Gary U.S. Bonds Interview
Gary U.S. Bonds is an American rock and roll singer from Norfolk, Virginia. After scoring a major hit with his first recording "New Orleans", Gary went on to a very successful musical career. In the 1980's Gary had a very nice resurgence when he hooked up with Bruce Springsteen and produced the song "This Little Girl". Today, Gary is still rockin' and going strong. Here's what the current Long Island resident had to say.
R.V.B. – First, let me say congratulations on your great career that you're having so far - and also congratulations on your book that you came out with.
Gary. – Why, thanks a lot. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
R.V.B. - You're welcome. So - if I may ask you a few questions- when you were a young child, what kind of music were you exposed to? What kind of music was being played around the house.?
Gary - Well most of it was R&B, mostly was what my Mama liked. She liked Ivory Joe Hunter and Bull Moose Jackson and all those guys. So I kind of listened to that myself and enjoyed it... still do.
R.V.B. - I see you were born in Florida right?
Gary – Yeah - Jacksonville.
R.V.B. – Now, how old were you when you moved to Norfolk?
Gary - I must have been about three years old.
Gary – Actually, when my mom took me down to Booker T Theater back when I was - I guess eleven/twelve years old. She actually took me to see Ivory Joe Hunter and Bull Moose Jackson at the Booker T. Theater. They were on the bill together and with all the girls screaming and all the good looking suits and clothes everywhere... the lights, "I think I could do that".
R.V.B. – Yeah, that usually does it once the girls get involved. Hahaha.
Gary - Oh yeah, as soon as that happened I had to be one of those guys. That's what I did. I almost made it except for the girl part. Hahaha
R.V.B. - Did you pick up an instrument or did you just start singing?
Gary - My mom wanted me to play piano and I didn't want to do that. She was a piano teacher so she wanted to teach me, but they didn't allow me to do that in my neighborhood at that time. Hahaha, it wasn't a good thing to do. I stayed away from it. Learning piano was an excellent instrument. I play enough today where I can write.
R.V.B. - Right. So what did you do? Did you just start singing? Did you sing with other kids in the neighborhood?
Gary – Yeah, I had a little group called The Turks at one point. That's what I did. We made our own little songs and stood out on the corner and sang em'.
R.V.B. - So it was kinda like a vocal group. Did you like doo wop or anything like that?
Gary - Oh yeah - we loved doo wop. We listened to The Turbins, The Drifters, The Coasters and you name em'. Whoever was out, we tried to emulate.
Gary – Well, a guy Frank Guido had a record store in Norfolk Virginia used to come by listening to us singing on the corner in front of Boone’s Market and he said "One day I'm gonna open up a recording studio. I certainly would like you guys to come in and record for us", so naturally we agreed. Sure enough, a couple of years later he did, but the only thing that happened was the guys that were with me at the time, most of them had gone into the service or just left town and I was the only one left there so he took me. That's how I became a solo act. Other than that, we would’ve had a group.
R.V.B. - Right. Norfolk is where the big naval base is, did you move there for that reason? Did your mom move there because of the navy base?
Gary - My grandma got married again and her husband was in the Navy, so they came there for that.
R.V.B. - I got you. So when the guy opened the recording studio, what did you do? Make some demos?
Gary – No, we went in and recorded New Orleans.
R.V.B. - Was that the first song you recorded?
Gary - That's the first song - yeah.
R.V.B. - Let's see, you go in and record your first song and it becomes a major hit. That's what I call getting off to a good start.
Gary - We got lucky right out of the box you know?
R.V.B. – Yeah, and that's a household song and it's also been covered by a lot of people.
Gary – Yeah, it has been covered by a lot of people. In the beginning, that was a country song. It was written by my friend Joe Royster who was also the engineer at the studio. The reason they made him the engineer is because he knew how to turn the tape machine on. Hahaha, he wrote it and I took it home.
R.V.B. - So where were you when you first heard it on the radio?
Gary - At home in Norfolk on the porch with my mom and a couple of my friends. We were just sitting there as we normally would do.
R.V.B. - Did you know it was gonna be coming on or it just happened to be played?
Gary - No we just... Jack Holmes who was the local DJ there at WRAP radio said, "We got a new song coming up by a young man here from Norfolk Virginia. Let's listen for it". A couple of minutes later, it came on - but he renamed it. It wasn't Gary Anderson, it was U.S. Bonds.
Gary - I didn't know it at all. It was by U.S. Bonds, and I thought somebody had stolen my song.
