ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—Phil Gernhard, a senior law student at Stetson College here, has formed Gernhard Enterprises, an independent production-publishing- management complex specializing in pop music.
The publishing entity, SanPhil Music (BMI) has signed two exclusive writers, Dick Holler, who wrote “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” with Gernhard, and John McCullough, who wrote “The Return of the Red Baron” with James McCullough and Gernhard.
Billboard, March 25, 1967
By definition, novelty records had a short shelf life, and striking while the proverbial iron was hot was paramount, before the kids who snapped up the first single moved on to some new craze.
Immediately following the success of “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” Gernhard reached out to the accomplished songwriters in his orbit, asking them to create a sequel for him. The McCullough brothers sent down “The Return of the Red Baron,” a virtual clone of the first song, which the Royal Guardsmen dutifully if unenthusiastically recorded at Fuller in early January.
Hey watch out little Snoopy
You’re really in a mess
You thought you were through with the bloody red baron
But it looks like he’s not down yet.
In February and March, the single competed for chart supremacy against “Penny Lane” by the Beatles, “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones, the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” and the Left Banke’s second hit, “Pretty Ballerina.”
The Guardsmen and Gernhard cut a dozen additional songs—several of them composed by the young musicians themselves—at Fuller.
They were happy sessions, more relaxed than the rush job of the first album. They were all high on success and working together as a team.
“I’d be one of the first done with the tracks, laying down that initial track with the guys, and I’d go into the control room where Phil and John Brumage were, and Phil would always ask my opinion on certain things,” Bill Balogh remembered. “I’m a novice—what do I know? But he was always nice like that.”
Gone were the jokey cartoon songs aimed at small children. The second album contained state-of-the-art 1960s pop (“Any Wednesday,” dripping with chiming twelve-string guitar and rich vocal harmonies, and the tuneful and bouncy “Airplane Song”).
Conversely, the instrumental “Om” pureed organ, heavy drums, and twelve-string guitar together for a dreamlike, trippy ride through the mystic East (a sitar would not have been out of place).
Defying categorization, “Searchin’ for the Good Times” stole the drums- and-organ centerpiece of the Monkees’ “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” and combined it with a Eastern European, minor-key melody—perhaps the first-ever klezmer pop song.
Dick Holler and Johnny McCullough shared writing credit on one of the album’s cleverest pop songs. “Shot Down”—which had absolutely nothing to do with Snoopy or the Red Baron, despite the title—was the hit that never was.
Because of the money he was raking in, Gernhard was given a green light by Laurie to bring the master tapes to New York for embellishment. He was paired with composer John Abbott—the guy who wrote the faux- classical arrangements for the Left Banke—and together they added light strings, percussion, and backup singers to the songs that would make up the second album, also to be called The Return of the Red Baron.
Although they’d been given more legroom, when it was time to track the final song for the album, they were reminded that Gernhard might have been a benevolent dictator, but he was still the boss.
“We were on a deadline,” Nunley recalled. “We got the music cut for ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.’ We did a scratch vocal, and Phil said, ‘We don’t have time to finish this—I’ve gotta get this tape up to New York.’ So we never did the vocals.”
And so the backing track for the Royal Guardsmen’s version of the recent hit by the Byrds was released on their second album—as an instrumental.
Up in Andy Griffith’s hometown, Holler was only too happy to take up Gernhard’s invitation to move to St. Petersburg and work as a “staff writer.” As for sharing the publishing on his songs with “SanPhil Music”—that was part of Phil’s contract—he figured it was better than nothing.
McCullough, likewise, didn’t have a lot going on.
People were in and out of Gernhard Enterprises’ rented bungalow on First Avenue South in St. Petersburg day and night. Sandy, who sat at the reception desk, greeted a steady stream of local musicians who wanted to make records, songwriters pitching their latest to Mr. Gernhard, business- men, record men, journalists, fans, and the occasional Royal Guardsman, who’d slip into the back room where Holler worked at an upright spinet piano.
