In the mid-to-late '60s, Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip was at its peak of popularity. This had a lot to do with its light-hearted philosophical edge that was in tune with the heightened awareness and social consciousness of the latter part of the decade. The unexpected focal point of the strip was Charlie Brown's beagle Snoopy, who evolved into less of a pet than a voice of conscience. One of the recurring themes of the Snoopy strips was his fantasy exploits as a World War I flying ace trying to defeat Baron Von Richthofen, aka "The Red Baron." His doghouse doubled as a Sopwith Camel biplane.
One night, while opening for Monte Rock the Third in Tampa, The Royal Guardsmen were seen by a producer named Phil Gernhard, who had been involved in Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs hit, "Stay". He approached the band backstage and handed them a legal pad with just the lyrics to "Snoopy Vs The Red Baron" with a note that said "give me a military feel or cadence." After talking for a while, The Guardsmen agreed to give it a shot. They went back to Tommy Richards house and with a two track tape recorder running, laid the song down. When they played it back, the band members hated it, but still sent it Gernhard who loved it. The band re-recorded the song at a recording studio and Gernhard took it to Bob and Gene Schwartz at Laurie Records in New York, who were interested enough to release the song as a single. Within a couple of weeks the record broke on WLS out of Chicago, who started playing it every hour; then every half-hour, then every fifteen minutes. By January 1967, the song had peaked at number 2 in the States and crossed the Atlantic to the UK, where it would climb to the number 8 spot, selling over three million copies worldwide. The Royal Guardsmen were suddenly thrust from a hobby band into the world of major Rock 'n' Roll, with concerts, tours and TV appearances.
The band was quickly pushed back into the studio to record their first album, which turned out to be a collection of garage band covers including "Alley Oop", "Liberty Valance", "Lil Red Riding Hood," and "Battle Of New Orleans".
Laurie Records also brought the band back to the studio to record another Snoopy song. The result was "Return Of The Red Baron" which made it to number 15 in the U.S. and number 37 in the UK. Their second LP, which featured more of a reliance on group originals, rose to number 44 on the U.S. album chart.
By the end of '67, the Royal Guardsmen had compiled enough Snoopy songs to fill almost one side of an album, which is exactly what they did with their seasonal follow-up "Snoopy's Christmas" as the focal point. The resulting effort was a kiddie-concept platter called "Snoopy And His Friends", the cover of which featured Charles Schulz caricatures of the Guardsmen themselves. "Snoopy's Christmas" topped the seasonal charts and the album climbed to number 46 in the U.S.
Trying to be taken more seriously, The Guardsmen issued a series of non-Snoopy singles, all of which flopped. By 1968, the Snoopy theme was wearing thin, but the band wasn't quite through with him yet. "Snoopy For President" put the World War I flying ace in the race for the White House, and somehow every title on the new album was supposed to tie in with the campaign ("Yummy Yummy Yummy" refers to the $100-a-plate campaign dinners, while "Cry Like A Baby" is what the losers would do). The original single version of "Snoopy For President" featured a spoken introduction by "The Red Baron", mentioning the then-current presidential candidates for the 1968 election. Unfortunately, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated just days after the record had already been shipped to stores. Later pressings eliminated the spoken intro and the song could only climb to number 83 in the U.S.
The Guardsmen issued a fourth album, but by this time, they were hopelessly branded as a novelty act and the LP could only manage to get to number 189 on Billboard's Hot 200. A single called "Baby, Let's Wait" faired much better, cracking the Top 40 and settling at number 35.
Worn out by a steady diet of kiddie pop covers and story songs, the original Royal Guardsmen split in 1969, although a version with some replacement members continued for another year. Guitarist Tom Richards died of a brain tumor in 1979.
The Royal Guardsmen made a comeback in December 2006 when they released "Snoopy vs. Osama", which was featured on The Dr. Demento Show. In the Spring of 2009, the Guardsmenís hit, "The Airplane Song" was selected as the theme song for Red Bullís Flugtag events and was aired in television commercials nationwide. A version of The Royal Guardsmen was still appearing across America in 2012.
Although band's stay in the Rock 'n' Roll limelight was brief, at least two of the Royal Guardsmen's hits are fondly remembered tunes that you still hear somewhat regularly on oldies radio. Part of the enduring quality of "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" is that Peanuts continues to be a staple of the comic pages.
For more, be sure to read Gary James interview with Royal Guardsmen guitarist, Barry Winslow