When Gary U.S. Bonds recorded “New Orleans,” his breakout hit from 1960, he’d never been to New Orleans. Nonetheless, the young singer from Norfolk, Virginia, reshaped “New Orleans,” a song originally written in a country and western vein, into a heart-pounding rock ‘n’ roll classic.
Born Gary Anderson in Jacksonville, Florida, Bonds moved to Norfolk with his mother and grandmother when he was 3. Although his music-teacher mom taught classical piano, she loved twentieth-century rhythm and blues artists Bull Moose Jackson, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. When R&B acts played around the Norfolk area she brought Gary along to the shows.
Bonds was a teenager singing doo-wop hits with his friends on a street corner when he met aspiring record producer Frank Guida. The owner of the Frankie’s Got It record shop, Guida told the teens that he planned to build a recording studio and form a record company. But it would be a few years before his plans became reality, Guida added. When Guida finally returned to invite the singers to record, Bonds was the only one still in the neighborhood.
Radio stations initially rejected “New Orleans,” Bonds’ first release for Guida’s Legrand Records. That changed when Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand in Philadelphia, played “New Orleans” on his TV dance show. Every DJ in the country wanted it then.
Bonds’ run of made-for-a-party hits in the early ’60s continued with “Quarter to Three,” “School Is Out,” “School Is In,” “Dear Lady Twist,” “Twist, Twist Señora” and “Seven Day Weekend.” His national and international performances included a 1963 European tour featuring the Beatles as opening act.
In the 1970s, Bonds grew disillusioned with the musical direction Legrand Records insisted he follow. Unable to move to a new label because he was under contract to Legrand, he stopped recording.
Bonds staged a grand return after Bruce Springsteen, a fan, invited him to a recording session. Two albums, 1981’s Dedication and 1982’s On the Line, both co-produced by Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt and featuring the E Street Band, resurrected Bonds’ career.
Bonds loves New Orleans, especially the city’s cuisine. He made sure that his contract to perform at the Ponderosa Stomp, October 7 at the Orpheum Theater, includes dinner at his favorite local restaurant.
How did “New Orleans” come to be your first hit?
That song was written by my old buddy, Joe Royster. He was the engineer at the studio we were in. Norfolk Recording. We laughingly referred to it as a studio. Joe was a real country and western guy. He wrote ‘New Orleans’ as a country and western song. I mean it was real country.
You weren’t a country singer. What did you think of the song?
They gave it to me and said, ‘We want you do to this song.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it the way you wrote it.’ They said, ‘Well, see what you can do with it.’ I took it home. I had a piano out on the back porch. It was out of tune, deteriorating from all the weather, but I could still pluck out of tune on it.
So, I remembered my mom used to like Cab Calloway. I remembered he had a song called ‘The Hi-De-Ho Man.’ That’s where I got the idea to put, ‘Hey, hey, hey, yeah’ on the front of ‘New Orleans.’
Hey, it worked.
It worked for me. It changed the song from country to rock ‘n’ roll, especially with the drum beat.
How long did it take for “New Orleans” to catch on?
We recorded it in the early part of ’59. It didn’t become a hit until way into 1960. The DJs around the country said it had an inferior sound, so they wouldn’t put it on the radio. We finally got it to Dick Clark. He said, ‘OK, I like this. Let me play this on American Bandstand.’ It was an instant hit. Every DJ in the country wanted to play it because it was on American Bandstand. I always give Dick Clark credit for breaking it.
You turned 21 the year “New Orleans” became a hit. What was it like to be young and famous in the early 1960s?
It was fantastic. C’mon. You couldn’t ask for anything else. That was what I was hoping for all those years.
Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi, quickly released a cover version of “New Orleans.” New Orleans singer Edgar “Big Boy” Myles sang it. Are you familiar with that version of “New Orleans”? It was a local hit.
Wow. I have to look that up. I haven’t heard it in all these years. It probably never got out of the bayou. It just stayed right there, fermenting. Anything to not pay somebody else.
Did you perform in New Orleans soon after “New Orleans” became a hit?
After we recorded ‘New Orleans’ I never got to New Orleans. I went, ‘Wow, that’s weird. “New Orleans” is a big hit for me, but nobody is booking me down there.’ And I had no idea why. I used to always ask, ‘How come we’re not playing New Orleans?’ We’d play all these other little places I’d never even thought of, but never New Orleans. Maybe they were ticked off because I did ‘New Orleans’ but I’d never been there. Maybe they thought, ‘How can he know about New Orleans?’ But I knew all the music that came out of there and enjoyed it. Loved Fats Domino.
When you finally played New Orleans, a few years after the song was a national hit, what sort of reaction did you get?
They’ve always been very happy to have me around. And I did some gigs there with the Dixie Cups and Frankie Ford. Frankie and I did a lot of things together. He was a funny dude.
There’s another Louisiana-linked song in your repertoire, “Jole Blon.” You recorded it as a duet with Bruce Springsteen for your 1981 album, Dedication, which Springsteen produced.
Yeah, I’d never even heard that song, but when Springsteen sprung it on me, I said, ‘Okay. I can get into that.’ And Bruce told me the whole story on it and who had recorded it. At first, I thought he had written it. He said, ‘No. A Cajun guy down there did it years and years and years ago.’ I enjoy doing that song.
Is “Jole Blon” in your show now?
A lot of the shows, I will start with that. Wherever I am, I usually start with ‘Jole Blon’ or ‘New Orleans.’ They get things moving right away.
In 1976, you were performing at the Hangar, a club in Hazlet, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen dropped by. He wanted to sing with you on stage, but you weren’t familiar with him then?
I didn’t know who he was, but he was cool. He based all of this thing around what we had done (in the early ’60s). Clarence (Clemons, the late E Street Band saxophonist) was from Chesapeake, which is right there by Norfolk. Bruce wanted a horn player, like I had. He got Clarence and that’s how he got all that stuff together.
How did production for the Dedication album begin?
Bruce had already started recording it himself. And then he called me and said, ‘Man, I have a song that sounds like you. Why don’t you come down here and see if you might want to do it?’ I went down there and said, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds cool.’ That’s how that whole Dedication album started.
After that first song, “Dedication,” the song Springsteen said sounded like you, he wanted you to do more recordings with him?
After Bruce heard me sing ‘Dedication,’ he said, ‘You got to do some more of these.’ He came over to my house a few days later and sat down at the piano there and wrote ‘This Little Girl.’ We went to the studio the next day and recorded that.
What impact did working with Springsteen have on your career?
It rejuvenated my career, it bought it back to life again.
There are obvious parallels between your music and Springsteen’s music. Your house band at Legrand Records was the Church Street Five, featuring saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge. Springsteen formed the E Street Band, featuring saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Also, the exuberance in your hits influenced Springsteen’s songwriting and performing. But what did it mean to you when Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt told you how much you influenced them?
They talked about it all the time. They still talk about it. Every time I see Bruce with his kids, he’ll say, ‘See that guy there? That’s the guy that got me started.’ He gives me a lot of credit. It’s very nice of him. It’s a compliment from a guy who’s doing fabulously well. And he not only tells me, he tells thousands of people from the stage. It’s a great feeling. To mean something to somebody of that importance, I feel like I’ve done something with myself in life.
Your mother, unlike many parents, encouraged you to pursue music. Did those touring R&B revues she took you to see when you were a child inspire you?
She took me to all the shows that she liked. It was cool, because I liked it, too. I got a chance to see all the guys in their pretty, shiny suits. All the lights and the girls yelling and screaming. Yeah, that’s what I wanted to be. And that’s what I got.
Saturday, October 7