The Norfolk Sound

Bold, exotic and influential, the Norfolk Sound made Hampton Roads a vital epicenter of pop, rock and soul in the 1960s. But there was more to the story than meets the ear.

To listen to recordings from Ida Sands, Wilson Williams, Lenis Guess and other Norfolk Sound performers, and to watch ‘Put Me Down Easy: The Charlie McClendon Story,’ click here.

There was once a building at 408 W. Princess Anne Road in Norfolk, purchased in 1959 by a record store owner named Frank Guida who used the space to record the works of local singers and musicians, such as Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Barge and Jimmy Soul. Numerous hits were cut here during the early ’60s, including Bonds’ raucous “New Orleans” and “Quarter to Three,” and Soul’s exotic calypso rock ‘n’ roll tunes, “If You Wanna Be Happy” and “Twisting Matilda.”

This is the spot where the Norfolk Sound was born, the rambunctious party rock that influenced generations of musicians, among them the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and the New York Dolls. A few contemporaneous commentators (in the U.K. especially) found the bass beat-heavy, lo-fidelity music that was cut here “revolutionary” and prophetically called it the way of the future. So what if you could sometimes hear a nearby train’s rumble in the background? Who cares if the vocal tracks were recorded in the bathroom? The primitive beat and over-modulated atmosphere Guida and his cohorts pioneered made the Hampton Roads area a vital outpost for pop music more than 50 years ago, arguably paving the way for the hugely successful Tidewater-based producers of today, like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland.  

A “Walk of Fame” plaque honoring the achievements of Frank Guida and his sound factory rests somewhere on Granby Street, where one of his record stores stood. But there is no marker or sign near this driveway where the noise first started.

“He could stay in Norfolk, build a fence around his studio, and be secure in his legacy … He could slice and dice and repackage all that we did, and it would always be new to someone, and it would sell,” writes Gary U.S. Bonds, the Norfolk Sound’s biggest star, about Frank Guida in his new autobiography, By U.S. Bonds.

Co-written by Stephen Cooper, the book is a step above your average music tell-all, an emotionally involving account of the 74-year-old singer’s career, with a sizable chunk devoted to Bonds’ formative years in Norfolk and the tumultuous relationship he had with the man who discovered him. The reader is taken back to the day Frank Guida—a Bronx transplant born in Salermo, Italy, in 1922—heard a young Gary Levon Anderson singing with his group, the Turks, on a street corner. Bonds details how Guida—the “Latin from Manhattan”—stamped “by U.S. Bonds” on early pressings of the singer’s “New Orleans” single so DJs would think it was a patriotic recording. He also describes a musical operation that seemed to work on pure adrenaline and happenstance, not revolutionary inspiration. (After all, novice recording engineer Joe Royster was a shoe salesman by trade.)

“When I strip away a half century of complications, ignore the business and listen to the music, I see now that his dreams and mine were simple and the same,” writes Bonds. “We both wanted to make music; we both wanted to entertain. But there were differences. He pursued that dream blindly, and I did so innocently.”  

After scoring numerous worldwide hits, including the No. 1 song “Quarter to Three,” the party began to fade by the mid-’60s; Bonds finally parted with Guida in 1968. He made his way as a songwriter and soul singer for a spell, eventually hitting the oldies circuit, until his career was resurrected in 1981 by fans Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, who wrote and produced a series of albums and singles for him: “Gary, along with his producer Frank Guida and sax player Gene ‘Daddy G’ Barge, invented garage rock,” Van Zandt—longtime E Street Band member and Silvio on The Sopranos—writes in his introduction to Bonds’ autobiography.

Other key collaborators, including Barge and the Church Street Five house band, also left the fold in the mid-’60s, and so Guida turned to Lenis Guess, a scrappy and prolific area musician. The sad-eyed keyboardist, whose family owned Guess’ Snack Grill in downtown Norfolk, first met the producer when he was in high school, singing with a group eventually called the Bluebeards. “My parents wouldn’t sign the contract with Guida,” he recalls. “I was underage … My father said, ‘I’m not sending my son off to nobody for 10 years.’” (Guess would later form a record label called DPG with restaurant owner George Perkins and singer Kenneth Deal—who had been in the Sheiks, the first local group Guida discovered in Norfolk—and released a handful of stellar 45 rpm platters before Deal died in a car crash and Perkins and Guess parted over artistic differences.)

Guess would oversee Guida’s operation for three years before he opened his own studio in 1969. “He was the only one I trusted with the keys,” Guida once said. Guess worked with performers such as Page One, Prince George, and the 35th Street Gang, and earned solo deals with big labels Polydor and Brunswick that yielded memorably funky singles, if few sales. He moved to New York in 1979 but continued to collaborate with Guida, most successfully on an album by a Richmond police captain turned love balladeer, Oliver Christian, aka The Soul Cop.

But Guida wasn’t the only Norfolk businessman making noise in the recording industry at the time. “There was the ‘Norfolk Sound’ and then there was the sound of Norfolk,” says Howard “ReNardo” Biggs, 50, the son of Noah Biggs and singer Ida Sands, who founded Norfolk’s answer to Detroit’s Motown label, Shiptown Records. “The difference was that Shiptown was recording R&B acts rooted in the sound of the community, and Frank Guida was making pop music.”

“Noah gave you, for lack of a better term, artistic freedom,” says singer/guitarist Wilson Williams, who started with the local Peerless Four gospel quartet and would go on to sing with the Platters for nearly two decades. As an up-and-comer, Williams released two singles on Biggs’ labels and played on others: “I thought Frankie Guida was a great guy, but I recognized that I couldn’t work with him. For him, it had to be different and it had to be different in a way that he heard … but, just listening to what he did and Noah did, I think Noah had better product. Guida had better distribution than Noah, so Frankie had the hits.”

