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, part 2

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Novice blues men take the stage on Tuesdays.

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

Sometime in 1990, professional blacksmith Georgie Bonds got up the nerve to sing the blues in front of an audience at the now-defunct Barbary nightclub on Delaware Avenue. He had been singing in his church choir, where one of his fellow choir members had given him the moniker "Gatormouth" because he sang so loudly he often drowned out the entire choir and even the backup band. The name stuck, and Gatormouth Bonds found himself at the Barbary’s open jam session hosted by Sonny Rhodes.

"I only knew one blues song, ‘Stormy Monday,’" Bonds says, "and I just sang it as loud as I could. I was scared to death. Singing in a choir is just not the same as standing on stage at a club. The only thing close to vocal training I had was singing doo-wop with my buddies as a teenager, while we stood on the corner drinking cheap wine. I called it the Thunderbird School of Voice. But I had no idea what I was doing, as far as actually getting up there and singing was concerned. But the audience really liked me, and Sonny was very encouraging. I got that same warm feeling I got back in the joint when they kept asking me to play ‘Another Year.’ I just knew that no matter what, I had to keep duplicating that feeling."

So he practiced every day on his guitar and wrote dozens of songs; he sang constantly while he shod horses and hammered on the anvil in his shop, and jammed around town with various blues and R&B bands. He rode horses around town with the famed Philadelphia Black Cowboys, who took his tune "Hole In the Wall" and adopted it as a sort of theme song. The original Hole in the Wall was a horse stable the cowboys converted from an old and long-abandoned North Philadelphia factory. They cleaned the place up, built stalls and housed more than 75 horses there. What the cowboys didn’t have was permission from the factory’s absentee owner, the neighbors, or from the city, who had the cowboys and their horses kicked out as squatters after a few years.

Still, all was well with Georgie Bonds until 1994, when he was diagnosed with a slight case of hypertension.

"The doctor took some blood tests and sent me to a specialist, who told me I had gout and Lyme disease," Bonds says, "and said I was in imminent danger of kidney failure. The combination of medications he prescribed caused me to have a violent reaction known as Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome. What happens is, your skin actually burns up from the inside out. Most people who get it don’t live through it. They rushed me from Pennsylvania Hospital straight to the intensive care unit at St. Agnes Burn Center."

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Tragedy and Triumph: Bonds in his hospital bed…

With that, Bonds produces photos taken in his hospital bed. They are horrific. His face, neck and entire torso are burned to a crisp, the charred skin ragged and peeling everywhere, exposing raw flesh. He looks like he’s been roasted over an open fire. The doctors were still working on his burns when his kidneys did shut down, adding dialysis treatments to his schedule of skin grafts.

"It was tough. I was in a lot of pain, and they shot me up a lot with morphine and silver nitrate. But an organ match came up, and I got a dead stranger’s kidney on Labor Day of ’95. I’m sorry that guy had to die, but I’m grateful for what he gave me in death. He saved my life."

But with the new kidney came a whole new set of medical problems. The anti-rejection steroids he had to take caused a rapid and steady deterioration of his hip joints. But the steroids ensured that he’d be able to keep the new kidney, so he effectively had to trade his life for his hips, and underwent surgery in 1996 and 1997 to replace both hips. If the blues is born out of suffering, then Georgie "Gatormouth" Bonds has more of a right than most to sing them. But don’t waste time feeling sorry for him, because he sure doesn’t waste any feeling sorry for himself.

"The only thing that hurts me about that whole episode," he says, "is that with my hips, I can’t work as a blacksmith or even ride horses anymore. I haven’t been on a horse since I first went into the hospital. That still breaks my heart. But when God closes one door, he opens another. And for me, he opened the door to my music career."

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…and on the cover of his new CD.

He sued the doctor who burned him alive, and settled out of court with the insurance company for a sum he can’t disclose. But it was enough to buy the comfortable Cheltenham home he shares with his longtime girlfriend Gina Burnett, a retired school counselor he met in 1992 and a massive 20-plus pound feline named Boo Boo, a Maine coon cat. It was also enough to buy lots of equipment for his music room and finance his first CD earlier this year, Georgie Bonds and the Blueskeepers’ Sometimes I Wonder, which he hawks at every Warmdaddy’s gig. Already the CD is getting heavy airplay, thanks in part to Jonny Meister, the dean of Philly blues DJs, who for the last 23 years has hosted WXPN’s Blues Show every Saturday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. It was he who put the Blueskeepers CD into the rotation, and says he’ll keep it there.

"I really like Georgie Bonds’ music a lot," says Meister, whose show was voted Best in Philly in 1996 and just recently won the Keeping The Blues Alive award for public radio. "I’ve been playing the cut ‘I’ve Paid My Dues’ pretty often, and I throw in other cuts from the CD as well. Georgie Bonds, along with a few others like The Luck Brothers, are really trying to give the blues a name in Philadelphia. Although there’s a solid core of fans here, it really isn’t a huge blues town like say, Chicago or Memphis. But a few more like Georgie Bonds and that could change overnight. He’s got a very real, genuine quality about him that’s reflected in his music. Plus he’s a heck of a nice guy."

 

Right now, Georgie "Gatormouth" Bonds is in his element. He’s at Warmdaddy’s, offering congratulations and words of encouragement to 17-year-old Greg Prestegord and 15-year-old Buddy Cunningham, a couple of guitar-playing students from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts who were chauffeured to the Open Jam by Greg’s mom. The talented youths have just finished their set to thunderous applause, and Bonds shakes their hands, smiles warmly and tells them to keep coming back. The kids are giddy from the ovation and obviously flattered by the attention from Bonds.

"See that?" Bonds says. "Those boys have the fever now, the blues is in their blood. They’ll never get enough of it, just like me. They’ll be back."

Bonds says that he’d like to spend the rest of his life making a living from the blues, and hopes the Blueskeepers’ CD will be a launch pad.

"Maybe a major label will pick me up, or an agent who can get us the big gigs we want," he says. "Right now I’m totally independent, but I could sure use a boost. My CD is my calling card, and I’m just trying to put it out there as widely as I can. Meanwhile, I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing."

Georgie "Gatormouth" Bonds has, as they say in Bluespeak, really paid his dues. And now he’s ready for those dues to pay off.

Shooting the Blues

For another perspective on the blues, this week's Critical Mass section leads off with a story about photographer Jeff Dunas’ show at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Dunas wanted to "marry the faces and the places" of the Delta blues scene. Did he succeed?

part 1 | part 2

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