THE ROYAL GUARDSMEN—SNOOPY VS. THE RED BARON. Tongue-in-cheek rocker based on “Snoopy” of “Peanuts” fame could prove a giant novelty seller. Well produced and performed featuring a solid rhythm dance beat. (Laurie 3366).
“Top 60 Spotlight,” Billboard, December 10, 1966
In October of 1965, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz introduced a new storyline to his popular comic strip Peanuts, which appeared in pretty much every newspaper in the country, seven days a week. Snoopy, the wisecracking, anthropomorphic black and white dog whose imaginary exploits had turned him into the strip’s breakout star, began to fancy himself the pilot of a World War I biplane doing battle with a German foe, the Red Baron.
Snoopy sat atop his white clapboard doghouse, which he referred to as a Sopwith Camel (“Can you think of a funnier name for an airplane?” Schulz said), his forearms stretched out straight in front like mounted machine guns.
There had been actual Sopwith Camels, and a real Red Baron, in the First World War. Manfred von Richthofen was a Luftstreitkrafte fighter pilot with an impressive record of eighty Allied “kills.” Flying a bright red Fokker triplane, von Richthofen was the scourge of the skies, a flying devil awarded the Blue Max—Germany’s highest military honor—by Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
None of this meant much to Americans in the mid-1960s, until Schulz, inspired by a model Fokker in his young son’s room, made the (unseen) baron his comic strip beagle’s archenemy. Sporting goggles and a jaunty scarf, Snoopy—through thought balloons—created an adventurous fantasy storyline for himself: “Here’s the World War I flying ace walking out onto the field …”
Snoopy engaged the Red Baron in tense plane-to-plane combat—and always lost, crashing to the ground (in his mind) atop the smoking carcass of his Sopwith Camel. Then he’d plot revenge.
Readers couldn’t get enough of Snoopy’s exploits, and by the spring of ’66, Schulz was in overdrive, cranking out new Red Baron storylines one after another.
Schulz published a cash-in picture book for children, Snoopy and the Red Baron, with the thrill-seeking canine on a multi-page adventure. The book was an enormous hit, and America found itself more or less in the grip of Beaglemania. Everyone loved Snoopy and his ridiculous flights of fancy.
“Peanuts was one of Mom and Dad Gernhard’s favorite comics,” Sandy said. “We used to all discuss the cartoon when we went down there. And his brain was just clickin.’”
This made Gernhard, sitting in one boring law seminar after another, flash back to a Dick Holler session he’d produced in ’62, at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans.
Holler had been a huge fan of singer/songwriter Johnny Horton’s hit recordings of the story-songs “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck,” which set the facts of real historical events to sing-along choruses, sly humor, and march-time military drumming. Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” won the 1960 Grammy as the year’s best country and western record.
“I had always been something of an aviation freak,” Holler reflected. “I thought, ‘Wow, if there are gonna be pop records here that are historical, I’ll write a song about my favorite pilot, the Red Baron.’”
After the turn of the century
In the clear blue skies over Germany
Came a roar and a thunder men had never heard
Like the screamin’ sound of a big warbird.
Baron von Richthofen was his name.
He ruled the skies in his blood red plane
Eighty men tried, and eighty men died
Now they’re buried together on the countryside.
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more!
The bloody Red Baron was rolling up a score!
Eighty men died trying to end the spree
Of the bloody Red Baron of Germany!
Hear Dick Holler’s original 1962 demo of “The Red Baron” here:
Holler and his band later spent an entire day at J&M recording “The Red Baron,” with Gernhard helping out behind the board.
“We had the whole thing cut—the verses, the melody, the chorus, the machine guns, the airplane sounds, all that stuff was totally finished,” Holler said. “It was just like those Johnny Horton records, except we put in really serious machine gun and airplane sounds. And taking off and landing sounds. Cosmo did it all on spec; he wouldn’t have got involved if he didn’t think it was a possibility.”
But Horton the historical hero was gone, killed in an auto accident, and the public’s enthusiasm for his quirky, southern brand of high-stepping patriotic singalongs apparently died along with him. “Cosmo had a lot of muscle,” said Holler. “He took it to all his friends, man, and he couldn’t get anybody to put it out.” Therefore, Dick Holler and the Holidays’ “The Red Baron” never saw the light of day.
Phil and Sandy were married in Sarasota on August 6, 1966, with Carl Troxell, a local DJ whose air name was Charlie Brown, serving as best man. The bride was given away by Boyd Gernhard. After a honeymoon trip to New Orleans, they settled into a modest home in St. Petersburg, close to Stetson College of Law and not far from Sandy’s widowed mom. Gernhard had abandoned Johnny McCullough, Briarwood Enterprises, Maurice Williams, and South Carolina. He was, or so his father wanted desperately to believe, a happily married, upwardly mobile law student.
Except he hated it.
One July morning Gernhard began making notes on his yellow legal pad. Wouldn’t it be great if Snoopy—the most beloved cartoon character on the planet—could be worked into Dick Holler’s old storyline? Wouldn’t that be funny?
Holler’s song had only two verses, followed by the “Ten, twenty, thirty” chorus. In a Stetson University lecture hall, Gernhard started to create additional lyrics for the existing melody:
In the nick of time, a hero arose
A funny-looking dog with a big black nose
He flew into the sky to seek revenge
But the baron shot him down—curses, foiled again!
Then back to
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more!
The bloody Red Baron was rollin’ out the score!
Eighty men died trying to end that spree
Of the bloody Red Baron of Germany!
“I took the basic Red Baron idea—or as much of it as I could recall—and wrote in Snoopy because I dug the strip, and I really dug the dog,” Gernhard would say. “Then I sang it to my wife. She looked at me like I was crazy.”
Now Snoopy had sworn that he’d get than man
So he asked the Great Pumpkin for a new battle plan
He challenged the German to a real dogfight
While the baron was laughing, he got him in his sights
That bloody Red Baron was in a fix
He tried everything, but he’d run out of tricks.
Snoopy fired once and he fired twice
And that bloody Red Baron went spinning out of sight.
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more!
The bloody Red Baron was rollin’ out the score!
Eighty men died trying to end that spree
Of the bloody Red Baron of Germany!
His first order of business was to find the right band, or singer, to record it. “Phil brought the song here for us,” said Ronny Elliott. “From the time he started messin’ with us and everything, he was always saying, ‘I’ve got this song that’ll be the one. This’ll be your hit.’”
He said the same thing about “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” as it was now titled. It couldn’t miss.
But the Outsiders-turned-Soul-Trippers, already stung by the failure of “King Bee,” suffered a major setback when their rhythm guitarist got a letter from the draft board directing him to report for a physical exam, the first step of the induction process.
This caused him to quit the band in a panic, and in turn Laurie pulled them off of the bill of an imminent European tour with the Chiffons and other label artists. The Soul Trippers called it a day.
Anyway, Elliott said, “I don’t know if we would have done it with the Snoopy thing written into it. We were sure that we were far too hip for any such thing.”
Gernhard, undaunted, went back to the Surfer’s Club, where the Tropics were again rehearsing. He sat in a chair, holding his yellow paper, and sang “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” for them.
They rejected it outright. “Too bubblegum-ish,” said Souza. At that moment, the Tropics were the hottest thing in the Tampa–St. Pete area, and they played all over Florida, opening concerts for top national and international acts. In those days before it was called rock, the Tropics were a serious rock ’n’ roll band. No way were they going to make a novelty record.
Gernhard then turned to the Royal Guardsmen, a band he’d just started working with at Charles Fuller Hunt’s studio.
The Royal Guardsmen came from Ocala (about one hundred miles north of Tampa), where four of the six musicians were still in high school. The band included Chris Nunley on lead and harmony vocals, and occasional blues harmonica; lead singer and rhythm guitarist Barry Winslow; drummer John Burdett; bass player (and band founder) Bill Balogh; guitarist Tom Richards, whose family only had only recently moved from Tampa to Ocala; and baby-faced organist Billy Taylor, who’d joined the band just a month or so before their Tampa debut in the spring of ’66.
Nunley (at twenty the oldest Guardsman) was studying business at the University of Florida in nearby Gainesville; Balogh was a student at Central Florida Junior College.
