Stop your average person on the street, pin him to the ground, hog-tie him and threaten to extinguish a cigar on a pink body part, and it's still a pretty safe bet that he would not be able to tell you who Steve Ferguson is.
If, however, Jimi Hendrix had not choked on his own vomit and could still be found strolling about, the Voodoo Chile himself would be able to cough up all the poop on this man Ferguson. Back in the late Sixties, teenage Fergie was guitarist for venerated cult gods NRBQ, at that time recently signed to Columbia Records (Dylan's label, man!) and one of the unique bands on the New York club scene. A typical set would weave from Carl Perkins tunes to Sun Ra to Thelonious Monk to campfire standards. And Kentucky-born Ferguson would be up there with his long hair, wispy beard and mismatched hippybilly clothes, playing some of the wickedest country/soul guitar anybody'd ever heard. Which brings us back to Mr. Hendrix.
Legend has it that he used to show up at Big Apple 'Q gigs, just to cop licks from the youngster. "I hear that story all the time," monotones Ferguson from his home in Louisville. "I hear stories like he used to come watch me play with his mouth open. Now how am I supposed to respond to that?"
While a lot of people might be prone to not only embellishing such a tale but actively spreading it--true or not--Ferguson downplays the whole thing. "Yeah, he came a couple times, and I will say he came when no one was in the club and he stayed for the whole performance. He asked me a couple questions after we finished a set, how I was getting this vibrato sound. (Guitar heads out there will want to know that the sound that pricked the ears of Hendrix came from Fergie using "a Magnatone amplifier as a pre-amp going through a Fender amp.") I think Hendrix liked to hear me play because I didn't play anything like him, I played real straight. He couldn't go anywhere without hearing somebody trying to play like him, so I imagine it was horrible to go out anywhere."
But that was a long time ago. After playing on three NRBQ albums, Ferguson bailed in 1970. And while the much-beloved band has continued on the endless road of one-nighters, the guitarist essentially dropped out of sight. He bobbed to the surface in '91 as a participant on Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson's Johnny Be Bad album, then released a well-received comeback stab in the form of Jack Salmon & Derby Sauce last year. And now we have Mama U-Seapa, another extraordinary helping of swampy and sweaty, below the Mason-Dixon Line grooves. The 11-song CD (featuring seven originals) proves not only that Ferguson's guitar skills are still easily capable of unhinging jaws, but that he has other talents, as well. Ferguson acts as vocalist, co-producer and arranger on most of the cuts with his backing group the Midwest Creole Ensemble. He's joined on two cuts by his old band; Ferguson and NRBQ jigsaw together like they never split.
As with many a Southern artist before him--O'Connor, Faulkner, Lynyrd Skynyrd--Ferguson's work is heavily drenched, musically and lyrically, in the mystical, bluesy juju that lurks behind the touristed avenues of the South.
"What I'm talking about and where I'm coming from, there's sort of an undercurrent through everything that's based on a lot of old tradition and history," he reveals with the slightest of drawls. "You wouldn't see that right off the bat if you just came to Louisville. You'd have to go looking for it, this Midwest Creole. It's not something the city capitalizes on, the way New Orleans does."
Mama U-Seapa certainly takes advantage of it, from the album's title on down. The liner notes weave a hoodoo-drenched tale of Mama herself, alleged high priestess of forbidden rites, and her cafe/bookie joint/bordello.
"It's a fictional name for a true person. There was a woman who was a madam, she had hookers that worked in this grill/rhythm and blues bar that was just a front," says Ferguson, who performed at the place decades ago. "But this woman was known for doing a lot of good things; she'd feed poor families, take people in. She's kind of a legend in certain circles of musicians in town that have worked her club."
Though Ferguson won't reveal the real name of the something-for-everybody nightspot, after a bit of prodding, he admits that Mama U-Seapa "was originally a pig Latin word for female genitals, then it was given some turns in the syllables to make it sound like a legitimate word." What a mouthful!
But Ferguson's local history begins way before he was doing dates in brothels. A band that existed on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River called Merseybeats U.S.A.--it was 1965, bear in mind--ultimately became the catalyst for the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet. That was the year that Terry Adams, a longhaired keyboard player with a penchant for Monk and a huge record collection, signed on and met Fergie, a longhaired guitarist who idolized Lonnie Mack and Robert Ward. "I was already in that band and we needed a keyboard player," recalls Ferguson. "He only played a couple of months and then we quit, and that was the beginning of the NRBQ process. As far as what we listened to on the radio, there was an all-black station called WLOU, and me and Terry used to listen to that all day long. There was Aretha Franklin, of course, and Ray Charles was big on AM radio back then, and all these off-the-wall R&B artists that most people never heard of like O.V. Wright. All of that was a big part of me, even long before I ever got involved with Terry."
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The late-Sixties music scene in Louisville was thriving, but the city itself was not exactly a hotbed of tolerance. The pair took their eclectic musical vision and over-the-collar coifs and relocated about as far south as they could. "Miami and Fort Lauderdale were different back then," says Ferguson. "You have to consider that these were the Timothy Leary days, and clubs were beginning to open where you could go in and play whatever kind of music you played, you didn't have to be a Top 40 band."
NRBQ soon found itself in New York City at the incredibly hip Steve Paul's Scene club. "We sat in and the place went crazy, so they hired us back for a legitimate gig. Clive Davis [legendary A&R man for Columbia who signed Janis Joplin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and later Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow to his Arista label] was there, and he came up and introduced himself. Not long after that, a production company put up the bread for us to go in the studio. While we were doing that, three or four labels were beating on the door, but it ended up working out with Columbia."
But things didn't end up working out for Ferguson and the band he co-founded; by the start of the Seventies, he was on his own. Why did he leave a rising group that contained his best friends? "I really don't know, even to this day," says Ferguson. "I felt really confused and I wanted to know a whole lot more about myself, and I felt [the band] was getting in the way. I needed to get away from everything and just take a good look at myself--musically and every other way."
He's had plenty of time to do that in the last two and a half decades, but Ferguson has never gone too long without plugging in a guitar. "I played [during those years], but I wasn't active in a certain way," he explains. "I didn't think I'd ever be able to do anything with my music. I tried a couple dud deals, but they fizzled out." Different projects and regional shows came and went, but--especially after '94's Jack Salmon album and a blistering performance at that year's South by Southwest music conference acclaimed in Rolling Stone--it might finally be time for the Ferguson name to emerge from the shadows of the Guy That Useta Be in NRBQ. "I think of music now as something I really need to do. I'll be 48 this November and I really need some things to happen so I can make a living," he says. "I've done a lot more lately than I've ever done on my own, outside of my involvement with NRBQ, but I'm not near content. I've still got a lot of territory to cover. And I don't have a lot of time on my side.