Cool John Ferguson moved back down to South Carolina some time ago, so he doesn't play around the Triangle much anymore. But he's back this weekend to play a Saturday night show at his onetime home court, Durham's All People Grill. Below is a feature from 2003, when Ferguson was playing the APG almost every Saturday night. This is the pre-edited "extended cut," a longer version than what ran in the paper.
A Master of Blues Finds His Home
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Aug. 17, 2003
DURHAM -- Cool John Ferguson is misnamed. Oh, he’s cool, all right, in the sense that people are drawn to him. But put a guitar in his hands, and Cool John is red hot. His milky brown eyes bug out and sweat pours off him, enough that he has to towel off after every song. He’s not the only one, either. Any room he’s in heats up fast — especially if it’s his home court, the All People Grill in Durham, where Ferguson holds forth most Saturday nights.
"We’d like to slow it down right here," he murmurs, strumming his guitar and adjusting the foot pedals. The crowd stills, if you can call 60 people a crowd, but the room is full. Like any good juke joint, All People Grill has Christmas lights up year-round. The smell of fried soul food hangs heavily, chicken and barbecue. There’s no stage, just a corner of the room with amplifiers piled on a pool table behind the drummer.
As Ferguson begins stroking a guitar figure, his bassist and drummer swing in behind him, setting a slow pulse. The song is Jerry Butler’s "I Stand Accused" and Ferguson takes it back to church, testifying as if in a pulpit.
"Everyone is gonna cry," he declares, "and Cool John is guilty of lovin’ you."
"Yeah!" answers the chorus from the faithful. Cool John plays on, moving medley-style into an old Sam Cooke number.
"Darlin’, yooooooooou...send me," he croons softly, then eases into a guitar solo that almost whispers. He plays a series of notes that slowly descend, seeming to hang in the air as he takes a step toward the audience.
“Oh my goodness!” calls out a female voice, gasping. Cool John massages the notes, making everyone in the room feel like he’s playing to them and them alone. The effect is supernatural, music you can practically see. Now it almost sounds like plaintive whale calls, except the whale is somehow gliding around this tiny room tickling the back of everyone’s neck.
“I’m melting!” the same woman hollers, and everyone laughs except Cool John, deep into the music. The only sign he even heard her is the briefest flicker of a smile, and the nod he gives the woman as people applaud and the song’s spell ends.
Then it’s on to “Johnny B. Goode,” a song he plays almost every show (sometimes more than once). Except Cool John’s version is radically different from Chuck Berry’s original — the lyrics stripped down to just the chorus of “Go go, go Johnny, go go go,” with a verse of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” thrown in.
Yet you don’t really miss the song’s verses, because Cool John’s guitar says more than enough. When Ferguson launches into one of his far-ranging solos, his fingers flying and his listeners hollering, his guitar tells the same story: a young man from the boondocks who plays guitar better than just about anyone you’ve ever heard, and will be a big star someday.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight...
“Johnny B. Goode” is Cool John Ferguson’s story, even if the marquee with his name on it is just a sandwich board outside a cinderblock juke joint in North Durham.
Six years ago, blues legend Taj Mahal went to see a show at Atlanta’s North Side Tavern. Playing that night was Jimmy Rip, from Mick Jagger’s solo band. But the player Mahal remembered was Cool John Ferguson, who blew everyone in the room away. Mahal has heard a lot of Ferguson since then, and declares him one of the five greatest guitarists in the world.
"He’s up there with Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, people like that,” says Mahal. “He’s just an incredible guitar player, plays with a lot of fire and imagination — you never hear no two solos alike coming out of him. His musical grammar and the way he’s into music, he just plays all over. Put him into any kind of musical situation and he’ll come up with something.”
One reason you hear no two solos alike from Ferguson is his unorthodox self-taught style. He’s left-handed, but plays a Fender Stratocaster that’s strung for a right-hander. Like Chapel Hill blues legend Elizabeth Cotten, he learned all the chords upside down. People who know Cool John say he can play just about any song after hearing it once.
“When we first met, we’d be playing at parties and I’d call out television theme show songs,” says Ferguson’s manager, Music Maker Relief Foundation head Tim Duffy. “I could never stump him. The guy must know every TV theme since 1959. I tried again the other night with Diana Ross tunes. He knew ’em all.”
Cool John Ferguson has been an underground legend for most of his 50 years, since picking up a guitar at age 3 and wowing everyone who heard him play. Born on Saint Helena Island, he spent his formative years in the South Carolina low country. Some of his earliest work was accompanying the Ferguson Sisters, a gospel trio with three of his seven sisters.
The young Ferguson regularly appeared on local television with his sisters, and also during his stint backing up Dr. Frederick Eikerenkoetter — better-known as “Rev. Ike,” a self-help televangelist preaching the credo, “You can’t lose with the stuff I use.” Cool John played blues, too, moving back and forth between churches and nightclubs. Even then, he had a reputation for speaking softly and playing a loud guitar.
“He really stood out here, even though he was a quiet sorta guy,” says Anita Singleton-Prather, a singer in Beaufort, S.C., who performs as Aunt Pearly Sue. “You’d never know he had that kinda talent, until he got on the guitar or keyboards. I saw him play gospel, blues, anything. Anytime people needed a musician, John was one of the people they’d call on. People start singing and he’d pick their pitch and start playing, no problem. Awesome musician.”
For whatever reason, however, larger stardom outside the tent-revival circuit eluded Ferguson. He spent a year in the mid-’90s in Atlanta working with his niece Esperanza, who was then signed to LaFace Records, but nothing was ever released. There was also what Duffy calls “a vague period” in New York.
“I’ve never been able to get him to talk about that,”says Duffy. “When I first met Cool John, he was in a bad, bad state. He’d been this wonder-boy character from the time he was 3 into his 20s, from a small town with a lot of expectations. But the big time never happened. He never became Jimi Hendrix. From about age 28 to 44 was a dark time for him. He didn’t even own a guitar at the time we met.”
Duffy moved Ferguson up to North Carolina in 1998 to be guitarist-in-residence for Music Maker (which assists older, impoverished blues musicians), working on the foundation’s recording and touring projects. When Music Maker moved from Pinnacle to Hillsborough in 2001, Cool John set up shop nearby at the All People Grill. He lives close to his work, in a trailer right next to the grill.
“I talked to John and told him we could do one of two things: Try and hump it on the road or stay around here,” Duffy says. “He’s got no interest in the road. He did 18 years of that with gospel groups, sleeping on buses. He doesn’t wanna travel anymore. So he just plays at the grill every Saturday night.”
Between sets at the All People Grill, Cool John retreats to his trailer next door. A few of his more avid fans and groupies follow, but most of the crowd stays around the grill. Some people move into the grill room for a late-night barbecue pick-me-up, others dance to a deejay. A handful of regular attendees step outside to catch some air, including Jim Walton.
Walton first heard Cool John play a year ago May, and was instantly smitten. He’s been coming to the grill with religious zeal ever since, missing fewer than a half-dozen Saturday nights over the past year.
“You work all week, do all your chores onSaturday, then come out here for Cool John and it’s like church,” Walton says, sipping a beer as he leans against a pickup truck just outside the grill’s front door. “Church, man! Ain’t nobody else that good for miles around. Ain’t nobody else that good anywhere.”
A few other regulars nod and murmur in agreement. So does Leonard “Bowman” McDaniel, the self-appointed doorman, who has been coming here for almost his entire life.
“I’m a dancer, professor of dancing,” Bowman says, hitting an air-guitar move and humming the “JohnnyB. Goode” riff to prove it. “Been comin’ here since 1952, when I was a baby. I’d dance for candy, sodas. It was like a talent show for little children.”
1952 was the year All People Grill opened on North Guess Road, except it was called All People Store and there was nothing but farms for miles around. It was one of the earliest integrated establishments in Durham, a country store named after the United House of Prayer for All People. Levi Whitted bought the land and built All People while working at Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co., where he drove a lifter for 37 years.
“Things was cheap then,” says Whitted, now 86 years old and retired, sitting at the doorway taking money and stamping hands. “I was not making much money, but you could buy an acre of land for almost nothing. I had about 100 acres at one time.”
All People evolved from grocery to grill over time, although the only music there was on a jukebox until the last few years. Live music was a relatively recent addition, and Cool John’s ongoing residency is the grill’s big draw.
Ferguson has started playing at some other area clubs, too. But All People remains the best place to see him. Frank Sinatra had the Sands and Bruce Springsteen the Stone Pony, but Cool John has the All People Grill. Word is getting out, too. Regulars still talk about the night last year when jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis (who moved to Durham in 2002) showed up to hear Cool John.
“I was telling Branford that he should bring his saxophone down sometime and play with Cool John,” recalls Mike Spicer, another All People regular. “And he said, ‘I’d like to do that — if John would have me.’ ‘Uh, don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘He’ll have you.’”
Cool John’s All People crowd tends to skew older, middle-class and white, but the demographics can vary wildly from week to week. There’s usually a healthy mix cutting across racial and social lines. You’ll see bikers, college kids, working-class blacks, upscale professionals, hippies, rednecks — all of them dancing and drinking together on the grill’s black-and-white checkerboard tile floor.
“I’m from New York and I’ve lived here seven years,” says Sharon Berrian, a recent first-time attendee. “When I first moved down here, I was shocked that Durham is devoid of bars like this, since it’s a college town. But this is great. Whoever thought you’d find a scene like this at a hole in the wall in North Durham? It just blows my mind.”
During the course of an evening with Cool John, he’ll make All People Grill feel like an uptown jazz bar, a Mississippi roadhouse, a downtown disco. But when Ferguson covers Jimi Hendrix, the room feels like a rocket that’s about to take off. He plays notes that seem to go right through you, conjuring up aural images of oceans, sunsets, rainbows, bombs bursting in air.
Ferguson’s virtuosity recalls Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan, blues-rock guitarists whose instrumental innovations were more noteworthy than their original songs. While Cool John calls himself a bluesman, he doesn’t actually play much straight blues. Most of his original tunes are instrumentals that owe as much to jazz as to blues (he does an especially mean George Benson-style scat), and his covers range all over the map.
Cool John draws deep from the well of old-school rock and soul — Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” dance songs from P-Funk, the Commodores, Michael Jackson. Even though the playlist stops at about 20 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated so much as classic.
Of the three sets Cool John plays every Saturday, the second set tends to be the peak. That’s when everyone is good and warmed up, the room gets crowded enough to spill out the door and Ferguson can work his best mojo. But the third set is almost always worth sticking around for, especially tonight, when Cool John absolutely kills Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
The energy level soars as soon as everyone recognizes the ominous guitar riff, and goes even higher as Cool John’s improvisations takes the song into uncharted tangents, leaving vapor trails behind as he walks toward the door. Bowman throws it open and stands aside. Cool John steps into the doorway, leaning against the doorjam as he fires withering salvos of guitar into the astral plain. The crowd howls.
Go go, go Johnny, go go go…
Cool John brings the song to a close, says good night and heads for the door to a chorus of, “One more, John!” But he does not break stride. As the door closes behind him a single voice can be heard.
“Cool John has left the building.”
A couple of nights later, Cool John sits behind the stage at Raleigh’s NC Museum of Art. He’s here on a Tuesday night to open for Taj Mahal. After soundcheck, he sits in the evening shade of Taj’s tour bus, eating a sandwich and apologizing for a recent missed appointment.
