Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Quarter to Three (1961)

This record changed my life.

I was ten years old. How many of us, at around that age, heard new music because of a friend’s access to his or her older sibling’s records? Summertime — a friend said, “You ever hear U.S. Bonds?” And then (to quote Lou Reed), my mind split open.

I grew up in a pre-rock family. As a little kid, I lived in the world of my mother’s music: classical and pop from the 1920s through the 1950s. I latched onto this set of RCA Victor albums she had called “60 Years of Music America Loved Best” (1959-1960). This was my musical education. The collection was eclectic, to say the least:

  • Marian Anderson, “Go Down Moses”
  • Vladimir Horowitz, “Variations on Themes from Carmen”
  • Paul Whiteman, “Whispering”
  • Perry Como, “Prisoner of Love”
  • Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy, “Indian Love Call”
  • Fritz Kreisler, “Liebesfreud”
  • Harry Belafonte, “Day-O”

…and many more (Duke Ellington, Eddy Arnold, Jascha Heifetz, Artie Shaw, Mario Lanza, Toscanini, Rachmaninoff, etc.…)

Despite the obvious omissions (blues? R&B? bebop?), it was a good introduction to 20th-century music for a mid-century kid. None of it prepared me for “Quarter to Three”. The bits of rock ’n’ roll I had heard (probably via a babysitter listening to local top 40 station WORC), the ones that made an impression, tended to be novelties: “Purple People Eater,” or “Witch Doctor,” or “On the Telephone” (Stan Boreson’s parody of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Honeycomb”). Little kids used to love that stuff. Maybe a little Fats Domino or Elvis in the mix. “Quarter to Three” revealed a whole other world. Gary and crew weren’t just doing a song about a wild party, the song was the party. A party happening at the bottom of the sea, from the sound of it. There may have been more instruments involved in the session, but the only audible ones were saxes and some kind of distorted-beyond-recognition drum thing. Crazy! People whooping, clapping, yelling — this wasn’t a song, it was a lifestyle.

Who were the Church Street Five? Who was Daddy G? Who were all these people spending the night with him, and how in the world did they cram the whole mess onto a 7” disk?

(This is a big theme for me: the sound of a record is every bit as important as the melody, or the lyrics, or the meaning. In fact, the sound is a huge part of the meaning.) The underwater quality — poor recording technique? — wasn’t at all offputting. The record that had previously hit me the hardest was the famous 1920s gramophone recording of Caruso singing “Vesti la giubba” from i Pagliacci (on the above-mentioned “60 Years…” anthology). It had a similar veiled, almost warbling quality — but packed an emotional wallop belying its lo-fi presentation. Its feeling of distance from the listener (me) may have even enhanced the pathos in Caruso’s sobbing delivery.

My sense of wonder on experiencing “Quarter to Three” turned instantly into a rock ’n’ roll obsession. I started listening to top 40 stations: WINS, WABC, WBZ, WORC. My allowance (and soon, money I made working at my father’s store) went for new 45s; later, albums. The old records fell into disuse. It was still two or three years before the Beatles would set off another pop music sea change, but until then I devoured everything on the AM airwaves.

play “Quarter to Three” on YouTube