R.V.B. - Hahaha
Gary - I've only been in the business two days and already I've been stolen from. Hahaha
R.V.B. – Hahaha - So how did you like the name?
Gary - I hated it.
R.V.B. – Yeah, I guess your mom and your grandmother weren't too thrilled with it being changed either.
Gary – No, I hated it up until I got the first check for $120,000 and then the name felt pretty good.
R.V.B. – Hahaha - When New Orleans became such a big hit, how did your life change? Did you have to go support your song?
Gary – No, I didn't go at all. Actually, I didn't go out on the road until after "Quarter to Three". Let's see, we had "New Orleans" first, then "Not Me" came out and that got banned on the radio.
R.V.B. - Why was that?
Gary - Nuance. New Orleans came first. We did "Not Me" later on. I wrote and recorded it first and they banned it. But that was good because as soon as they said the song is being banned, everyone went out and bought it so we sold about 900,000 copies without it even being on the radio.
R.V.B. - That's usually the way it works.
Gary – Yeah, and then "Quarter to Three" came out and we didn't let anybody know that I had recorded it. You know - me "Gary Anderson" until way later, it was almost in the top ten. Mainly because New Orleans, of course. When it came out, it went on the pop charts because everybody thought it was a white act. If it would have come out and everybody knew I was a black guy, it wouldn't have been on the pop charts. It wouldn't have sold as much. So we didn't put any publicity pictures out. I didn't do any TV, I didn't do anything until Quarter to Three was number ten. That was two years later. Then we put out pictures and we changed the name to instead of U.S. Bonds, it was Gary U.S. Bonds and everybody thought it was Gary and the U.S. Bonds. We couldn't win, but when it came out with my pictures and I went on the Dick Clark Show, boy - a lot of people were surprised, but it was too late then. You know - it was too late. I'm already on the charts, you can't take it back.
R.V.B. - So when "Quarter to Three" also became a big hit and you went on TV shows, did you have to at that point - you know - go out and perform it to the public?
Gary - As soon as they put my pictures out and everybody knew that I was a black guy - you know - then we went out and started touring. We did all of the Dick Clark shows. We did the Apollos, the Howard Theaters, The Lincolns and all the major theaters. The Regals, and all that stuff in Chicago. So we did all of those. We traveled all over the country and had a great time.
R.V.B. - Who were you teamed up with on that tour?
Gary - With the Dick Clack thing mostly with the Rydells, the Avalons, you know the Dee Dees... it was some Drifters every now and then, the Platters, the Coasters, the Shirelles. And then on the other shows, the Dinas shows... it was mostly all black acts. That was Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown... again we had the Drifters - and again - we had Shirley and the Shirelles, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. I was with everybody.
R.V.B. - Did you become friends with any of those guys?
Gary - I became friends with all of them. We're still friends - those that are still living now.
R.V.B. - Right, you know, like hang around in the hotel rooms and back stage and swap stories and stuff?
Gary - Of course - yeah. We swapped a lot of things.
R.V.B. - Ah ha… hahaha. So what made the twist craze so big?
Gary - I don't know, Chubby made it really lucky with that. That was a great song. You know that was recorded by Hank Ballard in the beginning. Hank did it, and again that kind of proves a point because when Hank did it, they put it under R&B radio. Chubby again, they thought it was a white act. They put it under pop and it became a hit from Chubby. But if you listen to both of them, they sound exactly alike. He recorded it the same exact way that Hank Ballard did it. They even sounded alike.
Gary - I had them down but not as good as Chubby and those guys. I couldn't do it that good. I had some good songs "Twist, Twist Senora" and "Dear Lady Twist". I did a whole twist Calypso album that did very, very, very well. I did a lot of Harry Belefonte songs. We did them my way.
R.V.B. - I see. When the Beatles came into town, did that hurt things?
Gary - I think it hurt things for a lot of people you know. They came over and kinda took over. But they were cool though, they were an excellent group and it was about time for a change. We kinda got a little relaxed in our own situation too, so we weren't paying attention to our craft. We were too busy chasing the girls.
R.V.B. - Well you know that's just something that happens. hahaha
Gary - Of course, hahaha
R.V.B. – So, a lot of people during that time after the Beatles came, kinda settled down and regrouped. Were you writing songs at that time?
Gary – Oh, I did. I wrote most of my songs back then - and then I started writing for other people. I had a couple of big country hits because country was another passion- love of mine. I had a number one country hit with Johnny Paycheck... with a tune called "Friend Don't Take Her, She's All I Got"
R.V.B. - So that was on the country charts obviously?
Gary - It went number one.
