Legend has it that Phil Gernhard only needed to hear a song once to know if it had that elusive combination of melody and rhythm that would yield a gold record and heavy rotation.
"He knew how to pick a hit," says country star Rodney Atkins, whose last album yielded four No. 1 singles, all picked by Gernhard. "But not just hits—career songs, the kinds of songs that define an artist and are remembered long after he's gone."
Gernhard, known most recently for bringing his talents to bear on musicians like Atkins, Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina, had been picking and profiting from hit records his entire adult life. From the Zodiacs' "Stay" in 1960, to soft-rock triumphs in the '70s and '80s, to the crossover country singers of today, Gernhard was a Music Row talent seemingly without peer.
But at 65, he was looking back on a personal life that had failed in equal proportion to his professional success. He'd been through four failed marriages—the last to a Swedish hooker—and years of addiction and drug use. He told some friends that cancer was killing him and he didn't have long to live, while he told others that he'd turned a corner and the prognosis was good. And he seemed to be fixated on a teenage romance he'd held as a young man in suburban Tampa with a woman he hadn't seen in 50 years.
Still, at the dawning of 2008, he was reveling in further music success. Atkins' latest album, If You're Going Through Hell, was shooting up the charts, spinning off four No. 1 hits in a row. One song, "Cleaning This Gun," hit No. 1 in the second week of February.
A few days later, alone in his Brentwood mansion, Gernhard put a silver revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He had just completed producing what a close friend calls one of his best songs. It's a Steve Holy tune, powerful and a little sad, appropriately called "What Might Have Been."
When Phillip A. Gernhard was a sophomore at Sarasota High, Betty Vernon was in the eighth grade. "He was my first boyfriend," Vernon recalls. "We were sweethearts."
The pair rode bicycles and the city bus together, since neither had a driver's license. What they did have was music.
At the time, Elvis Presley was sending America's teens rock 'n' roll crazy. "Elvis was our idol," she says. "Phil used to go buy his records as soon as they came out and he'd bring them to my house and we'd dance."
They swayed to the 45s in the halcyon confines of Betty's bedroom, dancing to a brand new sound pouring through the speakers. Though Vernon didn't know it, Gernhard would come to cherish these times for the next 50 years, perhaps because the moments of joy so contradicted the rest of his life.
"He didn't have a very happy home life," says Vernon, who declines to offer specifics.
Roland Lavoie is less circumspect. Under Gerhard's tutelage, he landed a string of soft-rock hits in the '70s under the stage name Lobo, and knew the Gernhard family. "His father, you would think he was a retired colonel," says Lavoie. "He was a real hard-ass."
Lavoie recalls once visiting the family home to pick up some documents. When Gernhard's father stepped out of the room, his mother, "a meek little woman, probably 70 at the time...comes over and gets real close to me," Lavoie recalls. "She says real quietly, 'Have you talked to Phil?' "
Lavoie answered yes.
"Just tell him that I love him," she whispered.
"Think about that," Lavoie says. "The father was such a dickhead that he wouldn't even allow Phil's mother to make contact with him."
By the time she entered high school, Vernon says she and Gernhard had "drifted apart." He would chase the music industry; she would settle down, marry and have kids and grandchildren. Over the next 50 years, Gernhard would return to visit family only a few times, once for just a few hours to attend his mother's funeral. He did not return when his father died.
Gernhard's first hit came in 1960, when he produced the Zodiacs' "Stay" in a South Carolina studio. He took the song to New York City to shop it around to record labels. Gernhard got an audience with Al Silver of Herald Records, who liked the song but hated the recording quality. "None of us knew what the hell we were doing," Gernhard later told Billboard magazine. Silver took out a piece of paper and "drew a VU meter for us and said, 'Go back and record it and keep the needle up in this area.' We took the piece of paper with us."
Gernhard returned to South Carolina and rerecorded the song, with a close eye on his equipment. "Stay," just one minute and thirty-seven seconds, would shoot to the top of the charts and stay there for a week in the fall of 1960.
