By JoAnn Guidry
The time was the 1960s. Led by The Beatles, a British music invasion was taking over America. Whereas Elvis had been a one-man sensation, this new wave consisted of bands making their own indelible contribution to rock and roll.
In 1964, then 17-year-old Ocala High School student Bill Balogh and his friend, Jay Mayer, went to see A Hard Day’s Night. The movie chronicled a day in the life of The Beatles just as Beatlemania was spreading throughout the country. For Balogh, watching the movie in the Marion Theatre in downtown Ocala, it was a prescient moment.
“I was just overwhelmed by what I was seeing in that movie,” recalls Balogh, who played the guitar and up until that time was more into folk music than rock music. “It was all so exciting. I ended up seeing the movie seven times. But the first time I saw it, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be part of that kind of excitement’.”
The music gods must have been listening. A mere two years later, Balogh got his wish.
The Royal Guardsmen, comprised of Balogh and five other Ocala natives, burst onto the national music scene in late November 1966 with a single called “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.” The record sold millions, eventually four million worldwide, and led to a recording contract, albums, national tours, and plenty of excitement.
Balogh, along with original Royal Guardsmen members John Burdett, Chris Nunley, Tom Richards, Billy Taylor, and Barry Winslow, went from being a band that played area gigs to a national phenomenon. Keep in mind that while Balogh and Nunley were in college at the time, , the rest of the members were still in high school. During that year’s Christmas holiday school break, the band went off on its first national tour. They played in New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Seattle, and San Francisco and shared billing with the Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Turtles, The Who, and The Monkees.
A summer bus tour followed — 70 shows in 60 days — opening for Tommy James & the Shondells and Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs. The Royal Guardsmen had certainly hit the big time. Three more Snoopy-themed albums, highlighted by the singles “Return of the Red Baron” and “Snoopy’s Christmas,” Madison Square Garden concerts, and television appearances on the Mike Douglas Show and the Joey Bishop Show ensued.
All amazing experiences for a group of musicians that just wanted to play a little rock and roll. And, as all stories of this kind do, it had an improbable beginning, ending, and resurrection.
Of the six original members, Balogh, Nunley, and Taylor still live in Ocala today. And they have no trouble recounting the story of The Royal Guardsmen.
“Jay [Mayer], John [Burdett] and I had formed a band called The Posmen,” says Balogh, whose father played the harmonica and mother played the piano. “My father was a postman, so the name was a take off on that. It was Jay who came up later with The Royal Guardsmen name after a certain kind of amplifier.”
The band continued to add new members by word of mouth, although Mayer would later drop out. Like Balogh had, Burdett and Tom Richards attended Ocala High School. Chris Nunley, Barry Winslow, and Billy Taylor all played drums in the Lake Weir High School marching band. Each soon took up a role in The Royal Guardsmen: Balogh (bass guitar), Taylor (keyboards), Winslow (rhythm guitar and vocals), Nunley (lead vocals/harmonica), Burdett (drums), and Richards (lead guitar and vocals). A self-described cover band, the group began to make a name for itself in the area. They went to school and practiced during the week, playing gigs on the weekends.
“We played all the popular music at the time,” says Nunley, who then was a business major at the University of Florida. “Of course, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, groups like that. We were good and we were very happy doing what we were doing.”
Taylor, who had been playing the piano since he was in the third grade, agreed, saying, “We were getting to do what we enjoyed and having fun, too.”
During a show in Tampa, the group was approached by Phil Gernhard, a record producer with an interesting proposition. He handed them a yellow legal pad with some words to a song written on it and asked if they’d be interested in putting it to music.
“We read over the words and weren’t that impressed. It was about the comic strip character Snoopy and the German flying ace, the Red Baron,” says Balogh, who was by then attending Central Florida Junior College, now Central Florida Community College. “Not exactly rock ‘n roll,” he added. But Gernhard was a record producer, so we thought we should at least give it a try. We had a single we had recorded ourselves out then, called ‘Baby Let’s Wait’ and maybe he could help us with that.”
But the band’s heart just wasn’t in the song. So with Winslow singing the vocals and Nunley doing the German background speaking, the group came up with as hokey a song as they could.
“We just weren’t interested in doing a song like that,” recalls Nunley. “But we figured we’d stay on Gernhard’s good side by coming up with something. We just knew he’d hate it and we could keep doing the kind of music we liked.”
The plan backfired. Gernhard loved the Royal Guardsmen’s version, recorded it, sold it to Laurie Records, and weeks later “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” was being played nationally on the radio.
“I was driving back from a show we had played in Gainesville,” says Balogh. “And I had on WLS, a Chicago radio station that played all the best music, when the DJ introduced the song. It was a strange feeling hearing it on the radio.”
About the same time, Nunley had made it back to the Gainesville apartment that he shared with several other college students. He too had turned on the radio to WLS. “It was just an amazing thing to hear us on the radio,” he says. “And from there, everything began happening very quickly.”
The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts, earning the group its first gold record. Their follow-up single, “Return of the Red Baron,” made it to #15 in mid-1967. “Snoopy’s Christmas,” released in late 1967 sold a million copies by the following December.
The Royal Guardsmen released four albums: Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron, The Return of The Red Baron, Snoopy and His Friends The Royal Guardsmen, and Snoopy for President.
Taylor, who was a junior at Lake Weir High School at the time, remembers it being a very surreal period in his life.
“It was definitely overwhelming,” he says. “I had never even been on an airplane before and here we were flying around the country. It was all very exciting, meeting people like The Beach Boys and having the crowd respond to us.”
