The True Story of The Royal Guardsmen
In 1966, six young men, most still in high school, from Ocala, Florida formed a rock and roll group with the goal of providing exacting versions of current hits in a live setting. They met with moderate success in a short period of time but the future held an unexpected twist. Their ticket to the big time appeared in the unconventional guise of a “funny looking dog with a big black nose”! With Snoopy in the mix, their rise to fame became an express elevator but it was not without a price. The record company wanted to keep them in the novelty mode for as long as hits could be milked out and attempted to make them as faceless as possible in a move that pre-dated The Archies by several years. This caused a constant state of turmoil as the group battled to express their true talents and break out of the manufactured image the record label had ingrained in the public. In the end it was a fate they would never completely escape but their friendship and loyalty survived the journey that is the true story of The Royal Guardsmen.
ED Tucker: How did the Royal Guardsmen get started as a group?
Bill Balogh: The group evolved from a group I had when I was seventeen called The Posmen. John Burdett, who was the drummer for The Guardsmen, was our drummer. Another friend of mine whose name was Jay Mayer was the guitar player and the three of us formed The Posmen.
John Burdett: Bill’s father was a postman so we decided to be The Postmen but dropped the “t” out of the name. My “potential” girlfriend lived next door to Bill so I hung out across the street trying to figure out how I could be friends with him so I could be next to her! That’s how it started for me! They accepted me as the drummer even though I had never played drums before; I just lied to them and told them I did! I think I was the only one in the group who didn’t play drums. All the rest of them were in the drum corps in high school.
BILL: Our first gig was in March of 1965. We had a few member changes but we stayed together until about October of 1965. It wasn’t that long. We changed our name to The Royal Guardsmen because we were going to buy all of this Vox equipment which was English. We were all into the English music invasion.
JOHN: We were setting up one night and somebody asked me the name of my band. I just felt embarrassed to say “The Posmen”. I happened to be right in front of one of our new VOX amplifier called the Royal Guardsman. I said how about the Royal Guardsmen that sounds like a good name. I pulled the metal tag off the amplifier and stuck it to the face of the bass drum.
Barry Winslow: I auditioned for Bill and John when they were still The Posmen and I thought I was going to like these guys right off the bat because they spell like I do! I jumped in and did my thing and even with my voice cracking something fierce they still wanted me to join. Everyone had the same mindset, let’s cover the record to a tee with total quality. We even did accents if we could.
ET: You were seventeen at the time; did you all go to school together?
BILL: Jay and I did. We had a keyboard player before Billy Taylor whose name was Larry Rich and he and I were in the same class together. Two of the members of The Posmen had quit, the singer and our guitar player. Larry Rich knew Barry Winslow and Barry knew Chris. We had only been The Royal Guardsmen for two months and played one gig when they joined. We were progressing and getting better and better but we didn’t feel our guitar player, Jay, was progressing with us. We decided we needed to replace him and so we found Tom Richards in March of 1966. Jay quit but he became our personal manager at that time.
ET: It must have been an agreeable arrangement if he stayed on as your manager.
BILL: He was upset but he got over it quickly. We continued to get better and started playing out at Johnson’s Beach drawing good crowds. Then Larry Rich got his draft notice and decided to join the Navy. We were aware of Billy Taylor from playing out at Johnson’s Beach and we knew what he was capable of.
Billy Taylor: Ironically, Chris’s dad was my family doctor so I knew the Nunley family. Chris and Barry and I went to Lake Weir High School and played together in the marching band. Chris was actually mentoring all of us who were trying to put together another band called The Griffins in the spring of 1966. We never actually practiced but we had done lots of planning. I was down at Johnson’s Beach one Saturday watching The Royal Guardsmen play when Larry Rich called me aside and asked me if I would like to replace him in the group.
ET: So as the hierarchy of local groups went at that time, The Royal Guardsmen were at the top of the list?
BILL: There was only one group at that time that was better than us and drew better than us called The Incidentals. They eventually changed their name to Gingerbread and recorded an album in New York called “Flow”. I don’t think it ever did much.
ET: Being asked to join The Royal Guardsmen was obviously more attractive than starting with a new group like The Griffins.
