Chicago's Soul Saxophone Giant
Jabbing, soaring, always sporting a soul-soaked edge, Gene “Daddy G” Barge’s tenor saxophone is as every bit as distinctive as that of King Curtis, Boots Randolph, or Maceo Parker. Like those sax heroes, he’s played on a ton of hits. He’s written, arranged, and produced plenty more, even had one of his own. And Daddy G still regularly rocks the house with the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings as their star vocalist, sharing sax duties in the band with Terry Ogolini.
Born August 9, 1926 in Norfolk, Virginia, Gene was the oldest of his dad’s eight children. “How I really got started in music was, I was in junior high school, and this notice was put out that they were trying to reform my high school band, which was the Booker T. Washington High School band. The junior high school was adjoined to the high school,” says Barge. “My dad had bought me a drum, a snare drum, for a Christmas present. So I decided that when I got to school, I wanted to play a clarinet. That was the only other instrument available. I wanted to blow something. So I brought my drum to school and traded it for a clarinet.”
Music wasn’t Barge’s only interest in high school. He loved playing football and dreamed of being a pilot. With World War II raging, he dropped out in his senior year and joined the Air Force. After nearly two years in the service, Gene enrolled at West Virginia State College in Charleston. His passion for playing music reignited, thanks in part to a rusty old horn. “My father had a saxophone that he had gotten off a Navy ship,” he says. “The ship had been torpedoed, and they sealed the ship off to keep it from sinking. And in that sealed-off section, there was this horn. So the British sailor gave it to him. And the pads had all swollen, and the horn was water-soaked and everything. So a friend of mine says, ‘Well, we’re gonna fix this up!’ So he bolted down some of the keys so they wouldn’t leak. I’m playing with a horn with three keys bolted down. We found some pads and changed the pads. And that was my horn.
“So I played this horn for a good while to study on it, trying to learn how to play it. Then I found this Navy chief who had a repair shop and he fixed it so I could at least play at the full spectrum of the horn. All the keys were eventually opened, and I could use all the keys. So then I progressed pretty fast between then and time to go to college. I went to college and joined a dance band there, and became the leading solo saxophonist. They had a 20-piece orchestra and a marching band, and I was a full-fledged music major,” he says. “I managed to finish in three years. I finished with a bachelor’s of music degree. I stayed in West Virginia a whole year messin’ around, playing in one of the clubs.
“In 1951, I came on home and started to see what I could do in music,” says Barge. “I started playing around with Clint Turner’s band in Virginia, which was one of the top bands in the area. By the time I got back, Clint Turner was on his way down. He had gotten old. The legendary bands that he had had in Norfolk, Virginia had had their era. Then I played with another older guy named Sam Harris.
“I formed a band and started playing at some of the clubs on the outskirts of Virginia Beach and places like that. Virginia Beach had these little liquor houses back in the woods. Then we also played out on the beach itself. The beach clubs suffered because they couldn’t sell whiskey. That made it very, very lucrative for the bootleggers, because you couldn’t sell legitimate whiskey. So the bootleggers made corn liquor and sold it in joints and after-hours clubs.” He had several main influences on sax. “Lester Young was one of ‘em, and I guess you could say Coleman Hawkins. And then later on there was Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. I got to see all of ‘em, except I didn’t get a chance to see Coleman,” he says. “‘Prez’ was my main man.”
Gene made his first appearance on wax in 1953 as a member of the Griffin Brothers, a Norfolk jump blues outfit, soloing on the Griffins’ rendition of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” for Dot Records. “I only made a few gigs, because they had a guy named Virgil Wilson playing saxophone for ‘em,” says Barge. “Before they had Virgil, they had Noble ‘Thin Man’ Watts.” Soon Gene was cutting his own debut platter.
“I got with a disc jockey that was working at a station called WRAP in Norfolk,” says Gene. “His name was Bill Curtis. He was the emcee, and they were running spots through his station for this club called Cedarboro Country Club down in Virginia Beach, back in the woods. It was a nice club. He was saying, ‘Man, you ought to record. Maybe we can do something.’ Because he and I got to be really good friends. So he called Phil Chess and asked Phil Chess about it. Phil Chess said, ‘Hey baby, you ought to make a tape and send it to me.’
“So we went in the radio station and cut ‘Country’ and ‘Way Down Home.’ And he sent him the tape, and Phil put it out. Well, when he first heard the tape, he says, ‘What the hell is that?’ The guy said, ‘It’s a saxophone!’ He said, ‘It don’t sound like a saxophone!’ So anyway, he put it out. That was in 1955. It was Bill Ross that was on piano, Emmett ‘Nabs’ Shields was on drums. Raymond White, I think on that particular session, played bass. And that was it.” Barge wouldn’t find his way back into a studio for a while after that.
