Phil Gernhard might be the biggest musical force from Florida you never heard of.
Gernhard died in 2008 at age 67, so estranged from family and friends that he willed his considerable estate to a long-lost high school girlfriend. But before that sad ending, he had a decades-long, successful career as a music producer and promoter, starting in Florida and moving to Los Angeles and Nashville, studded with an array of No. 1 records — pop, rock, rhythm and blues, country, novelty and more.
St. Petersburg author Bill DeYoung’s new biography, Phil Gernhard, Record Man, brings his story back from obscurity. On Sunday, DeYoung will celebrate the book’s publication at a reunion concert by one of Gernhard’s biggest success stories, the Royal Guardsmen. The Central Florida band had a string of hits in the 1960s and ’70s that began with a novelty record co-written by Gernhard, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, in 1966.
Born in Chicago, Gernhard was raised in Sarasota in a family dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father. Phil and his sister, Judee, would avoid their father’s domestic tirades by running off and hiding in the gardens at the nearby John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
In 1956, the teenaged Phil had a transformative experience, similar to those that shaped other Florida musicians like Tom Petty: He paid 50 cents for a ticket to see Elvis Presley.
"That night had a tremendous impact on my life and became a driving force in all these years as a record producer," he said in a 1988 interview.
Although his father pressured him to pursue a military career, Gernhard dropped out of college in South Carolina after one year to start a company to produce, publish and promote music. It didn’t take long for lightning to strike the first time. At age 19, Gernhard, a huge fan of doo-wop and R&B, produced and promoted Maurice Williams and the Zodiac’s classic song Stay. A No. 1 hit in 1960, it has since sold more than 8 million copies.
In 1964, Gernhard came back to Florida, enrolled at the University of Tampa and began looking for talent in the Tampa area music scene. He hung out at teen clubs like the Surfer’s Club in Madeira Beach and the Spot in Tampa, scrutinizing the Beatles-wanna-be bands springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm in the mid 1960s. He produced records for local bands like the Sugar Beats, whose vocalist, Kent LaVoie, would become a longtime songwriting partner and, eventually, a pop success under the name Lobo with songs like Me and You and a Dog Named Blue.
Gernhard also recorded, without much success, a Tampa band called the Soul Trippers, which featured Ronny Elliott. Elliott, who’s still active as a musician locally, continued to work with Gernhard for years as a promoter and served as one of DeYoung’s main sources for the book.
In Florida, Gernhard also discovered and steered the Bellamy Brothers and Jim Stafford, and he revived singer Dion’s career by bringing him a song titled Abraham, Martin and John. (His ear wasn’t always perfect, though: He didn’t think the Eagles would make it big.)
Eventually his career took him to Los Angeles, where he became an artist and repertoire executive in Curb Records, the major company founded by Mike Curb. When Curb Records relocated to Nashville, Gernhard went along and was instrumental in making Tim McGraw a star.
Those are highlights from a career of hits, but there are lowlights, too, including the ones all too common in the music business: drinking, drugs and divorces. Gernhard was, by most accounts, never an easy man to get along with. Even when he made an act a huge success, he soon became restless; the same was true in his four marriages.
That thorniness makes him a difficult subject for a biographer. Although his subject died a decade ago, DeYoung does a fine job documenting Gernhard’s impressive work, but there’s much less sense of him as a person. What gave him that golden ear, that passion for music, and what drove him to blow up so many relationships? Those questions remain unanswered.
But for anyone like me, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area in the 1960s and ’70s, Phil Gernhard, Record Man offers a blast of irresistible nostalgia.
Descriptions of those teen clubs (whatever happened to those?) and the bands that played there, the Outsiders and the Tropics, the Beau Heems and Noah’s Ark, took me right back to high school and sultry summer nights.
Gernhard was a concert promoter, too, responsible for bringing to town some of the most memorable shows of the era. I missed Janis Joplin’s notorious 1969 appearance at Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa, which ended in her arrest for "indecent language." (Gernhard bailed her out of jail but groused about it in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.)
But, oh, lucky me, I was there for both of Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 Tampa shows and for that historic night in 1970 when Derek and the Dominos, fresh off recording Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, performed in Tampa, a concert where Eric Clapton and Duane Allman traded transcendent licks that surely must be vibrating through the galaxy still — one of only two live shows they ever did.
Thanks, Mr. Gernhard.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.