ON JANUARY 29, 1966, one of the strangest hit records in popular music made its debut on the Cash Box Top 100. It wasn’t the strongest day for new singles debuting on that survey: the week’s highest-charting new entry was the Dave Clark 5’s At The Scene (#58). It was a solid, if unexceptional, side by the group that had been the Beatles’ strongest competition on the American charts during the British Invasion of 1964-1965. 1
The standout entries that week were the Four Seasons’ Working My Way Back To You (#64), Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (#74), and the Bobby Fuller Four’s I Fought The Law (#84). And each of these three singles would go on the make the Top 10, something the Dave Clark 5’s record would not do.
The Ballad Of The Green Berets was one of the unlikeliest hits of all time and the biggest selling record of 1966.
But the most remarkable new record on the chart was a simple, folk-like song that entered at a lowly #99. The Ballad Of The Green Berets was credited to SSgt Barry Sadler, and it praised the members of the US Army’s elite Special Forces. This group of highly-trained men had been getting media attention for their role in the ten-year-old-yet-still-undeclared war being waged in the jungles of Vietnam. 2
It was one of the unlikeliest hit records of all time, sounding like it should be played over the closing credits of a movie, not like it should be played round-the-clock on every Top 40 station in the country.
But it was: five weeks after entering at #99, The Ballad Of The Green Berets (backed with Letter From Vietnam and issued as RCA Victor 47-8739) was the #1 record on the national pop charts! It quickly received an RIAA Gold Record Award for domestic sales of 1,000,000 copies. 3
The two images above are the front and back covers of the picture sleeve for the US single of The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The back cover makes it obvious that RCA Victor knew they were going to have a hit with this record as they already had an LP recorded and ready for release! Like the single, the album would top the best-sellers chart and sell millions of copies.
One of these days
Normally, the edgy Working My Way Back To You and the pulsing I Fought The Law sounded like they should be played over and over again. They were easily the best of the batch of the week’s entries, but neither of them made it to the top.
But it was These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ that received the most attention: it was an almost irresistible blend of kink and camp. With Nancy’s mini-skirted, go-go-booted appearance on television and in magazines, it found its way to #1 on February 26.
But then Sgt. Sadler’s record took over the top spot and the refrain “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” was replaced with “One hundred men will test today, but only three win the Green Beret.”
Hankering for songs about the historical battles and a soft spot for novelty was not what made The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit.
That The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit is hard to explain: there was no real history of songs about the military making big splashes on the pop charts. There were hit records about the past, such as Johnny Horton’s massive hit The Battle Of New Orleans which celebrated a battle that had happened almost 150 years before. 4
But a hankering for songs about the historical battles was not what made The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit.
Another way of looking at Sadler’s hit is as a novelty record: while not a joke of any sort, it may have attracted so much attention for its uniqueness. Americans loved a good novelty record and had a history of taking them to the top of the charts, from Gene Autry’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949) to Bill Hayes’ The Ballad Of Davy Crockett (1955) to Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash (1962). 5
But a soft spot for novelty songs was not what made The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit.
Had Barry Sadler’s record not made such a splash, we would have been forced to deal with Nancy Sinatra and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ as the #1 record on the Cash Box Top 100 for four consecutive weeks, instead of the sole week it had before Sadler took over the top spot.
To illustrate how out of place Sadler’s record was at the time, here is the Top 10 on Cash Box the week of March 5, 1966. This was the first of four weeks for The Ballad Of The Green Berets stay at the top:
1. Barry Sadler The Ballad Of The Green Berets
2. Nancy Sinatra These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
3. Lou Christie Lightnin’ Strikes
4. Herman’s Hermits Listen People
5. Mamas & Papas California Dreamin’
6. Stevie Wonder Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
7. Rolling Stones 19th Nervous Breakdown
8. Bob Lind Elusive Butterfly
9. Bobby Fuller Four I Fought The Law
10. Supremes My World Is Empty Without You
Among the other records, The Ballad Of The Green Berets sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb! Eight of the other records are considered rock or soul classics by most fans and historians. Four of the artists are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the four records by the non-Hall inductees should be in the Hall as classic hits. 6
And then there’s the Green Berets record.
One of the hallmarks of most novelty-type records is a limited shelf-life: after they have had their fifteen minutes of fame, they are forgotten. While Sadler’s record would be quickly forgotten—I don’t recall ever hearing it played on any oldies station over the next few decades.
This is one of several beautiful photos taken by Guy Webster at Franklin Canyon in California in 1965. Had Barry Sadler’s record not made such a splash, the Rolling Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown would have made it to the top position one week earlier than it did. It would have been #1 for two weeks, instead of the sole week it had after Sadler left the top spot.
Dominoes falling one by one
A third way to look at this record’s success was to see it as a kind of support by the white middle class for our military’s efforts to stop the fall of dominoes in Southeast Asia. A belief in the so-called “domino effect” or “domino theory” led millions of Americans to fear an invasion by a horde of sallow-skinned, commie-infected invaders taking over the San Francisco Bay Area and the sweeping east in a reverse Manifest Destiny. 7
That this was an impossible scenario didn’t enter into many conversations among believers. But it probably entered many minds subconsciously, placing America in a state of cultural denial. As a way of dealing with the guilt so often a part of the denial process, we bought The Ballad Of The Green Berets.
It’s this perspective that is interesting to consider when looking at how and why this strange record topped the charts in early 1966: while a record extolling the skills of soldiers was always possible up to this point, that possibility became more and more improbable as LBJ’s Vietnam War dragged on to become Nixon’s Southeast Asian War.