R.V.B. - So you were officially a multi-genre writer at that point?
Gary - I would think so, hahaha, but I always loved country when I was a kid. There was two radio stations - like I said - WRAP with Jack Holmes down in Norfolk. There was another station that played Pat Boone and Patti Page and all that, and I didn't like it - but the other station that I liked was a country station. I listened to R&B, you know, with The Drifters and Doo Wop and I'd listen to country. So I'd share fifty - fifty every day. I loved country because it always told a story.
R.V.B. – Yeah, that's true. You could sit back and listen to the story. So at this time, you were just doing pickup gigs around the Eastern Seaboard?
Gary – Well, all over. I was still going all over the country, but I was doing smaller venues you know. I used to call it doing my Holiday Inn act. At that time, we did a lot of hotels. At that period, a lot of Hotels had lounges and they would have acts in there. So me and the band would go around and play in them.
Gary - Yeah, we were doing one of the smaller clubs like that... a lounge. He came in and got up and did a couple of numbers with us and we had a blast. We've been buddy, buddy ever since even though he won't share his checks with me, but that's ok. Hahaha
R.V.B. - Hahahah
Gary – Yeah, I got to get him to share his bankroll with me.
R.V.B. – Yeah, I guess he's got a pretty sizeable one.
Gary - I think it's over ten or twelve bucks, I know.
R.V.B. –Hahaha - so after that the song, "This Little Girl Is Mine" shot way up the charts. That was in the 80's right?
Gary - 1981
R.V.B. - That was a nice resurgence for you.
Gary - Oh Yeah. We had that album which was the "Dedication" album and then we came back with the "On The Line" album that he helped me with. That was "Out Of Work" and a bunch of good songs on that too.
R.V.B. - Did that bring you back into larger theaters?
Gary - Oh yeah, that brought us to bigger places again.
R.V.B. - Let me ask you something - in all the touring that you have done - is there any memorable shows that stick out?
Gary - Well there's a bunch of them. One that I really, really enjoyed. We had to play L.A. and it was a huge concert. There was a million people there. It wasn't just me on the show. It was me and Springsteen and Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder, you name em'. Bruce got up to sing and it was on my birthday... June 6th and Bruce got the whole crowd to sing Happy Birthday. It's really nice hearing a million people singing Happy Birthday to you.
R.V.B. - That had to be touching.
Gary - Oh yeah, that was great - you know - and they were out of tune, but I loved it. Hahahaha
R.V.B - Hahaha - is there a recording of that anywhere?
Gary - No... Nobody thought about recording it.
R.V.B. - Is there any one of your songs that you have written in your career that is your favorite?
Gary – Yeah, but it was never a hit. Well, there was a couple of them. I had a song called "Right Now, We Get In The Groove". It was a stupid song, but I love it. There's a song my daughter wrote for me in ‘81 on the Dedication album, "Turn The Music Down" she and I wrote. Neither one of them was a hit.
R.V.B - Well you know, they don't have to be a hit to be a good song.
Gary – Well, they were a hit to me.
R.V.B. - Exactly. Speaking of your daughter - you work with your wife and your daughter on some recordings, right?
Gary – Yeah, I work with all of them now.
R.V.B. - Does everyone have an equal input into the process?
Gary - My daughter and I do most of the writing and every now and then my wife will put in a little input. She's not into that writing thing that much. My daughter and I go downstairs and man the recordings. She works the board and I kind of conduct the band and get everybody together and we come out of there with some nice product. In fact in 2005 we came out with our first album “out of the house” so to speak. It was a big album for us, "Back in 20". That won us a W.C. Handy blues award for the year.
R.V.B. - Nice... do you have that on your wall?
Gary – Well, my wife puts everything on the wall. I try to hide it but she wants to flaunt it.
Gary - Oh it's great. We had been talking about it for many Christmases and never got a chance to do it - until one day - we got into one song... I think it was in June. I went, “let's write some more”. The hardest thing in the world is trying to write a Christmas song in June. Hahaha - there's no inspiration there at all, but we finally got through it and it was fun. Once we got started, we kinda got the hang of how to do it. It was great.
R.V.B. - So you wrote all of your own songs for this album?
Gary - Yeah, well not all of them. There are a few covers in there, but most of them are ours.
R.V.B. - Did you keep your windows closed so your neighbors wouldn't think you were nuts? (By playing Christmas songs in July).
Gary – No, the studio is pretty quiet down there, you don't hear anything unless you're in the house.
R.V.B. - So I understand that you have a big birthday coming up.
