Cool John Ferguson gets ready to play 26th annual Gullah Festival

charley@beaufortgazette.comMay 23, 2012 

  • The 26th annual Gullah Festival is May 25-27 in Beaufort at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

    Musical guests include Ron Daise of "Gullah Gullah Island," Aunt Pearlie Sue & the Gullah Kinfolk of Beaufort; The Manhattans of New York; recording artist Tony Terry, who will sing his hit song, "When I'm with You"; and area school choirs, step teams and bands. "An Evening of Jazz and Blues" begins at 9 p.m. May 25 at The Quality Inn, 2001 Boundary St., Beaufort, featuring Cool John Ferguson.

    Details: 843-636-3788, www.gullahfestival.net

When John Ferguson was 3 years old, he used to climb up on a stack of chairs in front of his parents' closet so he could reach the guitar they stored on a top shelf.

The guitar had been given to his mom by a Parris Island family that was being deployed to Okinawa.

"It just fascinated me," Ferguson said. "Neither she nor Dad could play, so they put it in the closet. ... I used to get a spanking for playing with it."

"One day I was sitting on the stairs when my parents came home and my dad said, 'No. Let him play.'

"It was my first song, 'Just a Closer Walk.' I played it word for word," said Ferguson, who learned every song by ear.

By age 10, he was playing on the Charleston television Channel 5 show, "Lowcountry Sing" with the Ferguson Sisters, his three oldest sisters. For four years, the group played every Sunday.

As a small boy, Ferguson also played for Ridgeland-based syndicated televangelist and radio personality, "Rev. Ike."

"He was so little and small, the pastor said they'd have to pick him up and put him on the chair with his feet dangling, then hand him the guitar," said Ferguson's wife, Shirley Wilkins.

Music continued to be a part of Ferguson's life while playing in the Beaufort High School band, directed by Earl Davis, and singing in the school chorus. After school, he played classical jazz in a combo band at Fripp Island's Lai Tai Inn, and around Beaufort, Savannah, Hampton and Varnville.

Music was integral in the Ferguson household -- his parents and all six sisters sang.

Gospel music and their Gullah heritage was instilled by his mother, who was born and raised in the Scott community of St. Helena Island. He'd occasionally hear her say phrases like: "Know better, do better."

Today, Ferguson, a soft-spoken and modest 58-year-old, dons a silver-trimmed black hat while tapping his right heel on the ground and strumming his guitar with his left hand during an interview at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

While performances in the Beaufort are rare, Ferguson is preparing to return to kick off the 26th annual Gullah Festival with a performance at 9 p.m. Friday at "An Evening of Jazz and Blues" at The Quality Inn.

Gospel remains his favorite type of music, and he continues to play organ and guitar at three Beaufort-area churches.

Ferguson describes the music he writes and sings as gospel, funk, country, jazz, and rhythm and blues. He is "in the business of making great roots music."

ITunes might classify his recent release, "Guitar Heaven," as blues, but the songs are more than that. "Having Fun," is reminiscent of 1970s funky, upbeat vibes. His roots can be heard in this album. "It's True" is like listening to the tide roll in. "16 Years" offers a twinge of country music.

Ferguson has been dubbed "among the five greatest guitarists in the world" by Taj Mahal, who compares Ferguson to Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhart. The guitarist has collaborated with Mahal, BB King, Eric Clapton and Kenny Wayne Sheppard, as well as Bonnie Raitt. In 1998, he played lead guitar at Babyface Records.

With performances all over the world, Ferguson loves Beaufort's laid-back lifestyle and being near his 92-year-old father.

"When he plays his guitar at home, the neighbors come over and sit on the porch," Ferguson's wife said.

Whether he's playing for 10 people or 25,000 at a festival, Ferguson said he puts the same energy into every performance.

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