'Ballad of the Green Berets' singer’s biographer talks about Barry Sadler’s meteoric rise, murder charge, violent death
In 1966, Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an active-duty Green Beret medic, became a national sensation with his song “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones had chart-topping hits that year, but it was Sadler’s salute to the Special Forces that finished the year at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Singles chart, based on sales and airplay.
Sadler’s rise from a tour in Vietnam to the top of the pops might have been interesting enough to fill a book. His fall from that short-lived perch makes the story all the more compelling. Historian and Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson captures it all in “Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death.”
“In a lot of ways his life is a tragic story,” said Leepson, Senior Writer, Books Editor and columnist for The VVA Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America. “He was on top of the world, or at least the United States, in 1966. Then everything unraveled.”
Sadler’s music career stalled after one marginally successful follow-up. Before long, hundreds of thousands in royalty dollars were gone to booze and bad business sense. Less than 15 years after his song hit No. 1, Sadler was charged with murder in Nashville. As that legal struggle began, so did Sadler’s successful second act as pulp-fiction novelist. After years of drinking and womanizing, he spent his final years living apart from his family in Central America, where the carousing continued. In September 1988, he was shot in the head in a taxicab in Guatemala City. Who shot him remains unclear. Sadler died the following year, not yet 50 years old.
Leepson, 71, recently spoke by telephone with Stars and Stripes about his new book, Sadler’s famous song and the soldier’s rocky road after the fame faded.
Stars and Stripes: Why did you decide to write a book about Barry Sadler? Leepson: It’s a process. When you finish the book you’re working on, you’re thinking about the next book. You’re always thinking about it, but then have to put your mind to it. So I worked with my agent on it, and I suggest ideas, and he usually doesn’t like them. Then he comes up with stuff. In this case, I hadn’t really gone through the process. While I was writing my previous book, a fellow Vietnam veteran writer and colleague named John Mort mentioned in email correspondence that he wanted to write a biography of Barry Sadler but his agent was giving him trouble. Your agents kind of stratify you in a category, and he’d been writing fiction, so fiction and nonfiction is probably like two different entities or two different universes. I said to him, “Look, John, if you ever decide not to do this project, I’d love to do it but I’m not unless you say it’s okay. Sure enough, a couple of months later he sent me an email (saying), “My agent won’t let me do it. It’s all yours.” And he sent me a whole bunch of material, including about eight or 10 of the pulp-fiction books that Barry wrote. I mentioned it to my agent, who also happens to be a Vietnam War veteran, and he said, “Hey, that sounds good.” So the next step is writing a proposal, and I worked hard on the proposal, which your agent helps you with, and then he sold it.
How much did you know about Sadler before you started your research? Not much. Basically, I think I knew what most people of our generation know: that he was a Green Beret active-duty sergeant who wrote and recorded this song that became the No. 1 song of the year 1966. And I knew that he had died, but I didn’t know any of the details — certainly nothing about his life growing up, or the fact that he was in the Air Force for four years (or) what he did in the military — I didn’t even know he was a Green Beret medic. And then all the other crazy stuff that happened to him.
What aspect of your book do you think is likely to be the most revealing for readers who only know Sadler from “The Ballad”? Almost everything (laughs). His childhood — he had this really rough childhood; his parents divorcing when he was 5 and then his father died of cancer a couple of years later; his mother not being exactly June Cleaver and taking him and his brother all over the West; and growing up practically a juvenile delinquent in Leadville, Colo. I didn’t know he was in the Air Force. I didn’t know any of the details about how the song came to be: how he wrote it, how he sold it, why RCA picked it up. I didn’t know that the Army took him off regular duties and sent him around the country for 15 months to promote the song. And then, of course, the spectacular things that happened to him afterward: the fact that he murdered a guy; the fact that he himself had a violent death (after he) had gone down to Guatemala. So, really, it was all a discovery through the research.
Sadler seemed to have multiple stories about parts of his upbringing, the origin of “The Ballad” and some of his activities later in his life. How hard was it to get a sense that you were writing the definitive biography of Barry Sadler? I hope I did write the definitive biography. There are still a lot of people alive who knew him so, strictly speaking, to write a definitive biography more than a few decades have to go by before the dust is settled and people’s letters or diaries or journals come out. However, that said, I did interview 70 people and nearly all of them knew Sadler. Some of them were Green Berets who had served similar tours of duty or Green Beret medics. I did extensive interviews with his wife (and) with several of his best friends. I went to Nashville to see for myself everything that happened there with the murder and the bars that he hung out in, and I think that I got the essence of him. I hesitate to call it “the definitive,” but I’ll say for now definitely it is the definitive. I wouldn’t be very surprised if something came out that I somehow missed that people were keeping secret. For instance, we don’t know who shot him; whether (as the) Guatemalan police say, he was drunk and accidentally shot himself. His friends and family adamantly deny that and say that he was shot by a robber or an assassin. We just don’t know. I suppose somebody who speaks Spanish could go down to Guatemala and spend a long time trying to dig through records and talk to people. The bottom-line answer to the question is that I really do believe that I did get as much as I possibly could, but there’s the possibility that things may come up.
Many critics argue that 1966 was the greatest year in rock music history. So how then, in that environment, did “The Ballad of the Green Berets” become the No. 1 single for the year? I think I know most of the reasons. First of all, you have to look at the Vietnam War. Even though 1966 was literally in the ’60s, when we speak of “The ’60s,” we’re really talking about stuff that happened right after that, like ’67, in general, especially with the Vietnam War. What we think of as “The ’60s” is more like the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s. In ’66, the American public strongly supported the Vietnam War. A lot of people were not happy with President (Lyndon B.) Johnson’s prosecution of the war, but the public was strongly behind it. And in a lot of ways the public feeling about the military and about the war was what we think of in the previous generation, the World War II generation. Barry, by the way, was born in 1940, so he was not a member of the Baby Boomer generation, he was not a “’60s person.” He belonged to the previous generation. So here we have this very patriotic, pro-soldier — you know, the word “Vietnam” is not mentioned in the song, (but) of course it’s a subtext. It wasn’t pro-war. It was pro-soldier, it was very patriotic and it really struck a chord in a country that was changing. In 1966, the ’60s was in its infancy. In general, it struck a chord with the people of the World War II generation. It struck a chord among Baby Boomers, too, as far as the political message and what the song was about. Barry being an active-duty soldier was also very well accepted by that generation; whereas, unhappily, it wouldn’t be (the case) a year after that. Certainly two years after that. That’s the nonmusical answer. That’s the political background, or the sociological or both. As far as music is concerned, there’s something about that song. When you listen to it, you might get an earworm. It sticks with you. Barry wasn’t a great singer, but he certainly did perfectly well with that song. So it struck a chord at that particular time. I think there’s a quote in the book (where) one of the marketing people said that if it had come out six months later it wouldn’t have sold and it wouldn’t have become a sensation. That might be an exaggeration. But I would say a year later, certainly.
It definitely did become a sensation. How many copies of the single and the album sold that year? I’m not sure of that year, but overall nine million singles and two million of the album. Most of them that year. (The song) was No. 1 for five weeks.
Younger readers might not know Sadler at all. Who are some of the modern one-hit wonders who are comparable? I don’t know that you can compare him to anybody. Somebody compared him to the Singing Nun. She was a Belgian nun who had a song in French that was a No. 1 song (“Dominique,” 1963). It was like a novelty song. I do listen to contemporary music, and I think I’d be aware of someone who was similar. I can’t think of any analogies … much less active-duty military.
An unsung hero in the story of the song is Gerry Gitell. What was his role in the success of “The Ballad”? It seems like he missed his calling as a public information officer, and maybe he should have been an A&R guy. It’s an amazing story. Unfortunately, Gerry died in 2010. But fortunately for me his son, Seth, is a really great guy. I wanted to interview Gerry when I started my research, and I saw that he died, but I also saw that his son had written a couple of articles about him and about the song. So I contacted him and I did a long interview with him. He really liked the idea of the book, and he sent me a whole bunch of information. He sent me photocopies of royalty statements that his father had. Barry does mention Gerry in his autobiography “I’m a Lucky One,” which came out in 1967, which he didn’t write, by the way. He did give a journalist a co-author credit, but it appears that he probably just dictated it and that Tom Mahoney wrote it. It was part of the whole marketing plan. Barry does mention (Gitell) and does give Gerry credit, but I found out more details. Gerry heard him singing the song, and he brought him in to (Gen. William) Yarborough (the commander of the Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C.). Yarborough loved it and said, “Do it. Do what you can.” So (Gitell) somehow rigs up a rudimentary recording studio at Fort Bragg, makes a demo and then shops the demo to the music companies in New York. He even gets permission from Gen. Yarborough to go to New York. Barry and Gerry go to New York, and they signed a songwriter’s contract. Barry was so grateful that he told Gerry he’d like to give him 25 percent of the royalties. To his credit, he honored that. I don’t know a bottom-line figure on that, but it had to be in the hundreds of thousands (of dollars), I would think, over the years.