Local DJ Charles “Charlie Brown” Troxell was ostensibly brought in to take over Royal Guardsmen management from Gernhard. That was his job title, although what he was really doing was hanging around the office because Phil and Sandy liked him.
As the second Guardsmen album languished in the lower regions of the chart, the “Return” single made it to number fifteen—not exactly a smash, but a reasonable showing, and enough to keep them on the label. Laurie issued both “Airplane Song” and “Any Wednesday” as follow-up singles, but each in its turn died a death in that summer of flower power and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Despite their best efforts, the Royal Guardsmen could not escape the “Snoopy” choke-chain.
The boys let their guard down—just a little—in a lengthy interview given to the British paper New Musical Express:
Barry Winslow: “The dog’s very hip and happening right now, but let’s not kill him off by over-exposure.”
Tom Richards: “What we have to do now and in the future is de-stroy the ‘novelty’ tag we’re getting as a result. We can’t wait till our summer school break so we can get down to some really serious work on a new album.”
John Burdett: “We don’t believe we can be the real Muddy Waters or Jimmy Reed type R&B act, but we’re certain that with enough experimentation, we can come up with something acceptable, new, unusual and, we hope, identifiable with us as a unit.”
On May 3 Phil and Sandy, accompanied by Dick Holler, attended the annual BMI awards dinner at the swanky Hotel Pierre in New York City. “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was officially one of the most-played songs of 1966.
The youngest Guardsmen graduated from high school in June, and almost immediately the band embarked on a cross-country package tour, seventy shows in sixty days. They were bottom of the bill on the “Summer Shower of Stars,” after Tommy James and the Shondells, Keith (of “98.6” fame), and the Sam the Sham Revue.
Sam “Wooly Bully” Samudio was trying to shake his campy image, and so his group—still called the Pharaohs, for continuity’s sake—had traded their robes and turbans for stylish corduroy suits. The Revue also included “The Shamettes,” a trio of comely female backup singers. They’d morphed into an rhythm ’n’ blues show band, kind of a white Ike & Tina Turner.
Everyone traveled together in an air-conditioned private coach. In this environment, the Royal Guardsmen, famous for their kiddie novelty songs, felt like rock ’n’ roll charlatans. Their “entourage” consisted of Charles Troxell and Johnny McCullough, who helped to set up the equipment at each county fair and American Legion Hall but were essentially there to serve as chaperones at the insistence of the boys’ parents. Troxell, with his booming DJ voice, also served as the “emcee,” introducing all the acts at the shows.
Privately, the boys began to refer to themselves as the NSB—the Na-tional Shit Band.
“We were the openers on the tour, and so we tested the equipment for everybody else,” Nunley said. “And if it went bad, we sounded like shit. So, National Shit Band.”
Taylor said they used the alter ego as a release valve, to remind themselves not to take everything so seriously. “We were going to break up and regroup as the National Shit Band,” he laughed. “Tom even drew up a logo.”
The May 6 issue of Billboard included a small item announcing a Houston, Texas, satellite office for Gernhard Enterprises. Stan Hardin—McCullough’s old cohort from Columbia and the Archers—would be Gernhard’s Texas talent scout, with sessions held at Jones Recording, “which is equipped with 8-track facilities.”
Gernhard told the magazine there was an abundance of “pop writing and talent” in the Houston area, which could contribute to what he called—without explanation—the “Southern Pop Sound.”
This was another example of Phil’s gift for blowing smoke and hyperbole into the air. The sole fruits of the Texas endeavor would appear in the fall, a Gernhard-produced single on Decca called “Houdini” by the pop band the Dream Machine—published, of course, by SanPhil Music.
It was a sappy song and an undistinguished recording, with nothing particularly “southern” about it.
At the conclusion of the Summer Shower of Stars tour, the Guardsmen and their producer reconvened at the Fuller studio.