“I’m floundering around, just playing music, mostly in Virginia Beach, and casual gigs around, playing with other bands,” he says. “I got Shaw Booking Agency to book me, and went out on the road. The group that they paired me with a lot was the Turbans, out of Philadelphia. Al Banks was their lead singer. I played with them a lot. I did a few gigs with groups like the Cadillacs, Vikki Nelson, a guy named Larry Birdsong. I did a few gigs with him. We went to Florida with Vikki Nelson, Larry Birdsong, and my band, did a little swing in Florida and Atlanta. Then I did a few gigs with the Five Keys, who were friends of mine, because they lived in Newport News.” When R&B shouter Chuck Willis came calling, Gene gladly obliged.
“Chuck’s saxophonist had quit. So I went with Chuck Willis, went over to Newport News where they were playing a place called J.B.’s,” he says. “I left and went with them on the road. They were going to Jersey, playing the roadhouses up and down New Jersey with Jimmy Reed.
“Eventually, we ended up in New York. While we were doing these shows, Chuck Willis took a liking to me. I was just a sideman in the band, and new at that. Roy Gaines was the bandleader. He was a real young bandleader. So Chuck Willis says, ‘Man, why don’t you come and ride with me? Don’t ride with the band, come and ride with me. I want to talk to you.’ So he was asking me about “C.C. Rider.” He says,’Man, I’m gonna record this song. I’m with Atlantic now, and I want to do this. Tell me what you think about it.’ I knew the song,” says Barge. “He says, ‘Yeah, Bea Booze did it, and somebody else had done it. But I’m gonna do it like this.’ So we were in the car, man, just singing and banging our feet and whatnot. So he said, ‘Okay, when we get to New York, we’re going to go and do a demo.’ So we did. We checked into the Theresa and went downtown to 1750, somewhere in that area, Broadway. There was a demo studio in the basement. Went down, and the bass player went, and somebody was there patting on a barstool. We didn’t have a drum.
“He turned it into Atlantic Records. In the meantime, we finished the gig and we all left. Apparently, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun got real excited about Chuck doing this song, “C.C. Rider.” So Chuck said, ‘If I do the session, I want you to come back and do the session.’ So I went home to Virginia. Some kind of way they decided to do it, and Chuck wanted me to come and do it, come to New York. So we got Atlantic Records to give me a plane ticket and put me in a hotel. When I got to the penthouse where they were doing the session, they didn’t want me to play at all. They wanted to use their own fellows. They had Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor on saxophone, and had given the demo to Jesse Stone, and he had wrote a whole new arrangement. He was conducting, and they had a group called the Ray Charles Singers, which was a group of singers run by a guy–he was white. He wasn’t the Ray Charles that we know,” says Gene. “Plus Kenny Burrell was on guitar. A guy named Panama Francis was on drums who was a real popular session drummer. I never did get to know all the other guys.
“They did about 22 takes of ‘C.C. Rider.’ In the meantime, I went downstairs and bought me a pint of liquor and come back upstairs, sittin’ around sneaking a hit on my pint. So by the time I got up, it was about the 22nd take. Jerry and Ahmet were saying, ‘Well, we still ain’t got the groove. We don’t have the groove.’ Chuck says, ‘Well, why don’t you let Gene try it?’ He says, ‘Where’s your horn?’ So I go get my horn out. So I start playing it, and they say,’That’s it! That’s it! Let’s cut one just like that!’ So that means Sam Taylor don’t play on this one, right? I play it. Two takes later, they accepted the cut. “That’s it, that’s a cut! That’s a wrap.’ Did something else called ‘Thunder And Lightning’ that day. Basically, that was the session.”
Its easy tempo tailor-made for dancing the Stroll, Willis’ irresistible revival of “C.C. Rider” paced the R&B charts in 1957 and was a huge pop hit. Barge’s expressive sax solo was one of its shining moments. “I go back home, and then they decided to do another session, and they called me again,” says Gene, who contributed a slashing solo to Chuck’s remake of another old blues, rechristened “Betty And Dupree.” Sadly, Willis wouldn’t be around for long. “Chuck got very sick,” Gene says. “He had an ulcerated stomach.” Willis died in April of 1958 at age 30.
