Friday, November 9, 2007

The Elusive Lasting Appeal of Gary "US" Bonds

Gary "US" Bonds is a strange phenomenon in the world of Soul. One of those artists who's reputation transcends his body of work or the relevance there of. Gary's biggest trump card is a handful of hits scored in the early sixties that got him to headline the Beatles in Europe during his 1963 tour. His hits "New Orleans" and "Quarter to Three" on the Legrand label hit big because of the cunning marketing ploy by record producer Frank Guida. Born Gary Anderson he was marketed as "US" Bonds, hoping the war bonds association would get DJs to play him, mistaking the "New Orleans" 45 for a public service announcement to ensure Bonds' success the color of his skin was also hidden from the public. DJs and audiences thought Bonds was white. According to Bonds himself this contributed to his success in the Pop charts. The ploy worked and "New Orleans" found its way to the charts, crossing over from Pop to R&B, a rarity those days. Catchy as this single and the follow up "Quarter to Three" were it is hard to see today why Gary "US" Bonds has such a lasting appeal. His hits weren't anything ground breaking, they fitted perfectly in the trend of early sixties R&R singles souped up with a Gospel feel. Great as those singles were, they had to compete with literally thousands of other singles for a lasting appeal.

A few things aside from the initial cross over success helped. Amongst songs cut for the Legrand were a few gems that had a big appeal on the collectors and the hipsters, ever searching for hidden gems. "Where Did The Naughty Little Girl Go" and "I Wanta Holler (But The Town's Too Small)". Second was his association to unrecognized genius Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, with whom Bonds wrote some of Soul's golden moments, all hidden and obscure. Yet somehow Swamp Dogg's work has always found its way to collectors and Gary's reputation may have benefited from that.

There also was his live reputation. Bonds undeniably had a stage presence. He was rowdy yet at the same time very charming. Bonds always had the air of a very accessible entertainer which must have gained him some lasting appeal amongst his peers or the people who saw him perform. Though it is not certain if Little Steven van Zandt, guitar player of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, ever saw "US" Bonds perform, but he liked him enough to get the Boss hip to him in '75. Bruce Springsteen, who had just released his break through album Born to Run, still had too little material himself to flesh out his marathon shows. His own body of work was also missing the rave up material he needed to close the show. Quarter to Three was added to the encores on a regular basis to send those crowds home in a frenzy.

A couple of years down the road Springsteen would repay Bonds his depth when he contributed three songs to the Little Steven produced "Dedication" album and eleven more to the follow up "On the Line". Springsteen was at the time in his creative peek in terms of out put. In the same time these two albums were released, Springsteen put the River on the market. That double album was in a sense a tribute to the era of Bonds, a celebration of the 45 era. The River was initially intended to be a single album called "The Ties That Bind" (Still widely available as a bootleg) , but with creative juices flowing it soon expanded into the double we have now, with enough material in the vaults for two more.

Gary "US" Bonds was the logical vessel for that material, after all he had his peek in the era that album paid tribute to. Bonds knew how to handle that material maybe even better than Springsteen himself knew. On both albums the E-Street Band provided the backing with Little Steven at the production wheels. For the latter this must have been a dream come true. Van Zandt had long since been pushing Springsteen to record a true Garage Rock 'n Soul album, preferably in Mono. On the River van Zandt was side tracked by producer John Landau and Springsteen's own ambitions to expand his song writing skills. The River became much more than it initially set out to be on the "Ties That Bind". Especially "On The Line" stayed closer to the original concept Little Steven had in mind for the River. On the Bonds albums he was the Boss. Resulting in what could arguably be the best sounding E-Street Band records that ever hit the market. It seemed that Little Steven had a better idea of how the band should be produced than the Boss himself.

"Dedication" and "On the Line" were also two of the few true Rock 'n Soul albums released in the eighties, a time when heartfelt and authentic R&B seemed to have died. Soul and R&B were basically crushed under the weight of Disco and FM radio formats. The genres that depended so much on local markets and "mom and pop" record labels or local radio stations, simply couldn't compete with the block buster sales of albums like "Saturday Night Fever". A 100.000 copies of an album sold, very respectable figures back in the day, suddenly weren't enough anymore for the big record companies, once again dominating the field. Soul and R&B had always been a singles market, where the profits were slow. Soul veterans like Bobby Womack or Gary "US" Bonds were dropped like a brick or simply couldn't get signed. The Springsteen push behind the albums got Bonds very respectable sales again in a time when the genre went all but belly up. Even though songs like "Out of Work" had that undeniable blue collar Springsteen Rock stamped all over it, most of "On The Line" shortly brought back the music Van Zandt and Springsteen grew up on.

After the early eighties, Bonds slowly slid back in obscurity again. He remained popular on the oldies circuit, especially on the East-Coast, where his Springsteen association continued to draw him crowds. As his 2001 live album attested these live shows were something to behold indeed. Listen to "King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Gary U.S. Bonds" and some of his lasting appeal becomes apparent. Bonds knows how to work a crowd and his joyful Rock 'n Soul singles hark back to a time when things seemed simpler. Gary "US" Bonds represents that time before the massive cultural shift in the half to late sixties, when the USA was simply a country filled with promise and being proud of the USA wasn't such a mixed an uneasy affair as it is today. Bonds represents a time before social unrest, before Vietnam, before massive lay offs. Gay "US" Bonds puts you smack dab back in the middle of a time when General Motors made the world's best cars, back in the day of Juke Boxes and diners, back in the day of Junior High Prom and mom's apple pie. Bonds is class A nostalgia.

Bonds came back unnoticed once more with the ironic album title "Back in 20" issued in 2004, some twenty years after his comeback with the E-Street Band albums. The album went largely unnoticed by the buying public. even though it found Bonds once again collaborating with Springsteen on the opening song "Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks". That raucous opener sums up the album perfectly. "Back in 20" is a great old fashioned R&B album, somewhat grittier than what Bonds did in the past, closer to his current live sound, but essentially what he's been doing since the release of "New Orleans".

"New Orleans"
"I Wanta Holler (But The Town's Too Small)"
"Out of Work"
"Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks"

Official Site.

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