[H-Bomb Ferguson was the 2007 CEA Music Hall of Fame inductee. This profile article originally ran in CityBeat on Nov. 14, 2007.]
Forget blow-dried scenesters and self-absorbed spotlight stealers. It's original and compelling artists like H-Bomb Ferguson that halls of fame were designed to lionize for the lucky contemporaries who knew the man and for the envious generations who will only know his music.
It's been nearly a year since Robert Ferguson, a Blues shouter whose graveled voice could command attention from across a crowded city street and whose fluidly authoritative Jump Blues piano style captivated anyone within earshot, passed into the timeless pantheon of musical mythology.
While the CEA Hall of Fame induction comes posthumously, H-Bomb knew he was loved as one of Cincinnati's most outrageously colorful musical figures. A month before his passing, the city had observed H-Bomb Ferguson Day and the documentary Blues Legend: The Life and Times of H-Bomb Ferguson had debuted.
But it seems unfair to frame H-Bomb in merely musical terms. He was the king of snappy repartee, the showman who could hold club audiences spellbound with his unforgettable performance peripherals — the wigs, the hats, the costumes (particularly his green and pink hula skirt) and his snake Boo Boo — and a master at balancing his gifts to create a complete experience.
"It's hard to come up with an adjective to describe his performances, he just had so much fire," says his widow, Christina Ferguson. "He lived up to his name. He had so much verve, he just loved performing, it was a catharsis for him. He had a lot of pain in his early life and a lot of disappointment.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to be 22, earn a gold record and never again achieve that. And his most recent music deserved to have that kind of recognition, but no one could really classify him. To me that made him a true artist. His old school ethics and professionalism deepened my respect for him. He really drew you in."
Ferguson, one of 12 children born to a Baptist preacher and his wife, left a hardscrabble life in Charleston, S.C. to pursue the Blues, something his devout father strongly discouraged. Leaving home at 17, Ferguson traveled to Atlanta and then New York, gaining a measure of fame and fortune by age 21.
He MC'd music bills as a comic — often co-hosting under the name "The Cobra Kid" with legendary funnyman Slappy White — eventually talking club owners into giving him a chance to play.
Ferguson, often fondly compared to the smoother Wynonie Harris, recorded several Rock-inflected R&B sides for many labels in the early 1950s — long before Bill Haley made it palatable — with producer Lee Magid, noting that he had a voice like an h-bomb. The nickname stuck, and H-Bomb bore it proudly from that point on. In 1952, he released a song called "H-Bomb Rock."
H-Bomb relocated to Cincinnati in the late '50s and recorded for the Federal and Finch labels before essentially retiring in the '70s. He'd only just begun to play out again when Michael Riley and Tebbe Farrell saw him at The Senate in Walnut Hills in 1983 and decided to help him resurrect his career.
"He was a performer and an entertainer, and there aren't many of them left," Riley says. "He knew how to catch any little trend and put his spin on it. He used to sing 'Ride a White Horse' when that was big, and he did 'Purple Rain,' and he did a great version of it. Of course, he'd do Ray Charles. He was a treasure, a true talent, and I loved him dearly."
"He always had the drive to entertain," Farrell concurs. "The audiences truly loved him, and he loved them too. He was a total all-around entertainer. He played everything by ear, never read music, he just jumped right in and could keep up. He really worked with a band and never had a diva fit."
Riley and Farrell helped H-Bomb secure bookings in white Rock clubs, where the old Bluesman was wildly welcomed with subsequently bigger and ever more enthusiastic audiences — his show at Jockey Club in Newport drew more than 600 people. They also got him back into a studio to record his self-titled 7-inch single in 1985, his first recording in years.
"We got him a lot of press on that record and we were just doing it on the fly out of the basement ... but it worked. It was a good record," Farrell says. "Back then, people were genuine. We got calls from all over the U.S. People called from Germany and said, 'We love the record!' "
Inspired by Rick James' wild hair, H-Bomb tweaked the concept and began wearing wigs during performances, each more outlandish than the last, and he accumulated dozens. H-Bomb's gigs in and around Clifton with Big Ed Thompson and the All Stars, particularly at Cory's (now the Mad Frog), were legendary, and anyone who witnessed him in full throttle mode will likely never forget the experience.
