School Is In

Echoes of the Norfolk Sound and “High School U.S.A.”

Photos courtesy of Discogs.com

Frank Guida liked to think big. The Virginia music producer, who scored national hits with Gary “U.S. Bonds” and Jimmy Soul in the early 1960s, is known as the spark plug behind the Norfolk Sound—the rambunctious party music that influenced generations of rockers. Old Dominion University’s Perry Library recently unveiled its new Frank and Carmela Guida Collection of rare papers, recordings, and personal items from the producer’s archives. Donated by Guida’s family, the collection includes handwritten lyrics, contracts, correspondence, photos, tapes, and original recording equipment. 

Even with legal papers embargoed until 2029, the collection is filled with historical insight into the recording industry and the Norfolk music scene. One box in particular reveals behind-the-scenes details of the producer’s most audacious recording—a song, or songs, waxed 60 years ago, called “High School U.S.A.”

A transplanted New Yorker who owned Frankie’s Birdland record shop on Norfolk’s Church Street, Guida was eager to establish himself as a music industry player with bold ideas. “‘High School U.S.A.’ made history,” Hit Parader would claim in its March 1960 edition. “It was a national record release, but the record’s lyrics are built around the names of high schools of the local areas in which it was sold. Twenty-eight different versions were made to cater to 28 different cities or territories, covering the entire country.”

The song’s vocalist, Tommy “Bubba” Facenda, was a star athlete from St. Paul High School’s football and basketball teams, and briefly a Gene Vincent protégé and Blue Cap “Clapper Boy.” When Guida spotted the warbling Adonis in a local club, he thought he had found his Elvis.

“High School U.S.A.” was originally recorded at Fernwood Farms studio in Great Bridge and released as the first single on Frank’s own self-bankrolled Legrand record label. An innocent, jaunty rollcall of schools from across the Commonwealth, the song was written by Guida with his right-hand man, engineer Joe Royster. Set to a crunchy, Bo Diddley-style beat, it featured a then-unknown singer named Gary “U.S. Bonds” Anderson in the vocal chorus. 

This first “High School U.S.A.” sold well in Virginia, so the neophyte music maker took the bold idea of a national-regional record to Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, then the nation’s top R&B label. The song would be rearranged by Atlantic in New York, with more than two dozen different state and city-specific versions recorded and released. The label’s star saxophonist King Curtis sat in for the marathon session, in which singer Facenda breathlessly vocalized a torrent of high school names—from Memphis to Oklahoma to Los Angeles—in recording after recording. The hundreds of high school names had been assembled by Royster from reference material at the Norfolk Public Library. 

Guida always thought the original Norfolk recording was better. “I told Ahmet, the tempo [of the re-recordings] is too fast, kids can’t really dance to it.” Atlantic’s version(s) peaked on the national charts at No. 28 in November ’59. While respectable, it was hardly the blockbuster release Guida had hoped would make him a million before he was 30. The bold experiment did win industry notice and spurred Atlantic to sign Facenda, but the singer never saw the charts again; he retired from the business in the mid-’60s and enjoyed a long stint as a Portsmouth firefighter. 

“‘High School U.S.A.’ should have been a monster hit,” said Guida, who died in 2007. “Ahmet is a dear friend, but he ruined it. I swore after that that I’d never give another record away ever again.” 

And he never did. The producer soon bought a recording studio on Princess Anne Boulevard and assembled a band of ace R&B players he named the Church Street Five. Within a year, they would cut a top 10 hit, “New Orleans,” with young Gary Anderson, renamed “U.S. Bonds,” on vocals. Then, together with saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge, they would score a No. 1 smash with “Quarter to Three.” 

But the school spirit never stopped. Barge, a teacher at Suffolk High by day, co-wrote with Bonds a raveup called “School is Out” as the followup to “Quarter to Three.” A huge hit, it went to No. 3. The gang revisited the theme next with “School is In,” arguably a better song but a tougher sell. It made No. 28. “Mixed Up Faculty” and “No More Homework” repeated the formula and failed, and many years later, the world was treated to yet another rah-rah academic salute with the release of “Virginia High Schools Really Know How to Rock!” by Lenis Guess on Guida’s very short-lived Virginia label. 

The original handwritten lyrics to “High School U.S.A.” can now be viewed at ODU’s Perry Library. And one question can definitively be answered: Did Frank Guida ever give up on an idea he believed commercial? Not when it involved high schools. ODU.edu/library/special-collections


This article originally appeared in our June 2019 issue.

Subscribe to the Magazine
Events

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum