So I recently came across these incredible images of the Fabulous Thunderbirds taken back in the ’80s by photographer Art Meripol that really grabbed me. The shots of Jimmie Vaughan are epic, and Kim Wilson is also looking pretty damn good. The bands’ storied bassist, Keith Ferguson (July 23, 1946 – April 29, 1997), the most colorful character in the bunch (and the original hipster), was even in a few of the pics. Ferguson was an anchor in the Austin music scene whose longtime drug use and increasingly odd behavior eventually led to his separation from Austin’s legendary Antone’s and many of those he once called friends. One thing’s for certain, he will always be an Austin legend (in many ways) and a revered musician. They say that to see Keith Ferguson in his prime was unforgettable. I dug through the archives of The Austin Chronicle and Dallas Observer to get the skinny…
“…When I first saw Ferguson with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Rome Inn in 1976, about a year after they’d formed, it was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. Not quite 30, Ferguson was the oldest member of the band, yet he, like the rest of them, played the blues like a grown man– and they sure as hell didn’t sound like a bunch of “white kids.” Still a decade away from commercial success (there were about 25 disinterested patrons at Rome Inn that night), Ferguson, Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughan, and the soon-to-join Mike Buck already showcased the indelible influence they would have on blues bands coast to coast, and around the world. Collectively and individually, the original T-Birds sired cults and mini-cults, changing the way musicians played, dressed, stood, combed their hair.
At the center of all this was Ferguson– a unique, colorful, even charismatic persona, but that was just the icing on the mystique. At its core was one simple truth– he was as good a blues bass player as there was in the history of blues bass players. Even in capable hands, the subtle art of blues bass can be the musical equivalent of the witness protection program, yet Ferguson carved out a singular niche without ever saying ‘look at me’ with his instrument.”
–Dan Forte for The Austin Chronicle
Austin, Texas, 1980– Blues guitar great Jimmie Vaughan playing with his band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “Jimmie Vaughan playing behind his head (with broken foot!)” –image by © Art Meripol. via “It’s whispered that the T-Birds were the only white blues band that intimidated the Rolling Stones, for whom they opened twice at the Dallas Cotton Bowl, and twice at the Houston Astrodome during the 1981 tour.” –Josh Alan Friedman for the Dallas Observer
ca. 1980– The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ lead singer/harpist Kim Wilson with legendary bassist and band mate Keith Ferguson in Austin, TX. –image by © Art Meripol. via “…there were knock-down, drag-out, shit-kicking fist-fights between Ferguson and Wilson — the distinguished, sharply dressed ambassadors of the blues.” via
“The Fabulous Thunderbirds Onstage” –image by © Art Meripol. Jimmie Vaughan plays the guitar behind his head, with Kim Wilson and legendary bassist Keith Ferguson onstage. via “The Fabulous Thunderbirds spearheaded a re-animation 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, Fifties 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'”. –Josh Alan Friedman
Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds blows his harp onstage. –image by © Art Meripol. via “Kim Wilson applied no fake rasp to his voice, no black affectations, no phonetic imitations of slurred words. He sang it straight.” –Josh Alan Friedman
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, ca. 1980– Blues guitar great Jimmie Vaughan (stringing his guitar), and lead singer/harp player Kim Wilson (enjoying a smoke) backstage in Austin, Texas before a gig. –image by © Art Meripol. via “Muddy Waters heard us at Antone’s. We fried him. We were told we sounded like his best band from the Fifties, 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.” –Keith Ferguson
Kim Wilson lights up, with bassist Keith Ferguson in the background –image by © Art Meripol. via “It wasn’t until his mid-twenties that Ferguson found out who his father was– John William Ferguson, concert pianist with the Chicago Symphony. He never even knew his father was a musician. ‘You ass-wipe,’ he told the maestro during their next encounter. ‘I’ve been beat, ripped off a thousand times playin’ clubs. There’s so much you could have taught me.’ After the Thunderbirds tore up the Houston Juneteenth Festival, being the only white band there, they received a four-page spread in the Houston Post. From then on, the elder Ferguson began showing up at Thunderbirds gigs. ‘He would point me out to his friends, ‘My son, the rock star,’ recalls Ferguson. ‘He picked up girls at our shows. Johnny Winter and ZZ Top sent their limos for him to attend concerts. After I left the T-Birds, I never heard from him again.'” –Josh Alan Friedman
ca. 1980– The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ lead singer/harp player Kim Wilson enjoying a smoke backstage in Austin, Texas before a gig. –image by © Art Meripol. via
1982– The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ legendary guitar great Jimmie Vaughan onstage at Antone’s in Austin, TX. –image by © Art Meripol. via “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, Fifties Chicago groove, more authentic than early Rolling Stones. Countless guitarists took heed.” –Josh Alan Friedman
1982– The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson onstage at Antone’s in Austin, TX. –image by © Art Meripol. via “Ferguson played bass on the first four Thunderbirds albums (the essential ones), as well as on the Havana Moon collaboration with Santana. He was fired in the mid-Eighties, about the period when the Thunderbirds switched to CBS Records and began scoring on Top 40. Ferguson leveled a lawsuit at the T-Birds claiming owed money, refused to settle, and was trounced in court. For many years, there was acrimony and scorched earth.” –Josh Alan Friedman
1982– Blues guitar great Jimmie Vaughan playing with The Fabulous Thunderbirds at Antone’s in Austin, TX. –image by © Art Meripol. via “Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson never did anything to hurt him. You can’t guess at this. It’s too deep. Don’t even try.” –Clifford Antone “Perhaps he was too bluesy, too primitive, too tattooed — The Illustrated Man, The Man With the Golden Arm — or couldn’t cross borders. Maybe he got so hip, he just hipped himself right off the planet.” –Josh Alan Friedman
1982– Playing in one-time home club Antone’s in Austin with his original band the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Jimmie, brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, has an amazing smooth style steeped in the vintage sounds of fellow Texan T-Bone Walker and Slim Harpo. –image by © Art Meripol. via
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Amazing photos, amazing band. It’s too bad more people don’t realize how utterly hip and cool the T-birds were. Completely authentic and bad ass in a way bands these days can never be. It was bands like them, The Paladins, X, and The Blasters that shaped and influenced my whole world from the music I listened to, the way I dressed and the way I combed my hair. Thunderbirds rule!
Wonderful pictorial and article. Early 80’s is about the time I met the band. Not mentioning Fran Christina, the T Birds drummer is a mortal sin. He was amazing.;
The Greatest Band that Ever TOOK the Stage…..forget Greatest White Equivalent and forget Greatest Blues Band for that matter….The Fabulous Thunderbirds were The Greatest Band…..and…yesh…Mr. Ferguson…The Bass Player, inveterate criminal, and Master of the Bajos Sexto who once said of his playing- and this is a note to bassists everywhere- “the only time you should notice me is when I stop”….RIP El Guerro…and Long Live Jimmie Vaughan, one half of the pride of Oak Cliff, The Great State of Texas…Thanks, JP….right on time, Bradda.
“the only time you should notice me is when I stop” The greatest quote EVER by one of the best best players ever.
Great band, had a slab of vinyl around that had a track called Pocket Rocket. Loved that track, Kim Wilson is a legend! B-)
Saw the early T-Birds a few times, notably when they opened for Eric Clapton in Great Falls, Montana, in 1980 or ’81. I made the drive over the pass from Missoula to see the T-Birds, not Clapton. And the T-Birds blew Clapton out of the water. The Girls Go Wild album was so important to me back then. Wore it out.
The T-BIRDS made Roots Music cool again! God Bless ’em!
Superb article JP, a new angle on a perpetually cool and influential band.
I had the truly great pleasure and honour of supporting the T-Birds for the Queensland leg of their Aussie tour in ’89 or ’90 [oddly, memory of specifics ain’t that good]. Sitting side stage watching and listening to them was life changing, Jimmie’s sense of space was, and is, exceptional, less is so much more, they were the tightest, yet supple and loose band I’ve ever witnessed.
Off stage they were normal guys, Jimmie was warm, affable and genuine, gave me the contact in Austin to order my boots from, but I mostly remember him telling me after the last gig that he was super stoked his brother was finally clean and they were recording together. He went on to say that Stevie had a nagging issue/phobia/paranoia about dying on the road like so many of the Lone Star state’s musicians had done.
