Tag Archives: American popular music

Musical genius helped others reach success while fighting his inner demons

Phil Gernhard, Record Man, by Bill DeYoung. University Press of Florida. 208 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

The University Press of Florida has published an unofficial series of books about the state’s role in American’s popular music. These include “Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band,” “Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town” (about the Gainesville scene), and “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida” (all reviewed in these pages). Mr. DeYoung’s effort is essentially a biography of a relatively unknown giant in the popular music world. Following along the trail Phil Gernhard’s life, the author paints a vivid picture of the U. S. music industry in the second half of the twentieth century.  

Trained neither as a musician nor a businessman, Gernhard picked up what he needed to know through hustle and hard work. He began early, and by the time he was nineteen he had produced a million-copy recording: “Stay,” a monstrous hit performed by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. It was 1960, and Gernhard had already recorded a few other songs by his group.

Gernhard’s career was hardly a straight or unbroken line. He had many ups and downs. Still, he managed to produce an amazing amount of recorded music, and a high percentage of those releases become hits, bringing money into the pockets of the musicians, songwriters, studio technicians, and owners of record labels. He succeeded through changing times and changing tastes.

DeYoung

Mr. DeYoung makes it only too clear that Gernhard was an accomplished and somewhat greedy dealmaker, negotiating contracts that gave him many slices of the pie. Sometimes songwriter credit for doctoring a needy lyric, sometimes a percentage for enhancing production quality, and sometimes simply by writing himself into the contract for being able to put all the pieces together. He was labeled as a producer, and he produced.

He worked to get studio time, rehearsal time, radio play, engagements for live performances, and whatever else might make a record a success. When the industry changed from one in which singles lost out to albums in the economics of the industry, Gernhard learned how to adapt and how to help others adapt.

Originally based in his home state of Florida, Gernhard also rose the ladder of influence in such music capitals as Los Angeles and Nashville.

Now it’s time to name names: Dion DiMucci’s career was resurrected by Gernhard with the improbably successful ballad “Abraham, Martin and John.” He produced hits for Lobo, Jim Stafford, the Bellamy Brothers, Rodney Atkins, and Tim McGraw. It wasn’t just hustling. Gernhard was credited with having “magic ears.” He could tell that a song (or a singer) had a lucrative future. He knew how to match a song and a singer for maximum effect. . . .

 

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 27, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 28 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Record Man  

See also: Skyway

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Touring with young Elvis: the making of a phenom

Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida.  280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention. 

Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.

Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.

Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.

Kealing

 

As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.

West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited

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