Gernhard took his earnings and returned to the Tampa area, scouting talent at sock-hops and nightclubs.
At the time, Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic was a huge cultural touchstone; Gernhard smelled opportunity. He and Dick Holler—who's written songs for everyone from Ray Charles to Bob Dylan to Tori Amos—wrote a song called "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron," in reference to the cartoon beagle's flying exploits, and looked for a band to record it. Gernhard found The Royal Guardsmen in a Tampa club. According to pop-music lore, he handed the band a legal pad with lyrics and a note that read, "Give me a military feel or cadence."
The Guardsmen recorded the track at a guitarist's house, Gernhard loved it, and a corny artifact of American pop culture was born.
By early 1967, the record reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, and would go on to sell over 3 million copies worldwide.
It wasn't long before Holler brought Gernhard another song called "Abraham, Martin and John," a moving folk tune that eulogized slain political leaders. Teen idol Dion recorded it with Gernhard producing. It too would bring instant success.
By the late '60s, Lavoie was regularly bringing Gernhard three or four songs a week, hoping the producer would buy one.
"After the Snoopy thing, I knew he could make it happen for me," Lavoie recalls. Gernhard "was completely capable, more so than almost anybody I've ever been around, of picking a hit."
Eventually, Gernhard signed Lavoie to a contract with Big Tree Records, where he had become an executive. Their first hit came in 1971 with a folky tune called "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo." They would end up with a string of adult contemporary make-out hits such as "I'd Love You to Want Me" and "Don't Expect Me to Be Your Friend." To call them soft-rock is an understatement. Gernhard's production is edgeless, the choruses lush with faint strings and lilting steel guitars, lulling a listener's brain into pliant, record-buying submission.
In the '70s, Gernhard moved to Curb Records, an affiliation that would last the remainder of his life. He met owner Mike Curb shortly after "Stay" charted, while Curb was still in college at Cal State.
"He had good ears," Curb recalls. "He was the kind of person I call a real record man. He understood the song, the producer, how to master the record, how to promote it. He understood every part of it."
But as Gernhard's career blossomed, so did his problems. Between the early '70s and 1996, he was married and divorced three times and struggled with addiction. He seemed to have a gift for blowing up relationships, bouncing from woman to woman without success.
His first wife was "a perfect schoolgirl," says Lavoie. And Curb still can't fathom why his second marriage capsized. "My wife and I never did understand why they broke up."
Gernhard's third wife was an attorney. "She was terrific," Curb says. "Very bright, very exciting person. I thought, 'This is going to be perfect.' " It wasn't. The couple divorced in 1996, citing irreconcilable differences.
"He had been through just about everything that a person could do," says Curb. "All those demons. Just about every demon that you could think of, he was afflicted by, yet he would somehow overcome them."
But there was one demon he seemed to never overcome. After all those years, he was still pining for his high school sweetheart, Betty Vernon.
By the time Elvis Presley died in 1977, Vernon hadn't heard from Gernhard in more than a decade. On that day she received a telegram containing just one sentence: "Part of our youth is gone. Phil." There was "no return address," she says. "Nothing." Vernon wouldn't hear from him again for another 30 years.
In the early '90s, Curb Records moved its headquarters from Los Angeles to Music Row. Gernhard spent most of the last 20 years in various executive positions at the company, most recently as vice president of A&R, responsible for signing artists and mothering them through production and marketing.
Three years ago, he hired Kelly Lynn, a former Country Music Awards trophy girl, to be his assistant, grooming her for a career as a music-industry executive. "You know how there's that one girl onstage who prances around and hands out trophies?" she asks. "That was me."
The pair worked together everyday, regularly taking breakfast together at the Waffle House in Brentwood.
"After he passed, I was devastated," Lynn says. "I couldn't believe he didn't say goodbye. We were so, so close, he was like a father to me. Not just a businessperson or someone who put me in an amazing career and changed my life, but he was like a dad and a best friend." Gernhard even paid for her son to attend Christ Presbyterian Academy.
