Nightclub DJ Takes Crowd Back To Good Times

Nightclub DJ in Montgomery, Alabama

Originally published in the Montgomery Advertiser, written by Mike Land.

Pulsating with brightly colored lights, the jukebox in the Aquarius Lounge began pouring out the descending bass line and organ of a ’60s rhythm and blues classic. Right on time, over the top of the band’s music, came Percy Sledge’s impassioned cry.

“When a man-n-n-n love’s a woman…”

Sitting at a table, Billy Ferguson paused in mid-conversation and listened to the music. (continue reading below…)

“This is one of them right here,” he said, smiling. “Percy Sledge is a killer. Play any one of three songs: “When a Man Loves a Woman,’ ‘Tender Love,’ ‘Cover Me.’ If the crowd is sitting back and you want to get them on the dance floor, that will get them moving every time.

“If there are men and women in this bar, and you play that record, you’ll see some dancing.”

Ferguson knows. Since “1983 or I984,” the 42-year-old Montgomerian has served various bars as disc jockey. So adept is Ferguson with older rock ‘n’ roll, he was once the host of the local radio show, “Hubcap Classics.” featuring rock ‘n’ roll from 1950 lo 1974 on what was once WRJM-FM, now WMGF.

A pretty unlikely change of career for a 17-year employee of the local Greyhound bus station. But the record spinning Ferguson now does at Aquarius and WMFG actually has older roots.

Roots, that is, in the ‘50s.

As a child, Ferguson said, “I liked to listen to the radio. I toyed with the idea of being a disc jockey, wondered what it would be like. But I didn’t take it seriously.”

Instead, Ferguson graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1962 and joined the Navy. His six-year span of service included an assignment off the coast of Vietnam on a destroyer radar ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. When his tour of duty ended, Ferguson returned home and eventually got his job at Greyhound.

But his next career was born about the same time. For Ferguson began to collect records. Not to sell. Not to trade. Simply to enjoy. “I began to buy anything from 1950 on that was rock ’n’ roll, black or white, Motown,” he said. “I bought anything that was good, and most of that music was good.”

Ninety percent of his 2,000-odd records fell in that 1950-1974 period Ferguson considers to be rock’s finest period. He naturally gravitated towards clubs that played that kind of music. In the early 1980s that led Ferguson to Bentley’s, where disc jokey Ricky Hatfield played his kind of music.

As it turned out, Hatfield also picked up Bentley’s payroll every other week at the bus station. Making things even friendlier, George Smith, Hatfield’s uncle, worked at the station too.

Eventually, Hatfield learned of Ferguson’s own record collection – and his love for the music. “One Tuesday night, he came over to where I was sitting and said, “Would you like to spin discs Saturday night?” Ferguson recalled.

“I said, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Would you like to spin discs Saturday night?’ I said, ‘You must be kidding.’”

Hatfield wasn’t. Six nights a week, he explained, was too much for him. Ferguson hesitated. “I told him, ‘Ricky, I have never DJ’d. I’ve never run any sound equipment other than my stereo equipment at home. I’ve never used a microphone except at the Greyhound station: “Passengers may now board the bus for Atlanta…”’”

Hatfield promised to show Ferguson the tricks of the trade and Ferguson did the Saturday night show.

The result?

“I took to it the way a duck takes to water,” he said, smiling.

Soon Ferguson was at Patrick’s in the Governor’s House, a job that soon led him to radio work. Soon the work was lucrative enough for Ferguson, in the face of managerial changes at Greyhound, to exercise his option to leave the bus station.

Because of his disc jockey duties, Ferguson traded in his “Hubcap Classics” shift – 7 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays – for a midnight to 6 a.m. shift twice (begin new page) a week. With the exception of a 7 p.m. Thursday start, he goes to work at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at Aquarius.

Ferguson never finishes before 2 a.m., he said. “If there are still people here dancing,” he said, “I’ll stay here later.”

One reason for that is his love for the audience – an audience that, in contrast to radio, he can see in front of him. That audience requires more upbeat, dance-oriented rock ‘n’ roll than radio, but the favorites are still the same: Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles of the early 1960s.

“Before they discovered the guru, Ferguson joked.”

The songs are requested for reasons that go beyond music itself. There are also issues of other times, of personal pasts, of powerful memories inextricably tied to a simple pop song.

“My favorite thing to do is private parties,” Ferguson said. “Take class reunions. Say, the Class of ’62. All the people there have been married. Or they have kids. Maybe they’re divorced. But every song I play brings back a memory. They think, ‘That’s when I was dating Susan. That’s when Jack was my boyfriend.’

“And, for those six or seven hours, they’re kids again. They don’t have any house payments, they don’t have problems, they don’t have to think about the daily grind.”

On a smaller scale, Ferguson sees the same thing some nights spinning his discs at the Aquarius.

“It’s kind of like magic,” he said, smiling broadly. “And I get sucked up into it, too.

“For a while, I’m a kid again.”