"In the beginning, with the hits, you feel it will never end. It's going to last forever." Gary U.S. Bonds, a two-hit wonder in the early '60s with "New Orleans" and "Quarter to Three," looks down at the floor of the darkened New York studio where he has been rehearsing a new band before embarking on the "survival tour" that brings him to the Bayou tonight.
"It would never end like this," he says, pointing to some undefined corner away from any spotlight. "One day it does. And it takes you by surprise. I had a pretty good mental attitude about it, though: Get up and do it again." Rock 'n' Roll Always Forgets
Rock 'n' roll in the late '50s and early '60s was an open preserve for small independent labels and regional performers. Records by unknowns would break through to the top with each new rock beat. Fame would descend with the suddenness of hail, and the rock landscape in America is littered with victims and other minor casualties: Frankie Lyman, dead of a drug overdose in Harlem; Little Richard and Little Anthony, revived in the house of Christ; Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Chubby Checker, doomed to mini-comebacks and repetitions of their hits in sweaty nightclubs and lounges that traded in on their pasts.
Gary U.S. Bonds was a second-line entertainer rather than a first-rate artist, a footnote in most rock histories. His comeback is viewed in some circles as a major event, but it wouldn't have been possible except as a reclamation project on the part of Bruce Springsteen, who had to use his considerable clout to publicly revive the career of a man who had influenced the development of his own style.
With Springsteen singing on one cut and his band playing backup throughout, Bonds' hit comeback album, "Dedication," is close to being a Springsteen album with a guest vocalist. Which doesn't make the singer's two decades in the wilderness any less interesting. Roots
Gary Anderson, born in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1939, grew up in Norfolk, Va., surrounded "by a lot of jazz and a lot of sailors." The first wave of rock shows stopped there regularly. "I got a chance to see Sam Cooke, the Drifters, the Turbans, Flamingos," Bonds recalls with a smile. "At the beginning I always tried to be like Clyde McPhatter and I thought I sounded like him . . . until a couple of friends told me the truth."
Bonds had sung in church choirs, and as a teen-ager he drifted into a R&B group, the Turks, which performed in Norfolk clubs until the late '50s. Several years later, Bonds hooked up with Frank Guida, a Norfolk producer who liked Bonds' looks as much as his voice. Evenutally, they evolved a raucous, off-the-wall sound whose audio limitation was liberated by an almost absurd enthusiasm. Their first effort, released nationally in 1960, was "New Orleans," which went on to sell a million copies. A year later, "Quarter To Three" went straight into rock 'n' roll mythology.
"Daddy G [Gene Barge] had already done a song, 'A Night with Daddy G,' which is basically an instrumental version of 'Quarter to Three.' We went in and put words to it one night when we were goofing around the studio, wrote down some things right quick and just went in and did it." Thirty times, even though the song has the manic spontaneity of a first and only take. School Is In
The success of "New Orleans" and "Quarter to Three" began a dizzying round of concert tours, television appearances and record sales for the singer who had been rechristened as a publicity ploy by Guida. Did he ever care about the name change? "It was too late, the record was out," Bonds says with a characteristic shrug. "And Mom didn't care. What's in a name? It could have been Gary U.S. Horse-manure. Now that would have made a difference."
There were the rock TV shows, mostly Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" but also the regional versions like WTTG's "Milt Grant Show" ("We went in, did it and were out before Milt even lost any of his makeup!") And then there were Clark's Caravans of Stars, the 300-date tours that anticipated Andy Warhol's prediction of momentary fame for Everyman. "They were great tours," Bonds says, shaking his head at the memories. "Basically it was 15 minutes [to do one's hits] and then you'd go back to the bus and watch Bo Diddley cook chicken or something."
"That was it. Everything on those tours was memorable, they were straight fun. Everyday was something happening -- when you've got 40 people on a bus and there's no room for sleeping -- you'd sit up and sleep. . ." Bonds trails off with images of Shirley of the Shirelles, Charley Thomas of the Drifters, Sam Cooke, B. B. King, "the guys that taught me a few things . . . especially not to talk on stage." It was 1961 and Bonds still remembers "one strange tour in Texas where I was the only black cat. That was a trip. They had to check me in at another hotel eight miles away. I never did stay there, I always stayed with the group, only the guy at the desk didn't know it. Fooled him!" School Is Out
In the early '60s, there were a few other hits -- "School Is Out" in July of '61, "School Is In" three months later, "Dear Lady Twist," "Seven Day Weekend," "Copy Cat." But like Chubby Checker trying to extend the twist into the hucklebuck, the pony, the fly, the limbo and the freddie, Bonds found the top of the mountain was greased, and after two years as a top star, he joined the slide to obscurity that provided the foot soldiers for "rock revivalism" in the late '60s.
There were attempts at reviving the recording career, too, but classic rock's Catch 22 kept interfering."It was hard to get the record companies interested. They'd say, 'You're an oldie and a goodie and therefore you serve no useful purpose as far as the music is concerned anymore.' I'd go in with a song and they'd listen to it and not like it because it didn't sound enough like 'Quarter to Three'; the next company wouldn't like it because it sounded too much like 'Quarter to Three.'" Enter the Boss
One night in a New Jersey lounge three years ago, Bonds' universe finally turned right side up. An intense fan asked to sit in on "Quarter to Three," and that's how Bruce Springsteen let Gary know he was interested in saving U.S. Bonds. After a hot set, the two retired to the bar to talk about the vagaries of rock 'n' roll. Two years later, when Bonds finally did start work on "Dedication," Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt produced, while the E Street Band and Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes' horns provided the backing.
Although a number of cuts on the album hark back to the known Legrand sound of '61, there are no rehashes of the hits as easy identification. "Bruce was totally against that. He thinks 'Quarter to Three' is the greatest song ever written. I don't know where he's coming from," Bonds says with a loving laugh. "He thought that was it. He said the song was perfect and once you create a masterpiece, you should never retouch it. We were shooting for that old sound -- mainly because everybody said you couldn't do it. They won't say that anymore."
Surprisingly, CBS (Springsteen's record company) turned down the Bonds album, as did a number of other record companies. "I got a bit shaky," Bonds admits. " started wondering: Is this record bad, are we crazy, or are they stupid? Now we know." [The album, which came out on EMI-America eight weeks ago, has sold 350,000 copies and occupies the No. 30 -- with a bullet on the album charts. The single, "Dedication," with veterans Ben E. King and Chuck Jackson on backup vocals, is at No. 18.] "Some of those record executives have tin ears," Bonds shrugs, "or they didn't take the time to hear it."
Time figures to be on Bonds' side this time around. One doesn't sense either a sense of vindication or a feeling that this is his final shot. Even when he was at the top of the heap "it was great but I didn't have to change my shorts every 20 minutes." In the 18 years between appearances on Clark's "American Bandstand" (he was on last week), Bonds has been settled in one marriage and raised a 17-year-old daughter. "She likes the new stuff. She's heard the old stuff since she was a little girl. She's probably sick of that," he laughs.
Bonds takes a deep breath. "This has been it. It's all I've ever done since 1958, thank God. It's like golf: You still know how to play the game, but if you lay off, you start hooking and slicing, you know? You got to keep plugging at it. I don't know if it's common sense, but I'm positive that everything's going to be all right. The band is cooking, the material is great, the record is selling. It's almost one of those sure shots. There's no pressure at all. I've been doing it for 20 years. The pressure is gone."