Steve Ferguson plays at Stevie Ray's Benefit Sept, 2010
photo by Danny O'Bryan
Ferguson adds a new chapter to his varied musical history.
Guitarist Steve Ferguson show up for the interview wearing an old-fashioned top hat with a sequined band - and a black eye patch.
He said the eye patch was a metaphysical symbol that represented his new-found spiritual beliefs: “I can now see past the duality of good and evil. For years I condemned myself for being a rock n’roll guitar player, but today I can see that we’re all one with the universe.
“Sun Ra was right: “Space is the place!”
It took Ferguson, who was an original member of the rock band NRBQ, 36 years and a lot of hard knocks to develop this philosophy.
He was born in the Clarksdale housing project and lived in several areas of the city before moving to Louisville’s West End in the early 1960s. It was there that Ferguson began to develop his eclectic musical tastes.
“At the time, I was drawn instinctively toward early Lonnie Mack records and good rhythm and blues singers like Wilson Pickett. I could really identify with that.
“But at the same time, there were these black guys in my neighborhood who kept trying to turn me on to the music of jazz musicians like Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and James Moody.
“At first it was too sophisticated for me. I could tell when a jazz player was real smooth and had a lot of chops. But the subtle things like timing - and when a good jazz drummer like Jimmy Cobb would do pops and break in and out of time - that went right over my head,” he said.
Then Ferguson, who began playing guitar when he was 13, joined a local band called the Squires. “We started out working for the manager of the old Westend Theater at 34th and Broadway, playing for horror shows. We’d travel to different small theaters in towns like Bardstown and Eminence and play Saturday matinees.
“They’d show a werewolf movie and then we’d come out and get down playing rock n’roll for about 30 minutes. Once we played a drive-in theater in Radcliff. It rained, so the whole band had to get inside the concession stand and play in front of the window so the audience could see us.”
A couple of years later, the Squires evolved into the rock n’roll band the Mersey Beats. And that’s when Ferguson met Terry Adams, now point man for NRBQ.
“Up until I met Terry, I never knew anyone who was determined to play music at any cost. It didn’t take long until I felt just like he did. I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else but playing music, and I was only 16 years old.”
Ferguson said the Adams was later fired from the Mersey Beats because he refused to cut his hair. Ferguson also quit the band and then something unusual happened.
“One day Terry and his brother Don made a tape in their basement fooling around with jazz drummer Charlie Craig. They were playing 12-bar blues and things. And they decided to call themselves the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, after the Modern Jazz Quartet. I don’t think they took it seriously at the time, but after I left the Mersey Beats, we decided to form the band and play just the kind of music we wanted to play.”
That music was rhythm-and-blues made popular by artists like O.V. Wright and Tommy Tucker. Although Adams was very familiar with other kinds of music, like the jazz of Thelonious Monk and the space music of Sun Ra, NRBQ hadn’t yet started to play those songs on jobs,” Ferguson said.
Later, Ferguson said, he and Adams moved to Florida and after a couple of false starts met up with bassist Joey Spampinato, singer Frankie Gadler and drummer Tom Staley. In 1968 the band moved to New York City and landed a job at Steve Paul’s Scene, an underground nightclub.
“We were so strange the crowd went crazy. We were playing old-time rock n’roll and they loved that, but we’d turn right around and play a Thelonious Monk tune or something by Sun Ra like “Rocket No. 9.”
During that club date, Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records heard the band and later signed them to a recording contract. “I was one of the first guys Davis approached that night. He said he really liked us and thought we had great potential,” Ferguson said.
Then in 1971, after NRBQ’s second album ( a record that paired them with singer Carl Perkins) had been released, Ferguson left the and.
“Back then, no matter how smashed on alcohol or out of control I got, I knew I just had to know myself for myself. I felt intimidated and suppressed, so I came back to Louisville.”
Back in Louisville, Ferguson formed a new band called Hoopie Ferguson and the Wild Dogs. “We recorded a single in Nashville with a song I wrote called “When You Snooze You Lose” on one side and “I Need Good Lovin’ “ on the other. It has become a collector’s item in New England.”
After a short while, Ferguson rejoined NRBQ but left again for good in 1974. From 1976 until a 1984 interview with former SCENE Music Editor Laurice Niemtus, Ferguson said, he didn’t take his playing seriously.
“I was on different religious excursions, exploring and investigating everything, I was still playing, but I wasn’t being productive or creative. But after Laurice did her article on me, which said among other things that I had an imposter out on the West Coast using my name, it kind of fired me up. It made me think, “Well, maybe I can succeed and have records out again someday.”
So Steve is back in the studio.
He has formed a publishing company with Mike Franklin and Bob Hunter, owners of Artists Recording Service, Inc, 908 Barrett Ave. He is recording an album with them, featuring his own compositions, that will be called “Fun for Fools.”
The last song on the first side of the album will be “Sweet Laurice,” a song Ferguson wrote in memory of Niemtus, who was killed in a boating accident in the Bahamas last November.
In the meantime, Ferguson is sitting in at Tewligan’s Tavern, playing an instrument he invented 16 years ago but just recently named. “It’s a muted slide guitar, played with mallets. I call it the Electro Magnetic Cyclophone,” Ferguson said.
What’s his biggest wish for the future? “I’d like to play a concert,” he said, “with Prof. Irwin Corey as my lead singer.”
Louisville Times “SCENE magazine - October 12, 1985
To be included in the up-coming book “Derby City Jazz.”