Barry Sadler had assistance with the lyrics to The Ballad Of The Green Berets from Robin Moore, whose novel The Green Berets had been published in 1965. The original edition from Crown Publishers included a dust jacket whose artwork featured a pair of green berets. With the success of Sadler’s record, the first paperback edition (Avon, 1966) featured the same photo and design as the picture sleeve to Sadler’s record. The record helped sell the book, while the book helped sell the record!
Letter from Vietnam
Barry Sadler enlisted in 1958 and in 1965 he was stuck by a punji stick covered in fecal matter. Sadler dressed his own wound and completed the patrol, but developed a serious infection in his leg and was evacuated. In 1967, he was honorably discharged. But before that discharge, he became a pop star.
RCA Victor followed his hit single with an album with the same title: THE BALLAD OF THE GREEN BERETS (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-3547) received an RIAA Gold Record Award for sales of a million dollars at the wholesale level on the same day that the single received a Gold Record for sales of a million copies. The album is reputed to have sold more than 2,000,000 copies in the US.
Sadler’s follow-up single also addressed Green Berets in Vietnam: The ‘A’ Team/ An Empty Glass (RCA Victor 47-8804) was also a hit later in the year, reaching the Top 20 on Cash Box.
It was Sadler’s last hit.
In his two-year career as a pop star, he released a handful of singles and three albums. He almost certainly sold more than 10,000,000 records in that time, almost all of those sales from the first single and the first album. His recording career was short, successful, profitable, and dignified. 8
So he moved on.
In 1967, Sadler and co-author Tom Mahoney wrote and published his autobiography, I’m A Lucky One, titled after a song on his first album: “I’m going home, my tour is done. I’m going home, I’m a lucky one. But I left friends behind me who won’t come home no more. Many friends remain forever on that bloody shore.”
The eternal mercenary
During 1967-1968, Barry tried acting and found parts in a few television westerns (Death Valley Days and The High Chapparal) and one low-budget movie, Dayton’s Devils (1968). During the ’70s, he owned a bar, wrote some country songs, tried producing a movie, and invested a fortune in authentic German Army WWII artifacts.
In 1978, Barry was back in the news, this time shooting and killing another man. Lee Emerson Bellamy had been a country singer in the ’50s and then moved onto manage such prominent stars as Marty Robbins, Bobby Helms, Jimmy C. Newman, and George Jones. Bellamy had been harassing his old girlfriend, who was currently Sadler’s girlfriend.
It was ruled self-defense.
In 1979, he published his first novel, The Eternal Mercenary. It told the tale of Casca, reputedly the Roman soldier who stabbed the crucified Jesus and was doomed by God to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of Jesus. The series was popular and Sadler wrote twenty more Casca novels!
In 1988, in a rather a bizarre case in Guatemala City, Sadler was shot in the head. While witnesses say he shot himself accidentally, friends and family insist it was done by robbers. He never fully recovered from his injuries and died in November 1989.
Former Staff Sergeant US Army Barry Sadler is a fascinating person. How Hollywood has missed making a movie about this man is puzzling. 9
The is the French poster for the 1968 movie The Green Berets.
The Lord of the Beret trilogy
This is the second of three articles purportedly relating to Barry Sadler and his 1966 hit single The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The three make the most sense if read in this order:For one year, Barry Sadler may have outsold the Beatles, the Monkees, Herb Alpert, and The Mamas & The Papas! Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is titled “Close Up Of Barry Sadler Holding A Machine Gun Tucson Arizona 1971” and was taken by David Lee Guss. When I first saw this, I assumed that Barry was in uniform and toting an automatic weapon for a role he was doing for a film I couldn’t find. Nope, apparently, he just liked going out into the desert in his German Army VW Amphibian 4-wheeler with a machine-gun and play army.
1 Being a teenager during the British Invasion, the Dave Clark 5 and the Kinks were my faverave groups. At The Scene would also be their last big hit on this side of the Atlantic. Coincidentally, the Kinks would also have their last major hit of the decade in 1966 when Sunny Afternoon reached #11 in October and appear to be washed up by ’67.
2 Like British Commandos during the Second World War, these soldiers sported sporty green berets. Oddly, the beret is normally associated with two groups: the French, whom both Brits and conservative Americans tend to look down upon because they were unable to halt Hitler’s Blitzkrieg without assistance during WWII, and jazz-loving, pot-smoking, coffee-drinking beatniks. Somehow this escaped the attention of the Special Forces members and people in the mainstream media.
3 Supposedly, The Ballad Of The Green Berets sold 5,000,000 by year’s end, making it the biggest selling single of 1966. But as the highest award then available was a Gold Record, those sales were never officially audited and certified.
4 The Battle Of New Orleans stayed at #1 on the Cash Box survey for nine consecutive weeks, making it one of the biggest hits of the rock & rolling ’50s. Horton followed it with Sink the Bismark, about the 1941 sinking of Hitler’s biggest battleship, which was a Top 10 hit in 1960.
5 I am using the word novelty here to mean “the quality or state of being new, different, and interesting.” (Merriam-Webster)
6 Only the perennially over-looked Herman’s Hermits and the lovely Listen People are not getting its just do as a fine beat ballad.
7 “The domino theory was a Cold War policy that suggested a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist takeovers in neighboring states, each falling like a perfectly aligned row of dominos. In Southeast Asia, the U.S. government used the now-discredited domino theory to justify its involvement in the Vietnam War and its support for a non-communist dictator in South Vietnam. In fact, the American failure to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam had much less of an impact than had been assumed by proponents of the domino theory. With the exception of Laos and Cambodia, communism failed to spread throughout Southeast Asia.” (History)
8 For one year, Barry Sadler outsold every artist in the world except perhaps for the Beatles, the Monkees, Herb Alpert, and The Mamas & The Papas.
9 The information on Sadler on the Internet is very incomplete.