Hero to the Boss
Two fans can be as affirming as two million, if they happen to be Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. The E Streeters paid tribute to their hero, Gary U.S. Bonds, by making his classic pounder, "Quarter to Three," an encore staple for years. They also ended up writing and producing most of two albums by their soul-singing idol, Dedication (1981) and On the Line (1982), both of which featured instrumentation by the rest of the E Street Band. But Bonds isn't a Springsteen restoration project and he certainly isn't riding his laurels down oldies lane.
Springsteen met Bonds back in 1978. He was at one of the singer's club shows and asked the owner if he could sit in with the band. Bonds had no idea who Springsteen was. He introduced his guest and was flummoxed when the crowd went nuts. They ended up performing duets for an hour.
Bonds was nearly two decades past his commercial heyday at the time. His top-ten hits "New Orleans," "Quarter to Three," and "School Is Out," among others all date to the early Sixties. His subsequent collaboration with Springsteen and Van Zandt spawned another series of hits, including "This Little Girl," "Jolé Blon," and "Out of Work."
Bonds returned to the studio in 2004 to cut Back in 20, which included his muscular takes on Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" and Keb' Mo's "She Just Wants to Dance," along with guest appearances by Springsteen, Dickey Betts, Phoebe Snow, and Southside Johnny. Tough and bluesy, the record was composed mostly of originals, some cowritten with his daughter, Laurie.
In between studio efforts, Bonds has continued to write and tour almost constantly. Numerous labels have issued greatest hits albums and live compilations.
At 67 years old, Bonds has lost none of the raw power and grit that distinguish his sound. He's a vocally beefed-up version of Sam Cooke, and it's easy to hear why Springsteen went for Bonds' meaty tonality and party-hard phrasing. His resonant sound dates back to his early days on Frank Guida's legendary Legrand label, based in Norfolk, Virginia.
Guida was a fan of Calypso music and the fire-and-brimstone preachings he heard at nearby houses of worship. Young Gary Anderson it was Guida who later renamed him had moved to Virginia from his native Jacksonville, Florida, and, with four or five friends, would stand outside Boone's Market in his Brambleton neighborhood and sing doo-wop hits.
The teenagers called themselves The Turks. Guida often walked by while they were crooning, and one day stopped to tell them he wanted to open a recording studio in a couple of years. Two years later he did, but only Bonds was still around; the others had joined the armed forces. A shoe salesman named Joe Royster had written "New Orleans," which Guida and Bonds reworked and put down on a two-track recorder. The two quickly mastered a rough-and-tumble, reverb-heavy approach for the song, the first of several hits they made together.
When Bonds toured England in 1963, the band hired to back him was called the Beatles. He later said they were "awful," and they were fired during the tour. Bonds took one of their demos home and gave it to Guida, who threw it in the trash.
Bonds left Legrand because of what he once called "shenanigans," and says he foolishly failed to acquire the rights to his songs. The two albums with Springsteen and Van Zandt were released by EMI and sold fairly well. But his next studio record, Standing in the Line of Fire (1983), was issued by a small label.
Over the course of his career, Bonds has made a habit of defying genre labels. He wrote the Johnny Paycheck hit "(Don't Take Her) She's All I Got," which led to nominations for both a Grammy and the Country Music Association's Songwriter of the Year award (and later became an even bigger smash for Tracy Byrd). Freddie North's version went to the top of the R&B charts. When Bonds was given a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997, Springsteen and Van Zandt presented it. In 2005, he won a W.C. Handy Blues Award. He's recorded funk songs and Southern rock, to boot.
Bonds comes to town this time around at the behest of Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, whose group Sha Na Na really did play Woodstock and who, despite appearances, is not just some goofball with a foghorn where his larynx should be. As chairman of the Truth in Music Committee at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, Bauman has led an earnest state-by-state battle to pass legislation prohibiting performances by impostor groups you know, the Drifters with no original Drifters and such.
Bonds, a pioneer of both R&B and soul, is a natural fit for Bowzer's Rock 'N Roll Party, which showcases overlooked acts from days gone by. If he's unleashed to play a full set, expect Bonds to offer versions of "New Orleans," "This Little Girl," "Jolé Blon," "Daddy's Come Home," "Dedication," "Club Soul City" (please!), and, in a nod to two of his biggest fans, "Quarter to Three."
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