Barge utilized his college education by teaching English and social studies for seven years at East Suffolk High School in Suffolk, Virginia. “I was playing gigs,” says Gene. “All the students knew by this time–‘57, ‘58, ‘59.” Meanwhile, Norfolk was developing a scene. Frank Guida, proprietor of Frankie’s Birdland, the city’s top jazz and R&B record store, was a budding producer with his own studio. “The third year in, I got this call from Frankie, ‘cause they started doing Gary Bonds. I used to stop by his record store. I knew him, ‘cause I used to go in there and buy records on Church Street. So he was asking me, would I like to do something with him. I says,’Well, like what?’ He kind of schmoozed me–‘I know you were with Atlantic and Jerry Wexler and them, they don’t care about you,’” says Gene. “‘This is a good opportunity for you.’
“In the meantime, they had cut this thing ‘New Orleans’ on Gary,” says Barge. “‘New Orleans’ was a big hit for Gary, but they couldn’t follow it up. They had tried other stuff, and put out other records on Gary. Nothing. In the meantime, when I went in, they were talking about, did you used to play with Daddy Grace?’ I said, ‘No, but my friend Emmett Shields played with him. He was in his band. The Griffin Brothers were all in his band, and I played with the Griffin Brothers. The Griffin Brothers were faithful members of Daddy Grace’s church. In fact, Buddy Griffin, the one that was blind, he used to drive before he lost his eyesight. He used to drive for Daddy Grace. Bay-Bay played the trombone in the band and Buddy played the piano, and Nabs played drums. It was like I was playing with Daddy Grace when I played with them guys.”
Norfolk was a stronghold for the United House of Prayer for All People, a denomination presided over by charismatic preacher Daddy Grace. He sported wavy hair, extra-long fingernails, a flowing robe, and an exotic headwrap as he tended his flocks up and down the East Coast. Music was crucial to his services, where “shout bands” heavy with trombones made a joyous cacophony. Guida longed to capture that brassy excitement in a secular setting. With Barge’s two-part instrumental “A Night With Daddy ‘G’,” out on Guida’s Legrand label, he succeeded. “I came up with the song,” says Gene. “And they named it.”
The single was credited to the Church Street Five, Guida naming the studio quintet after the main drag running through Norfolk’s African-American community. The trombone of Leonard Barks sawed wildly through the din as Gene blew up a storm on both sides of the instrumental. Part 1 bubbled under Billboard’s Hot 100 in early 1961. “Hy Lit in Philadelphia, one of the biggest disc jockeys in the United States at that time, started using ‘A Night With Daddy “G”’ for a theme song,” says Gene. “Harvey Miller used to play it too. Both of those guys were bigger than Dick Clark in Philadelphia.”
Gary U.S. Bonds was Legrand’s top artist on the strength of his pounding 1960 rocker “New Orleans” (featuring another ex-Griffin Brothers saxist, Earl Swanson). Gene had known the leather-lunged Bonds since he was a wee lad named Gary Anderson. “Gary lived about five blocks from me,” says Gene. “He grew up in my neighborhood, and I used to see him all the time. They used to hang out on the street corner singing and stuff, in groups.” Gary’s Legrand followup “Quarter To Three” would key in on the same chord changes, melody, and raucous excitement powering “A Night With Daddy ‘G.’”
“Gary said, ‘Man, I heard your song, and I put some lyrics to it!’ In the meantime, Gary and his mother had fallen out, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come over and stay at my house and hang out with me?’ So he did, and he put the lyrics to it. We went in and gave it to Frank, and Frank said,’Okay, that sounds like a good idea.’ He was desperate for Gary to do something, ‘cause he couldn’t follow the record up, ‘New Orleans.’ So anyway, we went in and recorded ‘Quarter To Three,’” says Barge. “We cut it, and it became a hit. It was quite an ordeal getting that thing promoted. Nobody wanted to play it, because they said it sounded like it was cut in a toilet. Actually, Gary was in the bathroom for an overdub booth!” With its booming, echo-laden sound quality, Daddy G’s blistering sax solos, and Bonds’ electrifying vocal, “Quarter To Three” was a pop chart-topping monster in the summer of ‘61.
Later that year, Bonds’ hit streak continued with “School Is Out” and its logical sequel “School Is In,” Daddy G blowing hard. “That was my influence, me being a schoolteacher. Right away, that came to mind. Gary, by that time, had moved into my apartment. We’d get up in the morning and start working on this stuff. We’d sit down and write the lyrics. Every night we’d go to the studio and work on it. We would go to the studio almost every evening. We’d go over there. And if we didn’t go over there and we’d get missing, Frank would call us: ‘What happened to you guys? Where are you? Gene, you know, you have to stay in touch,’” says Barge. “I wrote most of the words to ‘School Is Out.’ Because Gary just added a few things.”