How did fate factor into Sadler’s success? The circumstances of him getting into the Army, even? Did I read that correctly in your book? He was just going to reenlist in the Air Force. You have to remember that a lot of his personal history comes from interviews he gave after he became famous. He tended to tell people what they wanted to hear, and he told different stories about crucial moments, like how the song came to be. He says that he was going to re-up in the Air Force, and that the Air Force recruiter wasn’t there and he went next door to the Army. That could be true. It may be true. It’s probably true. But it might not be. But, to your question, I think I quoted somebody as saying, “He was the right man in the right place at the right time.” This whole confluence of things happened. He recorded the song in late ’65, he was a Vietnam vet, he was a handsome guy. He looked like a recruiting poster for the Green Berets. The timing was perfect. The other thing is that Barry’s fate was not very good after all the hoopla died down. Not much good happened to him after that.
Speaking of that shift, popular music and attitudes about the war started to change shortly thereafter. How did that affect his music career? I really don’t think that had an impact on his music career. It had an impact on his life, and millions of other Americans’ lives. The music career went nowhere. RCA did put out a second album pretty quickly, and it sold well — it wasn’t anything like a No. 1, but it sold well; I think because people were curious — but it wasn’t very good. Then he made a few records that were terrible. He later admitted that they were terrible, and he was just trying to make a living at that point because he blew all the money. So I don’t think the rise of the antiwar movement and the country being so divided had an impact on his musical career. It certainly had an impact on his life.
In what ways was his success the worst thing that could have happened to him? The analogy I’ve used is a basketball player or a football player who had a hard life growing up — let’s say a (with) single parent like Barry did. Living in the projects — Barry didn’t live in the projects, but it was practically like that. They’re really, really talented. They play one year in college. They sign a $12 million contract in the NBA and they have a little bit of a career and five years later they’re broke and greeting people at Walmart. He wasn’t equipped to handle that success. He once said the song was the worst thing that ever happened to him. If he hadn’t had that (success), the consensus of opinion from his friends and family was that he would have put in 30 years in the Army, got out, rented an RV and drove around the country happily hunting and fishing. This just altered everything, and it brought out the worst in him, I guess you could say. He blew all the money. He was reckless in his personal life. And he wound up with a bullet in his head in a taxicab in Guatemala City when he was 49 years old.
What are some of the other careers he attempted between music and when he started writing? The first thing he wanted to do was make more records. That didn’t work. He opened up a bar in Tucson (Ariz.). That didn’t work. Then he wanted to get into the movies, and he and a buddy actually started a production company and even opened an office in Hollywood, but that just cost him money. They spent a lot of time going to a lot of bars and talking to people at the bars, but they were all more interested in drinking. They had a screenplay, a Vietnam War drama they couldn’t sell. They had a lot of fun, and they spent a lot of money, but that didn’t work. He wanted to start a chain of battery stores. That never worked. That’s when he moved from Tucson in ’73 to Nashville, where he thought he could jump-start the country music thing, and that didn’t work. So he started writing those books.
Ultimately the move to Nashville had some negative consequences for him. In the late ’70s, he’s charged with second-degree murder for killing a lover’s ex-boyfriend. How did he avoid serious jail time? In a nutshell, he hired the best criminal defense lawyer in Nashville, a guy named Joe Binkley Sr. He worked his courtroom magic. The homicide detective who investigated the murder turned over all of his records to me. I got to read Barry’s statement when he was arrested and dozens of other things. There was a letter in there from the district attorney. Barry maintained his innocence; he said that he thought the guy was going for a gun and so he shot him. He also maintained that he didn’t shoot to kill, and that he missed on purpose and that the guy killed himself with his own gun. Well, that wasn’t true. Nevertheless, there was enough doubt put in people’s minds and also the district attorney said he couldn’t prosecute … he didn’t feel like he would be able to convict — didn’t put it quite like that, but he did use the term “all-American boy.” There was a lot of pro-military sentiment in Nashville at the time — this is 1978, ’79 and ’80, and there probably still is a lot of pro-military sentiment there. He had this reputation. Not many people knew that he was drinking a lot or carrying on at that time, that he was broke. So he said, “I can’t go into court against this all-American boy,” and they made a plea bargain, and he plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and the judge gave him four to five (years). Then Joe Binkley worked some more magic, and all of a sudden the judge whittled down the sentence to 30 days in the county workhouse. Barry wound up serving 28 in this facility in downtown Nashville. His literary agent told me the first time he went to visit Barry, to bring him a typewriter and two cartons of cigarettes, he didn’t realize there were no locks on the doors until he was in Barry’s cell.
