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Royal Guardsmen return, Snoopy in tow, 50 years after Florida's first pop hit

JUL 15 1968, MAY 8 1969 Royal Guardsmen Above: Snoopy's buddies, The Royal Guardsmen, will be featured at a Jaycee-sponsored dance in Clearwater Friday night. Florida's own million-selling group will perform at the auditorium for the 8-midnight event. Musical Groups: Royal Redcoats
Published Apr. 25, 2018

OCALA

It's midmorning at the pub, not far from the backyard patio where it all began, and the old guys from the old band are reminiscing on the old days over cream of mushroom soup.

"When we were kids," Billy Taylor said, "all you wanted was a hot shower every now and then, a hamburger, and to get laid. That's all you were thinking about on the bus."

What they weren't thinking about was staying together 50 years later, still saddled with the shadow of one huge novelty hit.

But that's what's happening with the Royal Guardsmen. On Sunday in St. Petersburg, the group's five surviving original members will reunite for a rare reunion concert, with Taylor, bassist Bill Balgoh and vocalist Chris Nunley coming in from Ocala, and drummer John Burdett and singer Barry Winslow from Minnesota and Kentucky.

It's happening, said Balgoh, 70, "because Bill DeYoung wrote the book. If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be playing."

"The book" is DeYoung's Phil Gernhard, Record Man, a new biography of the St. Petersburg record producer who helped put Florida's pop industry on the map. His big breakthrough: the Royal Guardsmen's 1966 smash Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, which Gernhard produced and co-wrote, and which was arguably the first major hit to come out of Florida.

"For me, historically, the story of the Royal Guardsmen is really key for Florida, and Florida's sense of pop culture history," DeYoung said. "They were really the first Florida band, the first Florida supergroup that kind of said, 'Well, it can happen here.' Nobody from Florida had really made it in that particular universe. And they couldn't have done it without Phil."

• • •

It's a timeless industry tale: A producer believes he has a hit on his hands, and just needs to find the right act to make it a hit.

Gernhard was far from a shark before he met the Royal Guardsmen. He was a Stetson Law student who wanted a piece of the record business, and made St. Petersburg his home base.

Seeking to capitalize on the enormous popularity of Charles Schultz's Peanuts strip, particularly Snoopy's dreamed-up battles with the German fighter pilot known as the Red Baron, he and songwriter Dick Holler put together Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, a peppy march in the style of old war story songs like The Battle of New Orleans.

After running it by different acts around Tampa Bay, Gernhard gave the demo to the Royal Guardsmen. They were high schoolers and college students, but popular enough to play parties and dance halls all around North and Central Florida. They recorded their version of Snoopy almost as a joke, leaning into the goofiness of it. But Gernhard liked what he heard. More importantly, the Guardsmen were young and malleable — he could mold them as he saw fit.

"We were kids," Taylor, 68, said. "He basically was the creative side of it."

Released in late 1966, Snoopy was an instant hit, rising to No. 2, behind the Monkees (and prompting Gernhard to cut Schultz in on the profits to avoid getting sued). The Royal Guardsmen played The Mike Douglas Show and The Joey Bishop Show and Madison Square Garden, opened for the Beach Boys and Jefferson Airplane.

"By December of '66, January of '67, the royalty checks were coming in," Taylor said, "and we were buying new cars and new guitars, making $125 a week while we were in high school."

But success became something of a trap. Gernhard insisted the band follow Snoopy with a series of lamentable sequels (The Return of the Red Baron, Snoopy's Christmas, Snoopy for President) that overshadowed the promise of original songs like Baby Let's Wait and Mother Where's Your Daughter. The band grew bitter about being viewed as a novelty band — and about how much credit Gernhard was taking for their success.

"We got screwed out of a lot of royalty money," Taylor said. "I felt we were one of Phil Gernhard's early training bands: How to rip 'em off, how to slide your name in there."

It didn't help that music culture was changing, Singles and AM were out, albums and FM were in. The Guardsmen, like so many teen acts, got left behind.

"We were a much better band than the Snoopy songs implied," Taylor said. "And that was sort of an issue after a while. We wanted to record bigger and better material. They'd let us record two or three things, and then never press it or promote it."

Snoopy changed their lives. But no one would have begrudged the Royal Guardsmen for ruing the song forever.

They didn't think they'd be singing it 50 years later, either.

• • •

The original Guardsmen barely lasted three years. Other players came and went, and original guitarist Tom Richards died in 1979. (Gernhard died in 2008.) Other original members stayed active in their own ways — Winslow went into Christian music; Taylor into bluegrass. But they remained on good enough terms to reunite from time to time.

When they did so for a brief tour in 2004, they realized they did still have fans out there — real fans, fans who wanted to hear the original Royal Guardsmen playing original Royal Guardsmen music. But those fans also wanted to hear Snoopy.

It is, Nunley said, a "double-edged sword" to be known for a silly novelty song. "There's a light side and a dark side to it. Snoopy opened a lot of doors for us."

"But you can never go back like that," Taylor said. "As we all grow up and mature and become more worldly and go through your career, you can't go back and say, 'Sure, we'd have done it different.'?"

And so they just play — or, at least, they would, if they weren't so "geographically dysfunctional," Taylor said. DeYoung is flying Winslow and Burdett in for Sunday's gig, which doubles as a release celebration for his book. It'll be the first time since 2010 they've all played together.

"We're keeping our chops up pretty well," said Nunley, 71. "We've got a lot of people who are probably fans from the early days when we used to play Tampa, before we recorded Snoopy and after, that'll probably show up."

If enough do, it might prompt another Guardsmen reunion while all five survivors are still able, something none of them could have seen coming as teens.

"I would personally love to do it more," Taylor said, "for the warm and fuzzies."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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