The first song presented to the band was, predictably, another shaggy dog story. The Guardsmen wanted to break that mold. “We were pissed off at Gernhard and the record company,” said Nunley. “They wouldn’t do anything. Gernhard just kept saying, ‘My hands are tied.’ The Schwartzes just said, ‘More Snoopy.’”
“Snoopy’s Christmas” was written by the Tin Pan Alley songwriting team known as Hugo & Luigi, with their frequent collaborator George David Weiss (the trio had composed Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” among others, and were working at the time on the Broadway musical Maggie Flynn). Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore) kept an office in the legendary center of New York’s pop music universe, the Brill Building.
Holler, who’d moved his family to Florida, wasn’t happy. “They sent it down to us originally, but I rewrote it, I arranged it, and Phil and I produced it,” he said. “The label, who were nothing but a bunch of crooks, said, ‘Oh, Hugo & Luigi don’t allow any cowriters on their songs.’ They were typical—as David Letterman liked to say—record company weasels.”
Holler was given the B-side, as a sort of consolation prize, for his song “It Kinda Looks Like Christmas.”
“Snoopy’s Christmas” was (very loosely) based on a real incident from World War I: a Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers. In the Hugo and Luigi version, the Red Baron again shoots our hero down, but instead of finishing him he offers a cheery toast—“Merry Christmas, mein friend”—leaving Snoopy, filled with the sentimental spirit of the season, to fight another day.
Studio owner Charles Fuller Hunt bought a celesta—a tiny, piano-like keyboard that makes a melodic tinkling sound—so Billy Taylor could play it on the Christmas song.
Next, the Guardsmen were flown to New York City, where they were booked into Allegro Recording Studios—located in the basement of the Brill Building, where the tape machine had to be stopped whenever a subway train roared by—to finish the single and track their third album.
Thrilled to leave the tiny Fuller facility behind, the Guardsmen looked forward to working in a “real” studio, with eight tracks to play with, and in the Big Apple to boot!
“Phil was great in the studio,” Burdett said. “During the ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ recordings in New York, the conductor of the orchestra said my drum cadence changes after the intro, and he didn’t like it. Phil said to him, ‘That’s the way it is, it’s worked in the past.’ The conductor walked out; we and the members of the orchestra were not unhappy.
“I really wanted to have tympani in ‘Snoopy’s Christmas.’ Phil took the time to let me record them. I never heard them in the song, but that was OK.”
“Snoopy’s Christmas” was an enormous hit. It sold more than a million copies in 1967 alone and was number one on a special Billboard chart called “Best Bets for Christmas.” Once again, the band topped the (regular) charts in Australia. In New Zealand, it was the year’s fastest-selling nondomestic single, ultimately moving more than one hundred thousand units.
The album, which was to be called Snoopy and His Friends, would include only five new Royal Guardsmen songs, all on Side Two. Gernhard and the Schwartz Brothers had cooked up an elaborate marketing plan for their 1967 Christmas release.
Gernhard and Holler wrote three short voice-over narrations, in the form of radio news bulletins describing the action in the German skies as von Richthofen and his “Flying Circus” terrorized the flyboys of the British RAF. Voice actor Larry Foster provided the characters’ British, French, German, and Australian accents, with battlefield sounds blasting away in the background. These were played straight, with no mention of a cartoon beagle on a flying doghouse.
Never mind that such broadcasts did not exist in the years of World War I. This was fantasy, after all.
Each “news bulletin from the front lines” led directly into one of the Royal Guardsmen’s already-released Snoopy songs, with “Snoopy’s Christmas”—the current hit, or “money” track—as the final entry in the Side One trilogy.
Along with his holiday tune, Holler contributed the rocking “Down Behind the Lines,” a love story with a vague fighter-pilot storyline, and a bubblegum pop tune called “Sopwith Camel Time,” his first-ever composition directed squarely at the Royal Guardsmen’s core audience. Guitarist Richards sang lead:
All of the week, I’m workin’ so hard
Doin’ my homework, rakin’ the yard
Just hangin’ on till Friday at three
Then it’s down to the runway for me.