The band’s name was taken from the brand of guitar amplifier they used—Vox’s Royal Guardsman model. Every day after school, they practiced on the back patio of guitarist Tom Richards’s house. “We’d be wailing away into the pine trees until the police turned up to tell us to turn it down,” Taylor laughed, “because the bank president next door, Mr. Thrift, was trying to get in his afternoon nap before he went back to the office.”
If it rained, they moved the gear into the Richardses’ garage, and sometimes into the family dining room. “Although it gets noisy at times,” Tom’s mother told the Ocala Star-Banner, “I really enjoy it.”
The Royal Guardsmen had been introduced to Tampa audiences by twenty-one-year-old John Veciana, an employee at Ron’s Record Shop in Tampa. It was the only place in the city to stock every single in the Billboard Top 100; Ron’s was where the local musicians, who hoped to make records, hung out.
Veciana got the Ocala sextet a booking at the Spot, Tampa’s top teen club. This led to further bookings—only on weekends, of course, and only when the impossibly young musicians could get rides to the big city to the south—and a minor buzz developed around the Royal Guardsmen.
Gernhard, who had a handshake arrangement with shop owner John Centinaro to book local dances, was a regular at Ron’s. And he had a built- in buzz detector.
At their first Charles Fuller session, Gernhard had recorded the band playing an emotionally raw, soul-tinged Young Rascals ballad called “Baby Let’s Wait,” which was part of their live act.
He chose this one, with an almost tearful lead vocal from Barry Winslow, as the Guardsmen’s first single. “Leaving Me,” a percolating rocker with close-harmony vocals, became the flip side of the group’s Laurie Records debut.
“Baby Let’s Wait” was number one in Ocala, the boys’ hometown. Tampa radio played it, too, but it wasn’t a hit. Nor did it get within spitting distance of the national charts.
As the single was beginning its slow rise to nowhere, the Guardsmen had been added to the bill of a Sunday afternoon rock ’n’ roll show at Curtis Hixon Convention Hall in Tampa. Co-produced by Centinaro and Gernhard, the dance—with the flamboyant Monti Rock, from California, as the national headliner—was held in the Gasparilla Room, a large banquet facility in the Curtis Hixon complex.
“We were setting up our equipment when Phil comes up holding his legal pad with these lyrics on it,” recalled Chris Nunley. “He said he’d been shopping this song around to a bunch of different area groups. He wanted us to come up with some kind of treatment—there was a note in the corner that said, ‘Simple, three or four chords, military feel on the snare drum.’ He said, ‘We want to get different treatments and see which one turns out the best.’” Nunley, not all that interested, nodded and went back to what he’d been doing.
Next, Gernhard began talking quietly with Barry Winslow. He’d put out “Baby Let’s Wait” as a single because he liked Barry’s voice and thought it had “commercial potential,” and he wanted Barry to take the lead on this new one.
Billy Taylor: “I remember Barry had a Baldwin guitar. There were seats around the edge of the Gasparilla Room, and Phil took him aside. They sat over there knee to knee while we set up. Phil tried to sing it; tried to give him the feel for the song.”
Winslow put the sheet of paper into his guitar case. “I’ll be up to see you in about ten days,” Gernhard told the band. “To hear what you come up with.”
The after-school rehearsals continued on the patio outside Tom Richards’s parents’ house. Gernhard’s deadline was fast approaching—and the Royal Guardsmen had all but forgotten about “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” “One day he called and said, ‘I’m getting in my car. I’m coming up to hear your version,’” recalled Taylor. “And that’s when we all got inspired. It was like, thank God the Interstate isn’t done yet—it was a three-hour trip from St. Pete to Ocala.”
At first, Nunley said, “we didn’t much like the song. We said, ‘Let’s just do it real corny and real hokey, and he won’t like it.’”
They played it with a straight march cadence, hup two three four, with Winslow singing lead. They considered it a joke and laughed all the way through it. Recalled Winslow: “We were a bunch of pie-eyed kids. We’re a rock band, man, we don’t do that candy stuff.”
