Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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August 24–31, 2000

cover story

Paid His Dues

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If anyone has a right to sing the blues, it’s Georgie Bonds. After jail time, hip replacements and a medical mishap that nearly burned him alive, the former blacksmith has become an emerging force in the city’s blues scene.

part 1 | part 2

There’s a club meeting every Tuesday night at Warmdaddy’s, the blues nightclub in Old City. It’s the weekly gathering of the Fledgling Bluesmen of Philadelphia, a small but wide-open and fast-growing fraternity of amateur and semi-pro musicians determined to advance the cause of the blues in the City of Brotherly Love. It’s a strange and eclectic mix of young and old, black and white, Brooks Brothers suits and button-fly jeans.

It’s called the Open Blues Jam, and to get on stage you just need an instrument, a little talent and an abiding love for the blues.

The Jam is hosted by Georgie "Gatormouth" Bonds and his five-piece backup band, the Blueskeepers. Bonds and the Blueskeepers fire up the crowd for two sets, and then turn the stage over to anybody with the heart to play in front of a packed house of blues fans. Bonds, a gravelly-voiced singer and guitarist, picks musicians from a sign-up sheet, decides who plays with whom, and becomes emcee for the rest of the night, coaxing the crowd for applause, offering encouragement to the musicians and even getting up himself to help out on guitar or vocals. On this particular Tuesday night, a psychologist plays the harmonica in an impromptu band with a newspaper reporter on bass, and a couple of high school kids trade guitar licks with a cancer researcher.

But the real story here is Georgie Bonds himself: a classic tale of adversity, pain, sin and redemption that’s tailor-made for the blues.

 

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Cryin’ the blues: George "Gatormouth" Bonds wails at Warmdaddy’s.

Bonds, 47, grew up in a musical family in Germantown in the house where his mother still lives, the second of five children to a warehouseman and a health care worker. His father and grandfather were jazz men, and his cousin Bootsy was the Silhouettes’ lead singer on their big hit, "Get A Job." Greatly influenced by the movies, young Georgie decided at an early age that he wanted to be a cowboy, a rather unusual dream for a black kid in Germantown in the ’60s.

"I always had a natural love of horses," Bonds explains in the basement-turned-music-studio of his Montgomery County home. "[W]e lived not too far from Wissahickon where lots of people had horses back then. So I was around horses for as long as I can remember. I bought my first horse when I was 21, even before I bought my first car. Her name was Carla, and I got her for $350 in 1975. She would buck and bolt, rear up or take off running, but I loved her. That horse damn near killed me more than once, but I thought she was the most beautiful thing on earth."

Right around the same time, George Bonds found another love: drugs. In a downward spiral that included LSD, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin, Georgie got hooked. Clean and sober now for more than 10 years, Bonds is candid about his former drug habit, and what it got him. He’s candid about a lot of things, with an easy laugh and open honesty that completely lacks pretense.

"Like a lot of people, I decided to sell drugs in order to keep using them. Shooting drugs in your arm like I was doing is a high-maintenance, big money habit. And I figured that selling drugs was the best way to make sure that I always had enough for myself. What I didn’t figure on was that my very first customers would be a couple of FBI agents. How’s that for bad luck? Right out of the gate I proved myself to be the worst drug dealer in America."

He sold 19 grams of heroin to the undercover feds in 1976 and the first offense earned him nearly three years in federal prison, first at a medium-security prison in Ashland, KY and then a minimum-security facility in Morgantown, WV.

"Prison was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Bonds says, "Being locked up gives you plenty of time to think. And I thought about what I’d gotten myself into, and made a decision to stop the drugs and do something with myself. So while I was in Ashland, I got my GED and started taking college courses. Then when I was transferred to West Virginia, something happened that really changed my life. Now, the federal prison in Morgantown is called the Kennedy Center. It has no walls, no bars and no fences. There was mini-golf, an indoor pool and all the luxuries of home. As prisons go, this was pretty sweet. I mean, if you gotta do time, that’s the place to do it. I had been plinking around on the guitar for a while, and I wrote a blues song about prison life called "Another Year." Now, I wasn’t much of a musician, and knew next to nothing about the blues. But the other inmates loved it, and constantly requested that I play the song, day after day. That made me happier than I had been in a long time. It was then that I realized I might be able to make a living one day just playing and singing." With that, Bonds picks up an acoustic guitar and plays "Another Year," a sweet and sad tune made sadder by the mournful lament he sings in his passionate baritone.

