Who was/is Gene Barge ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
The history of rhythm-and-blues in the 1950s and soul in the 1960s and 1970s is largely a history of sax players. From Louis Jordan to King Curtis, the golden era of black music was studded with the names of great horn players, beefing out the small backing bands and supplying the almost obligatory eight bar break. Often their names got pushed into the small print of personnel lists or song credits, and more often than not, as guitars, and later electronic keyboards became the tokens of rock music; the contributions of the sax players became devalued and forgotten.
Time has come when one of the most versatile tenor players of this period needs serious re-evaluation. His name is Gene Barge. James Gene Barge was born in Norfolk Virginia on 9th August 1926. Although interested in Jazz and a proficient sax player, he only became a full-time musician quite late in life, in 1964, and only after the period when he had enjoyed most of his public fame, as the "Daddy G" of the US Bonds and Jimmy Soul hits of the early 1960s. He not only played most of the sax breaks on their hit records, but worked also as songwriter and arranger, and even brought out a number of instrumental and vocal releases of his own. from a spell in the US Air Force, Barge Up to 1964, apart had eamed his living as a teacher in Norfolk, playing sax in his spare time.
In the early 1950s he worked with the Griffin BrothersJump band, and he enjoyed a brief moment of glory when he stood in for King Curtis on Chuck Willis Atlantic recordings in 1957, providing, in particular, the wonderfully lugubrious sax solos in C.C. Rider and Betty and Dupree. For the most part, however, Barge limited himself to sitting in as part of the pick-up bands used by touring artists (including Bo Diddley), and he stayed close to his Norfolk roots. His early idols were jazz performers, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Don Byas, and in the late 1950s he formed the Gene Barge Jazz Quintet, performing locally. Jazz was his first love, but the jazz market was a crowded one, and it was the dance craze period of the early 1960s that gave Barge his first big break. Norfolk record shop owner and budding record label proprietor Frank Guida recorded the US Bonds hit New Orleans (Legrand 1003) late in 1960, using Earl Swanson as the tenor player. The next Legrand release featured a group called the Church Street Five, fronted by Gene Barge. This only sold locally, but Barge impressed Guida sufficiently to persuade him to replace Swanson on the next Bonds release, "Not Me".
The record flopped, mainly due to the supposedly "violent" lyrics, but Barge was kept on and "Quarter To Three" (Legrand 1008) was a smash. Bonds hits were complemented by those of Jimmy Soul on Guida's S.P.Q.R. label, with"Twistin' Matilda" (SPQR 3300) selling well in 1962, and "If You Wanna Be Happy" (SPQR 3305) topping world charts a year later. These were all classic "twist-and-get-happy" num-bers, much derided by serious R'n'B and soul fans, but wonderful examples, all the same, of their formula-driven genre. The twist boom which rocketed him to fame in 1961 as Daddy G, was fading in 1964 and Barge disillusioned by this. Conscious of the revolution taking place in the world of black music, with the emergence of soul music on such labels as Stax and Motown ,Barge decided to leave Norfolk and move north, to Chicago. He left his teaching job that summer after phoning Phil Chess. The two were not exactly strangers, Barge having provided Chess with a small-time instrumental hit called "Country" (Chess 839) in 1955. This rather raw issue was typical of its time, a down-home, R'n'B tune, primitively recorded but eloquently atmospheric.
The Chess brothers were, by 1964, trying hard to reorientate their labels away from their blues roots toward a more sophisticated audience. A large jazz roster had been built up and now HOWLIN' WOLF they wanted more soul acts, and for that they needed arrangers and session musicians. Virtually on arrival Barge sat in on the Fontella Bass session that pro-duced one of the year's biggest hits, "Rescue Me". For the next few years, until Chess lost its independence, he was a major producer, arranger and session man for the company, and one of the few the new owner, GRT, kept on when they reorganised the operation in 1970. You can hear Barge at work on recordings by Little Milton several albums, including "Grits Ain't Groceries", Etta James "Miss Pitiful" and MUDDY WATERS "Losers Weepers", Muddy Waters the "Brass and Blues" album, plus the controversial "Electric Mud" LP, Buddy Guy he "I Left My Blues In San Francisco album", Sugar Pie DeSanto "I Don't Wanna Fuss", Koko Taylor "Wang Dang Doodle", and many others, The Dells, Nowlin' Wolf, as well as less well-known acts such as Jesse Anderson, James Phelps, Sonny Warner, Pigmeat Markham, Fugi, Maurice & Mac, Laura Lee, the Knight Brothers, Andre Williams, Greg Perry, Kip Anderson and Jackie Beavers. Barge was a busy man.
