Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Squeaky vs The Black Knight ???

Record collecting has taken me through many interesting twists and turns throughout the years. It's cool how you can start out focused on one aspect of a hobby, which leads you to another thing, then another, and on and on.

I started out searching for every record that ever hit Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 charts between 1955 and 1970. As I closed in on that goal, I expanded my search to include every record that made the Billboard Bubbling Under charts as well. I ended up finding a copy of every last one, but it took a long time! In the process, I managed to buy well over two million records.

While cataloging all these records and recording them on the computer, I started to run into songs that didn't show up on these charts, even though I knew I'd heard them very often as a kid. These turned out to be Regional Hits. Now I started searching for the radio station playlists from 1955 to 1970 from the Cleveland area where I grew up and studied those looking for songs that were hit records in Cleveland but not listed on the Billboard charts. I found plenty of them! That led me to collecting and studying the radio station playlists of other cities. I never managed to find them all, and I doubt anyone could in a lifetime.

The fact is, there were probably millions of songs recorded in that short span of 16 years! I know people who are insanely trying to collect them all; but I also know how utterly impossible that would be. There are, after all, records that were made in very limited quantities. Few, if any, of these still exist today. There were vanity pressings made by the parents of young wanna-be rock stars that were probably only distributed to family members and close friends (I have a bunch of these and sometimes they're very good). There are also some other really odd things out there just waiting for record collectors to discover.

This is the story of one such odd record.

The Royal Guardsmen are best known for the 1967 novelty hit, Snoopy vs The Red Baron. This is a song about a dog named Snoopy, who was a comic-strip character created by Charles Shulz. In the comics, Snoopy liked to put on a scarf and hat, sit up on his dog house, and pretend he was a World War I pilot chasing his arch-enemy, The Red Baron of Germany. It's a very cute song that managed to reach number two on the Billboard charts nationwide. It spawned a couple of follow-up records in that same year, The Return Of The Red Baron and Snoopy's Christmas. I love all three of these records, and you'll hear them all on MusicMaster Oldies of course! Later, one more great Snoopy record showed up during the 1968 election season called Snoopy For President.

The Royal Guardsmen were six kids from Ocala, Florida, some of whom were still in high school when they formed the group in 1966. They started out trying to do near-perfect copies of current hits in live appearances. But things took a turn for them when they created this silly song about that "funny looking dog with a big black nose!"

The Royal Guardsmen consisted of Billy Taylor (keyboard), Bill Balogh (bass), Tom Richards (lead guitar), Barry Winslow (vocals and guitar), Chris Nunley (vocals), and John Burdett (drums). The Royal Guardsmen evolved from an earlier group fronted by Bill Balogh called The Posmen, loosely named after Bill's father's job as a postman (without the "t"). John Burdett wanted to meet a girl who lived next door to Bill, so the two of them became friends. John told Bill he could play the drums, and Bill invited him to join his group, even though John had never played drums in his life! As it turns out, every other member of the group, except drummer John, had extensive experience with the drums as members of the high school drum corps! The Posmen did some live gigs during the spring and summer of 1965 and changed members along the way. If you like, you can find the complete story of how the group got started by clicking HERE. The boys were all fans of the British Invasion sound. When they bought some new Vox equipment and noticed the amplifier carried the Royal Guardsman name. That sounded a lot better than The Posmen, so it became the band's new name. John pulled the emblem off the amplifier and stuck it on the face of his bass drum!

By September of 1966, the band was finalized and they headed for the recording studio to cut a demo record. They recorded four tracks at Fuller Studios in Tampa. They met record producer Phil Gernhard at a local gig when he approached them with a song idea. He showed them a yellow legal pad with the lyrics to Snoopy vs The Red Baron on it. It was originally written by Dick Holler as a straight historical ballad about The Red Baron of Germany, similar to Sink The Bismarck by Johnny Horton. The Red Baron was actually the hero of this story, since it was sung from the German's perspective. The Red Baron was a real fighter pilot and flying ace named Manfred von Richtofen, winner of Prussia's highest military order, the Blue Max. You can read all about him by clicking HERE.


Around this same time, Charles Shulz was already doing the Snoopy vs the Red Baron bit in his comic strip, with Snoopy yelling things like "Curse you, Red Baron!" Phil asked Dick Holler about changing his lyrics to a novelty about the comic strip character. The group wasn't sure what they were going to do with those lyrics, musically, but they went to work on it. They tried to follow Phil Gernhard's suggestion to give it just a few chords backed by a military drum riff. The boys didn't really think it was that good, but Phil liked it enough to get them into the recording studio to cut a demo that he could shop around to some record labels.

Chris was taking German while attending the University of Florida, so he ended up doing the opening of the song, which translates into English as: "Attention! We will now sing together to story of the beloved Red Baron and that pig-headed dog Snoopy!"

This is where the story gets a little more interesting. The group figured they would need permission from Charles Shulz to use his Snoopy character in their song. They sent a copy of the record to Charles but never got a response from him. Instead, his lawyers suggested they change the name. By this time, Phil had hooked up with Laurie Records to distribute the song nationally. While trying to sort out the legal issues, they released the song in Canada with the title changed to Squeaky vs The Black Knight.


Shulz and his lawyers eventually cleared their use of Snoopy, probably in exchange for some money, and Laurie released Snoopy vs The Red Baron in September 1966. It was on top of the charts in December, and even reached #8 in the UK by January 1967.

Now most people think that only the name was changed on these pressings, but not the song itself. That's not the case! It took me a very long time to track this record down, but here is what I found on my copy Squeaky vs The Black Knight by The Royal Guardsmen on Laurie 3366X out of Canada. Get ready for a song you probably know very well, but with lyrics you've never heard before!


Of course, you will hear this version, along with many other surprises, when you listen to MusicMaster Oldies!

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this !!! I used to live in Milwaukee-played some 50's & 60's up there

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  2. Great story! I thought maybe I had the only 45 left of Sqeaky vs The Black Knight. I listened to it as a kid and thought the Snoopy version when I first heard it was wrong. Thanks for the memories.

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  3. Since writing this post, I've learned some new "inside" information about this record. As it turns out, The Royal Guardsmen had nothing to do with writing the music for Snoopy Vs The Red Baron. When Phil Gernhard approached the Guardsmen with the song, the music had already been written by Dick Holler. The Guardsmen may have worked out some changes in the arrangement and adjust the lyrics a bit, but by the time The Guardsmen got the song, all the music and about half the lyrics had already been written by Dick Holler. Before The Guardsmen came into the picture, Dick Holler had already written a song called The Red Baron. He recorded a demo of it at Cosmos studio in New Orleans with Phil Gernhard. Some time later, Phil read the Charles Shultz comic strip with Snoopy and The Red Baron and got a great idea! He changed the lyrics to add Snoopy's name, but only made changes after the first chorus. Listen to Snoopy Vs The Red Baron and you'll hear that the first two verses and chorus make no mention of Snoopy at all! Phil got the Guardsmen to record the song with the new lyrics without telling Dick Holler (only because he couldn't find him). When Phil finally caught up with Dick, Snoopy Vs The Red Baron was already moving up the charts and close to becoming a smash hit! That was great news for Dick, so he wasn't about to complain. Even though Dick wrote all the music and half the lyrics, he ended up splitting the song credits half and half with Phil. So now you know the rest of the story!

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  4. I have copies of both versions. I remember as a kid, I never understood why they made two records of virtually the same song.

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  5. This is is really interesting, I've loved this song since I was a kid 15 years ago or so.

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