Love Letter To A Record: The Bamboos’ Lance Ferguson On ‘Donny Hathaway Live’

Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.

In this series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.

Here are their love letters to records that forever changed their lives.

Lance Ferguson, The Bamboos – Donny Hathaway Live (Atco, 1972)

In Melbourne back in 1991, I was spending one third of each day sleeping, one third of each day at my dishwashing job and the other third trying to learn to play guitar good enough to avoid the dishwashing part. On Monday nights I would break the cycle to go down to The Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda to catch the band Dianna Kiss – a local ‘supergroup’ featuring Jex Saarelaht, Ray Pereira, and the late-great Ross Hannaford and Stuart Speed (later The Bamboos first bass player).

It was here that I got my initial musical apprenticeship (along with Ruby Carters ‘Ruby Tuesdays’ Jazz residency on the following night), a wet-behind-the-ears, green-as-they-come upstart trying to mix it up with some of the finest musicians in the country. Mostly, I learned by listening and watching, but when I was finally invited to the stage the band were playing a cover of Donny Hathaway’s ‘The Ghetto’; it was the arrangement from his live album, a record that I had been put on a strict diet of under advisement from the group. I don’t think I blew anyone’s mind with my guitar playing that night – but it was a monumental step in the direction I wanted to go. As they say: “Three minutes on the bandstand is worth three weeks in the practice room”.

If Dianna Kiss was my weekly practical lesson in learning how a great band can play together as ‘one’, then Donny Hathaway Live was the daily homework. I think it’s because within it’s 52-odd minute run time there are so many lessons to be learned – important lessons that I think any aspiring instrumentalist should take on: playing selflessly to make the group sound better. Sprinkling jewels around the singer, but never getting in the way. Less is more. Learning the ultimate contentment in sitting on a single groove or rhythm…it’s all here.

The signature arrangements of Marvin Gayes’ ‘What’s Goin’ On’ and Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ are standards in their own right. Learning Willy Week’s solo on ‘Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)’ is like passing the bar exam for R&B bass players.

The guitar playing across the record is also a textbook study in R&B/Soul style. I spent so many hours trying to cop Phil Upchurch’s beautiful licks from the verse of ‘Hey Girl’, and of course there’s the blues-drenched treasure trove of Cornell Dupree, another star of the record for me. The whole band provide a supremely tasteful, soulful and dynamic foil to Hathaway’s melodies. They become way more than the sum of their parts – and the parts are startlingly amazing to begin with!

And then there is the shining jewel in the crown himself: the emotion and spirit that shine out of Donny Hathaway is utterly incomparable. Couple that with one of the biggest voices in modern music history and you have a truly one-in-a-hundred-million artist.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1995 I nervously walked into Basement Discs Record Store in Melbourne. Guitarist Cornell Dupree was in town to play a show at The Continental that night and was doing an in-store signing. I was a little late and didn’t want to miss out. When I walked in he was sitting by himself at a wooden desk smoking his signature pipe. (back when you could do that inside a record store). He was super relaxed and seemed unfazed that no one had really shown up. I introduced myself and ended up sitting with him for the next hour or so, talking and asking all the potentially annoying but sincere questions an intense young musician might ask of their guitar hero. “What was it like when you recorded Donny Hathaway Live?”, “What’s Mike Howard doing these days?”, “Tell me about playing with Aretha at The Fillmore”. Cornell was nothing but cool – he seemed genuinely surprised that I knew the records and talked warmly from behind his wrap-around dark glasses.

That night he played, backed by a version of Dianna Kiss (The ‘A’ team) with a horn section and some extra members. The music was full of life and soul, and hearing ‘that’ guitar tone live in the room was nothing short of earth-shattering for me.

Afterwards I had to do some pretty fast-talking to get in the backstage door but finally made it thanks to Saxophone Boss, Paul Williamson. I walked in and there was Cornell Dupree, amidst the smoke, the din of clinking glass and surrounded by the band that had opened my eyes and ears to so much of this music in the beginning. I had always wanted to feel like part of something, that I belonged somewhere, and that one day I would be welcomed in. With a big smile on his face Cornell took his pipe from his mouth and said: “Lance! you made it!”, and I nearly fell over with joy.

Melbourne nine piece The Bamboos have unveiled new single ‘Broken’ — featuring one of Australia’s most acclaimed MCs, Urthboy — off their forthcoming eighth studio album ‘NIGHT TIME PEOPLE’, due for release on July 6th.

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