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Payin' Dues: Gary US Bonds

From street corners to US pop chart-topper, the ultimate party singer looks back.

Gary US Bonds started out singing on street corners with The Turks and on being discovered by Frank Guilda, a local record shop and label owner, released 1960’s New Orleans and 1961’s Quarter To Three, his sole US number 1.

What was the moment you decided – I want to do this?

I remember mom taking me to see Bullmoose Jackson and Ivory Joe Hunter at Norfolk’s Attuck’s Theater – the “Apollo” of the South. I was 15 or 16 years old. I loved the performance, the way they worked the crowd, and how the young girls hugged the stage for a better look at their idols. I knew that was what I wanted to do. 

  

Who inspired you in the beginning?

Vocally, I thought Clyde McPhatter was the best singer and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were peerless performers. Mom loved Cab Calloway, and I think the intros to a lot of my songs can be traced back to his scat singing.

 

You honed your craft with vocal harmony group The Turks.

We sang on the corner of Brambleton Avenue and Olney Road, near where we lived in Norfolk. Frank Guida [of Legrand Records] heard us singing and told us he was going to record us. By the time he bought a local studio and had done a record, The Turks had split up, but Frank asked me to record. He signed me after my first studio session.

 

You recorded New Orleans and Quarter To Three for him.

I was happy to be recording and “signed” because I knew if I sold a few records, I would be able to get more gigs. I wasn’t nervous and I knew nothing about recording, but I sensed the studio was crude and the equipment not the latest. We were recording two tracks by overdubbing and manipulating speeds to get echo.

  

Quarter To Three is regarded as a quintessential party record...

My sound was either genius or an accident, but when they heard my records it was like being at a party with your best buddies. My buddies were in the room when we recorded. You can hear them in the background. 

 

You shared the bill with Sam Cooke and B.B. King at your first gig at the Howard Theater in Washington...

They taught me that performing was more than singing your three songs. They were both great at reaching a crowd. This was my school and I had the greatest professors.

By US Bonds: That’s My Story, Gary US Bonds’ autobiography, is out now. 

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