‘Not Just Another Pretty Foot:’ Blowing the lid off Jim Stafford’s mid-’70s MGM tenure
Recruited in 1972 to the since nonexistent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Records, before long country songwriter Jim Stafford found himself a crossover phenomenon with six consecutive Top 40 pop hits under his rhinestone-encrusted belt — “Swamp Witch”, “Spiders & Snakes,” “My Girl, Bill,” “Wildwood Weed,” “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne,” “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” — nearly all cleverly poking fun at life’s little ups and downs. “Ode to Billie Joe” enigmatic storyteller Bobbie Gentry’s former husband exclusively holds court below on the pivotal three-year period of his still-active six-decade career.
Nearly 11 excruciating years after graduating from high school, Stafford had drifted all over the South and wound up in a pretty crummy residency at Clearwater, Florida’s Shack on the Beach. He landed his big break when he pitched “Swamp Witch” to former high school Legends bandmate Kent LaVoie, aka Lobo. The “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” balladeer politely demurred during his visit to the dive bar but insisted that his pal had the chops and should hang onto his composition. Within two years the good-looking, charming Southern boy was ranked fourth in trade magazine Record World’s Top Male Vocalist checklist behind Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and John Denver.
The acoustic guitar virtuoso tracked his self-titled debut album in Atlanta with Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” bassist Emory Gordy and wrote with David Bellamy of future ubiquitous “Let Your Love Flow” soft rock infamy. Stafford, rebranded as a Branson family entertainer since the early ’90s, uncovers further behind the scenes trivia — why he kick-started Jim Stafford and follow-up Not Just Another Pretty Foot with funky rockers “L.A. Mamma” and “Making Love with the Headphones On,” the reason his second album doesn’t quite gel, whether he receives MGM royalties, and which tunes remain part of his live repertoire. Stick around.
The Jim Stafford Interview, Part Three
How did you get your first record deal?
I wrote “Swamp Witch.” I reached Kent LaVoie somehow and asked him to drop by the place where I was working. It was so long ago that I can’t even remember if I invited him or he invited himself. He may have wanted to see if I had written any good songs.
Anyway, Kent came by one day, and I played “Swamp Witch” for him. He loved it. We recorded it on MGM Records, it was a hit, and that was that [No. 39 POP, debuted May 12, 1973].
The liner notes for both of your MGM albums list Lobo as a producer, although two gentlemen named Phil Gernhard and Tony Scotti are also mentioned. Were Gernhard and Scotti actually producers in the studio, or is that just a token credit they were given?
Tony Scotti was a credit. Phil Gernhard was a fine producer…yet a troubled man. Not necessarily a happy guy, but a great producer. Before he ever produced me, Phil’s first hit song was “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs [Stafford sings the chorus “Stay just a little bit longer”]. That was a big record in 1960.
Phil co-wrote and produced “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” for Ocala, Florida-based pop rock band the Royal Guardsmen  and “Abraham, Martin and John” for Dion . His next act was Lobo and then me.
Did Lobo and Phil Gernhard both produce tracks on those albums?
Yeah. They worked together, and we just built out the tracks on each song.
Were you an uncredited producer during your MGM tenure?
Yeah. I had ideas. But we were collaborative and all worked together. It worked out nice. Everything was fine.
Who played on the sessions for your first album, the self-titled Jim Stafford [No. 55 POP, No. 6 C&W, debuted March 16, 1974 on Billboard]?
As a matter of fact, I can’t name all the guys on it. I do know that Dennis St. John was the drummer. Emory Gordy, who played with Elvis on “Burning Love” roughly a year before we worked together, was the bass player. Both had tenures in Neil Diamond’s rhythm section. They’re an excellent rhythm section, and I’m happy we used them [Alan Lindgren contributed keyboards and synthesizers].
Did you play any electric guitar on those album sessions, or did you mainly stick to acoustic?
I didn’t actually play hardly anything on those albums. I wasn’t really a recording person. That’s a whole ‘nother world — people that record all those things. They’re a lot more accurate than I was.
[Author’s Note: The original LP jacket of Stafford’s self-titled 1974 album credits him with acoustic guitar, banjo, and harmonica. Richard Bennett is further listed on acoustic and electric guitars. On Not Just Another Pretty Foot, Stafford is given acknowledgement for guitar duties only. Larry Carlton, Ben Benay, Lee Ritenour, and Bennett also supplied six-string pickin’ on Pretty Foot].
I love the opening songs on both of those records — “L.A. Mamma” and “Making Love with the Headphones On,” respectively. I don’t know if that was your decision to sequence those rockers as the kick-off points but they worked perfectly.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Jeremy. I wrote “L.A. Mamma,” the B-side of “My Girl Bill,” for a girl that I was real impressed with. I would have to believe she realized the song was about her [laughs].
I wrote the Moog-driven “Making Love with the Headphones On” with David Bellamy who was my co-writer on “Spiders and Snakes.” Dave’s brother Howard was my roadie for a few years. They had a very nice career as the Bellamy Brothers.
In the beginning, Dave was writing for me. What’s interesting is the biggest song they ever had wasn’t written or sung by Dave. I think he sang harmony on it. His brother sang the lead on “Let Your Love Flow” [No. 1 POP, No. 21 C&W, February 1976, Warner Bros.]. It was a song that was handed to them by Neil Diamond’s former roadie, Larry E. Williams.