BILLY: Well we did have the name for the group picked out so we felt we had come a long way! I was actually asked to audition for The Guardsmen along with a couple of other people. We held the auditions at the American Legion Hall in Belleview, right across the street from Barry Winslow’s house. I was told that I got the gig but I had to have a Vox Continental organ. My parents had just bought me a Farfisa organ which was an Italian combo that was more of a tank than the Vox Continental, it wasn’t as cool. My parents had spent $1200 on this equipment and they were just blue collar, it was all to help little Billy out! Ironically, the store they had bought the equipment from called them and said they had filled out the contract wrong and needed them to come back and sign a new one. That gave me the opportunity to return the equipment I had only had for a week and get the Vox equipment I had to have to be in the band.
BILL: That same music store, which was in the Pine Street shopping center in Ocala, is where Jay, who was our guitar player but was now our manager, ran into a guy named John Veciana. John was from the Tampa area and was trying to manage bands. He was in Ocala checking out the local talent to bring to Tampa and Jay told him about us. That’s how we got into the Tampa area for the first time.
ET: So by June of 1966 the lineup for The Royal Guardsmen was finalized. How long was it before you started recording?
BILLY: I think it was around September.
BILL: For our first session, we did “Baby Let’s Wait”, we did the blues song “I Needed You”, a song Tom wrote called “He Isn’t Here”, and “Leaving Me”. I don’t remember the correct order but those were the first four songs we recorded. That was our demo record. Barry was the big push behind that because we were just in to playing cover material and doing gigs.
ET: That was at Fuller Studios in Tampa?
Chris Nunley: Yes, the studio was a little two track hole in the wall. It was used for talk shows and to record radio jingles. Through the contacts with John Veciana and WALT radio, which was a radio station in Tampa that was a low power alternative to WLCY, they got us into playing local clubs in the Tampa Bay area. They were going to have a “Shower of Stars” at the Curtis Hixson Hall made up of mostly Tampa groups with Monte Rock the Third as the headliner and we were asked to play. We got a pretty good response and so we got asked back the next time they had one of these local band shows. We were down there one afternoon setting up the equipment when a guy walked up to us with a yellow legal pad. He said hi, my name is Phil Gernhard and I’m a record producer. We’re trying to get this song cut and we’re showing it to a lot of local bands to see who comes up with the best treatment. The pad had the words to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” on it.
ET: How close was this to the final version?
CHRIS: It was pretty close but it was just the lyrics. The song had originally been written by Dick Holler as a straight historical ballad, like Johnny Horton’s “Sink the Bismark”, but about the Red Baron. When Charles Schulz started drawing Snoopy on his doghouse yelling “Curse you, Red Baron”, Phil went to Dick and said why don’t you put that in the song you wrote about the Red Baron and make it a novelty thing? We looked at the legal pad but didn’t think much about it because we had a show to play. We used to practice at Tom Richards’ house and we put the Snoopy song together in the garage. I was attending the University of Florida at the time, and would come home on the weekends. We got together to rehearse on a Thursday or Friday and realized Gernhard is going to be here Saturday, we better do something with this song!
BILL: We weren’t too enthusiastic about it in the first place because all Gernhard had told us was to give it three or four chords and a military feel on the drums.
BARRY: We were a rock and roll band doing vocals and harmonies. We were doing the English stuff and hoping to write songs in that genre, then here comes Snoopy!
CHRIS: We put together this kind of country, hokey-sounding thing and ran through it a couple of times. Gernhard came out to hear it and we figured he won’t like it, he’ll leave us alone! We played it for him and he said play it again, I kind of like that. He told us that if we would go to Tampa and cut a demo he would shop it around to a few labels and see what happens.
ET: How close was that version to the one that ended up on Laurie Records?
BARRY: It sounds just about like the demo did except it was embellished in the studio.
CHRIS: It didn’t have all the sound effects and stuff in it but it was pretty close. When you went to the University of Florida at that time, you had to take a foreign language. You had a choice between French, Latin, or German, ironically no Spanish then, and I chose German. I don’t remember if the German intro was Gernhard’s idea or mine but I remember walking around the studio writing it.
