POSTED BY SARAH LARSON
Last week, the rock-and-roll pioneer, Friend of Bruce, and Long Island resident Gary U.S. Bonds celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday at the B. B. King Blues Club & Grill. Bonds is a jocular presence, and grateful, in his eighth decade, to be enjoying a career onstage. He's had a birthday concert at the club for the past six years; last year's, his seventy-fourth, was a big to-do. It doubled as a party for the release of his memoir, "By U.S. Bonds" and featured performances by his original saxophone player, Gene (Daddy G.) Barge, who is eighty-seven; the beloved Jersey misanthrope Southside Johnny ("A man I hate to call my friend, but I have to, because he's a dear friend," Bonds said); and Chubby Checker, who sat on a stool and gave the band orders: "Can we punk up the bass? Rock the drums? I want to hear some Chuck Berry guitar, some Jerry Lee Lewis piano, I want the sax player to bubble under on the arrangement, E two-three bop-bam, and stick in a load of Fats Domino." The boxer Evander Holyfield was in the audience. ("The mighty mighty man!” Bonds said. "I'd ask him to get up and sing, but he’d beat me up.") Bonds sang, as he has for decades, with his wife, Laurie Anderson, whom he calls Big Mama, and his daughter, Laurie Anderson Tobias, whom he calls Little Mama, on backup vocals. Afterward, at Lucille's, he used a pair of giant novelty scissors to cut a red ribbon on a table of copies of the book, and he posed with a cake featuring a frosting rendition of the book jacket.
This year's celebration was more low-key, featuring an array of Bonds's longtime friends, sans Daddy G., who lives in Chicago: Franke Previte sang "Hungry Eyes" and "Time of My Life," two songs he wrote for "Dirty Dancing"; Chuck Jackson, in a gold sequinned jacket, sang his hit "Any Day Now"; Southside Johnny, David Letterman's bandleader Paul Shaffer, and Gene Cornish, of the Rascals, did a shambling rendition of "Good Lovin'"; Bobby Lewis, a trim eighty-nine-year-old in beige suit, a beige hat, and sunglasses, sang his great song "Tossin' and Turnin'" and made a few jokes of the "a mule kicked my mother-in-law in the face" variety. Everybody had a good time.
Before his show, Bonds, laughing and joking, sat on a couch in his dressing room, wearing a black T-shirt, black pants, and an earring, and drinking from a bottle of water. How did he feel?
"I feel awful!" Bonds said, beaming. "They keep running me around. I said, 'You can't do that to me! Who do you think I am, Prince?'"
Bonds, whose real name is Gary Anderson, grew up in Norfolk, Virginia="'‘We don’t drink, we don't smoke / Nor-folk, Nor-folk.' That was our school chant, sad to say"-and got his start "standing on the corner, singing, me and my group. We called ourselves the Turks. It's a naval town. Everything was basically sailors and prostitutes. We had a lot of music going on around there, especially around Church Street, which they called the black street, and then there was Granby Street, which they called the white street. I had the chance to work both sides of the town. I don't know how I pulled that off." A local record-store owner, Frankie Guida, heard them, and in 1960 he recorded Anderson's first single, "New Orleans." Without telling him, Guida credited it to "U.S. Bonds" in hope of confusing d.j.s into opening the package. "New Orleans," a sax-heavy party number, was a success. "We drove up to Philadelphia and put it in Dick Clark's hands," Bonds said. "He played it in his office and he went, 'I like this song!' The next day he put it on 'American Bandstand.'"
Bonds then teamed up with Daddy G. and recorded his biggest hit, the jaunty, garage-rock-fuzzy "Quarter to Three." It begins:
Don’t you know that I danced, I danced till a quarter to three
With the help, last night, of Daddy G.
He was swingin' on the sax like a nobody could
And I was dancin' all over the room!
"Quarter to Three"=from the intro, full of "Hey hey"s and handclaps, to Daddy G.'s sax-sounds a lot like Dion and the Belmonts' "Runaround Sue." There's a reason for that: Dion liked "Quarter to Three" so much that he made his own. "Dion, every time I see him-every time I see him, I get so tired of it-the first words out of his mouth are 'If it wasn't for you, there'd be no 'Runaround Sue,'" Bonds said. They run into each other at oldies shows, where Bonds plays his song, about dancing and swinging, and Dion plays his, about a girl who wants to date everybody but him.
Success came in several forms in the early sixties. Bonds toured with his heroes Sam Cooke and B. B. King. "Sam said, 'You got potential, kid. But you're not usin' it. Backstage, you're talking up a storm and telling jokes and having fun, playing pranks. And as soon as you get onstage you clam up.' Sam said, 'Talk, engage, they'll love you even more.' But I'd freeze up, and I'd just sing. One night when I walked off the stage, Sam grabbed me and slapped me upside my head, and said, 'Damn it, I told you to do it, now do it!'" Bonds said. "I haven't stopped talking since." He also appeared in a movie, "It's Trad, Dad!" (released in the U.S. as "Ring-a-Ding Rhythm!"), directed by Richard Lester, who directed "A Hard Day's Night." "It's kind of like that, only without the Beatles," Bonds said. After recording a twist album, "Twist Up Calypso" ("'Twist Twist Senora,' 'Mama Look a Booboo,' 'Day-O'-everything we could put a twist to, we did," Bonds said), he left his record label. "They wanted me to do funny records. I wanted to be Sam Cooke. So I just stopped recording. My whole thing in music was, I liked being onstage-I can go out and sing at the beer joint. So I did my Holiday Inn act.'" That lasted fifteen years.
In 1976, Bonds and his band were playing at the Hangar, a club with a plane on its roof in Hazlet, New Jersey, when Bruce Springsteen walked in. Bonds didn't know who Springsteen was. "His buddies said they wanted their friend to come up and sing a couple of songs with me. And I announced him and the crowd went wild. I thought, Who the hell is this guy? He got up and we had a grand time onstage. A couple years later, we recorded an album."
Springsteen told Bonds that he had been an influence on him musically. "That was why he wanted a sax player in his band," Bonds said. "He was trying to get that sound." In Norfolk, Bonds and Daddy G. knew Springsteen's future saxophone player Clarence Clemons, who grew up nearby, but who was younger and was in a different crowd. "Clarence learned from Daddy G., as King Curtis did," Bonds said. "I remember King Curtis coming into Norfolk and going to Daddy G.'s house and spending the week there so Daddy G. could teach him how to scat play. And that's how King Curtis could do the-" Bonds sang a busy flurry of notes that sounded like a cross between Clarence Clemons and the sax solo in "Yakety Yak," one of King Curtis's most famous records. "He learned that from Daddy G. I was there-I watched that." He smiled and shook his head. "Shoot," he said.
Bonds recorded an album, "Dedication," with Springsteen and members of the E Street Band and the Asbury Jukes in 1981; its single "This Little Girl," which Springsteen wrote at Bonds's house and which features Clemons on sax, went to No. 5. Bonds had another jolt of fame, and bigger tours, playing with Kim Carnes and Franke Previte; he's continued to tour and play ever since, and has no plans to stop. How much longer? "I don't know-fifty years?" he said. "I ain't going nowhere."