Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Gene Barge is unusual among Secret History subjects in that the general public—especially outside Chicago—might recognize him as a movie actor before they’d remember his music. Barge turned to music full-time relatively late in life, and not till a couple years after he’d had his biggest hits in the late 50s and early 60s. Because he was often billed on records as “Daddy ‘G,'” it’s not immediately obvious that the actor is the same person, but now is as good a time as any to connect the dots about this Renaissance man.

James Gene Barge was born August 9, 1926, in Norfolk, Virginia, and attended Booker T. Washington High School. At first he dreamed of becoming a professional football player, but playing clarinet in the school band (and singing in its choir) got him more interested in music. While in high school Barge joined the air force’s new aviation cadet program, but World War II ended before he was assigned to a unit. In 1946, just before enrolling at West Virginia State College, he started playing a waterlogged saxophone that a British sailor had given his dad, who worked as a welder in the navy yard. Soon Barge switched majors from architecture to music and began gigging locally; he served as the lead soloist in his college jazz band till graduating in 1950.

Barge moved back to Norfolk in 1951 and recorded for the first time in 1953 with locally renowned jump-blues band the Griffin Brothers. He also began performing around town with his own small jazz combos, inspired by players such as Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Jazz was his first love, but the R&B being popularized by the likes of James Brown and Hank Ballard also had his ear—and you can hear it on his first single under his own name, “Country.”

Released in 1955 by the Checker imprint of Chicago’s Chess Records, “Country” just scratched the R&B charts, helping Barge secure booking through the Shaw Agency—which handled some of the era’s biggest R&B stars, including Ray Charles. Barge developed a reputation as a capable pickup player, available to back artists coming through town without full bands. He also did some limited touring, including with Philadelphia vocal group the Turbans.

Barge got his first big break in 1956, when Atlanta blues shouter Chuck Willis recruited him to tour as a substitute for a horn player who’d bailed on the band. This led to an invitation from Willis to a New York session for Atlantic Records, where Barge was largely sidelined as an understudy for saxophonist Sam “the Man” Taylor. When the band had trouble finding a successful arrangement for blues standard “C.C. Rider,” though, Barge got a chance to play—and nailed the tune in two takes. His version became a number one R&B hit in 1957, and he appeared again with Willis on the Atlantic release “Betty and Dupree,” which also charted.

  • Barge plays saxophone on the 1957 Chuck Willis hit “C.C. Rider.”

The dance crazes of the early 60s pushed Barge’s career to the next level, but at that point he still had a day job teaching music, English, and social studies at East Suffolk High School. The story of his biggest hit began when he partnered with Norfolk record-shop owner Frank Guida, who ran the Legrand label, to assemble a band called the Church Street Five and release the 1961 instrumental single “A Night With Daddy ‘G.'” Barge has said that he actually intended “Daddy ‘G'” to be a reference to famous preacher Bishop “Daddy” Grace, one of whose churches was near Guida’s studio—it was beloved for its rollicking New Orleans-influenced music, and a few members of the Church Street Five also played in the house band there.

Singer Gary U.S. Bonds, also on the Legrand roster, loved “A Night With Daddy ‘G'” and wanted to recut it with vocals. In 1961 Bonds’s version, called “Quarter to Three” and featuring Barge and members of his band, soared to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (and number seven in the UK). Barge and Bonds continued to collaborate on hits into late 1962, including “School Is Out,” “Dear Lady Twist,” and “Twist, Twist Senora,” but never equaled their initial success. During this period Barge also appeared on Jimmy Soul’s 1963 smash “If You Wanna Be Happy.”

  • Gary U.S. Bonds’s era-defining 1961 smash “Quarter to Three” is a vocal version of a song by Barge’s band the Church Street Five.

By 1964, the dance crazes that had propelled Bonds’s hits were fading, and Barge hadn’t toured with him anyway—he was still teaching. Barge wasn’t ready to abandon R&B, but he was ready for a change. He called Phil Chess and secured work with the label by phone. At age 37, he left his job at the end of classes in June and flew from Virginia to Chicago. As he remembers it, he arrived on a Saturday and started at Chess Records on Monday morning.

At the time the Chess brothers were trying to broaden their established blues sound—even their premier artist, Howlin’ Wolf, wanted them to sign more jazz and soul artists to appeal to a new audience. Barge was soon booked to play on Fontella Bass‘s 1965 smash “Rescue Me,” which would chart on both sides of the Atlantic. With this hit under his belt, Barge cut the 1965 instrumental LP Dance With Daddy “G” on the Checker subsidiary, which showed off how refined and polished his sax style had become. Barge recorded some solo singles for the label too, including 1968’s strange “Chippie the Hippie From Mississippi” with future Minnie Riperton producer Charles Stepney.

  • Barge is in the horn section on Fontella Bass’s classic “Rescue Me.”

Barge cowrote, produced, arranged, or appeared on a huge number of releases for the Chess family of labels, playing a significant role in shaping the sound of Chicago R&B. They include records by Little Milton (the classic “We’re Gonna Make It”), Etta James, Muddy Waters (Barge plays on the notoriously divisive Electric Mud LP), Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor (he’s on her famous 1965 version of “Wang Dang Doodle”), the Dells, Howlin’ Wolf, Pigmeat Markham, Andre Williams, and psychedelic soul-funk band Fugi (a fave of this author). He also began working with gospel artists such as the Violinaires and the Meditation Singers, adding his distinctive sax to their sound.

When GRT took over Chess in 1969, Barge kept his job while many of the label’s leading artists left. But even before Chess ceased operations a few years later, Barge had started moonlighting for other operations, including Mercury, Columbia, Brunswick (sessions with the Chi-Lites and Jackie Wilson), Stax (their Gospel Truth imprint), and Capitol (he would famously help nurture the career of Natalie Cole, and coproduced her Grammy-winning 1976 song “Sophisticated Lady”). By the 80s, though, most of the musical styles where Barge excelled had fallen out of favor with the record-buying public, and the rise of digital instruments meant that even the saxophone wasn’t called for as often.

In 1978 Barge made his first big-screen appearance, playing a major role in Stony Island, which has since become something of a cult movie; shot on Chicago’s south side, it’s about an up-and-coming soul group, and its cast also includes Dennis Franz, Rae Dawn Chong, Meshach Taylor (later of Designing Women), and Susanna Hoffs (later of the Bangles). For nearly 30 years afterward, this led to smaller roles for Barge in bigger flicks by the director of Stony Island, Andrew Davis—among them Code of Silence with Chuck Norris, Above the Law and Under Siege with Steven Seagal, The Package with Gene Hackman, Chain Reaction with Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman, and (perhaps most famously) The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, where he’s credited as “11th District cop.”

Barge’s music career got a shot in the arm when the Rolling Stones asked him to tour Europe with them in 1982. After that trip, Chicago band Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows invited him aboard as a player and producer. When singer Larry “Big Twist” Nolan died in 1990, the Mellow Fellows continued, with Barge taking over some of the singing. Then in 1993 cofounder Pete Special left, which prompted Barge and two other members to launch the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings. He soon became their main vocalist. “I was the only one around that knew the show,” he told Bill Dahl for a 2018 Reader story. “Rather than get a new singer, they pushed me out front, because I knew all the music.” Barge has fronted the band ever since, though his touring and gigging schedule has understandably slowed down—he’ll turn 95 this summer.

Barge was interviewed for Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS documentary, The Blues, and appeared in a 2010 episode of the TV documentary series Legends (“Roll Over Beethoven: The Chess Records Saga”). In the late 2000s Barge recorded a couple solos for Public Enemy songs, and in 2013 he self-released the album Olio, with appearances from Buddy Guy and Otis Clay. At the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival, he was honored with a tribute set by his own band. Here’s hoping for many more tributes—and many more years of music from Daddy “G”!  v

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

  • Barge produced Pigmeat Markham’s 1968 UK hit “Here Come the Judge,” widely considered a proto-rap song.

  • Barge’s 2013 solo album Olio
  • Gene Barge fronts the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings at Buddy Guy’s Legends in 2010.