NRBQ, Steve Ferguson, and the pursuit of the impossible guitar lick

By  |  December 11, 2017

In addition to more than twenty profiles, essays, interviews, and tributes, the 2017 Kentucky Music Issue comes packaged with a 27-track CD, with accompanying liner notes to the songs in the magazine. And since we couldn’t include every great artist and song from the Commonwealth, we’re pleased to present a series of web-exclusive liner notes to recognize even more of Kentucky’s rich music legacy.


  

For some twenty-five years I’ve maintained an obsession with four specific seconds in all the history of rock & roll. Four seconds of a single guitar ripping a hot lick, the opening salvo to a rock & roll song from 1969, a song I don’t particularly love (it’s not my typical go-to music), played by a band I almost never listen to (no disrespect intended). But these scant seconds thrill my ear, lift my spirit, and send me back to my own guitar with renewed enthusiasm, and they capture the singular virtuosity of Steve Ferguson—a great musician from Louisville you’ve likely never heard, which I consider truly unfortunate, because boy is he ever worth the hearing.

The song is “Flat Foot Flewzy” and the band is NRBQ and this was the lead single from their second album for Columbia Records, Boppin’ the Blues. It’s an oddball album, and yet another example from the annals of record executives executing poor judgment: they paired the band with the legendary Carl Perkins, likely expecting a fiery old-school rockabilly extravaganza. What they got was mixed results. One can see how the idea probably looked good on paper, yet “Flewzy” is the best of the lot and Perkins doesn’t appear to even play on the track. The song is all Steve Ferguson to my ear, and it was Fergie who wrote the song and laid down that lick at the opening and took care of the raunchy solo at the break.

The lick: out of the silence a lone electric guitar breaks into a spinning chicken walk of frantic notes, all bends and stuttering slides, and it’s over by the time your brain can react with something as basic as Wow. Or: What? It’s pretty out there, and fast. By the time you can properly think anything, the lick’s history and you’re riding the song, carried on the chugging repetition of the main riff. But chicken walk doesn’t serve the lick justice. Maybe if we’re talking a beheaded chicken and its final furious stomps through the barnyard. Or maybe we’re not talking walking steps at all, but rather the wild spurts of blood pumped out of the open neck by a panicked heart beating triple time. Yeah, it’s a splatter of notes. Only that’s not quite it either. These images imply an ending, whereas the lick in question is an absolute jumpstart—a sui generis non sequitur that points nowhere but ahead.

I make no claims that this is a great song or that it suggests new avenues in songcraft for others to pursue. “Flewzy” isn’t meant to be anything other than what it obviously is: a reason to get heads bobbing and hips shaking, a chance for Ferguson to cut loose. A song designed to get the party started or to keep a good one going. The lyrics are innocuous and goofy (“Well it’s hard to believe that you walk like a bird” / Well I meant what I said so I said what you heard), the structure simple: standard 4/4 beat, a pounding piano straight out of Little Richard territory, no bridge. There isn’t even a chord change until we get to the chorus. The meat of the song—the verse—is anchored by the main riff, the same seven notes strutting around the blues scale in E. It’s a conventional jump blues structure hyped to a rock & roll beat. The vibe of the whole thing suggests it might fit comfortably as a B-side castoff to a Beatles single in their “Hey Bulldog” or “Day Tripper” mode. (Paul McCartney is said to have been a great fan of NRBQ.) Except with poorer production quality.

But give the song its due and “Flat Foot Flewzy” will stick in your head for days, spinning on heavy rotation in your mind’s ear. Once past the blurry whiplash of Fergie’s opening lick it’s all stomping good fun, and its fundamental simplicity allows each band member to dig his chops without derailing the groove—the groove being the song’s bedrock purpose—and it sure does sound like everybody’s having a blast. There’s a reason why NRBQ was commonly touted throughout their long career as the Greatest Bar Band in the World, and it wasn’t because they mainly played in bars. Word is that the band recorded “Flewzy” live in the studio and, amazingly, nailed it in one take. Amazing because that initial guitar burst sounds so unexpected and chaotic, a Dadaist yelp that seems to lack a time signature, and I can’t figure how the drummer locates the beat to start the song proper. But there Tom Staley is, jumping in on the snare and hi-hat, followed by Joey Spampinato’s bass a measure later; keys man Terry Adams starts in on uncharacteristically subtle accents before banging out the barrelhouse chords he’s celebrated for at the chorus.

