A Local Life: Tom Guernsey, Md. musician who penned regional hit in the 1960s, dies at 68

October 20, 2012

For a few weeks in 1966, at the height of Beatlemania, a rock band from suburban Montgomery County nudged the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” from the No. 1 spot in the local radio market.

They called themselves the Hangmen, and they drove from gig to gig in a 1953 Cadillac hearse. The song that one-upped the Beatles locally was “What a Girl Can’t Do,” written by songwriter and guitarist Tom Guernsey, who died Oct. 3 at 68. He had complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

With its power chords, pounding drum rhythm and kiss-off lyrics, “What a Girl Can’t Do” attracted huge attention after it was recorded in 1965. A free appearance at Giant Record Shop in Falls Church turned into a commotion. Billboard reported that 400 people were in the store with another 1,500 waiting outside. The band played only 15 minutes and needed a police escort from the store.

They opened for the Yardbirds and the Shangri-Las at the Alexandria Roller Rink and served as backup band for headliner Link Wray on a show for local disc jockey Barry Richards.

When they performed on Jerry Blavat’s “The Discophonic Scene” television show in Philadelphia, they joined soul stars the Impressions and Jerry Butler in a jam session on the Motown song “Money.”

The Hangmen became undisputed regional stars, largely fueled by their one hit until disbanding in 1968. Mr. Guernsey’s “What a Girl Can’t Do” is now covered almost as frequently by punk and garage rock bands as Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and has been performed by groups including the Lyres, the Untamed Youth, the Nighthawks and, most recently, a U.K. band called the Ladykillers.

Mr. Guernsey found humor in attempts to capture the mid-1960s innocence of the Hangmen, an era before rock became more psychedelic, self-indulgent or self-consciously crude. He told The Washington Post in 1983 that he heard a recording by a Boston punk band and found it “pretty funny.”

“It was true to the original arrangement but more high energy, real raw,” he said. “I couldn’t tell if the guys were really amateurs or if that’s what they were trying to get across.”

George Thomas Guernsey was born in Chicago on July 5, 1944. His father worked for the AFL-CIO, and his mother was a schoolteacher. The family moved to Garrett Park when he was 2. He graduated from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 1962 and attended Montgomery College in Rockville.

His father loved jazz and encouraged Mr. Guernsey’s guitar studies with blues and jazz guitarist Bill Harris.

Mr. Guernsey’s first band came together in 1963 with singer Joe Triplett and keyboardist Mike Henley — all friends from Walter Johnson. They called themselves the Reekers.

“The first gigs, as the name might imply, were just a bunch of beer-swilling boys,” Triplett said. “Our first gig might have been in our parents’ living room. Tom was what carried it and pushed it forward. The rest of us wanted to drink beers and meet girls.”

Various bass players and drummers came through the band, and Mr. Guernsey was able to secure summer gigs in Ocean City. The Reekers recorded two surf-style instrumentals that came out on a Baltimore label.

They decided to record some songs in the British beat style. Their manager brought the demo of “What a Girl Can’t Do” to Fred Foster of Monument Records, the Nashville label that had success with singer Roy Orbison.

Foster wanted to release the demo — even though Triplett and Henley had left town for college — and signed Mr. Guernsey to a solo contract. But Foster didn’t like the band’s name. Recalling that the Beatles were once named the Quarrymen, Mr. Guernsey came up with the name the Hangmen. Bassist Mike West, rhythm guitarist George Daly and the Reekers’ drummer Bob Berberich were recruited for a new band.

But they still needed a singer. The band called the British Embassy in Washington asking for recommendations of a good singer with an English accent. They found David Ottley, a Scotsman who grew up in London and worked at the embassy.

The record climbed the charts regionally in February and March of 1966 and beat the Beatles for the No. 1 slot on the local radio charts in the old Washington Star newspaper. In that era, an AM disc jockey would typically book a show with a national act, give a local band the second slot and then play the local band’s record to promote the show.

Ottley’s embassy connections helped the Hangmen tap into lucrative private gigs. The band performed for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s family at the Hickory Hill mansion in McLean.

The Hangmen’s second single, “Faces,” placed regionally but not nationally on the Billboard charts. Ottley left the band to return to Great Britain. The group disbanded after the disappointing sales of a follow-up album, “Bittersweet” (1967), featuring singer Tony Taylor.

Berberich went on to drum with Nils Lofgren in the band Grin and later formed the Rosslyn Mountain Boys with Reekers singer Triplett. Daly eventually became a record company executive in California.

Mr. Guernsey continued to write and record songs, including an album of acoustic folk and jazz compositions.

He occasionally reunited with Triplett as the Reekers, but his steady income came from writing commercial jingles for such clients as Marriott. In the 1990s, he worked with Rory, a children’s music performer who had a program on the Learning Channel.

Survivors include Mr. Guernsey’s wife of 44 years, the former Adrienne Missakian of Portland, Ore.; two children, Jessica Guernsey of Portland and Benjamin Guernsey of Seattle; two sisters, Judy Payne of Winchester, Va., and Jill Guernsey-deZapien of Tucson; a brother, John Guernsey of Takoma Park; and four grandchildren.

In 2006, Mr. Guernsey moved to Portland from Garrett Park. He died at a hospital in Clackamas, Ore.

At the time of his death, he was working on a self-financed film — a “mockumentary” — titled “The Girl From California.” The unfinished film was to be a slightly fictionalized account of a musician’s life after being a one-hit wonder.

A last message from Mr. Guernsey was published on his Facebook page on the date of his death. It read:

“Hi . . . This is Tommy G posting from the other side. I made it safe and sound, and feel free of pain. Hoping you all come to my film screening on both coasts. More info to follow. Until then . . . ”