That’s a very nice gift, a song of that quality. Because that was really a good song and a great record — beautifully produced. The Bellamys are probably lucky he didn’t give it to Neil [laughs]. He could have sung that song. That was a real nice song. Howard and his brother did a great job on that. That song, even to this day, really holds up nice [Author’s Note: Incidentally, Gernhard and Scotti are credited as the producers of “Let Your Love Flow”].
I think Dave sang lead on all the rest of the songs. He probably wrote every one of them, too. It just so happened that the one that was the pop hit — the one that really broke big — the first one, that was his brother, Howard, who also has a wonderful voice. I’m a little surprised that…maybe he sings some on some of their albums. I haven’t really paid that much attention to see. I always thought Howard really had the great voice of those two.
Do you own the masters to any of your MGM recordings?
No. Back in those days, if you were a person working in the little lounges and somebody told you they wanted to seriously make a record and release it. These guys were people who already had big hits out. They knew what they were doing. If you’re in a situation like that, you’re just gonna sign on the dotted line, and that happened to almost everybody I know in the record business. They don’t have a whole lot of negotiating power.
If I had had a bunch of great songs under my belt and had gone into the meeting with a lawyer and all those kinds of things, it might have been a little different. Back then I was just thrilled just at the idea of actually recording a record.
Did you get paid fairly as far as your royalties over the years?
All I got was a writer’s royalty, which probably wasn’t all that fair. That’s about what 99% of the people get that go into the recording business unless they’re sitting on some really big songs that it’d be clear to everybody that they’re gonna be huge. I had no real negotiating power. I was a guy working in a lounge on Clearwater Beach. However, I got all the money off my concerts.
Do you play many of the songs from your two MGM albums in concert nowadays?
Not too many. I’ve thought about going back. I regularly do “Wildwood Weed,” “My Girl Bill,” “Spiders and Snakes,” and “Swamp Witch” from the first record. But not too much on the second album. Although I’ve thought about going back and giving it another listen to see if there’s anything I might wanna do because I’m kinda wanting to bring some things back I didn’t do before. I haven’t listened to either album in awhile. I have copies somewhere.
[Author’s Note: Not Just Another Pretty Foot was released circa May 1975 and failed to find any chart action. It has never been issued digitally or on CD. Lead single “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne” is the only song from the 11-track album that is officially available on the 1997 PolyGram compilation The Best of Jim Stafford, although a YouTube search will result in fan-uploaded versions in non-remastered audio quality].
I bet folks would buy that if they were sold at your shows.
That’s a good point. They might. I really did like the first album. I thought my second album, Not Just Another Pretty Foot, was okay.
Why do you consider Not Just Another Pretty Foot only okay? Was it recorded before you had come up with enough quality material?
You’re just a big-eyed kid when you get out there to L.A. and all these guys are doing their thing. But if I’d been in charge of the whole thing, I might have rode the songs out a little bit. Because generally speaking, everybody’s first batch is gonna be their best batch. Not always, but it happens quite a bit.
I might have just spread them around a little bit. Some of the second album might have got on the first one and some of the first one might have gone on the second one. They could have supported each other a little better, possibly. I don’t know. Looking back on it, it’s one of those things that come and go.
[Author’s Note: Eleven songs constituted the tracklisting for both of Stafford’s MGM albums. For his self-titled 1974 debut, Stafford composed all material except for a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Don Bowman’s “Wildwood Weed,” released as the LP’s fourth and last single. David Bellamy co-wrote “Spiders and Snakes,” and Marty Cooper co-wrote “A Real Good Time.” On Not Just Another Pretty Foot, Stafford wrote all songs except Shel Silverstein’s “I Got Stoned and I Missed It,” which was released as the LP’s second single, peaking at No. 37 POP. Bellamy co-wrote “Making Love with the Headphones On,” “Lady Greenfeet,” “You’ll Never Take Me Alive,” and “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne.” Cooper co-wrote “Midnight Snack”].
The strange thing about me is that my passion for what I do now is the thing I think the most about. I don’t think too much about what I’ve already done. One of the things that I am grateful for is when I get up in the morning, I am always either working on a new bit, a new piece, a new story, a new song, or a new idea.
I also like to think about venues and where I want to perform. I lean a little toward Florida because it’s my home state. I’ve done an awful lot of traveling in my day. Even in the state of Florida, the places that appeal to me the most are the ones that I can get to and perform and come back that evening and still sleep in my own bed.
Which Jim Stafford songs are you proudest of?
I have good ones and ones that are not so good. You always set out to write a good one, but it doesn’t always work. I’ve had songs that I’m not all that proud of, and then other songs that I am proud of. I’m proud of the “Swamp Witch.” That’s a well-constructed piece. “Spiders and Snakes,” for what it was, turned out pretty good.
I also thought that “My Girl Bill” was fun in its own way. Of course, all those songs sold a whole bunch of records, and they were all pop hits. I didn’t have any country hits. All of my songs were pop hits. Even “Wildwood Weed,” which was in the Top 10 national charts [No. 7 on Billboard to be precise]. Even though it sounded like — Stafford adopts a distinct country tone when he sings opening line, “Well, the wildwood flower grew wild” — it was a pop hit. Which is very unusual. It just worked out that way.
[Author’s Note: “Wildwood Weed,” incidentally written by Don Bowman, was Stafford’s highest charting Billboard country single at No. 57. Five further singles — i.e. “Spiders and Snakes,” “My Girl Bill,” “Cow Patti,” “What Mama Don’t Know,” and “Little Bits and Pieces” — received airplay on the country charts. Oddly, they all stalled between No. 61 and No. 67].
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