How did Sadler feel about the success of “The Ballad” later in his life? He was bitter about it. I think he was mostly bitter about what the Army did to him after the song hit. He had come back from Vietnam, he was wounded, he took a punji stick in the side of his knee. He recovered, he was on light duty, then he was getting ready to go on regular duty. Then they took him off his duties and sent him around the country to be a human recruiting poster, which he hated. He liked some of it. He liked the adulation, but he hated being out there. He was uncomfortable. Reporters all asked the same questions: “Where did the song come from?”, “What do you think about the Vietnam War?” He just hated it, and he got out of the Army as soon as he could, which was May of ’67. Nothing went right after that, and a lot of things went really wrong. Later on, he said, “If the song had never had happened, likely that would never have happened.” I think it was more how he was treated by the Army. He loved the Army. After he got out, a few times they asked him to do things like come to Fort Bragg and talk to people, and he did it. He loved the institution of the Army, but he didn’t like the way they treated him after the song hit.
He did have a lucrative second career as a writer of these military adventure novels. What was the appeal of his books? They’re pulp fiction. He wrote 22 books in the “Casca: The Eternal Mercenary” series, and he wrote seven other pulpy novels. Lots of violence. Lots of sex. One of his editors called them “male romance novels,” which I thought was great; the male equivalent of the bodice ripper. The hero is a manly man who fights evil people, who is tortured to within an inch of his life, survives through his brains and his brawn, gets the girl and goes on to fight again. The other thing is, Barry loved history and so he got the details mostly right in setting these (books) in different wars and different times — he went back to the Vietnam War several times — so he got to do these male romances in all these different wars, and he mixes some true historical characters in there. And someone has carried on the series after he died. Four or five more have come out. So people read them, and people seem to like them.
He suffers a gunshot wound to the head under murky circumstances in Guatemala and he dies the following year. What would it take at this point for somebody to solve that case? Someone would have to go down to Guatemala and just start digging around. There was a taxi driver and a woman in that taxi when the shot went into his temple. I’ve never seen them quoted directly. Maybe somewhere deep in the archives there is that information, or maybe there are photographs of the physical evidence. The taxi driver claimed the bullet was lodged in the headliner in the front seat. If that was the case, it’s pretty likely that it was a self-inflicted, not on purpose, accident. (It would take) forensics. The family claims they talked to the surgeons in Nashville who operated on him, and they said it was a rifle bullet. Where’s that bullet now? I don’t know. Plus, several of the key witnesses are not living. It would take an awful lot of detective work by somebody who is bilingual.
How is Barry Sadler’s life a metaphor for the Vietnam War? In some ways, you could say he was a casualty of the Vietnam War. In some ways. I don’t think it’s a perfect metaphor, because he had a troubled childhood, and who’s to say he wouldn’t have had a troubled adulthood if it weren’t for Vietnam and the song. But you can’t separate the song and his service in Vietnam. When he went in (the Army), the nation was solidly behind the war — even when he came home in June of ’65. The song hit while the war was still, I don’t want to say popular, but the public supported it. He was very, very bitter about what the ultimate result of the Vietnam War. He was a representative of that giant generation gap during the war where the younger generation, the Baby Boom generation, also known as the Vietnam War generation, the ’60s generation … he wasn’t part of that. He was on the other side of that. I think you can take the analogy only so far, and I don’t think the Vietnam War caused what happened later to happen, but it certainly was a big influence.
What is Barry Sadler’s legacy? In a lot of ways his life is a tragic story. He was on top of the world, or at least the United States, in 1966. Then everything unraveled — slowly, but it did. He definitely has an indelible legacy among Special Forces. That song — not his life, so much, but the song — is revered. It’s the unofficial anthem of the Green Berets, of the Special Forces. They still play it all the time at Fort Bragg reunions. I’ve seen video of it played at funerals of Green Berets. It means a lot to a lot of people. A portion of Special Forces people love the song but don’t love the guy because of the tawdriness of what happened after. But as far as the song is concerned, that’s going to be a long, long positive legacy.