‘Cause it’s Sopwith Camel time!
Sopwith Camel Time!
The upgrade in sound quality was noticeable—Gernhard, Abbott, and co- producer Holler made full use of Allegro’s eight-track palette.
Writing together, Guardsmen Taylor and Winslow contributed a strong pop composition, “I Say Love,” which Abbott and Gernhard tastefully embellished with a gentle flute and a light, Caribbean tropical touch of female singers in the background (it would become the album’s second single early in 1968). “So Right (to Be in Love),” also written by Taylor and Winslow, was a jaunty “sunshine pop” number that recalled their heroes, the Young Rascals.
“Phil tried to please us with the releases,” said Burdett, “but I think that’s all he was doing, in a bid to keep us doing more Snoopy.”
But Gernhard wasn’t finished. He’d persuaded Schulz—who finally understood the PR value—to give them an image of Snoopy, standing in repose by his doghouse, as the front cover. And the cartoonist even drew in little caricatures of the six Royal Guardsmen, each sporting scarves and goggles, peering out from behind Snoopy’s domicile.
Schulz rarely drew “real” people, so it was a real coup for Gernhard Enterprises, Laurie Records, and the six kids from Ocala.
Attached to the back cover was a tear-away poster, also designed by Schulz, with a cartoon showing the dog of the hour dressed in a red sleeping gown and cap, encircled by a green wreath festooned with red and blue lights. At the top, it said, “Merry Snoopy Christmas.” Endorsed at long last!
“I think Schulz’s people probably got on his ass,” Holler said, “and said, ‘Hey man, these people are working hard with your stupid dog, and you’re not even letting them use old footage.’ And so Schulz agreed to let them use Snoopy on the doghouse, and then he actually drew those caricatures of the boys.
“So we thought well, Schulz at least realizes that we’re in the business and we’re serious. And we’re making him money.”
The Schulz-illustrated album jacket, according to Taylor, “was news to us. Gernhard might have mentioned it, but it was nothing I remember ever being discussed or presented to us for a vote.
“Often he would be talking, and then he would just throw out something like, ‘Oh, Schulz is going to do the cover.’ That was the way he passed on information. I don’t think he was trying to rock our world or anything, I think it just popped into his head because he had so much on his mind, and his mind went in many different directions.”
The band embarked on a ten-city tour, with Tommy James and the Shondells, on December 10. Each show was a “Toys for Tots” benefit, with twenty thousand plush Snoopy dolls to be given away as the group visited children’s hospitals and orphanages in each city.
In Philadelphia, they performed on The Mike Douglas Show, lip-syncing to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” “I Say Love,” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.” In New York, they taped an appearance on The Joey Bishop Show.
Gernhard, for his part, finally gave up on law school. He was simply too busy (and too successful) to go to class. Even the old man couldn’t argue with his cash flow.
On December 27, the Tampa Tribune published a profile of Gernhard, reporting that the “Snoopy’s Christmas” single had passed one million in sales. Clutching his ever-present Tiparillo, the twenty-six-year-old show business wizard puffed and pontificated and discussed the future of Gernhard Enterprises, including “a semi-documentary film to be made about a ‘Flower Child’” and the promotion of a Tampa appearance by Ray Charles—one of his heroes—come April.
“We are trying to develop a new industry in Florida,” he explained. “With the Disney attraction coming and the Ivan Tors studios here, there is no reason St. Petersburg cannot become another New York or Memphis or Nashville or New Orleans of the recording industry.”
And what of the Royal Guardsmen? “You have,” Gernhard intoned portentously, “probably heard the last Snoopy and Red Baron record.”
ADDITIONAL ROYAL GUARDSMEN ’67 LISTENING: