The beautiful loser

Keith Ferguson keeps a loose grip on Fabulous past

Ferguson describes the current transitional wars, directing me through a Mexican shantytown. We finally reach a tin shack. Ferguson has been summoned to visit an old friend's dying boy. At least that's what I'm told as I wait outside in a spanking-new white Honda Accord.

Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Ferguson emerges. A worried madre and padre follow, gratefully embracing him for paying his respects. This is Texas, not Mexico. I ask why the boy wasn't in a hospital.

"They prefer their own medicina," he says.

Back to present
"This is about the only thing my dad gave me as a kid that I saved." Back on the front porch, Keith shows me a cherished, yellowed 1945 paperback by madcap cartoonist VIP. "This and a few old records.

"People would kid me about my large collection of blues records. That's all I listened to--I was fanatic--that and Mexican stuff. Like in sixth grade, people would bring 45s to parties, but they never wanted me to bring my Otis Rush or John Lee Hooker records."

Johnny Winter moved from Beaumont to Houston when Keith was in high school. "Since blues was all Johnny liked, these local musicians thought it would be hysterical if we got together: 'Let's put these two freaks, these two mutants together.' Johnny flipped out. He never saw that many 78s in his life. He had records, too, but I had more."

Keith Ferguson began backing Winter at small lesbian bars like Club L'mour. Ferguson was dazzled by Winter's virtuosity--it was "alarming," he says now--and often had to tell himself not to stop and stare at his playing during the middle of a song.

"We used to call him The Stork," Ferguson says. "Nobody messed with him. One night he knocked out an off-duty cop for callin' him a girl. I saw Johnny Winter fight many times, he was real strong and mean. He'd go until you quit breathing and couldn't hurt him anymore."

Ferguson made Austin his home in 1972, after his stint with Winter had ended. He moved because the aggressive Houston Police made him uncomfortable--and he wanted into The Storm, Jimmie Vaughan's old band. After a brief stint, he joined up instead with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall.

"Nobody wanted to hear us," Ferguson recalls. "Nobody." In 1975, Kim Wilson left Minnesota to play with Jimmie, and Ferguson rejoined. "We couldn't get arrested either, but we were doin' a helluva lot better than me and Stevie and Doyle did, locally.

"It was the 'Cosmic Cowboy, Willie-Waylon-and-the-Boys' outlaw town then, but we were the outlaws. People wondered how we survived: 'Well, they never work.' We were so hard-core [blues], nobody knew what to do with us. But Antone's came along, sort of saved us. At least we could get some food. They served lots of po' boy sandwiches.

"Muddy Waters heard us at Antone's. We fried him. We were told we sounded like his best band from the '50s, with Jimmy Rogers. We weren't trying to. It was innate. He went back North ravin' about us, and Jimmie started gettin' calls. So we got in our little van from Austin to Boston, nowhere in between. We started openin' for [Kansas City jump-blues revivalists] Roomful of Blues. Then it got to where they were openin' for us. People seemed astonished by us."

The Fabulous Thunderbirds were the first white blues group that didn't look and play like hippies. The T-Birds took it back 20 years. Jimmie Vaughan exorcised all the rock-guitar innovations--as if Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Winter, and Bloomfield never existed--and threw it back to a long-abandoned spare '50s Chicago groove, more authentic than early Stones. Countless guitarists took heed. Kim Wilson applied no fake rasp to his voice, no black affectations, no phonetic imitations of slurred words. He sang it straight.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds spearheaded a reanimation that stabilized the course of blues, spawning back-to-basics bands that proliferate to this day. Blues cognoscenti even began to emulate Jimmie Vaughan's slicked-back hair and open-collar, 1950s rayon shirts, newly designed and imported from India by Trash & Vaudeville in the East Village. Ferguson's transparent camisas tripled in price at Austin clothing stores. "That's just the way we dressed in high school," Ferguson says. "The fashion of pachucos and thugs who've long since died--or gone double-knit."

"Pretty soon everyone up in Boston wanted to be us," Ferguson recalls. "We still couldn't get arrested here in Austin, but we went from floors to motels in Boston. Everyone in the band but me wanted to move to Boston. They followed the record company line: 'You guys are fine, but all you have to do is change.' They think blues is a stone to step on to get somewhere else.

"You'll notice each one of our records got more expensive to make--and more diluted, as far as I'm concerned. I thought we should have held out for an art subsidy, 'cause there wasn't anybody else out there doin' it except Roomful of Blues. But we were more primitive, playing like skeletons."

Tuff-chick/hick blues shouter Lou Ann Barton was in the T-Birds for a spell. She even married Ferguson in Rhode Island, though their union lasted only a short while.

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