Dance 'til Quarter to Three with U.S. Bonds
Squirm factor: 3
No, his parents didn't name him in honor of General Grant - the name was an attempt to fool DJs into playing his record under the impression it was a public service announcement! Anyway, this is billed as the "Norfolk sound", but the contents of the record seem to show that Norfolk didn't have a particular sound, other than the one producer Frank Guida cooked up for Bonds' records.
The selection of songs, almost all written by Bonds, cover most of the territory in which late-fifties R&B could be found. "One Million Tears" has a Dion-like Brooklyn sound, while "Please Forgive Me" has an L.A. doo-wop flavor, and "Not Me" has a hot Coasters-style New York setting. Through it all, Bonds sings terrifically. He's got a flexible tenor that can smoothly croon on the ballads, get rough on the rockers, and deliver the emotions behind the lyrics as well.
There are three big hits included: "Quarter to Three" and "New Orleans" (of course) have a bit of the New Orleans shuffle sound, although "Quarter to Three" includes a very cool vocal underpinning not unlike the Philadelphia stylings of the period. "School is Out" is an amusing take on the old "no more pencils, no more books" rhyme, but I do question why a Virginia boy would "root for the Yankees from the bleachers." Wouldn't he be a Senators fan?
What constitutes the "Norfolk sound", then, must be the production, which is bizarre. The backing band is hopping, particularly the drummer, and features someone apparently named Daddy G on a sub-King Curtis saxophone, but they sound like they're playing in a an empty gymnasium. Meanwhile, Bonds is double- or triple-tracked, so his voice blares out of the speakers with immense presence. The combination of muddy and brazen is unique, and adds a lot to the atmosphere of this record.
For an LP made in 1961, there's a lot to like. A fair amount of filler is included, naturally, but the hits and several of the other tracks are well-written and excellently sung, and make for a real good time.
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Squirm factor: 2
Twenty years after Dance 'til Quarter to Three, Bonds came to the attention of Bruce Springsteen, who recruited Miami Steve and produced a "comeback" album. In a Mellencampesque touch, he added his real first name to become Gary U.S. Bonds.
Side one is produced by Springsteen, who wrote three of the songs and had the E Street Band play on them. The sound is close to The River but pretty far from "Quarter to Three". How much you like it will depend on your opinion of "One Trick" Bittan's piano arpeggios and Max Weinberg's powerful, unswinging drumming. The most soulful elements of the band, Garry Tallent's laid-back bass and Danny Federici's organ, are submerged as usual in the mix.
The songs themselves are middling Springsteen fare. They cover Moon Mullican's "Jolé Blon," on which Springsteen takes a verse and is completely outclassed by Bonds. Gary also delivers well on "This Little Girl" and "Dedication", the latter of which has an atmosphere similar to old story songs like "School is Out." Van Zandt's "Daddy's Come Home" isn't much of a song, with a minimal melody dragged out over six minutes, but Bonds invests it with a lot of soul.
Bonds' comfort in a variety of styles is shown on side two, produced by Miami Steve and performed by other musicians. He tackles "It's Only Love" with a lot more conviction than the Beatles (probably more conviction than the song deserves), and has a wistful delivery on "Just Like a Child." He even plows through "From a Buick 6" and manages to keep his dignity intact.
Highly recommended for Springsteen fans, and aficionados of gritty soul vocals can do worse.
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