Ferguson’s lick sounds like it’s a piece apart from the actual song—something unintended originally but that worked in the studio so they kept it in—yet in fact it is essential, the tune’s harbinger. In their concerts from that era you can hear NRBQ spinning variations off of it, Fergie stretching out on a number of bluesy leads before landing again on the run to begin the song, such as what can be heard on the recently released Ludlow Garage 1970 live album. There’s a sharper, funkified country esprit to that version, and the band bounces around phrases from the original intro for thirty-five seconds before Ferguson makes his way to the lick and hits it note-for-note, somehow sprinting through it even faster than the original.

 

Louisville has its own peculiar energy, a quirkiness that’s hard to put a word to, and some of that energy is evident in the music that comes from here. The bands that break from the city to a wider audience all seem to have a peculiar trait or thread that separates them: think of Squirrel Bait, who infused hardcore punk with melody and unorthodox tempos; Slint’s moody take on dark math rock (or post rock or whatever people call it now); Days of the New with their translation of grunge to detuned acoustic guitars; or My Morning Jacket’s reinterpretation of Southern rock with real vulnerability allowed in. (See also: King Kong, included on this magazine’s Kentucky Music Issue compilation.) NRBQ set the pattern, and we readily claim the band as our own even though the only Louisvillians on “Flewzy” are Ferguson and Terry Adams (the band formed in our suburb of Shively, but relocated to Miami and emerged from the Northeast).

Perhaps our music history is tied to the city’s uncertainty about its own identity—a question mulled over often in local media. Are we the “Gateway to the South” or a part of the Midwest? A small city or a big town? I don’t know who cares. But growing up here I often heard people claim they couldn’t wait to leave the place, and they jetted as soon as they found the means to do so—college, a job, maybe just adventure. I said and did the same, and for years lived in various elsewheres, until the opportunity to return presented itself at the exact moment I needed the option; the disappointment of an ambition deferred softened by finding nearly everybody else had come back as well. The city has its pull, its certain charms, and this boomerang trajectory of lives happens often enough here that people remark upon it. The same happened to Steve Ferguson.

Boppin’ the Blues was his last album with the band, and he set off on his own from home. NRBQ went on to greater successes that Ferguson’s career would not match, but his sensibility—eccentric and eclectic, drawing on every genre of popular American music, with the equal likelihood of breaking out into a free jazz number as some soul or basic blues shuffle—remained stamped into NRBQ’s DNA. The story goes that the band next hired “Big Al” Anderson because he was the first guitarist they found who could play the intro to “Flewzy” like he owned it. It is one tough lick.

I know, because I’ve tried to match it. Many times. I’ve played guitar for more than thirty-five years, mostly self-taught, and have gotten pretty good at it, though I used to play better than I do now. For a time I played seriously, a songwriter and member of a band that gigged several times a month, and have felt the particular rush that comes with hearing your own songs on the radio. Though I don’t work in the same styles as Ferguson did, a guitar player picks up licks and phrases wherever they catch his ear. Not only does Ferguson’s sound hot, it sounds like genius-hot, and I figured that if I were ever to master those four seconds from “Flewzy”—and by doing so, come to understand why and how the run works—then the fretboard would open to me in a new way.

The song was nearly thirty years old by the time I heard it. As I mentioned, this wasn’t the kind of music I readily listened to; a little too Elvis Presley/Bill Haley–sounding for my tastes. I came of age in the eighties and nineties and was tuned into everything left of the dial, whatever fit between XTC and the Replacements. But I thrilled to anyone who could make a guitar cry or sing in ways I had yet to learn. A buddy of mine, a diehard NRBQ fan, wanted me to come along to one of their appearances in town and so started playing me cuts from their (vast) catalog to give me an idea of what to expect. “Check this one out,” he said before pressing play. “You’ll get this.” And I did, shocked by that lick and identifying readily with Ferguson’s opening vocal, a drawn-out Hooooo-wee!, a whoop like a man who has just thrown back a shot of something hot and surprisingly strong, or a cowboy’s disbelieving cry after his horse has pulled him through another narrow escape.