But Taylor has a couple of other more personal memories as well.
“Those of us still in high school couldn’t have long hair,” he says. “So we had to get fitted for wigs for our first publicity shots and public appearances, but then we dropped that as time went on. The other thing I’ll always remember is that we played for the Lake Weir High School prom.”
For Balogh, there was validation.
“I remember sitting in the green room, waiting to go on The Joey Bishop Show,” he says. “I called my parents to tell them where I was because it felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to with a music career. Here we were in Los Angeles, waiting to play on The Joey Bishop Show.”
But all was not well in the world of The Royal Guardsmen. While they appreciated the success that the Snoopy songs had given them, they also still considered themselves a serious rock band. In addition to the Snoopy songs, their albums also included covers of other popular songs such as “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “I’m a Man,” “Cry Like a Baby/The Letter,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” as well as some written by the band members. The latter direction was where they wanted to go creatively. Their producer and record label disagreed, preferring to stick with the novelty track.
“We didn’t want to be known just as the ‘Snoopy’ band,” says Balogh. “It was a very difficult decision, but we felt like we had to walk away and stay true to ourselves.”
By mid-1970, The Royal Guardsmen disbanded. But it would not be the end of the group. Six years later, five of the original members, all but Taylor, got back together and once again began performing club dates as The Royal Guardsmen.
“Things had changed and disco was the big music then,” says Nunley, who by then had a business administration degree from UF. “But we tried to play as much classic rock ‘n roll as we could. We jokingly call that group The Disco Guardsmen.”
That version lasted three years, again disbanding not long before Richards died from a brain tumor at age 30 in August 1979. The loss of Richards was difficult for the close-knit group, which had been through so much together. But life went on. They began business careers, some moved out of state, got married, had children and grandchildren, lost spouses, got divorced, stayed in touch. Music did remain a part of some of their lives. Nunley and Balogh joined a local rock band called Crossfire; Taylor pursued bluegrass music with a group called Backwater; Winslow, who moved to Missouri, became involved in Christian music.
It’s only fitting that it would take a high school reunion to resurrect The Royal Guardsmen. When Nunley, Winslow, and Taylor received invitations to participate in the 50th reunion of the Lake Weir marching band that they had all been a part of, Nunley had an idea.
“I called the other members of The Royal Guardsmen and asked them if they’d be interested in getting back together for the Lake Weir reunion,” he says. “Everyone thought it was a great idea.”
On October 2, 2004, the five surviving members of The Royal Guardsmen played together for the first time in 35 years. Joining them was Ocala-based lead guitarist Pat Waddell, who filled the void left by Richards’ death. The concert at the reunion dinner at the Ocala Hilton was a hit and the word spread that The Royal Guardsmen were back together.
Wayne Hunnicutt, a longtime fan of the band and now a promotional agent with Wolfman Jack Entertainment, soon contacted the group. In March 2005, the band signed a contract with Wolfman Jack Entertainment to do a limited concert series as The Royal Guardsmen — Classic Rock Act.
With Winslow living in Missouri and Burdett living in Minnesota, the group had to do some improvising. Waddell was made a fulltime member and Rick Cosner of Ocala was chosen as an alternate drummer when Burdett is unable to play shows. Those living in Ocala would practice together once or twice a week, sending tapes and video to the out-of-state members. Then, just before a show, everyone meets in Ocala for final tune-up practices.
The Royal Guardsmen kicked off their reunion tour with a concert last June 13 at the Savannah Center in The Villages. On July 3, they opened for the Commodores at Coachmen Park in Clearwater to a crowd of 10,000 people. That was followed by an eight-day Carnival Oldies Cruise to the southern Caribbean in January of this year. Everywhere they’ve played, the group has been delighted by the response.
“It’s been just a wonderful surprise to see that we still have such great fans,” says Balogh, who is a five-year cancer survivor. “We’re really enjoying it.”
Nunley, whose day job is quality auditor and new-hire trainer at Ocala-based United Plastics Fabricating, echoes that by saying, “It’s a special feeling to know that people are coming out to hear and see us.”
And Taylor, a UF graphic design graduate who does computer mapping for the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council, adds, “We know how lucky we are to be getting another chance and are savoring every moment.”
Bill Barr, host of “The Big Oldies Breakfast” on Ocala’s 92.9 FM, is not surprised by the continued popularity of The Royal Guardsmen.
“When I have them on the show, the phone lines just light up,” he says. “People associate them with a certain time in their lives that they like to revisit. Classic rock, the oldies genre is like comfort food — it makes people feel good.”
Billboard’s Top 5 Singles
For the Week of December 31, 1966
1. “I’m a Believer,” The Monkees
2. “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron,” Royal Guardsmen
3. “Winchester Cathedral,” New Vaudeville Band
4. “That’s Life,” Frank Sinatra
5. “Sugar Town,” Nancy Sinatra
The Royal Guardsmen on CD
Available at local music stores or at online merchants such as amazon.com or cdnow.com
A 20-track compilation with all of their best for the Laurie label including “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” “The Return Of The Red Baron,” “Airplane Song (My Airplane),” “Snoopy For President,” and the Yuletide hit “Snoopy’s Christmas.” (One Way Records)
The Best of the Royal Guardsmen
Same track listing as the Anthology release with different album art and remastered sound. (DJ Specialist)
Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron/Snoopy & His Friends
The original debut and sophomore albums from the band. Twenty-four tracks in all. (Collectables Records)
The Return of the Red Baron/Snoopy for President
The original third and fourth albums from the band. Twenty-two tracks in all. (Collectables Records)
By JoAnn Guidry