ET: Pardon my lack of fluency in German, but what exactly does the intro translate to?
CHRIS: (in German accent) Attention! We will now sing together the story of the beloved Red Baron and that pig-headed dog Snoopy! From a German point of view, the Baron is the hero and the dog is the enemy. On “The Return of the Red Baron” we had him saying I hate that little dog Snoopy!
ET: Did Phil Gernhard have permission from Charles Schulz to use Snoopy?
BARRY: Phil sent a copy of the record and a letter to Charles Schulz. Charles looked at it but never sent a response on whether we could do this or not. We didn’t get his blessings. His lawyers smelled money and, whether Charles cared or not, the lawyers put a ding in us! From what I understand, they stamped up a new title of “Squeaky vs. the Black Knight” in Canada. They just made another label and stuck it on there but it kept alive the momentum while they were sorting things out. Schulz eventually gave his consent, they got a pretty healthy chunk of money, and we moved right on down the road.
ET: So Phil Gernhard shopped the demo around and the song ended up on Laurie. Did any other labels express interest?
BILL: I think Laurie was Gernhard’s first option.
BILLY: He had independently contracted with them to give them first refusal
BILL: We had already put out “Baby Let’s Wait” on the label prior to that. They test marketed that but it didn’t get a really big response. It had “Baby Let’s Wait” on the A side and “Leaving Me” on the B side because those were the first two songs we recorded.
JOHN: Phil Gernhard had promised us he would put a regular song out, which he did with “Baby Let’s Wait”. He only released it regionally in Florida and it only sold like 2000 copies. It didn’t go so then he came back and said now you have to do Snoopy.
ET: There could not have been much time between when you recorded the song and when they released it because it was on top of the charts already in November of 1966.
BILLY: I think we recorded that around August or early September because it was released the week before Thanksgiving.
BARRY: It was within a month’s time frame, literally, from the time we recorded this thing to the time it started to kick. 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 and roll!
ET: How did “I Needed You” end up on the B-side of “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron”? I have to tell you, there are those that consider “I Needed You” to be one of the worst records of all time! I think a lot of that has to do with it being a 180 degree departure from Snoopy. A lot of people were introduced to this single at a young age and when they flipped the record over they were in for a very jarring surprise on the B side. The A and B sides of that single were clearly intended for two different audiences.
BILL: It was the only thing we had left in the can! We had already released “Baby Let’s Wait” and “Leaving Me” so the only thing we had left that we recorded was that. We figured nobody was ever going to hear it any way! If you listen closely, Chris does a great vocal on it.
JOHN: When “I Needed You” was recorded, Chris had all the lights turned down and he made us step off to the side so we weren’t in his vision. He sang it with all of his heart. Probably too much heart, you can hear him literally crying in that song! He put everything into it.
ET: Did you do any touring in support of “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” or was the idea to get into the studio and record an album as quickly as possible?
BILL: Get the album done! We went back into the studio in Tampa almost immediately.
BILLY: We did do a four or five week tour right around Christmas time though but it was in between recording the album.
CHRIS: As soon as the guys who were still in school got out for Christmas break we did a West Coast tour. We played Washington State, Oregon, LA, and San Francisco. We played the Cow Palace in San Francisco with Jefferson Airplane. We played with the Beach Boys in Seattle.
ET: How much input did you have into the tracks that went on the album?
CHRIS: We came up with a list of tracks we wanted to do that had a cartoon theme to them. The Kingsmen had a hit with “Jolly Green Giant” and the Sam the Sham had “Little Red Riding Hood”.
BILLY: We did a version of “Charlie Brown” for that album which was my only chance to be a star vocally. When we got the album done and they listed the songs, Charles Schulz asked us not to include that one.
ET: Well the Charlie Brown in that song is a different one from the Peanut’s Charlie Brown and not painted in the most upstanding of lights. I suspect Charles Schulz didn’t want his Charlie Brown to be associated with that one.
CHRIS: Right, smoking in the auditorium!
