He might just be the Rip Van Winkle of rock ’n’ roll, disappearing from the scene for two decades at a time.
As a Tidewater teenager, Gary U.S. Bonds blazed onto the airwaves in the early 1960s with such hits as the classic “Quarter to Three.” He reappeared in the early ’80s, championed by Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band drew inspiration from Bond’s sax-driven Norfolk sound. Then came another renaissance at the turn of the century, appearing in “Blues Brothers 2000,” being honored by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and, in 2004, releasing an all-star album titled, appropriately, “Back in 20.”
In-between, he worked the whole time. On big stages when the going was good, in hotel lounges when things got slow. Things have been mostly good since the ’80s. Rolling Stone called his 1981 comeback album, “Dedication,” the best Springsteen album not made by Springsteen. Now he plays about 50 shows a year in America and Europe.
The Richmond Folk Festival appearance is special, a recreation of the Norfolk Sound, reuniting Bonds with saxophonist Gene Barge, aka Daddy G., a key player in his early recordings.
“We’re going to do all the hits,” Bond promises. “Or at least the ones that were the most fun. Daddy G. is totally different from anyone else. He just turned 90, but on stage, he’s got the energy of a 9-year-old. Once he kicks in all you want to hear is that real sound.”
That real sound started a cappella on the street corners where Bonds — then Gary Levone Anderson — harmonized with neighborhood friends. Local record-store owner Frank Guida often stopped to listen and offered to record them. But by the time his Legrand Records was in operation a couple of years later, Bonds was the only one still around.
“Our first song was ‘New Orleans,’” Bonds recalls. “It was written by Joe Royster. He was a salesman at Hofheimer Shoes, and he was the engineer because he was the only one who knew how to turn the equipment on.”
Guida chose the U.S. Bonds stage name and reportedly sent out the single in savings bonds envelopes in hopes radio stations would confuse it for a public service announcement and put it on the air.
“At first, disk jockeys thought the sound was too rough and unprofessional,” Bonds says. “Then we took it up to Dick Clark and “American Bandstand” in Philadelphia. The kids loved it. It was the only record he ever played twice on one show. And, soon enough, the DJs realized they liked it too.”
Touring in those wild days was an unpredictable adventure. Once, in Los Angeles, Bonds saw an advertisement for himself at a local club. He showed up to watch another “Gary U.S. Bond” perform his songs in front of a packed house — and then went backstage to introduce himself.
“The kid was real upset,” Bonds says. “He was just as white as you could be, blond with blue eyes. The club owner asked me what he should do. I said: ‘Pay him. He did his job. I just don’t want to see him here tomorrow.’”
Such impersonation was par for the course. “Once a club owner got me to pretend to be Aaron Neville for a gig in Portsmouth,” Bonds says. “People recognized me after a couple of songs and we had to get out of there in a hurry.”
The leanest years were the early ones, when the mid-’60s British Invasion pushed first-generation American rock ’n’ rollers to the background.
“I played Holiday Inns, Hiltons — whatever fair you could grab hold of,” Bonds says. Then, when he was playing at a small club in northern New Jersey, Springsteen showed up. “He came onstage, we did some songs together, and we’ve been buddy-buddy since.”
Two albums backed by the E Street Band kick-started his career, and he’s never looked back. He drifted away from recording. (“I had gotten so fed up with record companies. They were robbing you blind.”) He got back to his do-it-yourself, Legrand Record roots when he set up a basement studio in his Long Island home.
“I enjoyed being down there, creating music, figuring things out,” Bonds says. “Everything is on the computer. I’m hooked on this thing. It’ll drive you crazy, but it keeps your brain active.” He recorded “Back in 20” there, with the help of friends like Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Phoebe Snow and Dickie Betts.
Appearing at the Folk Festival with Daddy G. will a historic homecoming. “I love Virginia, and I love to perform,” Bonds says. “Onstage is perfect, it’s the travel that’s a pain. I tell people: ‘You aren’t paying me to play. You’re paying to get me to and from the gig.’”