Frank Guida, b. 05/26/1922

An Italian-American ex-GI record producer and songwriter who migrated to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1942 from the Fordham neighborhood in the East Bronx. Known chiefly for inventing and popularizing what came to be known as "The Norfolk Sound."

The story of Guida's work is one of the more interesting, if lesser known strands, in the history of 20th Century popular music. He was one of the most prolific and visionary independent producers of the post-Sam Phillips era, and his recordings left an indelible mark on musicians from Bruce Springsteen - who snagged his sax player, Clarence Clemons, from the area - to the Rolling Stones to the Candy Snatchers.

Guida's first hit, recorded in downtown Norfolk at his shoebox-sized studio, was "New Orleans," by Gary U.S. Bonds, which hit No.6 on the Billboard Hot One Hundred in 1960. By 1963, Guida-produced songs had landed on the Billboard charts 14 times; 10 for Gary U.S. Bonds, three by Jimmy Soul, and one by the Church Street Five. One of those songs, "Quarter To Three," by Bonds, made No. 1 in July 1961, Guida's most famous hit.

During WWII, he wound up in Trinidad, where he encountered the calypso music that would later wind up influencing a big chunk of the records he wrote and produced. During the wear, he performed with his GI buds as The Calypso Kid. He even introduced the song "Rum & Coca-Cola" to the Andrews Sisters through Morey Amsterdam, who was passing through Port of Spain when Guida was performing there with the USO.

After the war, he returned to NYC as a man possessed. By day, he labored as a salesman. By night, he worked evenings as a singer with black bands in Harlem and Greenwich Village. But even after a big-deal 1950 TV appearance on NBC's "Tavern On The Green" show - backed by the Cy Coleman Trio - Guida knew there was no money in being a white guy in a black band. In those days, there were no gigs to be had outside of black venues, which, of course, didn't get much white folks' money.

In December 1952, the Guida family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, home to the world's largest Navy base, where Guida quickly bought a failing record store to learn the ins and out of the biz. In early 1953, he opened Frankie's Birdland at 817 Church Street, in the heart of Norfolk's black neighborhood, and he wasted no time turning it into Virginia's best jazz and rhythm-n-blues record store.

A year later, in 1954, a group of young black guys calling themselves The Five Pearls approached him about getting a record made. Impressed by their talents, he took them to WTAR, a local radio station, and cut "Give Me Another Chance" and "Baby Don't You Cry." After some massive local airplay, he dragged a demo to Atlantic Records in New York and got the Pearls signed to a subsidiary label, Cat.

In 1959, he produced a hit by one of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Tommy Facenda, called "High School USA," with shout-outs to the local scene; Guida cooked up the idea of re-cutting the song with different city names in the song's chorus, figuring it'd sell like hotcakes in whatever town was namechecked. Bingo! He waved the idea under Ahmet Ertegun's nose. Not only did he buy in on the idea, he signed Facenda, too.

By 1964, when the Beatles and the British Invasion came stomping into town, things had slowed down. But Guida kept cranking on into the 1980s. At last count, he had released more than 150 singles and 14 albums under 19 different label names.

His best known songs today, the ones that still get regular airplay on the oldies stations, are "Quarter To Three" and his other No. 1 hit, the calypso-tinged "If You Wanna Be Happy" (the "ugly woman" song) by James "Jimmy Soul" McCleese.

Notes on Guida's recording techniques:

Guida, both headstrong and flying by the seat of his pants, invented a whole new way of recording that puzzles recording engineers to this day. It also wound up being a linchpin of Phil Spector's later work.

All of Guida's records were characterized by what is vaguely described as an "outdoor" sound, meaning that it sounds open and airy, as though recorded outside, without microphones picking up sound bouncing off the studio walls. Legend has it Guida's songs were tracked in the middle of a field. Poppycock.

Actually, Guida double-tracked his singers' vocals (recording the singer once, and then a second time, in unison, "thickening" the sound) and compressed the hell out them. The recordings all went down in the back of his record shop downtown. That compression was later a hallmark of British Invasion bands like the Who, who compressed the living bejeezus out of their guitars to get them to explode out of the speakers.

Since FM radio wasn't yet widespread, Guida recorded his stuff in mono for AM use. He also recorded as loudly as possible, pinning his VU meters in the red. He also had his engineer - a shoe salesman who learned on the job - dither with the record and playback heads of the tape machine to add cool sounds.

Guida today

As of June 2002, Guida's still kicking. He regularly gives interviews to diehard Norfolk Sound fans who publish on the Web. Journalist Randy McNutt recently interviewed him for a chapter in his 2002 book, "Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll." (Indiana University Press; ISBN: 0253340586)

These days, Guida can be reached at:

710 W 25th Street #12
Norfolk VA 23517-1109
(757) 853-3312

Recommended listening:

  • The Very Best of Gary U.S. Bonds (Varese Sarabande)

  • Gary U.S. Bonds, Take Me Down to New Orleans (Ace U.K.)

  • Church Street Five, Daddy G Rides Again (Finnbarr U.K. )

  • Jimmy Soul, If You Wanna Be Happy: The Very Best ... (Ace U.K.)

  • The Norfolk Va. Rock 'n' Roll Sound (Ace U.K.)

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