ET: I noticed that the track listing is left off the album cover. They list a few songs on the front but it’s basically a big drawing of the Red baron on the cover and a tiny picture of The Royal Guardsmen on the back. How did that photo shoot come about?
BILLY: That was done at Six Gun Territory. Gernhard said we needed a professional photo done. It was done after the record had already taken off. Most of us were still in high school and couldn’t have long hair so they had us wear wigs. Ironically, after I had quit the band in 1969, by 1970 I was playing piano in the honky tonk saloon at Six Gun Territory for two and a half years while I finished up college. I would call the gunfights on Saturdays and then play the piano for the can can shows.
BARRY: I had turned eighteen already and I was in the draft. I wasn’t about to just let them throw me on the ground so I went to enlist and I cut all my hair off, I wasn’t going to let them do that either. They didn’t take me because I had a bad elbow and back at the time so I had to wear a wig!
JOHN: Tom and I actually got thrown out of Ocala High School for having long hair. We got called into the Principal’s office one day and were told you can’t stay here like that, you have to get a hair cut or we’ll throw you out. We both went and got hair cuts but we saved our hair and stuffed it in the school’s mail box! Tom was the only one in the whole school who had red hair so eventually they figured it was him. He ratted me out and we got suspended.
ET: That’s funny because on the cover of “The Return of the Red Baron” album, you and Tom have the shortest hair in the group.
JOHN: That’s because they had just made us get it cut! The others, except for Barry, were all in college at that time.
ET: Did you make any television appearances in support of the single?
JOHN: We did the Mike Douglas Show. Ricardo Montalban was the co-host. He was just a wonderful guy, just warm and personal. We were rehearsing the song and I was stomping my base drum foot even though I was not actually hitting the drum. It was booming through the riser I was on. The guys in the booth kept going “what’s that noise”? I knew what it was but I was afraid to tell them! I was only seventeen and I didn’t know what was going to happen if I told them I was the one making that noise!
BARRY: They went long in Ricardo Montalban’s segment and they just threw us in there. We were tired, our eyes were puffy and we were just worn out. My mother thought I was on drugs!
JOHN: When we did the Joey Bishop Show I went to move the boom mic because I didn’t sing at that time and I heard a huge voice come out of the sky and say “don’t touch that”! I said “who is that, God”? The voice then said “to you, yes, don’t touch the microphone”! I didn’t know there were union rules and stuff like that!
ET: Prior to the first album being released, what types of songs did you play in your live shows?
BILL: We played the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Zombies. Chris had the vocals for the Jagger and Burdon styles and Barry had the vocals for the Beatles. They had great harmony together.
ET: After the success of “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron”, were you given any say in what was recorded next or was it just a given it would be another Snoopy song?
BILL: We didn’t want to do any more novelty type tunes. We didn’t mind doing whatever they came up with from their writers as long as it was more along the lines of what we wanted to do but they pushed “Return of the Red Baron” on us. That came from Gernhard and his buddy, Johnny McCullough.
BILLY: We had started to get some royalty checks by this point and we knew they were going to want a single so we went along with it. We did the “Summer Shower of Stars” tour following that in the summer of 1967 with Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and Tommy James and the Shondells.
BARRY: We did one show in Seattle at a huge coliseum called The Round. It held forty-five thousand people and the stage revolved. It would turn so far one way and then stop and turn the other way. Even though we had a partition behind us it was still odd. The stage was backlit so you could barely see a row out, the rest was just noise! The place was packed and the stage started to jerk about every tenth round. We had to chase the mic stands and one of them hit me right in the face! I saw this blue-white light just arc as it shorted out on my lip! The crowd loved it, they thought it was part of the show!
CHRIS: We got a good response to the shows. We had people come up to us afterwards and say we came to laugh at the Snoopy boys but you guys can play!
BILLY: I think that’s what kept us going. We were a cover band back in the days before the term caught on. I think that’s what really kept us going after the Snoopy hit and the record company beating us with the gimmick stuff. Eventually our attitude did get sour. It wasn’t against each other it was just the whole business.
ET: Did you play different tracks live than what was on the albums?