When he wasn’t collaborating with Bonds, Gene blasted out instrumentals for Legrand under the Daddy “G” & the Church Street Five handle: “Fallen Arches,” “Hey Now,” “Look Alive” (Barge’s studio pet phrase), “Daddy ‘G’ Rides Again.” Guida didn’t release the most flammable of all at the time; “Church Street Battle” found Gene immersed in a honking battle with Earl Swanson. Gene also cut a handful of sides for Guida as a vocalist. “I started off singing ‘Autumn Leaves’ and a couple of tracks. The first thing I did with him was a vocal. They really were excited about it. I wasn’t excited about my singing. Because first of all, I didn’t have the right material,” he says. “They put ‘Autumn Leaves’ out and tried it out, and it didn’t do a lot.”
The Church Street Five was a boisterous crew. “Junior Fairley used to play with the Griffin Brothers. He came over with me. He was a real good bass player. So we got Leonard Barks from Portsmouth, Junior Fairley, Nabs Shields was with the Griffin Brothers. Melvin Glover was a youngster. He was a friend of Gary’s. Gary picked him out to be his drummer, to go with him on the road. ‘Cause Gary didn’t carry a band, just carried a drummer.” Willie Burnell was the usual studio pianist; guitarist Wayne Beckner was often on hand too.
“Frank Guida’s so-called sound was a matter of necessity, out of the conditions,” says Gene. “Frank had a recording deck called a Concertone. I think that was it. And he had an Ampex machine. I think these were monaural machines, and I think he would ping-pong back and forth. One of ‘em was a two-track, maybe. He would ping-pong back and forth. It made a different kind of excitement. It wasn’t clean, and it wasn’t technically up to standards, but then we found ourselves being copied by guys who were trying to get that sound.” The Daddy G name was often invoked on records he had nothing to do with as a hip guest at fictional Twist parties.
Bonds wasn’t the only Norfolk hitmaker Barge was involved with. He discovered Jimmy Soul, whose calypso-rooted “If You Wanna Be Happy” topped the pop hit parade in 1963 on Guida’s S.P.Q.R. label with Gene peeling off another memorable sax ride. “I’m the one that found Jimmy Soul,” he says. “Jimmy Soul was standing around singing in groups. His family had some sisters and brothers and his mother and everybody, they lived in Portsmouth, and I heard ‘em singing. Some kind of way through Ruth Brown’s brother, he was a beautician, and a lot of the guys used to get their hair fixed, some kind of way through him, I kind of met Jimmy.
“Jimmy was always cocky and flip. So I said, ‘Jimmy, why don’t you come by the record shop and talk to Frank? Because maybe you could do something, you probably could record. I like the way you sing, I think you got something going.’ He said,’Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure, man, okay.’ He went over there, and when he went over there, Frank just took him over,” says Gene. “He did this ‘Ugly Woman’ song (‘If You Wanna Be Happy’), and called me in to help him out with the rhythm tracks and play the solo.”
Ex-calypso singer Guida’s love for that lilting genre also spawned “Dear Lady Twist,” a hit for Bonds in late ‘61. “We did ‘Dear Lady Twist’ because Frank twisted his arm to do it,” says Gene. “Frank figured he couldn’t beat Chubby Checker out on the Twist stuff, so we’d do a little twist-calypso thing to it. That was his gimmick.” But it was on Gary’s blazing rockers “Having So Much Fun” and “Where Did The Naughty Little Girl Go” that the fur really flew, Barge’s rafter-rattling solos matching Gary’s fiery vocals in the excitement department.
Despite all that hometown success, Gene split Norfolk in 1964 for a gig at Chess Records in Chicago. “I got sick of Guida,” he says. “I called Phil and asked him for a job on the phone. He says, ‘Yeah, babes–well, I guess I can find something for you to do. Come on!’ So I went on. I’ve always had this passion about Chicago. My wife encouraged me. She wasn’t my wife then. Sarah encouraged me to do it, so I called Phil and got him on the phone by some miracle.
“He said, ‘Okay, you got a job! Might not be able to pay you much.’ He was right. He didn’t pay me much! But I went to Chicago, and I moved into a hotel called the Strand, near the corner of 63rd and Cottage. Downstairs was McKie Fitzhugh’s bar and grill. In the building was a guy staying there named Tom Archia, a saxophone player from Houston, Texas, a personal friend of Illinois Jacquet.