However long it was after that, on the way to a straight day gig in the morning, the dj came on the car radio to announce that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a tragic accident. I pulled over to the side of the highway and wept.
Vale S.R.V and Mr Ferguson, long live the blues.
I ran into the great JV at a used guitar store this summer. I stood beside him and we gazed at used gold Strat. I told him I liked that color and he looked at me and said “me too” I introduced myself,shook his hand and thanked him for his craft. that was a good day.
Outside Little Feat long ago when Lowell George was around, the T-Birds were the ass-kickingest live band ever. Biggest argument was whether Mike Buck or Fran Christina was better between the sticks!
Fantastic pics! Thanks so much for sharing the “coolness” of the FT’s!
Dear God, where should I begin, I have so many beautiful memories. The T-Birds landed in Helsinki, Finland, in the early 80’s, and I at the time was working as a radio dj on YLE Finland. I set out to interview them, and found all of them to be incredibly sympathetic. I specifically remember them as quite humbly mentioning that the real deal would be Jimmie Vaughan’s little brother Stevie Ray. His record hadn’t been released yet, but when it would be released, it would rock the world.
I was a little bit puzzled as to why the members of this band set aside their own interests and went on to praise their own guitar player’s brother, whom nobody had heard of at that time. They also mentioned he would be playing on David Bowies forthcoming album Let’s Dance. Sure enough, months later I heard him, and with the release of Texas Flood I understood. I will however never forget their modesty in this respect. Now Kim Wilson is not known to be a modest guy, but when they all started to talk about Stevie Ray in an interview that essentially was about them, I was baffled, but impressed with their lack of ego.
Furthermore, they asked me if I had any requests as to their upcoming gig. I said I really loved a song in their repertoire called Mathilda. Kim Wilson indicated that it really wasn’t in their live -repertoire, but he would see what they could do. That evening The Fabulous Thunderbirds played Mathilda live at famed rock -club Tavastia in Helsinki, and mentioned that it was a request. Me and my wife were over the moon. With the result that when our daughter Emma was born in 1985, she was christened Mathilda as her second name.
and I currently host my own show on Radio Helsinki
Great article of early Thunderbirds, can’t get enuff of that stuff 😉
The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jimmie Vaughn . Probably the most under rated American Rock Band/Guitarist of the last 30 years .
Jimmie’s a hell of a GearHead as well , building as well as influencing some of the hottest Customs , Hot Rod Customs and Hot Rods to come out of the Lone Star State .
TSL should do a feature sometime on his garage , as well as his music .
I agree, Jimmie’s a true gearhead! Met him at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona,CA last year. Humble, kind man in every way, a real pleasure to talk to. He had two cars on display and was inducted into the GNRS Hall of Fame that year.
I saw thwm in Finland round 1982, nothing like ever seen before or since. Still hooked.
I didn’t see The Fabulous Thunderbirds until 1994 (Houston Blues Festival)…but it was worth the wait…along with Robert Cray, Dr John, Buddy Guy, and BB King. Saw Jimmie twice at the old Tower Theater (was that it?) on Westheimer in Houston, ’95 or so. “Strange Pleasures” tour. What a venue. I think it was turned into a church or something.
Used to see them at the “Common Ground” in Baton Rouge in the early/mid 70’s while I was at LSU. Anybody know about those gigs. Usually when they were in town, Stevie would play an old Dobro on the “Parade Ground” while we passed around a joint of homegrown. Those were the days Dudes!!
In the first photo, Jimmie is wearing one shoe and one sandal??
Its a plaster cast due to a broken ankle which he did backstage in London. He played the rest of the European tour – sometimes standing, some of the time leaning on a stool.
Good eye, Simon!! And a good question. Is it a cast? Some foot trouble that caused him to need to cut the toe off his left shoe? Quite a mystery. I can’t wait to see who knows the answer to this one….
