‘The Best of Gary U.S. Bonds’ Album Review

“Music is essentially useless, as life is.” Santayana

I saw Gary U.S. Bonds perform to a full house at the Playhouse Theatre in the fall of 1981 in Winnipeg. The evening began under inauspicious circumstances.

He came to the stage late that night, almost an hour past his scheduled time. There had been a surprise October snowstorm and his plane had arrived in dangerous flying conditions. The audience was restless and not quite sure whether to stay or leave. The opening act, a local low-talent group, had exhausted their repertoire and had begun to repeat the few songs they had perfected to a state of tuneless mediocrity. The host of the evening, a local radio announcer, had come out to tell a few jokes and make excuses. But even during a long intermission, no one left. We all indulged in a few drinks and waited for an aging rock and roller, a questionable has-been, to show up and play his three or four hits. Such was the night life in Winnipeg in 1981.

It had been almost twenty years since Gary U. S. Bonds had had a hit record, but he was making a comeback of sorts. His new album was produced by none other than Bruce Springsteen, a long-time fan of Gary‘s music and his onstage act. I‘d bought the record and had been impressed. I reassured my wife he would be worth seeing. Actually, I was astonished that that the promoter had managed to fill the theatre.

Finally a buzzer rang out, calling us back to our seats. The announcer came out onstage and said something like “Ladies and Gentlemen, the best concert of the year will now begin”.

Well, he was right. It was not only the best concert of the year in Winnipeg, I dare say it was one of the best concerts anywhere since Jackie Wilson was at the peak of his performing career. Gary had a solid band that sizzled for two and a half hours without a break. He was a terrific singer and a great dancer. I don‘t think he cared whether he was playing for six people or six thousand. He was an unstoppable force who had absolutely no right to be that energetic at his age. Bruce Springsteen cites him as an inspiration, and I can see why; Bruce is famous for giving his audience an unforgettable concert experience, and I have to think from his frequent words of tribute regarding Gary that he learned a thing or two from Mr. Bonds.

Gary (last real name Anderson) is one of those rock music workhorses like Bob Seger, Steve Miller, Randy Bachman and Chrissie Hynde. Their music, individually and collectively, made people very happy for a long period of time. They played for the sheer love of performing, of singing, of recording, and putting something joyful out into the world through the airwaves. I chose to write about the guy who had the fewest hits of all because his music always puts a smile on my face and makes me want to dance. I feel the same way when I hear the Chiffons singing “He‘s So Fine”  on a summer day, or Bobby Boris Pickett singing “Monster Mashevery Halloween.

Now, Gary had one big hit in his career, “Quarter To Three”, and it’s quite possibly the best party record of all time. In Marvin Gaye‘s “What‘s Going On”, in Stevie Wonder‘s “Living For The City”, in Michael Jackson‘s work, in the Beach Boys’ “Having A Party”, I hear the legacy of Gary‘s work. They‘re all attempts to make believe the recording is not a manufactured studio artifact, but an accidental transcription of friends getting together and taking it to the limit.

“Quarter to Three” was made in 1961, in the days when a saxophone was a big part of many band‘s instrumental cadre, and Gary‘s sax player was one of the best rockers ever. The album we’ve chosen (released in 1996) includes this song as a live version. It’s killer, as his live version of “New Orleans”. And his 1981 hit “This Little Girl” is as infectious as any Springsteen number. Coincidence? – well, Bruce learned a good deal from the high-level energy characteristic of so much of early Sixties music.

Dave Marsh, the noted Rolling Stone rock critic, had this to say about Gary‘s biggest hit, ‘Quarter To Three’ , which he named record 412 of the top 1000 Rock and Soul records of all time:

“It has the virtue of sounding the same on a cheap car radio as it does on a $10,000 sound system”.

That, my friends, is a good thing.

Rock and roll is at its best when it‘s unpretentious, when it‘s controlled chaos threatening to lose all control (think Blue Cheer‘s version of “Summertime Blues”), when it celebrates impending disaster. If there‘s anyone capable of making that happen, it‘s Gary U.S. Bonds. He’s meant to be played loud. Put this record on and turn it up, and when you think it’s too loud, turn it up some more.

Gary is generally regarded as a one-hit wonder these days, but what a wonder.