“I eventually moved out of there and across the street to the Mansfield Hotel. It was a little better place, down the street near 64th. I got to working with Buddy Guy. I worked with Buddy Guy for about two years. Prior to that, I was working with Bobby King,” says Barge. “While I was working with Buddy, we did the album on Buddy, I Left My Blues in San Francisco.” Guy benefitted from Barge’s writing skills at Chess.
“My job was an A&R man,” he says. “I was put in charge of the rhythm section, to rehearse the songs that we were going to record. I inherited a rhythm section of Maurice White on drums, Louis Satterfield on bass, Bryce Roberson, who was a white guy, on guitar, and Gerald Sims was the main guitar player. Leonard Caston was one of the staff members; he was the piano player. This was the younger Leonard.” (His father Leonard Sr., known as “Baby Doo,” had played piano with Willie Dixon in the Big Three Trio.)
“My first assignment when I got off the airplane on the weekend, like a Saturday, and I went to work Monday, when I got in there that week, in rolls Oliver Sain with Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure as singers in his band. He came in to record, and everybody got so excited about Fontella’s singing, ‘cause she was doing a song called ‘Soul Of A Man,’ and I played on that. First thing I played on for Chess,” says Barge. “I didn’t do a solo, I just played background horn riffs on that ‘Soul Of A Man.’ Then at a later session, they got a full-fledged session scheduled with her for ‘Rescue Me.’
“We’d come to work at about 12 o’ clock and work ‘til five, except when we had sessions,” he says. “I didn’t really never go home at five. Always was around at night, you know, trying to get stuff together. If we were gonna record, say, ‘Rescue Me,’ the rhythm section was well prepared the day of the session, because we would rehearse ‘em all day on these songs. So when they called in the horns and stuff, the rhythm section knew what they were doing. It was sort of like the same thing that Motown was doing at the time, since (Chess A&R head) Billy Davis and Berry Gordy were good friends, and Billy was monitoring Motown. They sort of built a system based on what Motown was doing. So it’s like a very competitive thing. We came up with the bass line in rehearsal, (co-writer) Raynard Miner and Satterfield and all of us, just experimenting.”
Gene was in the horn section for Fontella’s ‘65 R&B chart-topper “Rescue Me.” “That was a big session, man. We had a lot of the great guys on that,” says Barge. “That was the big session where we had the really good guys on the session. Phil Wright did the chart. We kind of felt something on that. We felt like we had something going.” Barge introduced Wright to Chess. “When I first got to Chicago, Jackie Ross had the song ‘Selfish One,’ and she was supposed to go sing at the Regal Theater,” he says. “So I walked her over to the rehearsal. She had no music, she just had the record. So Red Saunders tells me, ‘Look, you know, she’s gonna have to get music. We can’t sit here over a record, you know. She’s gonna have to have a musical arrangement on that song.’ So I some kind of way met Phil Wright, who was playing piano in the Regal Theater band. So he said, ‘Well, I can do an arrangement if you talk to the people that be, give me a goal.’ So I had invited him over to Chess.
“And when he got back there, Billy Davis and him got to talking. So Billy Davis hired him to do the arrangements for the ‘Rescue Me’ session.”
Gene switched over to alto sax for his high-flying solo on Little Milton’s 1965 #1 R&B smash “We’re Gonna Make It,” co-penned by Barge, Miner, Davis, and Carl Smith. “Little Milton was coming off of ‘Blind Man,’ covering Bobby Bland. And it was a hit for him. So we were going around the studio, and I kept telling the writers, ‘We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!’ You know? And that’s how Raynard and Carl come up with the title. So they went to work on it. I just threw a few lines at ‘em. But I get a credit for giving them the inspiration to start on it,” he says. “I think Phil Wright did the chart on it, and I think what he wanted me to play on it was alto.”
The saxman produced the impeccable 1966 Chess LP Little Milton Sings Big Blues, where Milton really got a chance to stretch out on lead guitar. “Billy Davis and them didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he says. “Little Milton tells Leonard Chess, said,’Look, man, I gotta do a blues album ‘cause my mama’s always asking me to do it.’ He put it on his mama, but actually he wanted to do it. So that left only me to do this album. And I more or less let him do whatever he wanted to do.” Milton wasn’t always amenable to Gene’s input, turning down Barge’s marvelously sardonic “Love is A 5-Letter Word.” “I wrote it for him, and he didn’t want to do it,” says Gene. “He had a thing about lyrics.”
The song instead went to vocalist James Phelps. “Phelps came along about two days after Sam Cooke died. Said he wanted to be the next Sam Cooke,” says Gene. “He couldn’t sing in meter. Sonny Thompson did the rehearsing on it. Just kept rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing. We finally got him through the song. Cut two or three things on him. James being the kind of guy he was, he was always trying to do something against the grain.” Gene also wrote for Chess soul artists Laura Lee, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Little Joe Blue, and Kip Anderson.
“There was a guy named Charles (Derrick), he was a disc jockey in South Carolina,” says Barge. “He had been playing Leonard’s stuff down there. Leonard owed him a favor. So he told Leonard he was managing Kip Anderson, and he wanted to bring him in for a session. Leonard didn’t do a lot of payola; what he would do was exchange favors for guys. He was like an employment agency for disc jockeys. He would call one station and say,’Yeah, there’s a great guy down in Florida that needs a job. You guys ought to hire him.’ That’s how guys would switch around. When they’d get out of work, the disc jockeys would call Leonard. Anyway, they brought Kip in. Sonny Thompson and I ended up producing him. I wrote some of the songs with Kip, I wrote one or two.” Along the way, Barge developed a very distinctive writing style.
“I needed a hook. I really needed something to write about, because I’m not a fluent lyricist. Most everything I write is humorous. It’s important,” he says. “Even with the Gary stuff, everything was funny. So my thing was writing stuff that had some irony in it, and some humor.” Not all of his writing was done for Chess. Under his Raven Wildroot alias, Gene penned Roscoe Robinson’s ‘66 hit “That’s Enough” for Roscoe’s own Gerri label. “That’s what they called me when I was a college student at West Virginia State,” he says. “Everybody called me Wildroot!”
On the blues side at Chess, Barge’s gritty tenor was spotlighted on Koko Taylor’s breakthrough reading of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” the last Chicago blues platter to achieve major R&B hit status in 1966. “Willie Dixon and I became friends,” says Gene. “He liked me a lot. And he asked me to be on that session. He had brought Koko to Chess. He sort of twisted their arm. They took her because he asked ‘em to take her, because he had done so much with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and wrote all these great songs. So they had to listen to him, and they reluctantly took Koko.”
At A&R man Ralph Bass’ behest, Gene added horns to Muddy Waters’ ‘66 album Brass and the Blues. “I had just gotten my first arrangement assignments, me and Charles Stepney,” he recalls. “They had cut the tracks, so we went in and got the tracks and wrote these horn parts for the tracks.” Barge was heavily involved in Waters’ controversial 1968 album Electric Mud. “That was a collaboration where Marshall Chess had gotten this idea. He called Charles Stepney and I in to sit down,” says Gene. “He said, ‘The rock guys are making all the money, based on the blues and the British sound. The British Invasion has taken over. Muddy and them are not making the kind of money they ought to be making, and we aren’t selling the kind of records we ought to sell now. So with the hard rock emerging–Vanilla Fudge and all these guys–what we want to do is take these tunes...’
“So Charles and I said, ‘Yeah! Let’s go with it. We’ve got some ideas.’ We started practicing these ideas, and had guys like (guitarists) Pete Cosey and Cash McCall and Phil Upchurch. So what we did was just took these same songs and rearranged them like hard rock stuff. I even had a wah-wah saxophone on one of ‘em–a saxophone connected to an electric device with a wah-wah pedal.” The results horrified blues purists, but revisionist history now claims the set was visionary. Muddy himself wasn’t pleased, and Howlin’ Wolf was even less enthusiastic when submerged in the psychedelic murk. “Wolf came to it fighting and screaming all the way,” says Gene. “He didn’t want to do it at all. Not at all. In fact, they put that on the album (cover). That was no stage joke. He really didn’t want to do it. Cantankerous as ever.”
Barge also had the dubious assignment of working with faded harp genius Little Walter. “That was an experience,” he says. “Little Walter and I got along really well, but this was at the end of his career. I never will forget the last session that Little Walter did for Chess. They were cutting tracks, and they brought him in to play harmonica. They were gonna give him one shot. Because by this time, they were all pissed with him anyway, because Little Walter had been screwing up so badly. So Little Walter come in, they said, they’re telling everybody, ‘Absolutely no drinking. Don’t give him no whiskey. None. He ain’t allowed no whiskey. Don’t let him go out. Let him just do his thing.’ So Little Walter says, ‘Well, I gotta get some soda, man. I gotta get some pop. Get me a Seven-Up.’
“He had this Seven-Up bottle sitting down there between his legs, straddling the chair. He had the chair turned around backwards, had his harmonicas on the floor, playing his tracks. And by the time he got to about the third tune, Little Walter was paralyzed drunk, man! He had some kind of way got some gin into the Seven-Up bottle. I don’t know how he got it in there, man, I don’t know where it come from, how it got there. Man, Leonard was furious. He didn’t even finish the session. They didn’t get a lot out of him that day.”
It wasn’t all behind the scenes for Gene at Chess. His 1965 Checker album Dance with Daddy “G” largely consisted of instrumental renditions of current soul hits: Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time,” Alvin Cash’s “Twine Time,” a fine arrangement of the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now,” with a Beatles cover (“I Feel Fine”) and Gene’s own “Fine Twine” sprinkled in (Checker issued the last title as a single with Barge’s version of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” on the flip). “At that time, song after song coming out was a dance song,” he says. “The idea was to do kind of a party album with dance songs.”
Every so often, Checker released a Barge single as their answer to Motown’s Jr. Walker. 1967's “Quick Getaway,” penned by Raynard Miner, was modeled on Walker’s blazing attack, though the next year’s trippy “Chippie The Hippie From Mississippi” was something else again. “(It) was sort of in the realm of what was going on with the flower child movement, the Haight-Ashbury syndrome in the ‘60s,” says Barge, who wrote it with Charles Stepney. “Pete Cosey was on the sitar. Marshall Chess and them went out and found a sitar.” Treatments of the Music Explosion’s “Little Bit Of Soul” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind” were the respective flip sides. The Walker-style sizzler “Little Boy Blue” waited until 1996 to see light of day.
The Chess braintrust always proved supportive for Gene. “Phil was the guy that I always had met, and the guy that gave me the job,” he says. “I didn’t know Leonard until I moved to Chicago. Really had never talked to him. But I got to be a little tighter with Leonard than I did with Phil. But I liked Leonard. There was a lot of good things about him that a lot of record execs today don’t have. He had a good ear for the blues, the real blues. I’m talking about what Muddy was doing, what Buster Brown, John Lee Hooker, these kind of guys, J.B. Lenoir. He and Willie Dixon seemed to get along real well, worked hand in glove in these projects, ‘cause Willie Dixon was the guy that was putting all this stuff together.”
Barge also worked extensively with the Chess gospel roster. “The gospel thing at Chess was really good. I did the Soul Stirrers, did about three albums with them. And I did a group called the Violinaires who nobody knew,” he says. “And a group called the Meditation Singers.” But Gene’s good times at Chess hit a sour note in mid-October of 1969. An aborted Little Milton session with ex-Vee Jay A&R man Calvin Carter preceded devastating news.
“Chess had moved from 2120 (South Michigan) to (320) East 21st Street. They bought the building. This is going to be Little Milton’s first session over there. The night that we did this session–well, I had done the Grits Ain’t Groceries album. But we were getting ready to do this other album, the second album. Calvin Carter kept interrupting the song. I hadn’t even gotten out of the introduction, he’d run out of the studio. He’d gotten high. So next thing I know, we got into this, almost like a fight. Guys separated us, threw music all over the studio.
“We got in a fight and the session cleared out and everybody ran out of the studio and we didn’t cut nothing ‘cause Calvin Carter and I were gonna fight,” says Gene. “Little Milton, he was pissed ‘cause the session went down, and he felt like, ‘I gotta pay these musicians,’ and he didn’t get no music done. And they were gonna charge it to his account.
“So I get a call from Leonard Chess about seven o’clock in the morning, saying, ‘Get the hell over to the studio!’ I get over to the studio, there’s Little Milton sitting there swollen up and pouting, man. So he says, ‘Leonard, I’m not gonna pay for this thing because that wasn’t my fault.’ He really wanted to come down on me, because he felt like I did it. It was on me. He really wanted Leonard to fire me. That’s what he really wanted. So Leonard said, ‘What you’re gonna do is, you’re gonna call all those guys back. Where’s the music?’ Milton says, ‘I’ve got some of the music.’ He says, ‘We’re gonna call some of these guys back, and we’re gonna cut this session today. Now get on it. We’ll deal with you later.’ So anyway, I go out there and get on the phone. Couldn’t get all the same musicians back. They had commitments. Half of the group was different. We got ‘em all in the studio, and we were gonna cut eight songs that day, and eventually we did. But halfway through, we got the word that Leonard Chess had been rushed to the hospital. But he died. We found out later he died.
“On the day of the funeral, Ralph and I had planned to go to Los Angeles to record Etta James. So we went out to the cemetery,” he says. “I missed the funeral. I got to the church too late. Went to the cemetery. So Ralph said, ‘Well, we’re still going. Marshall and Phil said we might as well just go on, do what you gotta do.’ So we just went on, we flew out there after the cemetery thing. Flew out to Los Angeles and did Etta James.” Barge wrote “I Think It’s You” for Etta’s 1970 Cadet LP Losers Weepers. “I admire her talent,” he says. “I think she’s a great singer. I’ve always thought that. We’ve always got along. She’s a tough cookie, a real tough cookie. But I got along with her pretty good. She’ll chew up producers and musicians and whatnot. She was cool with Ralph, because Ralph really was the producer on her biggest hits.”
With Leonard gone, Gene left the label. “The whole company just about had disintegrated,” he says. “They sold the company, and then we were working for GRT.” Barge scored a 1970 hit as writer and producer of Jesse Anderson’s wry “I Got A Problem.” “I gave it to Eddie Thomas at Thomas Records. He was a partner of Curtis Mayfield. I had recorded this record and had it up at Chess,” says Barge. “Eddie came into Chess one day, pretending he was listening to something. He said, ‘Hey, I heard you had–why don’t we talk about it?’ Anyway, I gave it to him. He put it out, and it did pretty well. It got Jesse out there.”
In 1973, Barge hooked on with Stax Records. “(Rev.) Jesse Jackson helped me get that job, because he and Al Bell were really close friends at the time. He recommended me for it to Al. He had a label called Gospel Truth, and he needed some help with that. So I went in as like one of the execs, along with David Clark, who was an old-time promotion man who used to be with Don Robey,” he says. “He and I were running Gospel Truth. I didn’t even last a good two years, because Al Bell started having serious problems with the label. They let me go.”
Landing on his feet, Gene got involved in the mid-‘70s launch of Natalie Cole’s career, working on several of her first Capitol albums. And he started moonlighting as an actor, starring in then-fledgling director Andrew Davis’ 1978 film Stony Island. “He’s got this story about this black guy who’s a saxophone player, and he champions these kids. He takes these kids in, and they want to form a band, and he helps them form a band, because he was an ex-musician in and around Chicago. So Chuck (Stepney) says, ‘I know just the guy for that part!’ He says, ‘Who?’ (Chuck) says, ‘Gene Barge.’ He says, ‘Never heard of him.’
“I went in and they looked at me and they said, ‘Great! Great!’ So I got the part right away. But the catch was, they didn’t have no money. So they paid me what little they were offering. I accepted. They gave me a piece off the action. If I had that same deal today on a film, I would have made a million dollars. The average film makes about a hundred million or something. It just so happens that the film was shot non-union on the street. They only had a budget of about half a million dollars. I was very scared about how I was going to end up performing, having never really acted before. And we had to do music in front of the cameras too. Andy did it all live, brought in a recording truck and did everything live. So he helped a lot, because everything was real natural.” Davis proceeded to cast Gene in Code of Silence, Above the Law, Under Siege, The Package, The Fugitive, and Chain Reaction.
Following a high-profile 1982 European tour as guest soloist with the Rolling Stones, Barge began working with Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows, one of Chicago’s most popular R&B bar bands. He co-produced two of their albums for Alligator before Larry “Big Twist” Nolan died in 1990. The Mellow Fellows soldiered on, and when they cut their Street Party CD for Alligator that year, Gene split vocals with Martin Allbritton. Guitarist Pete Special left and took the Mellow Fellows name with him in ‘93, the band renaming itself the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings with saxist Terry Ogolini and trumpeter Don Tenuto the co-leaders. Several vocalists came and went before Barge stepped up as their primary lead singer, as well as blowing his sax alongside Ogolini and Tenuto.
“I don’t mind being a front man,” says the genial Daddy G, whose vocal emergence came surprisingly late in his career. “The thing of it is, I hadn’t sung. And it’s very difficult for me to remember lyrics. I can’t remember three songs!” Nonetheless, Gene exercised his burnished pipes on the R&B Kings’ eponymous 1999 CD for Blind Pig. More recently, the band played the main stage of the 2009 Chicago Blues Festival with Texas chanteuse Trudy Lynn, and his featured vocal numbers climax the band’s sets on their many club dates.
In the spotlight where he’s always belonged, Gene Barge’s golden horn is as singular and uplifting as ever.