Former Baton Rouge resident Dick Holler had a special reason for seeing “The Peanuts Movie” last weekend.
Holler is the co-writer of the 1966 hit song “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron.” In the new movie based on the cartoon strip by the late Charles M. Schulz, Snoopy the beagle and World War I German fighter pilot ace The Red Baron engage in more of their hotly contested aerial dog fights.
Holler lived in Baton Rouge from 1951 to 1962. Captivated by New Orleans rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll, he became a 1950s peer of future stars Johnny Rivers, John Fred Gourrier and Jimmy Clanton.
In 1962, Holler wrote “The Red Baron,” the precursor to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” in the small garage-recording studio next to his house on Ontario Street.
The original “The Red Baron” has two verses and no mention of Snoopy. Holler modeled the song on the history-inspired recitation songs of country singer Johnny Horton (“Sink the Bismarck,” “The Battle of New Orleans”).
Holler and his band, The Holidays, recorded “The Red Baron” at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans recording studio.
“Cos liked the idea,” he recalled this week from his home in Berkeley, California. “So we spent all day working on that song. But then Cos couldn’t get anybody to pick it up.”
Holler and The Holidays had better luck with the first recorded version of “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love”), co-written by Don Smith, bass player in The Holidays, and Baton Rouge songwriter Cyril Vetter. Released by Comet Records, The Holidays’ version was a hit on the East Coast. Three years later, The Swingin’ Medallions’ remake of the song became a national hit.
Also in 1962, Holler and The Holidays moved to South Carolina. The beach music audience in South Carolina loved the Holidays’ versions of Coasters, Hank Marvin and the Midnighters, Cadillacs and Drifters songs.
“That music wasn’t working in Baton Rouge,” Holler said. “So we got a chance to go to South Carolina, where, unbeknownst to us, that kind of music was red hot.”
In 1966, Holler was living in North Carolina, playing music part time, when the Florida-based producer Phil Gernhard, having seen the Peanuts cartoon strip featuring Snoopy and The Red Baron, added two new verses to Holler’s “The Red Baron.”
Gernhard renamed the song “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” and produced a recording of it by The Royal Guardsmen, a Florida band that featured high school and college students. “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” became a million seller.
Holler’s next major hit, “Abraham, Martin and John,” appeared in 1968. The song launched a comeback for its singer, Dion, the late 1950s and early ’60s rock ’n’ roll star.
Holler has since continued his life as a songwriter and performer. Recently, he rerecorded “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” with several members of his family. It’s available from iTunes and Amazon.
“It sounds pretty good to me,” he said. “All my kids, some of my grandkids sing on it. That was a wonderful, fun thing to do.”
Check out the signatures song here: