Gary U.S. Bonds threatened to fade into obscurity after a brief run of hits in the early ’60s before Bruce Springsteen resuscitated Bonds’ career twenty years after its heyday by pairing him with the E Street Band. The E Street Band was firing on all cylinders when they went into the studio with Bonds and Springsteen was at a creative peak himself, in the middle of his most furiously fertile writing period, and contributed seven of the album’s eleven tracks. Far from throwaway outtakes, the Springsteen songs sound like musical cousins to The River. It’s easy to imagine Bruce’s voice singing some of these songs – and, in fact, you can frequently hear him singing along on the choruses, but most of them sound carefully crafted for Bonds.
After Springsteen took a fairly downhearted and appropriately bleak lyrical approach on his Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River mixed in some loose and fun party rockers reminiscent of Bond’s early sixties hits. ‘Sherry Darling’, ‘Hungry Heart’, ‘I’m A Rocker’… all seem to reveal the influence of Gary U.S. Bonds in composition and production, and his efforts here are very much in the same vein. Classic Springsteen guitar bends are all over the album, along with Danny Federici’s surfing organ and of course, plenty of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. Meanwhile Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt had become comfortable in the producer’s chair since producing The River together, and know how to capture the band sounding at their best.
The leadoff track, Hold On (To What You Got)’, boldly announces Bonds’ comeback renaissance with a mirroring never give up story over a classic heartland rock E Street sound, but the band also shows off plenty of musical versatility, spotlighting strong doo-wop and Motown influences on ‘Out of Work’, ‘All I Need’ and ‘Club Soul City’. ‘Angelyne’ is a near-forgotten Springsteen masterpiece, featuring the story of a bouncer and grocery store cashier gambling their way into love accompanied by Danny Federici’s irresistibly catchy boardwalk accordian and a classic Clarence solo. ‘Rendezvous’ is the lone song best associated with Springsteen himself as Bruce had already established the song as an impassioned and definitive live fan-favorite. But Bonds pulls off a great cover, and the band plays with an explosiveness they couldn’t quite capture in studio outtakes with Springsteen singing.
Bonds himself is in equally fantastic form throughout, singing with his remarkably undiminished shout and sounding energized by his hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll backing band deeply familiar with his style and influences. He had teamed with the crew for the nearly equally brilliant Dedication one year earlier, but sounds more comfortable and with the band here, and Springsteen doubling his songwriting contributions gives this one a more cohesive and focused feel.
Both On The Line and its predecessor are musts for fans of Bonds or Springsteen and fortunately, if somewhat inexplicably, easy to find in your record store’s discount bin, if not anywhere else. Despite the personnel and quality, neither album has been issued on CD or Spotify (which is near unfathomable, though several tracks are included on compilations), so go track the records down. I picked up near mint copies for $1 each and Discogs suggests you can pay around the same.