I’m one of many, I’m a lonely man
I wonder when I’ll get to see home again
Trying my best to make my way here
But I won’t be surprised to do another year

Upon his release from prison in 1979, Bonds’ parole officer managed to get him a job at a stable. It wasn’t much of a job, shoveling out stalls and such, but at least he got to work with his first love, horses. And it gave him the incentive to go back to school to become a blacksmith. So Bonds enrolled in a nine-week course at the Eastern School of Farriery (that’s blacksmithing, for you city slickers) in Martinsville, VA, where he learned to use a forge, make his own tools, shoe horses properly and diagnose and treat certain minor orthopedic problems horses get from improper shoes. When he came back to Philadelphia, Bonds became the village smithy, working with his beloved horses and joining the Pennsylvania Guild of Professional Horseshoers, an organization most of his Germantown neighbors had never heard of.

Meanwhile, back at Warmdaddy’s on Tuesday night:

Dale Beck, a 53-year old psychologist from New Jersey, is having a beer and mopping his brow after coming off the stage. A harmonica player for 20 years, Beck just finished jamming with a bunch of cats he’s never played with before, and the capacity crowd is loving it, slapping him on the back or flashing the thumbs up sign as he makes his way to the bar. By day, Beck runs an outpatient mental health clinic in South Philly called CATCH, Citizens Acting Together Can Help. But on Tuesday nights, he wails at Warmdaddy’s.

"It’s really just a chance to socialize and have a good time," Beck says. "The guys who come out are really good musicians who just want to play the blues and sharpen their improvisational skills in front of a live audience. This is just a blast."

Seated at the bar next to Beck and seconding the motion is Rich Katz, a nattily dressed 49-year-old guitarist. When he’s not here bending the notes on his Fender Stratocaster, he’s working on a retrovirus at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where he’s been a medical researcher for 15 years.

"I love the Jam," says Katz, who says he’s been coming down here on Tuesday nights for more than two years. "It’s great fun. There’s a lot of camaraderie among the musicians, and you can make some great musical alliances. I missed playing on stage, and it’s wonderful to recapture the feeling of playing in a blues club. There’s nothing like the blues."

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Pro-am: Bonds and Blueskeeper guitarist Billy Baltera

photo: Daryl Gale

Harry Hayman is the director of operations for Warmdaddy’s and its sister clubs, Zanzibar Blue and Brave New World, all owned by the Bynum brothers, Ben and Robert. Warmdaddy’s has been Hayman’s baby since the club opened in June 1995, and he still walks around the place busing tables and chatting up customers. He’s an enthusiastic promoter of the club, and a huge fan of Georgie Bonds.

"I’m always telling people that Warmdaddy’s is the greatest club on earth," Hayman gushes, "and even though I guess I’m paid to say it, I really believe it. There’s just no place else like it. Look around: young and old, black and white, rich and poor — it’s hard to find a melting pot like this. And it’s the blues that ties these people together. The musicians, the customers and even the staff — diehard blues fans, every one of them. Blues is our recognized indigenous music, and it has a very strong appeal across the board. We’ve had Japanese customers who didn’t speak a word of English except ‘Blues.’ They come in, clap and stomp their feet, and feel right at home."

Hayman, who started eight years ago as a bartender at Zanzibar Blue, can’t seem to say enough good things about Georgie Bonds.

"Georgie is a tried and true bluesman, a real pro. He just embodies the blues. You can tell he does it for the love of the music. He’s a great musician, and his life story is just fascinating. Any publicity that he gets is richly deserved and long overdue."

part 1 | part 2

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