BILLY: Absolutely, we did “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Purple Haze” and lots of Procol Harum. After a while, it got to where we would do the Snoopy songs first just to get them out of the way. People were blown away with what we were playing. That was our way of dealing with the whole situation.
ET: Obviously, there was an official image of The Royal Guardsmen that was sold to the public and there was the true image behind that one that was a different group. There was a different sound and different tracks you wanted to play. The true image kept asserting itself.
BILLY: We played a community center in Chicago during our 1968 tour for a bunch of hip kids. We came on stage and started doing all this Procol Harum stuff and they just sat down and didn’t move for two hours! They were that blown away.
ET: “The Return of the Red Baron” is probably your most personal album but neither it nor the single did as well as the first ones. What was the reaction of the record company? Did they still want to continue with the novelty records?
BILL: Yes, they followed up Return with “Airplane Song” which was another novelty!
BARRY: Return was just one of those typical record company things. They wanted to get something out there and keep it going. The album was good but they were just throwing the single out there to keep it going.
ET: Well at least that one didn’t have the word Snoopy in it! Were you pushing for something else?
CHRIS: We wanted to write serious music. Then Christmas of 1967 came around and they wanted us to do “Snoopy’s Christmas” which we weren’t too enthusiastic about but it turned out to be a good move.
JOHN: Of all the songs we did I think that one had the nicest production. We had a full orchestra. We had an orchestra conductor who was trying to rewrite the song because it wasn’t clinically correct but it doesn’t have to be clinically correct to be right! Eventually we told him to leave and finished up with the orchestra without him. I got to put in some instruments that they probably wouldn’t have used if I hadn’t mentioned I would like to do that. I played the timpani and a cymbal and put in a drum solo. I also played this big line of tubular bells with flip flops on! I remember them saying they were getting the sound of my flip flops in the recording as I ran down the bells but I didn’t think anyone would be able to hear it. I was into the sound effects and finding things to hit that would make neat noises!
BARRY: I had a ball with the Christmas record. I had fun with that thing! It was pure Dick Holler.
BILL: After “Snoopy’s Christmas”, the follow up was “I Say Love” which was an original song. They released that as a single and Billy and Barry wrote it. The audience didn’t accept it though because it wasn’t what they thought of as The Royal Guardsmen.
ET: They immediately rushed out “Snoopy and His Friends” (a.k.a. “Snoopy’s Christmas”), your third album, in time for the 1967 Christmas season. Were you allowed much input into the format of that album with the music and speaking parts?
CHRIS: We only did the music, the producers did the narrative bits.
BILLY: We were somewhat surprised by that. I don’t remember being asked for our input but we were trying to get them to use things that were more like the sound we were going for
JOHN: That was Laurie Records, they were good people but they had an odd way of doing things. I thought well now we’ve done the Snoopy stuff, maybe we should move on, instead they wanted us to keep going back to that same thing. At the time, being as young as we were, we didn’t realize what it meant. We realize that now!
BILL: That album had some of our stuff on it. They used “I Say Love” and “So Right to Be in Love”. Those were ours. We didn’t really have much time to write though because we were always on the road.
ET: Was there ever any talk of getting better writers to come in and get you some different hits?
BILL: After “Airplane Song” and before “Snoopy’s Christmas”, they had released “Any Wednesday”. It didn’t do anything for the same reason “I Say Love” didn’t. No one seemed to want to hear The Royal Guardsmen do anything other than Snoopy. The guy who wrote “Any Wednesday“ was a staff writer they had writing for us. They were trying to get us people like Michael Murphy who had done “Airplane Song” but after “Any Wednesday” didn’t do anything there was nothing until “Snoopy’s Christmas”.
ET: Did the failure of the other singles soften you up to the idea of doing “Snoopy for President”?
BILLY: We were out on the road touring when we got the call to do “Snoopy for President” without Barry.
BARRY: The track was already cut and they just flew me up there to do the thing.
BILL: Barry thought he was getting drafted so we went out that summer on the road without him. We went back into the studio to record “Snoopy for President” and then, while we were touring, the rest of the tracks for the album were done by Barry Winslow and studio musicians. He wasn’t in the band at the time but he was still under contract and they wanted to come out with more product, which is why it’s all cover songs. Barry didn’t get drafted so he joined back up in October of 1968. That was when John Burdett quit and Chris moved to drums.