“Gernhard came to town and we played the song for him,” Nunley continued. “He was over by the PA speaker, listening. A&R guys will get right in the speaker to hear everything. And he said, ‘Hmm! Play that again.’ So we played it again and he said, ‘You know, I think we can do something with this. Maybe a couple of little changes.”
“When he turned around after we played it again, he was flushed,” said Taylor.
“We were surprised,” said Burdett. “And within ten minutes Phil had contracts, literally on the dining room table at Tom’s house.”
With the underage Guardsmen’s parents looking on, a deal was struck, making Gernhard the band’s manager, publisher, and record producer for a three-year period.
From that moment on, it was all about Snoopy and the German guy.
“At first, they couldn’t believe I was serious,” Gernhard reflected. “But when I finally convinced them I was serious, they got serious. It took me two weeks to loosen them up enough to have fun with it the way they did at the audition.”
The song was cut quickly at Fuller, with Charles Fuller Hunt’s right-hand man, John Brumage, engineering. Hunt gave Gernhard the studio time and tape on spec—believing, as Phil did, that this record could be the one to take off. It was a fun session, because they were all thinking the same thing: What if?
“Our little studio did not have any high end audio stuff, so we sent everything ‘dry’ to the label,” Brumage said. “The music track was created first, overdubbed a few times, then the vocals were layered on the second track. I seem to recall there are eight layers of overdubbing on ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.’”
Thinking back to the Holidays’ original, from New Orleans, Gernhard overdubbed the sounds of a roaring plane engine, machine guns, and explosions.
Still, it needed something—a memorable kickoff! It was Chris Nunley who suggested a loud burst of shouted “propaganda” in German; he just happened to be studying the language up at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He came up with,
Achtung! Jetzt wir singen zusammen die Geschichte über den Sch- weinköpfigen Hund und den lieben Red Baron!
Which translates as
Attention! We will now sing together the story of that pig-headed dog and the beloved Red Baron!
In the middle section of the recording, Gernhard had the Guardsmen abruptly change the time signature and insert several bars of “Hang On Sloopy,” which had been a chart-topper in 1965 by the McCoys, a garage band from Indiana. But the Guardsmen instead sang “Hang on Snoopy, Snoopy hang on.”
Before he finalized the master recording of “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” Gernhard, probably anticipating a legal challenge down the road, wiped the vocals from this section. The “Hang on Sloopy” instrumental break remained.
Holler was tracked down in North Carolina, and he threw in his support. Adding Snoopy, he said, was a brilliant idea. He and Gernhard shared songwriting credit, even though the sections were written miles— and years—apart.
Laurie Records had put out “Baby Let’s Wait,” so they were offered first refusal on “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
“Phil told me that he showed the song to a lot of labels, and I’m not sure if that’s true or not,” Holler said. “Anyway, Laurie would’ve been far down the totem pole. Even at the time we went to them, everybody was suing them because they weren’t getting paid. I think they were getting ready to declare bankruptcy.”
Laurie’s only hit that year had been the Chiffons’ “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” in May, and “Baby Let’s Wait” didn’t exactly change the world. Still, the label could give the record national distribution and promotion, which would be necessary should it start to catch the ears of the country’s kids.
Bob and Gene Schwartz were shrewd enough to see that Gernhard was on to something with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” And so they bought the master to the song, along with a throwaway blues original called “I Needed You” for placement on the B-side.
But they also informed him that Charles M. Schulz, and United Features Syndicate, the distributor of Peanuts, would have to be consulted about the use of the Snoopy character. This, somehow, had not occurred to Gernhard.
Dick Holler: “The lawyers said, ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen. If you put it out and it’s a bomb, you’ve got nothing to worry about. They won’t even write you a letter. If you put it out and it’s a hit, that’s good and it’s bad.’
“They said, ‘The good thing is that you’ll make some money, but the bad thing is that you’re going to be giving some of it to them. Because it’s a strict, open and shut copyright violation.”
And there was another thing: the song’s title was perilously close to that of Schulz’s kiddie book, the sixty-two-page Snoopy and the Red Baron.
Gernhard wrote the cartoonist a personal letter, flattering him and appealing to him to let Snoopy be a part of what was quite likely going to be a financial windfall for everybody.
But Schulz, as was his wont with such things, did not respond. Meanwhile, Gernhard and the Schwartz Brothers were on needles and pins.
Gernhard ordered Guardsmen Winslow and Nunley back to Tampa to record several lines of alternative vocals for the song. He’d come up with,
Achtung! Jetzt wir singen zusammen die Geschichte über den Schweinköpfigen Amerikaner und den lieben Schwarzer Ritter!
Which translates as
Attention! We will now sing together the story of that pig-headed American and the beloved Black Knight!
To play it safe, Snoopy, “a funny-looking dog with a big black nose,” became Squeaky, “a buck-toothed beaver with a gleam in his eye.” “The Bloody Red Baron” had been watered down to “Air Marshall Dummkopfen.”
Laurie did a test run of the Royal Guardsmen’s second single, “Squeaky vs. the Black Knight,” in the remote climes of Canada.
It was also sent to a select few American radio stations, according to Dick Holler, just to see if anything happened. “Laurie had a whole system of DJs all over the country who would test records for ’em,” he said. “A Payola scheme. They tested ‘Squeaky vs. the Black Knight.’ Nothing! It shipped cardboard. Nobody liked it.”
Least of all Gernhard, who wasn’t in the business of making buck-toothed beavers famous, thank you very much—and the Royal Guardsmen, a serious bunch of young musicians who’d only cut the “Snoopy” song because Gernhard had dangled the words “hit record” in front of them like a carrot.
Peanuts was almost subliminal in the way it blended laugh-out-loud humor with allegories and warm life lessons, and that was why the strip— and Snoopy in particular—was so spectacularly popular.
“Squeaky vs. the Black Knight” wasn’t subtle; it could’ve been the theme to a Saturday morning cartoon series.
In short, it stunk.
In 1966, there were just three television networks. Kids and teens, out of necessity, watched the same programs as their friends, especially those that were aimed squarely at their desirable young demographic. Springtime had dropped the axe on kid-friendly favorites The Munsters, The Addams Family, and The Patty Duke Show—silly stuff all. Things were changing.
September brought Star Trek—one of the first series that let youngsters know it was okay to be a nerd—and, significantly, The Monkees.
Taking a page from the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and, more specifically, the cartoonish Help!, the creators of The Monkees cast four disparate actor-singers as a group of talented, ambitious, cute, and funny rock ’n’ roll musicians living communally and struggling to make ends meet until they got that big break.
They could be every-teens, the garage band next door. Like boys everyone knew in school!
Of course, each Monday-night episode wrapped music around the wacky goings-on, and much to the surprise of the show’s producers, the songs—written by the likes of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and impeccably arranged and produced—became bigger than the series itself.
Every day, talk in PE and around the water fountain was about The Monkees—the hilarious TV show, the groovy songs on the radio, and the fact that Micky, Mike, Davy, and Peter seemed so real, so relatable—just fun-loving kids trying to get ahead in a world ruled by all-too-serious, iron-fisted grown-ups.
The Monkees premiered September 12 and was an immediate smash. On October 27, CBS aired its third Peanuts special. A Charlie Brown Christmas had garnered good reviews (and, more importantly, substantial ratings) the year before, followed by Charlie Brown’s All-Stars over the summer, and so Schulz and his production company were given the green light for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a Halloween special based, like its predecessor, on scenes and situations right out of the comic strip.
Since 1966 was the year of Snoopy’s dogfights with the Red Baron— Schulz’s picture book was selling briskly—it was only natural that the cartoonist and his TV animators devote a lengthy section of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to this storyline.
It’s the Great Pumpkin became the schoolyard’s next talked-about TV show. The top record in the country was “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees.
And that’s when Gernhard and Laurie Records finally unleashed “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen, as Laurie 3366. The second week in November, 1966.
Reaction was immediate and intense. “Most records get airplay in all the minor areas first, and that’ll force a major on it,” said Winslow. “Then the major starts playing it, and then it’s a big deal. Well, this was just the other way around. I heard WLS out of Chicago play it—we could get that at night in Florida—they started playing it every hour on the hour. Then every half hour. Then every 15 minutes. Then it was every 15 minutes back to back. And the minors had to jump through their own britches to try to get ahold of it.”