What a great story from Mikael Wiik: “Furthermore, they asked me if I had any requests as to their upcoming gig. I said I really loved a song in their repertoire called Mathilda. Kim Wilson indicated that it really wasn’t in their live -repertoire, but he would see what they could do. That evening The Fabulous Thunderbirds played Mathilda live at famed rock -club Tavastia in Helsinki, and mentioned that it was a request.”
Mikael, Mathilda is my all time favorite T-Birds song. I can’t say that I ever heard them play it live, though. You lucky dog.
Going to High School in Dallas in the early Seventies, I went to a lot of big arena shows by big name pop acts. Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, James Taylor, The Allman Brothers, Zep, etc. I had some good times, but generally came away with a sense of disappointment. The arrogant rock star attitudes, giant crowds, indifferent performances and crappy sound of most shows soured me on the whole thing.
I moved to Austin in the late Seventies, and my first week there I saw the T-Birds at Rome Inn. What a revelation! An unpretentious band with an incredibly cool sound, playing in a pocket-sized club on a little stage five feet away from the crowd. Jimmie Vaughan’s Strat plugged into an old tube amp without fifteen different pedals. Kim singing his ass off without trying to sound like a black guy. Keith on the Fender Bass and Mike on the drums creating that signature T-Birds groove. I think the cover was three bucks,
It’s safe to say that any live music I hear now is at least partly due to that one night in Austin over thirty years age. It restored my faith.
Great pictures of a great band! Thanks
That’s JLV in a cast. He broke some bones raising hell in England in 1980 but still managed to tour, and pose for the cover shots on the 1981 release Butt Rockin’, with that open-toed look. I saw these guys many times between 1978 and Jimmie’s departure a decade later; they barnstormed through New England at least twice a year back then. They were never less than brilliant, always stylish, and played a repertoire of obscure Gulf Coast and Chicago Blues gems that always honored and often enhanced the originals. The T-Birds of the late 70’s will always be among the greatest concert (that seems too dignified a term for the kinds of venues I was them in back in the day) experiences of my life.
There it is. Tom, you had the open toe story. Thanks! This sure is a feel good thread! Apparently I was not alone in my love for the T-Birds back in the day….
One more thang to add…if y’all will indulge me…..
OAK CLIFF PRIDE!
Google Earth: 2557 Glenfield Avenue, Dallas, Oak Cliff, Texas
childhood home of Vaughan Bros.
Speaking of Oak Cliff, that’s the section of Dallas where T-Bone Walker was based when he made his first recording as a singer (not guitarist) in 1929, He was billed as Oak Cliff T-Bone on the Columbia release of “Wichita Falls Blues”/”Trinity River Blues,” It would be another 12 years before his amazing electric guitar playing would be heard on records.
Fantastic to come across this – I saw them in a tiny, dingy bar in London in the early 80’s. Awesome, awesome band. Made it a dream to see them play in Austin and did just that a few years later. One of the great nights of my life.
Thank you, amazing photos. Out of all the guitarists in the world when I listen to ‘Can’t Tear It Up Enuff’ there is nothing so wonderful as that rythmn, that energy, you almost get the energy from these photos. Much to my regret, I only saw the T-Birds in London in the late 80’s, early 90’s after Jimmie had left. But he is the main man.
Keith Ferguson rocked. He is representative of an ethos that is like gone from the Austin music scene. I overheard a co-worker this morning proclaiming that he didn’t play for less than $500 a gig. I missed Keith with the T-Birds, but saw many a gig that he played with the Tailgators. One of my memories includes a cold, rainy night on South Congress. We had spent the evening swilling beer and and having our heads rearranged by the ‘Gators. After the gig, as my friend and I prepared to leave we noticed a lonely figure walking up the hill from the Continental Club, braving the wind, rain, cold, and dark early morning. (Mind you, this was the old South Congress – Kerouackian rather than New American Glam). It was Keith walking home with his Fender P-bass slung over his thread-bare shoulder. We offered him a ride and he piled into the back of my old ’65 coupe. We drove him down to South 2nd & Cardinal in a haze of Kool smoke. He enventually left the Tailgators and played with any number of less than stellar acts. Regardless, he played to live and lived to play. His picture is still plastered to my garage wall right next to the very same car he road in with me.