How a Newcomer to Cincinnati Found Righteous Music

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Super Bowl hype for a moment of reflection so we might insert a short, overdue eulogy or two into a busy sports column. New to Cincinnati in early 1986, a you

Jan 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Super Bowl hype for a moment of reflection so we might insert a short, overdue eulogy or two into a busy sports column.

New to Cincinnati in early 1986, a young man in search of a drinking problem wandered up Vine Street from his downtown office around midnight so he might commune with music. The music was supposed to be good, though the word about Cincinnati held that the town lived in Jazz and Blues and probably couldn't cook up a great Rock & Roll scene.

That proved to be true, though not for a terrible lack of good Rock bands. More to the point, according to scouting reports, Cincinnati was a Funk town. That was the reputation.

Steamy place, if you could find your way around. You could still buy a durable pair of gray patent leather shoes downtown for $20. You might be the only white guy in the club, though you almost never were and it didn't matter anyway. Music doesn't have a color, you know.

If you were one of a handful in those days who regarded James Brown as the greatest composer of the 20th century, Cincinnati lived in the imagination as something of a holy land where the Amazin' Mr. Please, Please Himself hammered out those magnetizing King records. Around 1970, when Brown broke with King for good, he turned up his R&B harder than ever, backed by a young Cincinnati band featuring Bootsy and Catfish Collins. They formed the basis for the JBs, Brown's most progressive backing band.

As a composer, Brown built a cosmos of simple minor ninth chords from guitars, 16th and 32nd notes from a horn section that bent up and down, a bottom end of bass and drums that rattled planet Earth from its center and still opened up enough space for man's place in the world, narrated with bewitching lucidity in grunts and screams. So sharp and symmetrical were these rhythmic works that you could play them backwards on your turntable and they still sounded like distinctively James Brown compositions.

Before Brown turned to the JBs period, he sang his music in that clear, topless voice that could tell your blood to flow sideways. That the younger Brown's singing voice was unsurpassed in its technical virtuosity is beside the point. He combined that virtuosity with insight, turning decades old crooner tunes like "Prisoner of Love" and "Nature Boy" into Soul music and making them his own.

But this isn't really about James Brown. It's about the town he'd left far behind by 1986 and a succession of unforgettable Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the intersection of Vine and McMillan streets, not quite at the top of a hill, where a small corner Jazz and Blues bar spun magic from the last campaigns of dying musicians.

By the late 1980s, many of the greats who migrated from the South after World War II were drinking themselves to death. Others simply succumbed to the hard life.

There remained, up at Cory's, an almost familial subculture of drunks and Blues slaves, salving and enriching their lives by the light of slow music and fast liquor, leaving their bodies behind, checking whatever good sense at the door. A doorman might take a look around, notice all the familiar faces of his regulars and say, "We have every kook in the place tonight."

He knew, at the same time, that the real kooks were missing all this. Cory's, in those days, was the kind of place where you went every single night. Pigmeat Jarrett was already 85 and still playing a raggy, tripping piano every Monday evening. Phil Blank put together a scratchy Blues band that played the back portions of the week, when the stage didn't belong to Smokin' & the Students. Memory forgets the name of the sax player who could blow two horns at once.

The true core of Cory's, though, was the Tuesday and Wednesday band, Big Ed Thompson's All-Stars with H-Bomb Ferguson. The band belonged to Big Ed, but the stage belonged to H-Bomb, a four-fingered keyboard player who often played the wrong song and always made it work, partly because the band just ignored him but mostly because this tiny, haggard man with the missing hair, fingers and teeth overpowered his errors with raw presence and the most bizarre collection of wigs outside London's fashion district.

H-Bomb was part Big Joe Turner, part Little Richard, part Iggy Pop and part Moms Mabley. When he died on Nov. 26 of emphysema and cardiopulmonary disease at Hospice of Cincinnati, aged 77 years, post mortems remembered him as the last of the "shout singers."

H-Bomb's voice exploded, hence the name, and it beautifully countered Thompson's sugary guitar sound. When that band felt it, which was often, one could feel Cory's levitating.

H-Bomb understood that it works best when you play it dirty. He never entirely cleaned up his act, though he no longer played in a grass skirt with a snake at his command.

Before the 1980s ended, Big Ed Thompson left us after a long illness. A liquor license violation of some kind shut down Cory's for a short while. Following a brief return, the club closed for good by 1990.

The ancient club on the hill sat vacant for a year or two before re-opening as the Mad Frog. But it wasn't the same, nor could it be.

H-Bomb continued to play in town almost to the very end. Last year, a documentary film, The Life and Times of H-Bomb Ferguson, fortunately told his story. (See Spill It, issue of Nov. 29, 2006.) Shortly after the documentary premiered, the story ended.

But H-Bomb still lives in the story and those Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the Blues room that floated on air. Those were sweet times in that paradise for kooks. Thanks, man.

Looks like we've run out of space for our regularly scheduled sports column. Here's my Super Bowl prediction: Indianapolis Colts over Chicago Bears (barely).