Balogh, too, remembered those magic early spins on WLS. “First time I remember hearing the song on the radio, we were coming back from playing a fraternity party in Gainesville,” he said. “It was like two in the morning. ‘Whoa, that’s us! Damn!’ It was like hitting you in the face.”
Sandy Gernhard remembered an evening in November, after her husband got home from another grueling day in law school. “He picked me up and sat me on the kitchen counter, and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ He was real quiet about it.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, somebody’s died.’
“And Phil said, ‘I think we have a hit.’”
“Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” sold more than a million copies in its first week. It sold more quickly than “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles, “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones, and “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.
Laurie Records had to subcontract additional pressing plants to meet the demand.
“It was within a month’s time frame, literally, from the time we recorded this thing to the time it started to kick,” Winslow explained. “We had record companies calling. Gernhard was all excited and, of course, we were too. Here’s a bunch of garage band kids with an amazing record on their hands and thrust into the world of big rock ’n’ roll.”
In Australia, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” spent five weeks at number one (with the word “bloody,” considered naughty in those days, bleeped out).
Sandy was able to quit her job at the bank.
Dick Holler, who was working in a hardware store in tiny Goldsboro, North Carolina (“it was only famous because Andy Griffith was from there”), did his part to make the wheels spin. “I had some friends in radio and I took it right down there,” he said. “They went on it right away. It was really cool.
“And I was a huge celebrity in that town because it only had about thirty thousand people! The headline said LOCAL MAN WRITES HIT RECORD!”
The story goes that Charles M. Schulz first became aware of the Royal Guardsmen record when a friend casually remarked, “That’s a great song you wrote.” The cartoonist fished out Gernhard’s letter—which he apparently hadn’t read—and called the United Features Syndicate lawyers.
The upper hand belonged to Schulz and his distributor. Had they not reached a financial agreement, a cease and desist injunction would have forced Laurie to pull the record.
But there was money to be made, without Schulz having to lift a finger. Gernhard pointed this out when he paid an emergency visit to the cartoonist’s home in California, hat in hand.
In the end, according to Dick Holler, Schulz and his legal team demanded and were given a three-cent override, unheard of at the time.
That meant that for every “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” 45 snatched up by hungry little hands (for around eighty-nine cents a pop), Snoopy’s creator was entitled to three cents. As one-half of the songwriting team, Holler received half a cent per record. Gernhard, because he produced the single, cowrote the song, and was the de facto manager of the Royal Guardsmen, earned a penny and a half.
The Royal Guardsmen’s cut was 3 percent of 90 percent of total record sales, which meant they were given 2.7 cents per record, split six ways.
On the last Billboard chart of the year, December 31, 1966, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was at number two, where it would spent a month lodged behind “I’m a Believer” (the second single release from that unstoppable juggernaut the Monkees) and go no further.
(Disney World, and the total annihilation of Florida’s small-town amusement park industry, wouldn’t come until 1971.)
High school students in 1966 were forbidden from growing their hair long; Barry Winslow and Tom Richards had been suspended from Ocala High that year until they got it cut to regulation length. In the photo, rule- breakers Winslow, Richards, and Burdett (plus Billy Taylor, the youngest member of the band) wore women’s wigs, procured by Gernhard and the musicians the night before from a local hairdresser’s shop. The accommodating retailer let them come in and get fitted after closing time so that the potentially embarrassing task could be performed in secrecy.\
The Royal Guardsmen couldn’t capitalize on their success by touring the country until their Christmas holiday from school. Still, said Nunley, “we were flying high. We were just doing what they told us to do—load up, go here, go there.” A string of package-show dates starring the Beach Boys, who’d just issued “Good Vibrations,” lasted through December 28 (the West Coast dates also included, ironically, a band with the name Sopwith Camel).
Gernhard and Laurie rush-released an album by Christmas. Also titled Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, it was knocked out over twenty-one sweaty hours at the Fuller studio, with little to no editorial input from the band members themselves. Although the Royal Guardsmen’s stage repertoire included the latest, hippest hits from the Beatles, the Stones, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gernhard had drawn up a list of songs that he thought would work well alongside their novelty smash.
