Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more
The Bloody Red Baron rolled up the score
Eighty men died trying to end that streak
Of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany
That irresistible chorus punctuated a novelty song that captivated the nation in 1967. The group that performed it, the Royal Guardsmen, while not one-hit-wonders in the strictest sense of the word, were equally blessed and cursed by the success of the tune.
The Royal Guardsmen were formed in Ocala, Florida in 1966. They played local gigs in the area, along with dozens of other garage bands.
At the same time, Peanuts was the most popular comic strip on the planet. It was buoyed by wildly successful TV specials, as well as images of Snoopy and the gang covering everything from lunch boxes to tee shirts.
Somewhere in Ocala, Florida, a light bulb went off over record producer Phil Gernhard’s head.
After hearing the Guardsmen play an opening gig at a local club, he approached the group with the lyrics to Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron scribbled on a notepad. “Come up with a military cadence for it” were his instructions.
They went to bandmate Tommy Richards’ house and laid down a recording on two-track tape that fit the bill. The group wasn’t crazy about it, but Gernhard said it was perfect. They cut the final product in a studio and turned it over to the producer.
Two weeks later, WLS radio was playing it every fifteen minutes, and a craze was started.
Like every other kid in America, I fell in love with the song at first hearing. What’s not to love? An unforgettable chorus, airplanes, machine guns, everything a kid could want. Adults went nuts for it too, and the song peaked at #2.
What could the Guardsmen do for an encore? Sadly, they realized only more Snoopy fare would sell. Like talented actor Max Baer Jr.’s Jethro Bodine, they had been typecast.
They followed up with Return of the Red Baron. We kids snickered at the mildly racy “you’ll go straight to WELL watch out Red Baron!” It peaked at #15.
The Snoopy songs continued to roll out, the biggest subsequent hit being a Christmas song.
The Guardsmen tried to break out, but their non-Snoopy singles disappeared without a trace. Their final effort, “Baby, Let’s Wait,” actually cracked the Top 40, peaking at #35. But it was over. The group split up in 1969.
But my memories, and those of millions of others, of 1967 will forever have that classic song playing in the background.
Eighty men tried, eighty men died,
Now they’re buried together in the countryside . . .