Gary U.S. Bonds with Gene “Daddy G” Barge
The Norfolk Sound
Norfolk, Virginia, by way of Long Island & Chicago
Its many partisans argue that Norfolk, Virginia is the true birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, celebrating the contributions of the incomparable Gary U.S. Bonds, the first and biggest star of the revolutionary Norfolk Sound, and legendary saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge, the bandleader behind its greatest hits.
The strikingly new Norfolk Sound that emerged from the Hampton Roads region in the early 1960s created a bridge between the early rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s and the British Invasion, and had a profound influence on musicians as diverse as the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and the New York Dolls. Often described as “party rock,” the Sound featured a driving backbeat, handclaps and raucous vocals, melodies often tinged with a calypso lilt, and a powerful horn section inspired by local United House of Prayer shout bands. Norfolk’s biggest hits were recorded at Frankie’s Birdland, producer Frank Guida’s record store and recording studio in the heart of Norfolk’s African American community. The studio itself had serious quirks that helped make the Norfolk Sound unique: equipment was jury-rigged, and the vocals were typically recorded in the bathroom, contributing to the raw immediacy of a sound built on passion rather than slick style. "We didn't know that what we were doing here at the time would have a big influence," Bonds has said. "We were just kids making music and having a whole lot of fun."
The young man born Gary Anderson formed his first doo-wop group, the Turks, at the tender age of 13. Frank Guida “discovered” the teen singing in front of the neighborhood market and together they set about making the first of a string of hits. Unbeknownst to Gary, Guida shipped that first recording, the 1960 party single “New Orleans,” in record sleeves labeled “by U.S. Bonds,” hoping to harness disc jockeys’ patriotism in order to get airplay for his fledgling studio; from then on, Gary Anderson was known as Gary U.S. Bonds. His first #1 hit, “Quarter to Three,” soon followed. Bonds’ star power and undeniable talent in front of the rollicking Norfolk Sound made the 20-year-old singer an immediate hit internationally—the band that would become the Beatles opened for Bonds on his first European tour!
Nearly 15 years Bonds’ senior, Gene Barge had discovered the saxophone at age 20 when he returned from serving in the wartime Air Force. When Barge joined Guida’s house band, the Church Street Five, in 1961, he brought together a roster that included many musicians who were, like him, inspired by the horn-heavy “shout band” sounds pouring out of the Church Street outpost of Bishop Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer. Barge’s first recording in Norfolk, the instrumental “A Nite with Daddy G,” was a shout out to that legacy—and earned Barge his enduring nickname.
Leaving Norfolk in the mid-1960s, Gene Barge moved on to a successful music career based in Chicago that included many years at the legendary Chess Records, and a prominent role on the Rolling Stones’ 1982 European tour. Nearly a decade ago, Public Enemy’s Chuck D called Gene Barge “the flyest octogenarian I know,” a superlative that still sticks as he enters his nineties. Gary U.S. Bonds’ career experienced a major resurgence in the early 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt connected with the man whose work had so inspired their own. New recordings in those years put Bonds back on the international touring circuit, from which he’s never retired.
In 2009, Gary U.S. Bonds and Gene “Daddy G” Barge reunited with many other early stars of the Norfolk Sound to play a concert in their old stomping ground, the Attucks Theater on Church Street, spurring a revival of interest in this seminal American musical style. Since then the friends have continued to collaborate regularly; this year they recorded an updated version of “Quarter to Three” at the invitation of hip hop legend Chuck D. At this year’s folk festival they continue this return to their roots, bringing the legendary Norfolk Sound out of Hampton Roads to Richmond.