Right about the time Tom Petty and his Heartbreaker bandmates were leaving Florida to try for record business success in Big Bad California, the Sunshine State’s brightest star was a lanky, long-haired singer, guitar player and comedian from Eloise, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cowtown on the southern edge of Polk County.
Jim Stafford had three Top Ten hits in 1974, a gold single and a million-selling album. In the summer of ’75, he hosted a network variety series, The Jim Stafford Show. On one episode, he sang his biggest hit, “Spiders & Snakes,” as a duet with a young, coquettish Dolly Parton.
With a few exceptions, Stafford has been out of the national spotlight ever since. Although he spent a couple of decades entertaining in the Branson, Missouri theater that bears his name, Stafford has rarely been off the road. He returns to the bay area – literally, his old stomping grounds – Saturday, Jan. 11 for a show at Largo’s Central Park Performing Arts Center.
Tickets are available here.
“I worked at trying to figure out how to entertain people,” Stafford recalled in 2016. “I worked hard on the guitar, and I had tried to figure out how to sing.” His shows included equal doses of hot-shot guitar picking and zany, and sometimes off-color, country boy humor. He also wailed on the banjo.
In 1971, he had himself recorded during a performance at the Elbow Room, a swanky Sarasota nightclub where the crowds loved him. He sold the resulting album out of the trunk of his car.
Two years later, Stafford contacted Kent LaVoie, one of his high school pals from Winter Haven (they’d been in a band together, along with future country/rock pioneer Gram Parsons).
Under the stage name Lobo, LaVoie was in the middle of a hot streak with “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” and “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Stafford invited his old buddy to Clearwater, where he was playing at a joint called The Shack Upon the Beach.
Stafford’s reasoning was that Lobo might want to record one or two Jim Stafford originals. But the only one that knocked LaVoie out was a creepy Deep-South talking blues called “Swamp Witch.”
I can’t do that song justice, LaVoie told him, “but let me introduce you to my producer; he has got to hear this.”
The next night, LaVoie brought St. Petersburg-based record producer Phil Gernhard to The Shack to catch Stafford’s act. And they were both floored by his musicianship and his onstage charisma. “Growing up, all he did was play Chet Atkins guitar,” LaVoie recalled. “I didn’t know he told jokes. It was the way he said it – the delivery! I couldn’t believe that was him.”
Gernhard and LaVoie took Stafford to Atlanta to record “Swamp Witch” and its B-side at Mastersound Studios. Gernhard took the tapes to Los Angeles, and made a convert out of MGM Records president Mike Curb. Issued as a single, it scraped into the Top 40.
“ ‘Swamp Witch’ sold half a million copies,” Stafford remembered, “but it wasn’t enough for me to get a lot of work. I wound up doing the state college circuit. Up in New York or New Jersey, we opened for this guy, and I couldn’t figure out how somebody I’d never heard of had roadies and a big band. I was just flabbergasted that a complete unknown would have the same stuff you have on the road when you’re famous.
“The kid’s name was Bruce Springsteen.”
Gernhard’s success with Lobo, and with rocker-turned-folkie Dion (Gernhard had produced his comeback smash “Abraham, Martin and John”) meant that he received truckloads of demo recordings from songwriting hopefuls. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to cut their tunes.
During pre-production on Stafford’s self-titled debut album, Gernhard visited his new protégé after a gig in Venice. “Phil showed up with a reel to reel recorder, and a tape of some of the things he had,” Stafford said. “I showed him what I had. He played me the whole tape and then asked my opinion. And I told him that the song with the ‘spiders and snakes’ chorus had real potential. In my opinion.
“It was acoustic and a little bit like a Beatles song: … and that ain’t what it takes to love me. Come on, love me! I kept thinking of ‘Love Me Do.’ I took the thing over to my house in Winter Haven, and I worked on it. I worked a long time on it and every now and then, I’d go back in.”
“Spiders & Snakes” had been submitted, along with several other songs, by 21-year-old David Bellamy of Pasco County.
“‘I don’t like spiders and snakes, and that ain’t what it takes to love me,’ I wouldn’t have touched that with a gun to my head,” Stafford said. “I thought that was perfect. I wanted it to be sassier, so I added ‘You fool, you fool.’ Then sang it again and added ‘Like I want to be loved by you.’”
Stafford committed his version to cassette, and drove it over to the Gernhard Enterprises office in St. Petersburg.
“I walked in and gave Phil the tape,” Stafford remembered. “He put it on, he played it, and all he said was ‘I gotta get out of here.’ So we drove around for a while and talked. I think that Phil knew that I had nailed that song, and he couldn’t sit still. He had to leave the office.
“He was sure that he had something. And he was excited enough that he wanted to get out of there.”
With Gernhard and LaVoie again co-producing, “Spiders & Snakes” became the cornerstone of the Jim Stafford album, recorded in Los Angeles.
They all left Florida for California then – the newly-divorced Gernhard, LaVoie, Stafford and his co-writer and road manager, a guy from Tampa named Leo Gallagher (soon to become the watermelon-smashing stage comic known simply as Gallagher).
Gernhard signed David Bellamy, too, and David came along with his older brother Howard.
“Spiders & Snakes” rose to No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart. The followups, “My Girl Bill” and “Wildwood Weed,” were hits, too. Jim Stafford had arrived.
As the Bellamy Brothers, David and Howard had a Number One smash with the Gernhard-produced “Let Your Love Flow” in 1976. LaVoie and Gernhard had a falling out, over the producer’s shady contracts, during production of Stafford’s second album. Following the commercial failure of that long-player – Not Just Another Pretty Foot – MGM Records ceased operations. After one more terrific single – the southern gothic “Jasper,” on another label – Stafford and Gernhard parted ways, too.
There were more highs in store for Jim Stafford, including another major hit (“Cow Patti”), a gold record for the music he created for Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, a stint as co-host (with Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley) on TV’s Those Amazing Animals, a brief marriage to “Ode to Billie Joe” singer Bobbie Gentry, appearances on The Nashville Network throughout the ‘80s, and the ongoing success of his Branson theater.
He discovered along the way that Gernhard, his Svengali, had brokered a publishing deal that paid him better than Stafford himself. The case was long settled in the courts – in Stafford’s favor – before Gernhard’s death in 2008.
“Looking back on it, it would’ve been nice if you’d had enough sense to say ‘OK, this is not a fairy tale – I probably need a lawyer,’” Stafford said. “But I think a lot of people don’t think like that – it’s such a dream come true that you just take the ride.”
He admitted to a certain naivete in the early days of his career. “I figured ‘Well, that’s what he does, he gets that money; I’m the performer, I’ll get my money.’ I didn’t worry about it,” Stafford said.
“You would’ve had to have been there in that time period, having all that attention. A guy just out of playing these little joints, and all of a sudden you’re doing lots of TV work, and all kinds of stuff you’d never dreamed of doing.”
The quotes in this story were taken from Phil Gernhard Record Man by Bill DeYoung (2018, University Press of Florida).