Or it may be that I first heard it live at one of his own shows; I’m not sure. Ferguson withdrew from the music scene for a spell in the late seventies to early eighties, then made a kind of comeback in the nineties with Steve Ferguson and the Midwest Creole Ensemble, the band he fronted until his death from cancer in 2009. They gigged around town often. My band opened for his a couple of times, and I got to talk to him a little. He was an unusual man with the air of the gypsy about him, a musician who would readily talk shop and guitars but faded from view when the subjects changed. He always wore some example of unusual headgear—turbans, four-corner hats, chimneysweeps. The first time I caught him live, I knew of him more than I knew his music. Every city has at least one, that performer who should have been a household name nationwide but for whatever reason never made it, and there were plenty of rumors trailing Ferguson around the scene—the usual gossip having to do with poor life choices and his refusal to “sell out” and go commercial. He was loved here, though, and I remember the delirious glee with which the audience greeted the show’s climax; “Flat Foot Flewzy” came as a surprise then, an unforeseen sideways jump from some driving improv between the guitarist and his drummer, so that when he locked into that great riff it hit like a revelation on those who knew the song from his early days. I was not one of them, but that didn’t matter.

 

How to describe Fergie’s guitar to the uninitiated? I can’t cover thirty years of his music here but I submit that a listener can infer a great deal of his spirit from those four seconds recorded in 1969. Consider the lick alone, isolated from the rest of the song, and you can tease out a variety of flavors: a little old-style country, a little blues, a rockabilly timbre (Ferguson favored the bright snap of Fender Telecasters), all funked up and frenzied. It’s hard to identify each note among the slurs and bends, but by my count he manages in those four seconds to play at least twenty-four of them. Ferguson called himself a blues player with a country right hand—meaning he naturally pulled out the blue notes, the bends and slides and double-stops, but syncopated the picking rhythm in the style of the old-time classic Nashville or Memphis sound. If you listen with this in mind you’ll understand what he meant; although over the years he would venture widely and experiment with about every imaginable genre of music, the sound and style here remained his signature, the opening lead into “Flewzy.”

I’ve never mastered it. Thanks to the wonders of computer tech we can now drastically slow down a track of music without altering its original pitch. In this way, I’ve finally managed to locate all the notes therein. After a couple of weeks of effort, I can play along with Ferguson at one-fifth of the original tempo. Learning another guitarist’s leads has always struck me as a strange kind of intimacy, like trying to trace within the exact lines of someone else’s handwriting while also appropriating their emotions at the moment of writing it. Eventually you take what you’ve copied and work to make it your own—to fit your own personal language, as it were. At this point in my admiration I can only admit that there are many levels of mastery in all things, and there are mysteries that one can’t unlock alone. I can see how the run leads to the song’s riff, but I don’t understand why it starts where it does, and can only guess at the man’s sensibility at a glance, metaphorically placing one of his unusual hats on my own head. I don’t see, still—and yet—how to make the lick my own.

By the last fifteen years of his life, the time when I became aware of and enthusiastic for Ferguson and his sound, he’d transformed that opening into a full minute of percussive, driving improv. In those shows from his late years he upped the tempo to a hard-charging rocker, though without ever losing the boogie at the song’s heart. His final recording is of a live performance in Louisville from 2001, Two Dollar No Holler, a kind of limited-release thing and unfortunately a CD that is now very hard to find indeed. Here his guitar is sharp and clean and the band is locked in and the performance feels like some lost classic roadhouse revue. Ferguson passes through New Orleans-style jazz, flecks of gospel, soul, Stax-era rockabilly, and, of course, country blues. “Flat Foot Flewzy” comes last, the show-stopper, and Holler captures the extended jam he’d made of the intro. The crowd (of which I was a part) sounds like they’re almost onstage with the musicians (we were). He rips out bluesy bleating phrases and thrums that bottom string like he wants it hurt, quickly ripping out another round, and then another, that open E at the bottom almost like a static hum while he spins through his interior radio dial, the brief phrases like glimpses of the stations passed over—it’s as though he’s searching for a specific frequency, and then bam there it is, and he whips up that original lick. When he hits that climactic riff from so many years before and grabs that groove and shakes it, Fergie drops the hillbilly-cowboy cry from 1969 in favor of a confident and cool Allll riiight. He sounds like a man still surprised by what he can do, and reveling in how good it feels to share it.


Hear “Flat Foot Flewzy” (live in 2001) by Steve Ferguson. Courtesy of Sheri Orr Ferguson. 

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Kirby Gann’s most recent work includes the novel Ghosting, which made the “Best of Year” lists from Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness and was a finalist for the Kentucky Book of the Year; a short work of nonfiction, Bookmarked: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace; and stories in Ploughshares and Post Road. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and three dogs, and teaches in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.