JOHN: I tried to get a life in Bucks County Pennsylvania! They had written a song, I don’t remember which one it was, but I couldn’t quite get what they wanted. I didn’t have the capabilities and I felt like I was holding them back. I was also discovering that there was a whole world around me outside of the band so I decided to take off for a while and see what that was like.
CHRIS: We realized after “Snoopy’s Christmas” that the public was getting tired of the Snoopy thing since each record sold less than the one before. “Snoopy’s Christmas” did OK the first year but it didn’t sell a million copies. It took repeated sales for that to become a gold record.
BILL: However, I do remember Gernhard saying that when “Snoopy for President” first came out it was selling as well as the original “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”. Then Bobby Kennedy got shot and the record was pulled right away.
CHRIS: At the beginning before the music started there was an announcer reading the names of the 1968 presidential candidates and one of them was Bobby Kennedy. They pulled the song and reissued “Baby Let’s Wait” to fill the gap. They re-released “Snoopy for President” again later on without that part but by then no one was interested.
ET: Maybe that was a sign that it was time for you to part company with Snoopy.
BILL: We also heard that around that time, Charles Schulz said no more Snoopy songs.
ET: So that’s why “The Smallest Astronaut” doesn’t mention Snoopy by name!
JOHN: We were on the road and didn’t have anything to do with that song. There were periods when we were on the road and they would call the two singers off and have them do a song.
BARRY: I barely remember doing the song. I think they missed their mark on that by not mentioning Snoopy but they were trying to ease us out of the cartoon thing. It was during the era of the moon landing.
BILL: “Baby Let’s Wait” had done much better the second time they released it. It was the first thing other than the Snoopy stuff and “Airplane Song” that people actually heard. That was when we decided to do “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter” and “Magic Window” in early 1969.
BILLY: “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter”. “Magic Window” and “As Tears Go By” were done in Allegro Studios in New York.
ET: I think “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter” is one of the best songs you ever recorded.
BILL: That was written for us by Dick Holler. He also wrote “Abraham, Martin, and John”, which was originally supposed to go to us. According to Barry, that song was written for us but they reneged and gave it to Dion so Dick Holler wrote “Mother, Where’s Your Daughter” for us. It was any attempt to get us away from the Snoopy thing.
BILLY: It was an attempt to pacify us.
BARRY: I liked that one and I think that was an interesting time, too. I’m not really sure about all the politics of it but Laurie records was pretty fat cat at that time, we had really helped them get back on their feet. I did the original demo of “Abraham, Martin, and John” with Dick Holler and Phil said we could have the song. Two weeks later, I came back down and Dion was doing it. That really broke my heart. We had three years of making lots of money for Laurie and we were hoping we could get out of the bag but it just wasn’t going to happen.
ET: That was the last official Royal Guardsmen release. What did you do after that?
BILL: We continued touring after that, then Billy and Barry both quit in May of 1969. We still had job offers coming in so we got Dave Shannon and John Curtis to take their places. We continued to tour through the summer of ‘69 and played a show at Madison Square Garden with The Guess Who.
BARRY: I was burned out and what really broke the camel’s back for me was that we didn’t get “Abraham, Martin, and John”. I worked the last couple of contracts we had and then I was done.
ET: Was there any talk of going back into the studio to record another single, maybe “Snoopy Goes to Viet Nam”?
BILL: After that summer tour we started to break it off with Phil Gernhard and Laurie Records. We were told that there was interest in us from other labels but evidently someone must have stepped in and said don’t mess with these guys. RCA and Warner Brothers were both supposedly interested but something happened to prevent it. We were even willing to change our name because we thought the only way we were going to make it big was with a new name.
CHRIS: Otherwise we were stuck, pigeon-holed as the “Snoopy Boys”.
ET: So the end of 1969 was the end of The Royal Guardsmen?
BILL: Tom quit in September of ‘69. Chris and I and the two guys who replaced Barry and Billy stayed together until about May of 1970 when I quit.
CHRIS: We toured through Tennessee and Missouri, but no longer as The Royal Guardsmen.
BILLY: Barry and I and another friend had tried to write songs and submit them to Gernhard but to no avail. Nothing came of it.
ET: So after you broke up you all kept ties to the music business. What lead to your first reunion?
CHRIS: I had been living in Tennessee and I decided I missed the guys back in Florida and took a vacation for a couple of weeks to visit.
BILL: Dave Shannon and I had been in a dinner club band out in Houston, Texas. I had just given that up and happened to come back to Ocala at the same time Chris was here. Barry was working at a car dealership and Tom was working at a recording studio in town. They heard we were in town and we all got together and talked about it. That’s how the first reunion came up.
CHRIS: The Disco Guardsmen!
BILL: That was when Disco was just coming out. We were more of a night club band, we updated our stuff to current material.
JOHN: We had quite a group. Dave Shannon was in it, who was a singer, and Chris was a singer. Barry was the lead singer and everyone else sang backup. We had seven people and all of us could sing so we were doing the most difficult vocals we could find. I was proud of that.
BILLY: When they regrouped in 1977, Tom called me to see if I wanted to be part of it. I had been getting a regular paycheck for two years and was just starting my career and getting ready to start a family. My wife was pregnant with our first child so I said no but go with my blessing. They toured from ’77 to ’78 and then came back into town in the fall of ’78 after being out for about a year and a half. They had made as much money as I had and they called and asked me again if I was interested. It was still the same five original guys. At that time I said I would do it. I got an electric piano, bought a van, and started practicing on the new material they were doing. I actually went and sat in with them a couple of nights between Christmas and New Year’s. I was going to be back wpith the group. Then my wife went in for a medical procedure and found out she was pregnant again and I couldn’t turn down a regular paycheck and leave town then. So I had to pull the plug for a second time, I felt really bad.
JOHN: We had to do disco music which we didn’t like. We had to do a lot of Bee Gees and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. What we had going for us was that we could stand up there and talk as well. Most bands would ask a question but we went into more depth. We were telling a story of how our songs came to be. At one point we even had an old time radio that would talk and lights came on. I ran that with a rheostat.
BARRY: We played rock and roll and some contemporary stuff that they wanted to hear. We did just enough disco to keep people happy but it really wasn’t us. We did five hours a night from 9PM until 2AM in 45-minute sets. Around our third set we would do our oldies show with the hits and all the old stuff like The Beatles and The Stones. That’s when people really started catching on and really loved it.
BILL: We continued through February or March of 1979 and then Barry Winslow quit. He was burned out. We had been back for close to two and a half years at this point and we were all a little burned out, Barry just happened to be the first one to quit. We were making money but we were working our butts off for it, too. Then in March or April, Tom found out he had cancer.
CHRIS: It was an inoperable brain tumor. These days if doctors find it they can do something about it but in 1979 they couldn’t. He died in September of 1979.
ET: That must have been devastating to you both personally and professionally after having been together for so long. What brought you back together again after over twenty years?
CHRIS: The band director for Lake Weir High School, who had been there for thirty years, wanted to have a reunion open to all of the members of the Lake Weir High School band since 1957 when the school officially came about. We started kicking the idea around of playing a couple of songs at the reunion.
BILLY: John had been e-mailing me about it but I had been busy and on vacation so I didn’t get back to him for two months. Then Barry said he was coming and after Winslow said that, Burdett said he would be there, too. So that was five of the six original guys all coming just for the warm and fuzzy of not having seen each other since the late ’70’s. Everyone got into town a few days before the reunion and we spent a couple of evenings in Chris’s practice room for two or three hours. That was the first time I had been with the band since the ’60’s and the others hadn’t seen each other in years. When John got into town we had to go and buy him a drum set! We were a little rusty at first, but after the end of the first session we were on the road to recovery. We went to the reunion, which had made a big deal about us playing, and we nailed it. The people there had all grown up with us and they went crazy. They wanted another two hours and we only had six songs!
JOHN: I hadn’t touched a drum set in seventeen years! Thank goodness we were only playing six songs! I couldn’t have made it any further.