The band members hated the idea, but who were they to argue with success? So they rehearsed in Ocala, on Mr. and Mrs. Richards’s backyard patio, and drove back down to Tampa to cut a half-dozen pop songs with comical cartoon or “kiddie” themes, including
“Alley Oop,” by the Hollywood Argyles, itself based on a comic strip; “Little Red Riding Hood,” a recent hit by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs; “The Jolly Green Giant,” a bluesy parody by the Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame; “Peanut Butter,” a goofy adaptation of “Hully Gully” that both the Mara-thons and Chubby Checker had recorded; “Road Runner,” the Bo Diddley blues scorcher, which, despite its title, had nothing to do with the popular Warner Brothers cartoon; and “Bo Diddley,” by Bo Diddley, which was always something of a children’s song anyway.
One of the strangest cuts on the album was a talking comedy number called “Bears,” which Nunley knew from a 45 in his collection, by an otherwise unheard-of Seattle band called the Fastest Group Alive.
(Brumage recalled recording a band member chewing a mouthful of potato chips on a very hot microphone to create the “bone crunching” sound effects on “Bears.”)
Gerhard also had the group record a straightforward rendition of the Bacharach-David western drama The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, to connect the dots with the origins of the album’s title song, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.”
There was one original Guardsmen song, Tom Richards’ poppy “Sweetmeats Slide,” plus the already-released A-sides “Baby Let’s Wait” and, of course, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
Rejected at the last minute was the Coasters’ 1959 novelty hit, “Charlie Brown.” It was decided that Schulz would probably frown on this song about a less-than-lovable loser—definitely not his famous round-headed kid, Snoopy’s master. No reason to make the cartoonist mad, after all.
This wasn’t standard garage-band fare for 1966; in fact, pre-“Snoopy,” only “Baby Let’s Wait” had been a regular feature in the Guardsmen’s live sets. They’d had to learn all the others, one song at a time.
“Snoopy,” of course, would be played at every single live show they did for the rest of their lives.
“We were just given the songs and herded in there,” said Billy Taylor. “But we practiced every day after school—even before the record stuff. It was just something the band wanted to do. We were a great cover band for the time. Very disciplined for our age group.”
And no way was Schulz going to let Laurie use an image of Snoopy on the cover.
“That first album cover was a disaster that Laurie came up with, one of the incredibly worst album covers you can imagine,” laughed Dick Holler. “It showed the Baron as a grizzly old fat German guy with a moustache, flying a biplane. I told Gernhard, ‘Don’t accept this, it’s trash.’ But the label persevered.
“And as a penalty for accepting that album cover, that album cover is still in the window of a display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. All these years later! Every time I go by there, I say, ‘Gernhard, that’s what you get, man, for allowing that crappy album cover.’”
Although the single made history, the Snoopy vs. the Red Baron album— crappy cover and all—did not get higher than number forty-four. Starting in November, The Monkees would spend thirteen weeks at number one, until it was knocked out of the spot by More of the Monkees, number one for eighteen weeks.
The Royal Guardsmen were frequent visitors to St. Petersburg, where they’d lounge around the office basking in the reflected glory of their new best buddy, the older (and worldly) Phil Gernhard.
“We’d go down to Phil’s and work on business for a couple of hours,” remembered Nunley. “Then he’d say, ‘Let’s go to lunch!’
“Nobody wanted to ride in Phil’s car with him, because being a record producer he’d turn on the radio—after ten seconds of a song he’d hit a button, change the station. Then another song, then hit a button. You’d say, ‘Hey, I like that song,’ and he’d just go, ‘Ehhhh,’ and hit the button again.” Gernhard, meanwhile, was thinking about what they should do next.
He was making it up as he went along.
ADDITIONAL ROYAL GUARDSMEN LISTENING FOR CHAPTER 5, IN THE NICK OF TIME, A HERO AROSE:
Dick Holler’s 1962 demo recording of “The Red Baron” @ 2019 Holler Music Group, Stonehenge Music. Used by permission.