“I’ve been going through a lot of changes,” he says, so softly it’s hard to hear him over the bus’s exhaust. “My ex-wife came up here, and...well, I’ve just been going through a lot of changes, let’s say. There are so many women I’ve got to take care of, and...”
His voice trails off and he gives a helpless, what-are-ya-gonna do shrug. Cool John picked up his nickname in high school because of his walk, and he does seem to glide. But still, the only time he ever appears to be completely at ease is with a guitar in his hands.
Offstage, small talk makes him visibly uncomfortable. When asked what a typical day is like or what hobbies he might have, he gives a puzzled smirk.
“I, uh, like to eat barbecue spare ribs and macaroni sandwiches. That’s my hobby. That, and, uh...”
He stops himself mid-syllable, letting a wicked grin slip out.
“I started to say something, but it would have too many repercussions detrimental to my personal health,” he says, and falls silent as he finishes his sandwich.
All right, then, music. Growing up, Cool John never played sports, just music. He hung around the band room at school, he says, eventually learning every instrument in it. But guitar was always his calling. Lots of people have tried to get him to play a guitar strung correctly, but he claims he can get “at least a hundred” more chords playing his way.
When asked his favorite song, he picks up a copy of his 2003 album “Guitar heaven” (Music Maker Recordings) and scans the titles.
“Gotta pick my own song,” he murmurs. “Number six on this, ‘It’s True.’ Why that one? Because it’s real. My favorite cover? ‘Hope You Feel Better’ by the Isley Brothers. I wore out five albums, the vinyl turned to dust, from playing that one so much. ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ that one could be number two. I get a lot of requests for that.”
When the conversation turns to current music, he is dismissive.
“I used to listen to the radio,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “But not anymore. There’s nothin’ on it. I just cover songs I like. I grew up listening to all music and learning from it. I’m not much into rap. I’m a pioneer trying to keep the blues alive. Blues to me is the last real music. The new stuff on the radio, it’s bad, man. Makes no sense. But that’s the way of the world. People would rather hear lies than hear the truth.”
Is that why he’s content playing at All People Grill every week?
“I’m just a person who likes this,” he says with another shrug. “I appreciate and work well with the smaller shows and the smaller venues. I don’t wanna be super rich because it’s too many headaches, no privacy. Long as I can pay my bills and buy some ribs, some macaroni sandwiches, I’m good and I’ll enjoy it.”
But wouldn’t it be nice to get out of that trailer?
“Yeah, I guess,” he says. “But with money comes problems. If you can’t walk down the street without being mobbed, it ain’t worth it. So I’ll stay on the small circuit. And the hell with the rest.”
Ferguson’s drummer appears.
“You ’bout ready to go prep?” he asks, and Ferguson nods, getting to his feet and putting on his sunglasses. As he leaves, Cool John stops and looks back.
“You know, you’re lucky to get an interview at all,” he says. “I don’t talk much. I don’t like to talk much. It’s all about the music to me.”
Cool John’s set opening for Mahal is an abbreviated version of a typical All People Saturday night. Originals like the steaming “Straight Church”and moody “Low Country Blues”go over well, and his “I Stand Accused”/“You Send Me” medley is a big hit.
“Here’s some All People blues,” Cool John says at one point, drawing cheers of recognition. Apparently, a lot of the regulars have followed him here. By the end of his 40-minute set, the applause is enthusiastic enough to justify an encore (a rarity for opening acts at most big shows).
“By popular demand,” declares the show’s master of ceremonies, “welcome back, Cool John Ferguson!”
For the encore, Cool John fires up “Johnny B. Goode” and rides it long and hard. He rides a wave of surf-guitar tones, exploding into a full-on white-noise rampage at the end. It seems like something a crowd of jam-band fans would love. And yet, playing in daylight and outdoors in front of several thousand people, Cool John still seems out of his element.
Afterward, Cool John waves goodbye and sits on the grass by his pickup truck, with a woman in his lap whispering in his ear.