CHRIS: We did Snoopy and we did “Mustang Sally”, Honky Tonk Women”, “Any Wednesday”, “I Say Love” and “Hang on Sloopy”.
BILLY: After the reunion we had a reception the next day and I had the group members and their wives out to my house following that. I remember feeling really bummed out after everybody left town because I didn’t know if we would ever see each other again. That was October of 2004.
BILL: Then I got a call from an agent who had heard about the reunion and asked if we would be interested in playing any gigs. I told him I would talk it over with the guys but that it was going to take some time. We had other things going on and I kind of forgot about it. Then he called Chris in January of ‘05 and we talked about it. I really didn’t expect John or Barry to be serious about it but they were.
BILLY: By March we were signing contracts. The agent got us booked on a cruise for 2006 and we told him we needed a warm-up gig. He got the same people who were doing the cruise to put us into a VFW in Crystal River. After that, we were told we needed a video, so we set up a show at The Villages. They have a place called the Savannah Center, with a top-notch stage and audio set up that we arranged to use. It seats about 850. We thought we might get two or three hundred people there but we sold it out with only about three weeks worth of advertising. It was a wonderful experience for us. The video was a little disappointing, though. The band did well, the performance was good, but there were some technical difficulties. Then, on the 4th of July weekend of 2005, we opened for The Commodores in front of a crowd of 9-10,000 people. That was a real thrill, just like old times!
ET: How did the new recording session come about?
JOHN: When we reunited, the crowd’s reaction was wonderful. I hadn’t had a warm reception like that in a long time. Even the kids were into it and I didn’t expect that at all. It got me wondering what else we could do besides just play two or three times a year. Well we could record and I thought, why not? I came up with a business plan and it was promptly ignored because I was just the crazy kid of the group! I saw the potential so I went ahead and wrote “Snoopy vs. Osama” and played it for them. It finally sunk in to Barry what I was doing. He took the song and rewrote the music and adjusted the words to fit the new music.
BARRY: Charlie’s all grown up, he’s driving a Bradley and Snoop’s in the motor pool! It’s got all the attributes of the old Guardsmen stuff. There’s a silly vocal thing in the beginning and all the sound effects. There’s a cadence that sounds like a huge field snare. We even have a real call to Mecca!
JOHN: All we are interested in is supporting the troops and our fans. They used to use “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” as a scramble on the air craft carriers and now, forty years later, we are supporting them with the same kind of music.
BARRY: It is just like it was forty years ago. We weren’t anywhere near what the contemporary sound was at the time, it was totally different, and hopefully the same thing will happen with this one.
ET: Is there really a book in the works about your careers?
JOHN: Yes, I have been working on it for about a year. It’s called “True Shaggy Dog Stories by The Royal Guardsmen”. “Shaggy dog story” is a technical term that the literary people use. It’s going to be a collection of stories about things that happened to us on the road and in general. I think the stories we are going to tell will be very interesting, I’m not going to stick a boring one on there!
My sincere thanks to Bill Balogh, Chris Nunley, John Burdett, and Barry Winslow for their participation in this interview and constant input into the creation of this article. Extra special thanks goes out to Billy Taylor for not only doing all of the above but also acting as coordinator for the entire project.
The current lineup for The Royal Guardsmen includes all five of the surviving original members plus lead guitarist Pat Waddell and alternate drummer Rick Cosner. For more information or to get your very own copy of “Snoopy vs. Osama”, be sure to visit www.theroyalguardsmen.com.
When they are not busy being Royal Guardsmen, all of the members have other musical interests of their own. Billy Taylor has a contemporary bluegrass band called Backwater. Barry Winslow recently released an excellent album of Christian-themed music called “Transition” that is available at www.barrywinslow.com. Bill Balogh and Chris Nunley have been with the band “Crossfire” for over twenty years. The current incarnation of this group also features new Guardsmen Pat Waddell and Rick Cosner. John Burdett does overtime as the webmaster of the official Royal Guardsmen website mentioned above. Not a bad list of accomplishments for a bunch of “Snoopy Boys”!