politically incorrect songs in a goofy, good-ol-boy voice, punctuating them with serious hotshot guitar tunes like “Malaguena” and “Classical Gas.” He also tore it up on the banjo. He was immensely likable.
At Sarasota’s Elbow Room and at the big club in Clearwater, the Glass Frog, he was a big draw. But he wanted more.
When Stafford played the little cassette demo of his bayou voodoo song, Gernhard was sold. Sure, he’d cut a handful of clunkers, but he trusted his ears—he knew a great song when he heard it, and he knew there and then that Jim Stafford was going to be a star.
“I think he saw potential in me not only as a singer-songwriter but also as a person who could do a show,” Stafford said. “And he plugged himself in from there on out.”
Gernhard, LaVoie, and Stafford came together at Mastersound, the Atlanta studio where most of the Lobo work was done, for Stafford’s first-ever recording session. It was Gernhard who suggested they change the name of the song to “Swamp Witch,” and LaVoie who requested he and Gernhard produce the spec single together, since LaVoie had “found” Stafford and brought him in.
Gernhard agreed, papers were signed, and yet another collaboration began.