"He was one of the pillars of Rock & Roll who, like so many, helped develop an art form and never got credit," says Shake It Records co-owner Darren Blase. "I remember standing at the bar (at Cory's) and H had just done this insane set, and he's taking a break. The bartender says, 'What'll you have?' and I say, 'Tanqueray and tonic.' H is standing next to me in a pink wig, these outer space sunglasses and a feather boa, he never makes eye contact with me and all he says is, 'I drank gin once.' And I'm thinking, 'Wow, you drank gin once and this is where you wound up?'
"No one was writing about this stuff at the time, so you either dug deep or you just stumbled into these things. Cory's was one of the places I just stumbled into all these guys — H, Pigmeat Jarrett, Big Ed Thompson, Russell Givens, Albert Washington — who were so important, not just to Cincinnati music but to American popular music in general."
After Farrell secured the cover of Living Blues, the genre's Bible at the time, she and Riley landed a number of interesting gigs for H-Bomb, including cameos in the Cincinnati-filmed Fresh Horses and the video for George Thorogood's cover of "Willie and the Hand Jive," which ran for months on MTV.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this period in H-Bomb's resurgence was the 1985 Kentucky Folk Life Celebration, a piano summit featuring H-Bomb, Pigmeat Jarrett, Big Joe Duskin, Cousin Joe Pleasant, Henry Townsend and Booker T. Laury. It was a stunning performance of six show-stopping pianists and a defining moment for everyone who witnessed it.
One of Riley's favorite stories (other than H-Bomb's plan to buy a monkey and teach it to break dance) concerns the trip that he, Farrell, Jockey Club promoter Bill Leist and H-Bomb took to St. Louis to see the Chuck Berry tribute show immortalized in the film Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll. On the jaunt, H-Bomb was mistaken for Ike Turner, Sammy Davis Jr. and, most famously, Berry himself.
After experiencing a fan mob scene straight out of A Hard Day's Night, the quartet took refuge in a small diner across from the Fox Theater, where the show was being staged and filmed. Fans began lining up at H-Bomb's table, convinced he was the legendary guitarist incognito, decked out in one of his many wigs.
"H started signing autographs 'Chuck Roast,' " Riley says, laughing. "Then the cops showed up and said, 'Mr. Berry, if you need to get out of here, we'll give you an escort.' That's when I said, 'That's it, we've got to get you out of here.' "
H-Bomb slowed a bit in the '90s, as age and health issues forced him to cut back on his performing frequency. No matter the booking, when H-Bomb took the stage he went full bore.
He formed the Medicine Men, who continue to play together, recorded the album Wiggin' Out in Chicago and was working as often and as far-reaching as possible, including national and international Blues festivals. Lance Boyd, H-Bomb's guitarist for the last 11 years of his life, knows he'll never have a more memorable gig than that.
"A lot of times he would make up songs on the stage," Boyd says with a laugh. "The audience wouldn't know it, but he'd say, 'This is gonna be on our next CD,' and he'd pull something out of the air and we'd just grab onto it and go. He was one of a kind, that's for sure.
"H-Bomb was one really intense player. We'd get up there, and the more we felt it the more he felt it, and the crowds were just frenzied. When we went to England, they treated him like Elvis Presley. He was signing autographs and, because I was with him, they were asking me for autographs. Any of the big gigs, they'd go ape over him. It was sad that he'd come back to Cincinnati and he was just another band."
Everyone who shared stories of H-Bomb had the same moment in the course of their recollections, as rich memories and overwhelming emotions forced voices to trail off as mere words were clearly insufficient messengers.
"He moved people (and) made men and women want to dance together," Christina Ferguson notes with an audible lump in her throat. "Somehow his fire and charisma was some kind of invitation to get deeper or be more authentic or something. And it wasn't just about his being entertaining."
That may well be the most memorable aspect of H-Bomb Ferguson. The props he used to seize and maintain his audience's attention were merely the methods he used to gain entrance to their souls and, once there, he altered people from the inside out and in profoundly intense ways.
In the digital age, music is as disposable as a 29-cent razor, but it was feverishly original artists like H-Bomb who first made music as indispensable as oxygen. He is beyond our ability to thank him for that, but we can honor him, and that we will do loudly, joyfully and boisterously, just like H-Bomb showed us for more than 50 years of his amazing career and life.
Here's hoping that H can feel the vibe that will rise up from the CEAs: the Blues blessing he bestowed upon us multiplied 100 times over and yet still less than Robert "H-Bomb" Ferguson deserves for his long and passionate service to the cause.