The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Gary Theroux
“After The Beatlesand The British Invasion swept the U.S. with a sound that was so different,” said Royal Guardsmen organist Billy Taylor, “a lot of teenage boys thought it would be cool to be in a band. Most will admit today that was primarily to meet girls, and we weren’t any different.
“Our original band was formed in Ocala, Florida, by bass player Bill Balough and drummer John Burdett, who were friends in high school. As Bill’s father worked for the U.S. Postal Service, we took the word “postman,” made it plural, dropped the “T” and were known as The Posmen. We used that name for about a year.” Other than Bill, Billy and John, the other original Posmen were lead guitarist Tom Richards, vocalist Chris Nunley and singer-guitarist Barry Winslow.
“We considered ourselves serious musicians of the day,” said Taylor. “We became known regionally as a good rock ‘n’ roll band, covering everything from The Beatles to Procol Harum, Cream to Jimi Hendrix. And along with the bands and sounds of the British Invasion came a brand of musical equipment new to America by the name of Vox. As a local band playing British rock, to be really cool as teenagers, we felt we needed to use the same equipment that our favorite bands had. We sought out and bought all Vox equipment and, as it happened, one of their guitar amplifier models was named The Royal Guardsmen. That’s where our name came from.”
In early 1966, at a teen dance in Tampa, Florida, The Royal Guardsmen were discovered by Phil Gernhard, the producer of No. 1 hits ranging from “Stay” by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs to The Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow.” Phil directed “Baby Let’s Wait,” The Royal Guardsmen’s very first single, which was released in September 1966. “We found that song on a Young Rascals album,” Billy recalled, “and it sort of put us on the map in Florida but didn’t score nationally.” That changed two years later when Laurie Records re-released “Baby Let’s Wait” and watched it become not the first Royal Guardsmen hit but instead their very last to chart (peaking at No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1968).
The year 1966 was also the time cartoonist Charles Schultz added a new storyline to his 16-year-old “Peanuts” comic strip, which featured “Good ol’ Charlie Brown.” Charlie’s black-and-white beagle, Snoopy, began to have imaginary adventures atop his dog house as a World War I pilot, battling the never seen (in the strip) German flying ace Baron Von Richthofen. There really had been such a person — Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen — who, as the Baron, scored some 80 confirmed kills over Europe before he himself perished in a 1918 plane crash. In the spring of 1966, while working with composer Dick Holler (the writer of “Abraham, Martin and John”), Gernhard got the idea of turning Schultz’s comic strip storyline into a song – without bothering first to clear the idea with the cartoonist.
“Interestingly enough, Dick Holler had previously written a serious ballad about The Baron,” Billy remembered. “And to tell you the truth, none of us in the band were all that excited when the song was first presented to us. We went along with it, though, and spent a couple hours working up an arrangement that Gernhard loved. It was his idea to include a marching drum cadence throughout the entire song.” Chris Nunley, then studying German, came up with and performed the German muttering at the start of the track. Roughly translated, he’s saying, “We will now sing together the song of a pig-headed dog and our beloved Red Baron.”
“In October 1966,” continued Billy, “we found ourselves in a Tampa recording studio recording ‘Snoopy vs. The Red Baron.’ Several of the band members were still in high school when it was released the next month. That single sold over a million copies the first week it was out and eventually topped three million worldwide.”
There was one minor complication. “By the time our record was to be released in Canada,” noted Billy, “a copyright issue developed over the use of the name Snoopy.” Charles Schultz, who had never been consulted or granted any permissions, wanted a cut of the action and eventually got it — even later happily supplying album cover art. “In the meantime, Laurie Records decided to play it safe,” Billy remembered. “They replaced the word Snoopy with the word Squeaky and renamed the song ‘Squeaky vs. The Black Knight.’ Barry, our lead singer, had to go back into the studio and overdub just those parts for the Canadian release.
“With the unexpected success of ‘Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,’ Laurie saw dollar signs and pushed us for a quick follow-up single. We recorded ‘Return of the Red Baron’ in January 1967, it was released in February and peaked at No. 15 that April.
“After we’d had two Top 20 hits in less than six months with Snoopy songs, our label urged us to come up with a Christmas variation for the upcoming holiday season. ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ was written by a professional songwriting team from New York City (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore with George David Weiss) who had no association with the previous Snoopy songs.” That trio based their storyline on a real event: the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front between British and German troops. The two sides not only negotiated a ceasefire but came together on the battlefield’s no man’s land to exchange gifts — whiskey, rum, cigars and chocolates! Released in November 1967, “Snoopy’s Christmas” soared to No. 1 on Billboard’s Christmas chart and has remained a Yuletide radio staple ever since.
“After the success of ‘Snoopy’s Christmas,’ our record label promised us there’d be no more Snoopy songs,” Billy recalled. “However, once they learned that Barry, who had sung lead on all those hits, might get drafted, Laurie reneged on that promise and demanded one more Snoopy single. As 1968 was a presidential election year, ‘Snoopy for President’ became the obvious choice. Phil and Dick wrote it, working into the intro the names of all the presidential candidates at that time. It was released in early June of 1968 — only a couple weeks before Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning. The song was then yanked from radio and distribution of the record was stopped.” The single, minus that intro, was later reissued in time for the 1972 presidential election but did not chart.
“After touring for three years, setting up our own equipment and playing longer and longer sets, by the spring of 1969 the big shows started to dry up,” remembered Billy. “The band also simply didn’t have the energy to continue fighting Laurie Records about promoting us as a serious rock act. That May a couple original members dropped out and were replaced. We continued to play live dates for about a year before calling it quits.”
That, though, wasn’t the end of the Royal Guardsmen story. “We regrouped in 1977,” Billy said, “in what we jokingly refer to as the ‘Disco Guardsmen Era’ with five of the original six members. We were on the road for about two years, but then, in August 1979, along came the untimely death of our lead guitarist, Tom Richards, who was felled by a brain tumor.”
“The Royal Guardsmen will always be remembered as ‘the Snoopy band’ because that’s what we became. And that’s OK because we did have our 15 minutes of fame. We performed all over the U.S. and toured with some of the biggest names of the day. We’ll always have wonderful memories of that very special time in our lives. We were fortunate in that, as teenagers, we worked very well together and had strong instrumental musical and vocal abilities. We’d spend hours working up every song, had a very tight sound and as a result, when we performed live, our material sounded very much like the records played on the radio.
“It would be great to be remembered as a band that could write good songs and perform more serious music, because we could. That was always a major point of contention between The Royal Guardsmen and our record label, which was never really resolved. Back in the ‘60s and even today when we perform, the fans come to our meet ‘n’ greet table and say, “We really enjoyed the Snoopy songs but you guys can really play.”