Written by Detlef Schmidt
Centerstream Publishing LLC.
The casual fan may recall Keith Ferguson as the bass player for the Fabulous Thunderbirds during a fifteen year period following the release of their explosive debut recording, Girls Go Wild. Fans with a deeper knowledge and fellow musicians recognize the huge impact Ferguson had, setting a new standard for bass players to emulate.
In the seven page Forward section, the legendary guitarist Jimmy Vaughan comments on his former band mate, writing “A lot of people…describe it as being completely wrong, but he was a badass. It was left handed and big and crazy and percussive, but very mean sounding”. Ferguson favored Fender Precision bass guitars, including one that had a cowhide pick guard. He simply wanted to plug in, turn up the amp, and lay down thundering bass lines that created rhythms guaranteed to rock you to your core.
Author Detlef Schmidt had already written a book on the older Precision bass model. A suggestion from a fellow devotee sent him off on a three year quest to discover all he could about the enigmatic Ferguson, research that included interviews with many friends and lovers that allow this biography to paint a well-rounded portrait that doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the subject’s persona.
Born in Houston in 1946, Ferguson’s parents divorced at an early age, leaving the youngster in his mother’s care. His father worked in a record store, which meant Ferguson had an easy access to music of all types as he grew older. In addition to being a collector of blues recordings, he acquired a vast knowledge of Tex-Mex and conjunto music, at one point leading Chris Strachwitz to discover key recordings that contributed to the growth of those styles on his Arhoolie Records label.
One night a friend, Armando Compean, was in dire need of help. The bass player for his band, the Sultans, had gotten sloppy drunk, leaving him passed out in a car. Ferguson was a regular at the band’s shows, so Compean turned the bass upside down, taught Ferguson a few quick patterns so that they could finish the gig. That was start of a musical career that lead Ferguson to England with his friend Johnny Winter on a trip that fired up the bass player’s fashion sensibilities through the stays in California with an early attempt to hit the big time as a member of Black Kangaroo, lead by Peter Kaukonen, Who’s brother Jorma was lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane.
The book devotes many pages to the T-Bird years with remenicises from Kim Wilson plus the band’s first two drummers, Mike Buck and Fran Christina. As his addictions gradually took control , Ferguson became disenchanted with long road trips that made it hard for him to maintain his supply of drugs. Since the band was still popular around the world, there was no avoiding the lengthy tours. Eventually the band and Ferguson parted ways due in part to a new musical direction in addition to Ferguson wanting to remain close to home. Chapters on his stints with the LeRoi Brothers, Tail Gators, Solid Senders, and the Big Guitars From Texas project shine a light on the latter stages of his career that are often lost in the bright glare of the Thunderbirds success.
The emotional core of the book is one page taken from an interview the author conducted with singer Lou Ann Barton, who shared a four year love affair with Ferguson that included a brief marriage. She pulls no punched laying the blame on dope as the contributing factor in her decision to walk away from the relationship. It is equally clear that her love still burns brightly and the hurt has never gone away. Also included are sections on his prized Fender bass guitars, his tattoos, memorials to honor his legacy, pages with musical tablature highlighting the Ferguson style, and a complete discography.
Schmidt offers a treasure trove of pictures, letters, postcards and other artifacts that flesh out the Ferguson story. Through the interviews, we gain insights into his caring nature and an artistic streak that one of his many talents, manifested in a fashion sense that often was ahead of the curve. There is so much to take in that you will find yourself returning to the book over and over again to read a couple of chapters, linger on a photograph and for some of us, remember an era when the music seemed so vital. This is a truly remarkable, illuminating portrait honoring the life of a musician who left a lasting mark in the world of music. Long live Keith Ferguson!