Elliot Stephen Cohen
At 74, in a very long career filled with extreme highs and lows, Gary U.S. Bonds has lots of strange tales to share ... but an African-American playing for the Klu Klux Klan?
"Oh, yes, that really happened ... a few times," he recalls matter-of-factly with an easy laugh. "Everyone likes to have a good time. During their parades, they'd wear the white robes (and hoods), but then they'd change clothes, and we'd all become friends, share some drinks, and have a rock and roll good time."
Born Gary Levone Anderson on June, 6 1939 in Jacksonville, Florida, his stage name was first changed in to US Bonds by his canny manager and producer Frank Guida, who thought it would encourage patriotic disc jockeys to play his records. The ploy worked as his first record release, the exciting "New Orleans” hit the American top ten, at a time when homegrown music was turning soft. Becoming Gary U.S. Bonds, the hits continued with such solid rockers as "Quarter To Three," "School Is Out," and "Dear Lady Twist."
However by 1963, his records stopped selling, and Bonds found himself consigned to the dreaded hotel lounge circuit. That is, until über fan Bruce Springsteen brought Bonds back to the charts in 1981, with the great hit, "This Little Girl," and pair of terrific albums, "Dedication" and "On The Line," the latter of which featured seven new songs written by Springsteen who also acted as de facto record producer.
Bonds who released his autobiography earlier this year, ("Buy US Bonds- That’s My Story") will be performing with John Eddie on Thursday at Englewood's Bergen Performing Arts Center in a show called, "Shore Is Christmas." On Saturday, Bonds will be co-headlining with Darlene Love at Red Bank's Count Basie Theater for "A Souled Out Christmas."
For both shows Bonds promises, "We'll come up with some Christmas favorites, as well as the hits. You've got to give the people what they want."
Examiner: Who were the very first singers you heard on the radio that really made a strong impression?
Bonds: There was a radio station in Norfolk, Virginia called WRAP that had this disk jockey called Jack Holmes, better known as "Daddy Jack." He would play people like Ivy Joe Hunter and Bull Moose Jackson ... the same records that my mother used to listen to. My mother took me to the Booker T. Theater to see them. That's when I first got interested in becoming a singer, or an artist of some sort.
Examiner: You've been quoted in the past as saying that you originally couldn't stand the sound of your first hit, "New Orleans," which had a very muddy quality to it.
Bonds: It was actually the DJs around the country that didn't like it because they thought it had an inferior sound (to what they were used to). However, (legendary music impresario) Dick Clark liked it and started featuring it on "American Bandstand." So, it went from first being considered an inferior record to one of the greatest records of all time.
Examiner: As Dick Clark had recently come out clean from a payola scandal that ruined the career of probably his biggest competitor, Alan Freed, did he try to get a cut of the record's publishing?
Bonds: Not that I know of, but Frank Guida wouldn't have given it up anyway. He was the one doing all the stealing. You can't steal from a thief (Laughs). I had no publishing (deal) for songs I wrote with "Daddy G." (Saxophonist Gene Barge, a major influence on Clarence Clemons, - ed.). We'd write the songs, and before we knew it they were gone and Frank would put his name on them.
Examiner: Didn't you do some European dates with in 1963 with The Beatles?
Bonds: There was this band that backed up me, Johnny Burnette and Gene McDaniels. When I got back to The States a year or so later, Frank Guida told me, "Those guys that backed you up in England, call themselves The Beatles now." I said, "OK," and that was it. That's my recollection of who they were, and until somebody can tell me something different, that's what I'm going with.
Examiner: Now, The Beatles of course totally revolutionized pop music overnight, pushing aside nearly all of the American artists like yourself who had helped create the music that inspired them. Were you resentful?
Bonds: Well, I didn't like their music at all,. It wasn't because I felt they were treading on my waters. To me the music was pretty awful compared to what we were doing, but people tended to like it. I just couldn't get into it. It didn't sound right to me. They had about as much rhythm as a cockroach, but that's the music business. People's taste in music changes.
Examiner: You've told this story so many times, but can you relate the fateful night that Bruce Springsteen came into your life?
Bonds: It was at a club I was performing at in Hazlet, New Jersey (in 1978). Bruce came in with a few friends, and one of them came up to me and asked if "his buddy" could come up onstage to sing a few songs with me. I figured, "OK, it'll give me a chance to get a beer." He told me his name. I didn't know who Bruce was at the time. I introduced him, and the crowd went wild. We jammed on different songs for about an hour and a half, and struck up a friendship. It's remained that way ever since. Bruce is a lot of fun to be with.
Examiner: When "This Little Girl" became your first hit in nearly 20 years, that must have been a terrific feeling.
Bonds: Yeah, it was really exciting because it got me away from being stuck in what I called "The Holiday Inn Circuit." I was now being asked to play main theaters and main showplaces. However, it doesn't really matter to me if I'm playing for five people or 500,000. I'm gonna find a way to have a good time either way, just being onstage and hammering it out.
Examiner: Rolling Stone magazine recently featured an article about 30 rockers who are still going strong past the age of 70. You couldn't have possibly imagined 50 years ago that you'd still be doing this at 74.
Bonds: Well, I always figured that I'd still be doing this (at an older age) if I was still living (laughs). I never thought about doing anything else. I expect to be performing for the rest of my life. In fact, in March I'm going over to England to join Albert Lee on his 70th birthday concert. Emmylou Harris, James Burton and Eric Clapton will also be there, and we're gonna just jam out.
Examiner: I assume you're very glad you gave up boxing for singing.
Bonds: Oh, you know about that! (Laughs.) When I was very young, I made it to the Golden Gloves. In my very first fight, I'm fighting this little guy who didn't have any style, (a brawler) like Joe Frazier. Well, he hits me in my eye, and I when I wiped it with my glove, I saw blood. I said, "No mas." That was the end of my boxing career.