The Royal Guardsmen: Alive & Well
The Royal Guardsmen have had more than their fair share of studio time over the years. During the 60’s they released four albums and a slew of singles in only a four year period. After the original incarnation of the group disbanded in 1970, various combinations of the members continued to perform live off and on. In 1978, they returned to the studio to record Lady You Look Good to Me Tonight, a late in the game disco/dance style tune that failed to attract any attention before the entire genre fell out of popularity. Twenty-eight years later, the group went back to their novelty roots and recorded Snoopy Vs. Osama, a topical revision of their first hit, Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, that received some radio play and Internet promotion but never reach the level of popularity it’s famous inspiration had. Now, in 2011, the group has switched to a more adult contemporary sound to record new tune that might just send The Royal Guardsmen soaring once again.
The Guardsmen’s agent, Luanne Hunt of Star Creek Records, had invited me to attend the recording session and I was excited since this would be my first time in a studio. The date was set for Saturday, March 19, at Skylab Studios on the north side of Gainesville, Florida. I arrived in the Guardsmen’s headquarters of Ocala on Friday evening and headed over to the house of lead singer Chris Nunley to hang out with the group and friends and family while they rehearsed. As soon as I heard a rough run through of the new tune, reassuringly titled Alive & Well, I knew they were on to something. This was a new sound for the Guardsmen but it seemed perfectly suited to their talents. They ran through several versions of the song that evening, working on the harmonies and fine tuning various segments. With each revision it seemed to pull together more and project stronger so I couldn’t wait to hear what it sounded like in a professional studio.
Saturday morning I headed out for Gainesville about 9:30AM, anticipating an early arrival before the 11AM start time. Unfortunately, uncooperative lights and heavy traffic slowed me down through the city and I arrived at the studio with only about ten minutes to spare. When I went inside, I was shocked to find that only keyboardist Billy Taylor and drummer Randy Adams were present from the group along with Luanne and her husband Steve. I thought for sure I would be the last one there but Chris did not arrive until right at 11AM with lead guitarist Pat Waddell and bassist Bill Balough in tow. Billy and Randy had already done a sound check of their equipment with the engineer but the rest of the band needed time to set up. Luanne tapped Steve and me to run out for some food so everyone could have lunch without having to leave the studio. Our trip to a nearby grocery store ended up taking close to an hour since everyone in town seemed to be shopping that morning. By the time we returned with the chow, everyone was set up but recording would have to wait until lunch was over! In our absence, we had also been joined in the studio by Alive & Well’s writer, Dana Lamb, who stopped by to watch her song being recorded and provide some musical suggestions.
Considering that this was my first time in a recording studio, I was fascinated with the technical process of creating a song. The group started by recording four versions of a basic track to be used as a guideline. This was just like I had heard in rehearsals with all five members playing the song together. After this, each member was brought in individually to record variations on their part. These were things like Pat recording two additional guitar tracks and Billy providing other instrument sounds with his magical keyboard. Next, harmony vocals were recorded with the other members singing backup to Chris’s previously recorded lead vocals. After each take was completed, Kevin the engineer would play a rough mix back and the group would take periodic breaks to review how the sound was progressing. At one point I asked Chris how this compared to recoding back in the 60’s and was told that while they did have the ability to punch in a few things back then it was nothing like it is today and if someone flubbed a line or a chord you started all over again from the beginning!
During the individual recording sessions, I spent most of my time out in the waiting room with other members discussing the new tune and all things Guardsmen related. Chris and Billy and I were bouncing trivia questions off of one another when I noticed an older couple enter the front doors behind me. Chris immediately identified the man as Dick Holler and rushed to greet him. At first I thought he was joking because Dick Holler was the man who wrote most of the Guardsmen’s hit songs back in the day and I had heard nothing about him being there that day. As it turned out, this was a surprise planned by Luanne and no one except her, her husband, and Billy Taylor, who had been sworn to secrecy, knew about it. Holler is probably best known for the haunting ballad Abraham, Martin, and John which was recorded by Dion after originally being promised to the Guardsmen. He spent several hours visiting with the group and sitting in on the session in addition to dutifully fielding all manner of fan questions from me!
The session stretched on until about 6PM when everything needed had been recorded and all that remained was working in some minor details. I helped the band break down and pack up while Kevin burned some rough mixes for Luanne to take home for editing. We all agreed that the track sounded very promising and has the kind of positive vibe that many radio talk shows and television programs are featuring in these trying times. Alive & Well has the kind of lyrics that almost anyone can find personal meaning in and everyone can interpret in their own way. To me it seems like a patriotic tune reaffirming that America still has the “power to recover” but it can just as easily be viewed as a statement from the group that they are still around and entertaining audiences all these years later.