Perfect Choice of Notes

By Cadillac Johnson

Keith Ferguson

Keith Ferguson

This interview with Cadillac Johnson was taken from the book “Keith Ferguson – Texas Blues Bass” by Detlef Schmidt in October 2012. Cadillac Johnson was the bass player in ZZ Top prior to Dusty Hill joining the band. He played with Freddie Cisneros (Little Jr. One Hand) in their band The Blasting Caps at The Bluebird in Fort Worth, Texas. Cadillac returned to Houston to join Uncle John Turner and Alan Haynes in the original Step Children. Cadillac is now in full-time ministry and has a gospel/blues group, The Revelators, and lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Keith Ferguson and I first met in Houston back in the early ‘70’s about the time he was playing with Rocky Hill and prior to my moving to Fort Worth. Our real friendship developed later while he was playing with the Thunderbirds and I was playing with Freddie Cisneros in the Blasting Caps. I had known Lou Ann Barton from our days together in her first band Rockola in Fort Worth.

Required Reading

Required Reading

I had grown up in Houston and had been friends with Billy Gibbons since his early days in The Coachmen and then The Moving Sidewalks. The original ZZ Top included Dan Mitchell from the Moving Sidewalks and Lanier Greig on Hammond B-3. The later added Billy Ethridge on bass when Frank Beard replaced Dan Mitchell on drums. When Ethridge left, Gibbons called me to join him and Frank Beard on an interim basis until Dusty Hill could fulfill obligations in the Dallas area. That was about six or seven months.

You’ve asked me if I’m aware of Billy Gibbons looking elsewhere for bass players or if he ever contacted Keith Ferguson about playing with him. I have no firsthand knowledge of that happening. I think that due to the extended time that Dusty Hill and Frank Beard had played together with his brother Rocky Hill in The American Blues, there was great appeal in the unity and tightness of Frank and Dusty together. From where I was sitting, it was always going to be Frank and Dusty.

In those early ZZ Top days, Bill Ham, their manager, was still negotiating with London Records for them to get a record deal. The early 45s were released on the Scat label. We were doing local and regional openers for people like Fats Domino, Grand Funk Railroad, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Bill Ham was hard at work plotting the now famous course that ZZ Top would follow. I remember Bill Ham coming into rehearsal one day telling us that ZZ Top would open for the Rolling Stones in the not too distant future. Sure ‘nuff, he was right.

Cadillac Johnson

Cadillac Johnson

There was a little black juke joint called Irene’s down in one of the wards of Houston, and Gibbons used to like to slip in there and blow harp. It had to be underneath Bill Ham’s radar since there was an unofficial “no sittin’ in” policy in place. Keith and I went there a couple of times. It was during this time Keith as doing some work with Rocky Hill, and they were regulars at Irene’s. Keith especially liked Houston’s own Joey Long’s style of guitar playing. There was a lot of great music coming out of our hometown of Houston. There were lots of musical influences for us all to draw from.

I don’t know much about Keith’s days in California, although he did mention the Black Kangaroo project as a failure. I always found it amusing that Keith was so nonplus in his stories of playing with the cats that he did at Antone’s over the years. Certain things were just business as usual for Keith.

Keith did enjoy some of the Lightnin’ Hopkins stories. Keith also played with Lightnin’ on occasion. Keith liked the story about Lightnin’s drummer, Spider Kilpatrick who is with Lightnin’ when I played with him.  Spider used to tell people that his favorite things in the world were hamhocks, womens and strikin’ red.  Keith loved that story.

As a bass player, I guess the most that Keith imparted to me regarding playing was his technique of varied attack, positioning and phrasing. Just subtle nuances that I’ve kept to this day. Keith’s influences on blues bass players is monumental!

Keith always played things in his own conventional unconventional yet innovative style. Being left-handed certainly accounted for part of that, but not all of it. His positioning and ability to stretch made for a beautifully captivating studying of technique and application. An excellent example is his work on “C-Boy Blues”. His choice of notes is just perfect. It’s just Keith.

While Freddie Cisneros and I had the band Little Junior One Hand and the Blasting Caps, we had a memorable night at After Hours, a now defunct blues club in Austin. We did a Battle of the Bands, with the Fabulous Thunderbirds versus The Blasting Caps. Long story short, we somehow won the contest that night, after which Freddie, Keith and I retired to Keith’s house. Freddie recalls us finding some tamales frozen solid in Keith‘s freezer. Keith’s oven didn’t work so we were forced to thaw them out and heat ‘em up with a BIC lighter! Those days were fun for all of us!

Keith and I also shared a friend in Fort Worth, Ruth Little. Ruth that grown up with Mike Buck and Freddie Cisneros and worked at The Hop. Ruth dealt in some of the finest hard-to-find vintage fashion wear for men and women. Ruth was a contributor to much of Keith’s clothing in the early days. She came up with some great stuff for us!

I was at Keith’s house for a visit once and Kim Wilson showed up to pick up Keith for a European tour, which I think had slipped Keith‘s mind. He packed an extra pair of his baggy pants, his passport and an extra shirt into his bass case, turned to me and is typical dry wit and said, “I guess I’d better go do this”.

I went back to Houston and was working with Freddie Cisneros and Jimmy Don Smith in The Cold Cuts. We did many an opener for the Fabulous Thunderbirds in those days, and it was during that time Keith’s dad showed up at several of Keith’s gigs. From what I saw, Keith loved his dad, and I know his father was genuinely proud of Keith.

Who could ever forget those little rigs Keith played on in the early days. I see a little because by today’s standards they were. Keith was always about tone first and then volume. We watched him go from the Fender Showman amps to Bassmans and then to the little Peavey TNTs and combos for a while.

With Fergie, he’d sound the same I’m just about any amp. His tone came from his hands and from deep within his creative spirit via a plethora of diverse influences, which he had cultivated and formulated into his own provocative style. There have been some great live recordings to surface lately from this Fabulous Thunderbird days wherein you can really hear the emotion and intensity Heath delivered.

I know he was proud of his work with Don Leady in The Tail Gators. Those records still hold up today! There will only be one Fergie. Often imitated, yet never duplicated.