Daddy’s come home
Back where he belongs…
Those lines are from a soulful ballad which Gary U.S. Bonds is singing these days; any similarity between its message and his own return to the pop music charts is hardly coincidental. With a Top 15 single called This Little Girl and an ebullient comeback LP called Dedication, he proclaims, “I’m back into rock ‘n’ roll—where I belong.”
Twenty-one years ago this month America first saw the gravelly-voiced youth with a tidal-wave-size pompadour and that wildly improbable name (he was born Gary Anderson). He had a Top 10 single with the Cajun rocker New Orleans. But the mid-’60s wave of British invaders soon put Bonds in a backwater, and for the past decade he’s played the nostalgia-and-disco circuit.
But maybe it’s true, as Bob Seger boasted in his song, that “rock ‘n’ roll never forgets.” Three years ago, in a northern New Jersey cocktail lounge, a scruffy, denim-clad guy introduced himself to Bonds. He said Quarter to Three had long been a staple of his own act, and asked to sit in with Bonds. “I didn’t even know who Bruce Springsteen was,” shrugs Gary, now 42. “I thought he was just some local.” Out of that jam session a friendship was born—and a career rekindled.
Springsteen offered Bonds a song he had written while working on his own LP-in-progress, The River. “I said, ‘Okay, Bruce—see ya next week.’ I thought he’d be right back. I didn’t know it would take him two years to finish his own album.” But Springsteen eventually contributed three tunes (This Little Girl is one), the backing support of his E Street Band, and his lead guitarist, Miami Steve Van Zandt, as a co-producer. The Boss even paid for studio time Bonds couldn’t afford. “It took a while to repay him,” Bonds says, but he did—with a collector’s item, a ’63 Chevy convertible with “Dedication” written on the side. Bonds named his album that because, he says, “that’s the first record Bruce gave me and that’s what it took to get me here.”
The only child of a science-math professor and his piano teacher wife, Gary was Florida-born, moving to Virginia when he was 3. He sang on a Norfolk street corner but made his spending money hustling golfers—he had a seven handicap. An all-around athlete, he fought in the state’s Golden Glove tournament at age 16. “I won every match but the last one,” he recalls. “I could’ve won that if I hadn’t found blood on my forehead. I said, ‘That’s it, end of fight.’ I didn’t know you were supposed to get hurt once in awhile.”
After dropping out of high school in his senior year, Bonds continued singing informally with a few members of his gang, the Turks. He later attended college for two years before cutting his first record at 19. New Orleans, Quarter to Three and School Is Out (all million sellers) were raw, raucous tunes, influenced by R & B pioneers Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter and Bo Diddley. Gary’s manager, Frank Guida, dreamed up his protégé’s stage name. “At the time I was feeling antagonistic toward Khrushchev and wanted my boy to have a patriotic name,” he explained. Grumbles Bonds: “I didn’t know he had done it until I heard a deejay announce my song, New Orleans by ‘U.S. Bonds.’ ”
Some thought he was a Treasury Department marching band; LIFE magazine mistakenly referred to him as a “vocal group.” But Bonds could flaunt his hits and the fruits thereof—including the requisite Cadillac and new home for his mom. On a tour of Europe in early 1962, Bonds and Roy Orbison shared a backing band whose members were named Best, Harrison, Lennon and McCartney. “One of them gave me a demo tape and asked me to bring it back to the States for the record company to hear,” recalls Bonds. “It was one of the worst records I’d listened to in my life.” A couple of years later the group, with Ringo Starr replacing drummer Peter Best, made most people in the U.S. forget native rhythm and blues—and Gary U.S. Bonds.
Bonds moved his wife, Laurie, a former club singer, and his daughter to New York to live with his in-laws while he worked clubs and oldies shows. Bonds’ wife worked as a telephone company supervisor while he “was grabbing for everything I could get my hands on to stay alive.” One tour of Air Force bases led to a scuffle at Randolph AFB in Texas, where he and his entourage were maced by MPs. There were attempts to rejuvenate his recording career, and even with Springsteen’s help, selling the demo wasn’t easy. When manager John Apostol approached record companies, Bonds recalls, “One guy complained, ‘That doesn’t sound enough like Quarter to Three.’ Another griped, That sounds too much like Quarter to Three.’ We couldn’t win.”
Rock had changed but Gary believed there was still a place for him. “Some kid came to me after a recent show and said he didn’t realize rock could be such fun,” says Bonds. “All he ever did was just get high and listen. Fun—that’s what it’s all about, man. Real rock ‘n’ roll is good feeling, good times. That other stuff…I’ve never actually heard Black Sabbath, but that name alone—I bet you’d need 13 ounces of reefer or 30 Quaaludes just to make it through their album!”
He’s glad he persevered. “There are certain people,” Bonds says, “who let you know they believe in you and you try not to let them down.”
“Yeah,” amens manager Apostol. “Thank God for Bruce Springsteen.”