Gary - Yeah the 75th. June 6th
R.V.B. - I see you're playing at B.B.'s. I'm gonna try and make that show.
Gary - It's our annual Birthday bash. This will be our 6th annual.
R.V.B. - I see. Any surprises coming up?
Gary – Noooo… we just keep the same people. I think we might get some guests. Every year we get some guests to come up. This year looks like it's going to be Lloyd Price. Southside Johnny is gonna be there. Darlene Love might show up. Danny Aeillo (the actor) wants to come sing a couple of songs. Bobby Lewis... I just talked to him a couple of nights ago. He wants to come. He lost his eyesight but he says "How many steps to get into the club?" Just get there and I'll have somebody help you. Chuck Jackson... looks like he may show up. God knows who else. Gene Cournish from the Rascals and maybe David Brigati may show up too.
R.V.B. - I actually played a few gigs with Gene. I play around the area semi-professionally.
Gary - Oh cool
R.V.B. - I know Gene, he's a very funny guy. He tells a funny story
R.V.B. - So how long did take you to finish your book? How long was that process?
Gary - Not long at all. My co-writer Steve Cooper went with me to England and he hung out with me over there for about two weeks. When I got back he said, "I want you to read what I wrote about us over in England.” He showed me this four or five page manuscript of what he had done and I went, "Wow this is pretty interesting, I really like the way you captured our two weeks over there - you should write a book". He goes, "I'd love to write a book, in fact I'd love to write your autobiography.” I go "Well let's give it a shot". That's when we started. He traveled with me back to Norfolk. We stayed there for a few days and visited all my friends. We went down to Florida to speak with my sister and her friends and all my other family. We went to China together. We went to Japan together. We just went everywhere. He captured everything that I did and that's how we came up with the autobiography. It took us a little less than a year.
R.V.B. - Huh. Now, you took your act to China and Japan?
Gary - Yeah. We do that every year. In fact we're going back to England in about a month or two.
R.V.B. – Oh, very nice. I didn't know you still did world tours.
Gary – Yeah, I just was just over there in England. I was with... do you remember Albert Lee? The guitar player? I was over there with him. I just did a gig with Steve Winwood and I was with Bill Wyman for about eight weeks. Ben E. King and I went over a year before last and we did eight weeks together.
R.V.B. - I understand that sometimes the overseas crowds show almost more appreciation than they do at home.
Gary - Oh yeah, they do... I mean - when I go over there- everything is a major theater over there. It's always at least a five to ten thousand seater and we do five nights a week.
R.V.B. - Very good. Are there other artists of today that you like?
Gary - I enjoy Bruno Mars a lot. I think he's really, really talented. I don't get a chance to listen to much radio. I've been listening to a couple of things by Jack White, but that was only because they wanted me to do a song with him.
R.V.B. - Right... well like I said, congratulations on your career. I know it's still going strong. How did you wind up on Long Island?
Gary - We were living in Norfolk and my wife got sick of being down there during the time. That's forty years ago now. She got sick of being down there with all that racial stuff that was going on, you know?
R.V.B. – Oh, I see
Gary - She's from Brooklyn and she goes, " You know, I can't take this. I got to get out of here.” I couldn't understand it because I lived down there all my life so it didn't really bother me that much. I was immune to it I guess until I got a chance to move up here into Brooklyn. One day, I'm sitting here with her father and he said, "Gary let's take the top down.” (I had my Cadillac), "Let's take the top down and see if we can find Jones Beach." I got in the car with my bald-headed step father (hahaha) who's head got cold when we were driving with the top down and we wound up lost out here on Long Island.
R.V.B. - Right
Gary - We couldn't find our way back and we wound up here and I saw this house. "Wow, that looks like a really, really nice house. I'd like to live there." I went back home and called the real estate agent and she said, "Oh yeah, the house is for sale would you like to come and see it?" I go, "I already saw it". She said, "Don't you really want to go in?" I go, "Is it nice inside?" and she goes,"yeah". I said, "I'll buy it". So I bought it on the phone and a couple of weeks later we came and moved in.
R.V.B. - Nice... can you just tell me what town it's in?
Gary - Wheatley Heights
R.V.B. - Oh right over there by Dix Hills and Melville
Gary – Exactly, yeah.
R.V.B. - I'm a little further out in Coram by Port Jefferson.
Gary - I go out there every now and then to get to the ferry.
R.V.B. – Well, Gary, I have to say it's been a pleasure. I'll look to see you in a couple of weeks at B.B. Kings. Have a nice day.
Gary - You too brother.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
For more information on Gary visit his website at www.garyusbonds.com
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