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Gary U.S. Bonds (Photo courtesy National Council for the Traditional Arts)
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Gene "Daddy G" Barge (Photo courtesy National Council for the Traditional Arts)
The seemingly sleepy town of Norfolk is home to the largest Navy base in the world and bordered by several bodies of water – not exactly a music mecca. But the Norfolk Sound, a loose music movement that has a “live party” rock quality, originated there in the 1960s. Frank Guida, Gary U.S. Bonds (born Gary Anderson) and Gene “Daddy G” Barge are credited with its (unintentional) creation. Bonds explains his trademark stage name and the happy accident that created the Norfolk Sound ahead of his performance at the Richmond Folk Festival, Oct. 7-9 on Brown’s Island.
Richmond magazine: How did you get into music?
Gary U.S. Bonds: When I was a young teenager, my mother was always into music. She was a music teacher down in Norfolk. She tried to get me into music, to teach me piano. I couldn’t do that, back in those days that was too feminine for me, so I shied away from that. But she always loved the R&B stuff, mostly the blues. She would go to those concerts. She finally took me to an Ivy Jo Hunter and Bull Moose Jackson at the Booker T Theater [now known as the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center]. I had to be 11, something like that. I am 77 now.
RM: Was that your first concert?
Bonds: That was my first concert. I loved it. Once I saw them on stage with all the bright lights and the fancy shiny suits and all the girls screaming at them, I immediately said, “That’s what I want to do. If there is a life after this day, that’s gonna be my life.” I think that’s happened to me. I went for it.
RM: When did you officially start performing on stage?
Bonds: I think I had to be 15 or 16. I got together with some guys in my neighborhood. We formed a group, a singing group. We didn’t do anything professional at the time because of our age. We just did a lot of talent shows around town, high schools and gym and recreation centers in the tri-state area, Portsmouth, Hampton, Virginia Beach area. We weren’t looking for money; we were looking to have a nice time and attract girls. That got us into it – or at least got me into it – being able to stand out in front of an audience and not be afraid to do so.
RM: And after that group?
Bonds: After that, we did – well, I did – I recorded. We had a guy called Frank Guida, who owned the record company. He first owned the record shop, the place where they sold all the vinyl. It was called Frankie’s Got It record store. And he used to stop by on the corner and listen to us sing. One day when he was coming by he said, “Look, you guys sound pretty good. I am going to open up a recording studio one day; would you be interested in recording for me?” Well, he did it about two years later, and all the guys in my group had either gone into the service or they had gotten out of the neighborhood. I was the only one left when he came back. So he said, “You wanna go?” [and] I said, “Yes.” So I went in the studio with him, and we got lucky. The first recording was a hit, which was “New Orleans.” It was in 1959, when we did it. It wasn’t a hit till 1960, but we recorded it in 1959.
RM: Was that where you became U.S. Bonds? Why did he name you such?
Bonds: That was it. He named me that. God knows why. It was all his idea. The story I got later from him – because I didn’t particularly care for the name – not until I saw the first check, anyway: There was this guy who owned the store next door to one of the studios he had, Mr. Card. Mr. Card had a deli. He had this huge American flag hanging behind the counter and this huge cardboard statue of Uncle Sam with the big hat and everything selling U.S. Bonds. And that was the year they were pushing bonds on everybody, and I think that is where he got the name from. He decided in order to get the DJs to play the record, because of the big push they would … mistake it for one of their advertisements. And he was right, they did. They would play “New Orleans” and happen to get halfway through the record and go, “I don’t understand what is going on here, there isn’t anything about bonds in there.” And then Dick Clark put it on “American Bandstand,” and that was the beginning of the beginning.
RM: When did you and Bruce Springsteen connect? How did you meet?
Bonds: I met Bruce in Jersey in a nightclub called the Hangar. It had a big huge plane – well, half a plane on top of it to show it was a hangar. I don’t know what they were trying to do. There was a plane on the building. He came in one night with some of his buddies when I was working. I called him up on stage after someone told me that "There was a guy that we have out here that would like to sing with you." They gave me his name. I didn’t know who he was. I announced him on stage and the crowd went wild. And I was like, ‘Wow, that is peculiar.’ He got up and we sang for an hour and a half, and then we had a couple of beers and became friends. And we have remained that way since.
RM: It has been said you and Gene “Daddy G” Barge are the originators of the Norfolk Sound. What is your definition of the sound?
Bonds: Well, we did do some things — interesting things, I’d say. I think we just had a sound; I know Frank Guida always said it was planned, [but] I know that it wasn’t. We had a makeshift studio back in the day. We had a two-track recorder and we went in, me and Daddy G, and did music that was fun to us. We weren’t familiar with the New York or Chicago sound. We actually got the double and triple voices because when we did record the first time [and] I put my voice on there, it wasn’t loud enough. So I just overdubbed another voice on top of it to make it louder and then another voice on top of that to make it louder, and that is how we got that sound, the Norfolk sound. It turned out to be an interesting sound. It didn’t go that way in the beginning; we couldn’t get anybody to play the record [“New Orleans”] because they said it sounded inferior, most of the DJs. Up until Dick Clark put it on “American Bandstand,” and then all of sudden, everyone changed their minds. Once Dick Clark said it was good, it was good.
RM: You’re in Richmond for the Folk Festival playing with Daddy G — have you played in Richmond before?
Bonds: Folk festivals, yes, but not in Richmond.
RM: How do you keep your energy up?
Bonds: I don’t know, it just happens. We just keep doing it, thank god. This week is Daddy G’s 90th birthday. He’s working five bands in Chicago, they work three four nights every week. He has two big bands; 12 to 15 pieces at least, two regular club bands and a gospel band. I just have the one [laughs]. I still have my guys; they have been with me 17 years now. We know each other well. We haven’t gotten around to washing each other’s underwear yet, but we are getting close.
I am looking [forward to getting] there [Richmond]. We just recorded “Quarter to Three” again — me and Daddy G. We got together with Chuck D from Public Enemy and Gina Barge [Daddy G’s daughter]. That should be out by the time we get to Richmond.
RM: That would be awesome.
Bonds: I’ve never been a rap guy [laughs].