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'Ballad Of The Green Berets' Singer Barry Sadler's Rise And Tragic Fall

Culture | June 3, 2019

Left: Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler in 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Right: Sadler's mug shot from 1979. Courtesy Nashville Metropolitan Police Department.

It's perhaps the most unlikely #1 pop hit of all time: "Ballad Of The Green Berets" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. The Vietnam War still had public support, although resistance to it from the younger generation was beginning to gain momentum over reports of the U.S. bombing activities in North Vietnam. The lyrics of Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad Of The Green Berets" are an unapologetic salute to troops fighting in a war that would turn out to be very unpopular (although the word "Vietnam" does not appear in the song):

Silver Wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
100 men will test today
But only 3 win the Green Beret

Sadly, Sgt. Barry Sadler's life would take some bad turns after the phenomenon of "Ballad Of The Green Berets." Like many artists who see a rapid success, he was not able to sustain it. His story ends in disillusionment and violence.

But the achievement of the song cannot be denied -- it bumped Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" from the #1 spot and held off the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown," the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," and Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." In 1966, American culture was about to undergo the major change we often think of when we talk about "the '60s." The Summer Of Love would occur in 1967, and Woodstock was still three years off. 

But in 1966 the country was less divided than it would become. "One of the marketing people said that if [the song] had come out six months later, it wouldn’t have sold and it wouldn’t have become a sensation," said Marc Leepsen, author of a 2017 biography of Sadler.

 Before Singing About Green Berets, Sadler Served In Vietnam

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After dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, Sadler joined the U.S. Air Force in June 1958. He served for four years, and during that time he earned his GED and spent a year in Japan before he was honorably discharged in 1962. He re-upped his service later that year and after completing airborne training he served as a medic in the Special Forces.

From 1964 to 1965 Sadler served as a medic in Vietnam where he worked with the 5th Special Forces Group’s Detachment A-216, administering help to locals as well as soldiers. After receiving a punji stake wound in the knee he was evacuated from the area and brought to a medical base for recovery. 

Sadler Wrote The Song While In The Infirmary

Sgt Barry Sadler in 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Not one to waste time, while Sadler was laid up with a punji stake wound he began composing “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” His original version of the song reportedly had something like 12 verses, but with the help of author Robin Moore, he was able to carve the song down to its essential elements and score a recording contract with RCA.

While the song tells the story of an anonymous member of the Green Berets, there’s speculation that Sadler is referencing U.S. Army Specialist James Gabriel, Jr., a soldier who was killed by Viet Cong gunfire while on a training mission on April 8, 1962.

After Recording The Song, Sadler Became A Poster Boy For The US Military

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Once he was out of the hospital, Sadler traveled to New York in December 1965 where recorded his hit single and 11 other songs which were released a month later. Sadler was immediately thrust into the spotlight with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 30, 1966, before going on a 15-month nationwide tour backed by the Pentagon.

Sadler left the military in May 1967 with the intention of continuing his recording career, but according to his biographer, being on the road burned the singer out. He said:

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.

“The Ballad of the Green Berets” Was The Biggest Hit Of 1966

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When Sadler’s single was released in January ’66 it became an immediate sensation. The song went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 where it camped out for five weeks over songs by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas. By the end of 1966, Sadler’s song was the number one single of the year according to Billboard. 

Sadler’s Post “Green Berets” Music Career Wasn’t Great

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Unfortunately, the success of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was short-lived, and further attempts at a musical career were squashed when his follow-up efforts failed to live up to expectations. According to his biographer:

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.

While living in Nashville in the 1970s, Sadler was involved in an altercation with songwriter Lee Emerson Bailey over a woman they were both seeing. Sadler shot Bailey in the head; he later claimed self-defense, although details on the case are murky at best. Sadler was convicted of manslaughter and only served 28 days in prison. 

Ballad Of The Green Berets Was The “Worst Thing” That Ever Happened To Sadler

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While in Nashville, Sadler abandoned his music career and began writing a series of pulp novels about “Casca Rufio Longinius,” a Roman soldier tasked with fighting as a soldier until the second coming of Christ. According to Leepson, this period of Sadler’s life was fraught with unpredictability, and Sadler looked back on his hit song with spite:

He wasn’t equipped to handle that success. He once said the song was the worst thing that ever happened to him… This just altered everything, and it brought out the worst in him, I guess you could say. He blew all the money.

In the 1980s, Sadler moved to Guatemala where he continued to write while providing medical care to the locals. The end of his life is shrouded in mystery. On September 7, 1988, Sadler suffered a bullet wound to the head. The local police claim that he accidentally shot himself in the head, but some witnesses say that he was shot in a botched robbery.

Sadler was brought back to Nashville where he was left quadriplegic after an operation at the VA. On November 5, 1989, just days after his 49th birthday, he passed away from a heart attack.

The Song Endures, Despite The Songwriter's Controversial Legacy

A Special Forces Green Beret on display at the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Asked about the legacy of the man and the song, Sadler's biographer told Stars And Stripes:

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. ... That’s going to be a long, long positive legacy.

Tags: 1960s News | Ballad Of The Green Berets | Barry Sadler | Music In The 1960s | The Vietnam War

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.