“It was my dad’s money,” says ReNardo Biggs, “but it was my mom’s label.” Biggs describes his mother, Ida Sands, putting sweat into the business, rehearsing her fellow performers, sewing clothes and “doing whatever it took.” Shiptown’s biggest hit was a downcast holiday tune called “Just a Sad XMas,” recorded by Sands and Joe Webster as The Soul Duo. Over the years, “Little Ida,” who passed away in January this year, turned down management and touring offers from James Brown and Jackie Wilson (among others), opting to stay with Shiptown.

Biggs, who passed away in 1978, also managed Norman Johnson and the Showmen, the region’s most popular vocal group. He helped to put the Showman, formerly the Humdingers, in the capable hands of New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. They made the charts twice (in 1961 and 1964) with “It Will Stand,” a stirring anthem about rock ‘n’ roll that may be the music world’s first self-referential “golden oldie.” When the Showmen left Biggs, “it just about killed him,” says ReNardo Biggs. “He loved Norman Johnson like a son.” (Johnson, who died in 2010, would later assume the fictitious rank of General, form the popular group, Chairmen of the Board, and carry the flag for beach music.)

Noah Biggs had wide-ranging business interests. He also owned Nimrod’s, long gone now, but a mainstay of African-American commerce for years located one block from Frank Guida’s record store, Frankie’s Birdland, at 726 Church St. Nimrod’s sold records and just about everything else (“almost like a pawn shop,” someone tells me). The always-well-dressed Biggs ran the local numbers game, and Nimrod’s also fronted as a booking agency. Across the street was the House of Process, where performers would get their hair done. The neighborhood soundtrack blared on transistor radios, provided by WRAP’s Jack Holmes who would play locally-waxed discs along with the latest from Otis Redding, The Shirelles and whatever the latest dance craze was.

Local concerts by Shiptown artists would happen at places like the Longshoreman’s Hall in Norfolk, but the most popular club was the Wagon Wheel in Gloucester. “If you were performing at the Wagon Wheel, and Jack Holmes was there playing your record, you felt like you made it,” says Williams.

The raw R&B and performances that Biggs sponsored on Shiptown (and its sister label, How Big, established in 1969) by local performers, including Williams, soul singer Barbara Stant, and flamboyant bandleader Flip Flop Stevens, still electrify.

These recordings are starting to get some love, and not only from collectors (the original platters can cop three figures at auction). A recent documentary, Hardcore Norfolk, examines the influence of the area’s prolific rock and soul scene, citing Biggs alongside Guida as an original mover in the region’s popular music history. Directors Debra Persons, Paul Unger and Andrea Rizzo screened the movie at the Virginia Film Festival, among other places, and have made it available on DVD.

ReNardo Biggs owns the rights to Shiptown’s back catalog, and has compiled a reissue disc for sale of his “favorite” material at a special tribute website— It includes cuts by the Anglos—Biggs remembers them as the best of the local vocal groups (lead singer Joe Webster was a big Guida favorite, too)—as well as mama Ida Sands, a vocal powerhouse so popular that Mayor Roy Butler Martin proclaimed her Norfolk’s Queen of Song in 1968. Her performances of “Rescue Me” and “Start All Over Again” are soul perfection—the first fiery and brazen, the second seductive and sassy.

 Despite their popularity, the musicians behind this thriving R&B and soul scene weren’t always welcome on the white stages of Virginia Beach, especially the popular Peppermint Beach Club; these were largely segregated times. “Those clubs just didn’t book blacks,” says Williams.

Charlie McClendon & The Magnificents, who were once signed to Frank Guida as the back-up band for Gary U.S. Bonds, were one of the exceptions. In a new documentary produced by the Virginia Foundation For the Humanities’ Folklife Program, Put Me Down Easy: The Charlie McClendon Story, McClendon’s former booker Richard Levin recounts, “Charlie was already big in the black community, real big. But the white audience didn’t know him. It was so segregated [in Norfolk], it was ridiculous.” Herman helped to get McClendon, who is now the musical director at Hampton’s Goodwill Baptist Church, and his band, as well as Ida Sands and others, into some of the area’s white venues.

In 2009, two years after Frank Guida’s death, the Norfolk Sound was heard again, on the stage of the Attucks Theatre on Church Street. Bonds (who curiously does not mention the show in his autobiography) was joined on stage by studio bandleader Gene “Daddy G” Barge as well as many former Norfolk Sound artists: Lenis Guess, Fat Ammons of Bill Deal and the Rhondels (another Guida discovery), and even Tommy Facenda, who revived Guida’s first hit, “High School USA.” Oddly, in the ’60s, there had been no Norfolk Sound package concert like this.

Bonds ably performed all of his chart hits, from “New Orleans” to “Take Me Back to New Orleans,” and he bravely tackled the late Jimmy Soul’s as well. Led by the ageless “Daddy G” on sax, the band soared through little-heard gems such as “Getting a Groove” and “Havin’ So Much Fun,” and Bonds even recited a little tribute to his former producer—the man that he (and Barge) often went to war with, over music, money and credit.

The Norfolk Sound reunion show paid tribute to past glories, but it was also another reminder that the Hampton Roads area has been an influential force in popular music, and particularly African-American popular music, for decades. “It’s just here in the air,” says Williams. “The talent has always been here, it’s always going to be here. I look back now and realize how innocent the music was that we were making, and how pure it was.”

Interested in learning more about Gene “Daddy G” Barge? Read Don Harrison’s story here.

This article originally appeared in our Dec. 2013 issue.

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