He never mentioned cancer to Lynn, but she knew he had "health problems." Their last meeting was on Valentine's Day at the Waffle House. "We talked about our No. 1 that we had that week," she says, referring to one of the hits rising from Atkins' album. "He seemed so happy about it."
He should have been. Atkins says that Gernhard played a key role in his growth as an artist.
"It's about building confidence.... He was trying to build my confidence as a singer, as an artist. He was the only guy calling me and saying, 'Are you writing?' He was the guy that kept pushing me, he made me better.... He did not let you quit."
Though Gernhard's professional abilities never seemed to die, something was clearly going bad inside his head.
In 2002, he met Anna Maria Bosdotter while on a video shoot in Europe. On her website, stockholm-escort.com, where she goes by "Madeline Hamilton," she describes herself as one of "Scandinavia's top escorts" who prefers "to be a little selective in my friendships, [looking] for quality rather than quantity."
Gernhard married her three days after Christmas that year in Las Vegas. Many of his acquaintances in Nashville never met Bosdotter, and Curb doesn't think the couple ever lived together, though Bosdotter visited the U.S.
"He brought her [to America] a couple of times," he says. "He was going to have a wedding ceremony here and for some reason that didn't work out."
Yet if Gernhard's American friends truly wished to meet his new wife, it would not have been hard. It would, however, require an ample supply of cash.
"A rendezvous in Europe requires a dinner date of eight hours minimum and must be booked three days in advance," her website advertises. "For the United States, dinner dates (minimum two days) must be booked seven days in advance. All travel expenses will be added to my donation."
Her hourly "donation" rate is 5,000 Swedish krona, or about $750 U.S. dollars.
Needless to say, this marriage would also fail. Gernhard filed for divorce in 2007, but the paperwork dragged on for months. In a conversation with Curb on the day before he committed suicide, Gernhard described how the prolonged proceedings weighed heavily on his mind. His fixation on Betty Vernon was rising to the fore, and he wanted to clear any ties to Bosdotter so he could eventually leave his estate to Vernon.
"The marriage had been over for at least a year and he was very troubled by trying to work out the paperwork, particularly because he wanted to leave everything to Betty," says Curb.
On her voicemail, Bosdotter has a lovely, heavily accented voice that invites callers to leave a message. The Scene did, but she didn't return our call.
Yet in divorce documents, the widow Gernhard describes herself as anything but a conventional wife, admitting to selling herself throughout the marriage.
"I provided sex under a legal escort service with several men," she says. "But not several men at the same time. There were no romantic relationships with any other men. My husband supported my legal escort business."
She points out in court documents that Gernhard knew she was an escort when he married her, stating that she had her "husband's approval, support and encouragement."
She also consented to the divorce, according to a letter from her attorney. All that remained was for her to sign final documents and fax them to Nashville.
But those documents had yet to be sent at the time of Gernhard's suicide, says his lawyer, Larry Hayes Jr.—meaning Bosdotter was still technically his wife. Now she's challenging the will and the last wish of a dead man: to leave most of his assets to the high school sweetheart who haunted him all his life.
Betty Vernon first learned of Gernhard's extraordinary gift last summer, when she was contacted by a private investigator he'd hired. The man told her that Gernhard wanted to set up a trust fund for her grandchildren's education. She thought it was a scam.
But the investigator convinced her that her high school sweetheart was dying. She and Gernhard began talking via email and holding long phone conversations.
One came on a stormy night last October. "It was one of those nights, an awful night, the kind of night where you have tornadoes," says a close friend who does not wish to be identified. "Phil told me the next day that he'd spent about three hours on the phone with [Vernon].... He said, 'I wish that night had lasted forever,' but he had to get off of the phone because of the storm."
Soon after, Gernhard asked Vernon if she needed or wanted anything. At first she demurred, but he persisted. Finally, she told him that her car was 10 years old. "I got an email back immediately asking, 'What kind of car do you want?' "
Within weeks she was behind the wheel of a new GMC Acadia.
Next, he asked where she'd always dreamed of going. She told him Alaska. So he funded a cruise for Vernon and her husband, complete with a helicopter ride and deep sea fishing.
Gernhard had also reserved a train ride from Seattle to San Francisco, with a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway thrown in. But he killed himself before paying for the last part, and the executor of his estate cancelled the reservations.
Vernon says it was a little strange taking a trip that a dead man paid for, but she has no regrets. "We toasted Phil a few times," she says.
Before his death, Vernon invited Gernhard to spend Thanksgiving at her home to meet "my family and all these grandchildren he was going to be helping with school."
Gernhard drove the 10-hour stretch to Sarasota by himself last November.
Vernon says he "was very emaciated, visibly ill and could tolerate very little food." She assumed it was from the cancer.
"He said he wouldn't live past 2010," says her husband Jim. When he asked what kind of cancer Gernhard had, the response was curt. "He just said it wasn't none of my damn business."
Gernhard spent a week in Florida, a visit Betty describes as "strange. Very strange." He was introverted, making conversation awkward at times.
"We talked about God a lot," she says. "About what was coming. He knew what was coming.... He was very quiet, very serene."
He also told her that he'd never stopped loving her. "He said that there was never anyone else in his life."
When told that Gernhard was married four times, she quickly points out, "And divorced four times."
Friends describe him as a changed man when he returned to Nashville.
"I was talking to him every day, and when he came back from the trip he just wasn't the same," says one friend who doesn't want his name revealed. "He withdrew. He was really depressed."
Others saw an opposite mood swing.
"It brought him tremendous closure," says Curb. "He explained it to my wife and I.... There was even a spiritual aspect to it that he didn't speak too much about, but since he had never spoken about spiritual things before, it was very interesting to hear him talk about that aspect of life."
On the evening of Dec. 31, 2007, Gernhard was pulled over by Metro police on I-440. According to the cops, he'd been swerving across lanes. An officer noted that Gernhard's eyes were dilated and his speech was slurred. After telling the cops that he'd taken three Valium that day, he was arrested and booked for DUI.
Around this time, Vernon started to notice a decline in his mental capacity.
"He was getting to the point where I'd be talking to him on the phone, and just out of the clear blue sky he'd just lose it and in the middle of a sentence go blank."
Gernhard attributed these spells to the cancer ravaging his body.
Nashville medical examiner Bruce Levy says it's more likely that Gernhard was self-medicating. The autopsy did not reveal cancer. Gernhard did have an enlarged prostate, but it was never checked for disease by the coroner's office.
Though Curb says his friend had been sick for "most of the time I knew him," Gernhard said he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The two last spoke the day before Gernhard died. Curb called to congratulate him on the new No. 1 single off the Rodney Atkins album. They spoke for about 15 minutes. At the end, Gernhard said, "I'm feeling a little tired. Could I call you back tomorrow?" He would be dead the next day, Feb. 20.
Like most suicides, his death leaves more questions than answers. Why kill himself before the divorce was finalized? Before he could pay for the Vernons' entire vacation? While one of his top artists was lighting up the charts?
"It's very confusing," says Curb.
Lavoie is less surprised. Killing himself and leaving everything to Betty—"that would be Phil," he says. "He would be the type that would have sat up there in that big house in the hills and looked at that picture of that girl he was with when he was 16 because nothing else in his life was as happy as that. Phil must've said, 'I'm going to do something for someone that made me the happiest.' That does not surprise me. It almost chokes me up it's so sad."
Back in Florida, Betty Vernon's life is warm and quiet, full of grandkids and old friends. For a short time their two lives—once so close but then so different—collided for a last bittersweet moment.
"I think of him like a shooting star," she says. "He came blazing back into my life for a short time and—boom—he was gone again."
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