His responsibilities were widened when he was asked by Chess to help build up their gospel interests, following their acquisition of the Detroit-based Battle catalogue. Barge worked with top gospel acts such as the
Violinaires (his sax playing on "Groovin' Witt Jesus" is incomparable) and the Meditation Singers, although the label itself never really made much of a contribution to Chess's profits. Barge's sax style by this time had matured considerably, the rough edges of the R'n'B days, and the verb commercial but unique tone of his dance-craze work giving over to a much more subtle, soulful sound, quite unlike that of others of the period. He was disappointed when the Chess company suggested on his arrival. that he record a set of instrumental versions of current hits; believing himself to be worthy of better things than a mere dance-compilation. which was how the album was marketed.
Even so, the result, Dance With Daddy G is a landmark piece of work, showing off the sophistication of the Chess soul music style, which lacked the rawness of Motown and the gospel bias of Stax. Instead we have here the rich, brass-based orchestrations and mesmerisingly expansive Ter Mar studio sound and, in the foreground, Barge laying down thehaunting style of sax playing that was to become his trade-mark. A few instrumental singles came out in the wake of the album, but Barge was very much the behind-the-scenes man at Chess. The label probably did not want him to become too well known as a soloist, in case he strayed to other labels. But, once Chess had sold out to GRT, the label began to fade fast. It moved out of Chicago.
Lost a lot of its top names (even Etta James and the Dells finally took flight) and Barge began jobbing back and forth between labels - some, like Mercury and Brunswick, Chicago-based; others, further afield. like Stax (where he helped manage their Gospel Truth label) or Songbird/MCA (where he revitalised the career of Liz Andrews): and big companies such as Capitol (recording Kitty Haywood and Charles Jackson) and Columbia (Ronnie Dyson). Session work and producer-arranging became his bread-and-butter, his greatest claim to fame during the 1970s being, perhaps, the role he played in establishing the career of Natalie Cole at Capitol. The musical tide was not, however, flowing in Barge's direction: by the mid-1980s soul was going into decline and saxophones, like most "real" instruments, were giving way to electronic substitutes. Barge enjoyed a second puff of fame when he was asked by the Rolling Stones to be part of their band on their 1982 European tour - they had met him over 15 years previously when they had come to Chicago to meet their blues idols and pick up new studio ideas. But after that, Barge's career became more localised, becoming involved with the Chicago band the Mellow Fellows.
He has also appeared in a number of Chicago-based films (Stony Island, Code Of Silence, The Package), the most notable being "The Fugitive". He still performs, however, and even ventures abroad, visiting Portugal in 1995 as sax player for the Kings Of Rhythm And Blues, a band revamped from the Mellow Fellows. The Checker recordings on this album comprise the entire Dance With Daddy G album (Checker 2994) which was recorded at the Ter Mar studios late in 1964 and released early the next year. It features some of the session musicians who provided the backbone of the Chess sound in the mid-to-late Sixties: David Hines and Edward Rowe (trumpets); James Carter (tenor sax); Donald Hankins (baritone sax); Leonard Caston (organ); Gerald Sims (guitar); Louis Satterfield (bass); and Maurice White (drums). A single, The In Crowd c/w Fine Twine, was issued ahead of the LP. Only two further singles followed, with other recordings remaining unreleased until now. First of the subsequent singles was the instrumental "Little Bit 0' Soul" b/w the vocal "Quick Get Away" and then came "Chippie The Hippie From Mississippi" written with friend and colleague Charles Stepney and featuring Barge on better-than-average vocals, but without sax. This was backed with an instrumental of Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind".
The three previously unreleased tracks are an instrumental version of the Lemon Pipers "Green Tambourine", and vocals of "Little Boy Blue" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg". Taken as a whole, these recordings are a showcase for a very individualistic style of tenor playing, hallmarked by the fading of phrases, long-held climactic notes, sharp changes in dynamic and volume, and at times an almost sobbing, whimpering tone. The style can, in the space of one track, be rough and sharp-edged, and oily and fuzzed. Only King Curtis ever managed a style as versatile and instantly recognisable. Today, such a richness of sounds and so inspired a style of playing is rarely heard among the electronic mush of the modem group scene, with its mania for guitars and its recourse to computer-programmed monotony. Barge's work is the antithesis of all that, and is well worth celebrating, like the glories of a bygone age.
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