Pioneering rock and roll singer Gary U.S. Bonds will perform at the 2016 Richmond Folk Festival with saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge. Bonds, who shot to fame in the early sixties with hits like “New Orleans,” “Quarter to Three” and “School Is Out,” is one of the most successful artists connected with the Norfolk Sound – loud, low-fi party music with a heavy beat that influenced the music of The Beatles, Phil Spectre, Bruce Springstein and others.
The man who created the Norfolk Sound was an eccentric Sicilian American named Frank Guida. After a stint in Trinidad in World War II, Guida fell in love with Calypso and took a stab at making a living as a Calypso singer. In the fifties, he ran a record store in Norfolk where he sold hard-to-get records by African American artists. He also distributed these recordings and branched out into producing and starting his own record labels.
It would be a stretch to call Guida a creative genius but he certainly had moments of inspiration. One of his early successes was with singer Tommy Facenda, a member of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. Guida convinced Facenda to record 28 versions of a song called “High School USA.” Each version was a roll call of regional high schools and the combined success of all the different versions led to a nation-wide hit. In another moment that reveals Guida’s cunning and business savvy, he shipped the first record that Gary made (at that time he was still known as Gary Anderson) to DJ’s in envelopes that were stamped with the phrase “Buy U.S. Bonds.” The hope was that the DJ’s would assume the recording was a public service announcement and play it on the radio. It actually worked. “New Orleans” charted at #6 on Billboard’s pop chart and Gary Anderson became Gary U.S. Bonds.
The other side of Guida’s personality was a penchant for coming up with bizarre material for his artists to record. Refer to Jimmy Soul’s record of “My Baby Loves to Bowl,” or another song I was told about (but couldn’t find a link to) called “Physical Fitness Pays.”
Guida discovered Gary U.S. Bonds singing on the street with a group of teenagers in front of his mother’s house. The story of the hits they made together and the unorthodox methods of recording those hits is told in this segment. Included are interviews with Gary U.S. Bonds and writer, archivist and radio host Don Harrison, who has written a great deal on the Norfolk Sound.
There is lots more to the story than what was included in this piece. You can learn more about Gary U.S. Bonds from his 2009 autobiography By U.S. Bonds: That’s My Story. Follow this link for an article by Don Harrison on The Norfolk Sound.
Gene Barge, who is appearing with Gary U.S. Bonds at the Richmond Folk Festival, is another important part of the Norfolk Sound. Barge was a school teacher and the go-to saxophonist when R&B artists traveled through Hampton Roads. He went on to have an amazing career as both an instrumentalist and a producer who has worked with Public Enemy, Natalie Cole and The Rolling Stones. He’s now 90 years old. You can read Don’s article on him here.
During the Richmond Folk Festival on Saturday October 8th at 3:45 p.m., Don Harrison will moderate a discussion with Gary U.S. Bonds and Gene Barge called “Quarter to Three: The Norfolk Sound.” That’s taking place at the WestRock Foundation stage. Gary U.S. Bonds and Gene Barge will perform at the Dominion Dance Pavilion from 6:15 – 7:15 p.m. that evening and again on the Altria stage at 9:00 p.m. Information and a complete schedule of performances at the Richmond Folk Festival can be found here.
The Richmond Folk Festival’s official write-up of Gary U.S. Bonds and Gene Barge can be found here.