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Who would’ve ever thought that for an accurate snapshot of a slice of life in 1952 America you’d turn to a guy named after a nuclear weapon?

A brash cavorting raconteur who was blatant imitator of an even more egotistic loudmouth hardly seems the most reliable of sources, yet this song not only pulls its lyrics from the current headlines but wraps it in a production that set the template for much of what would follow in the decades since.

While this H-Bomb might’ve missed its intended target when it came to hitting the charts, the blast radius ultimately proved to be a lot wider – with far more aftershocks – than you’d have ever anticipated.


What’s The Lead?
The ceiling for Robert “H-Bomb” Ferguson as an artist was never going to be very high.

His voice is commanding, but ragged and limited in range. His melodic footing is somewhat shaky meaning he has to rely heavily on rhythm making him more dependent on having a strong band behind him.

Stylistically he’s not very versatile (can you imagine him tackling a serious love ballad?) so his records are going to have a slightly narrower appeal across the spectrum, but if everything falls into place once or twice, then he could easily capture a bigger share of the market for something before falling back in the pack.

That’s the hope anyway and while it never quite worked out that way he’s still somebody you’d like to have on your roster. For a weak label he’d be a solid mid-level seller with a personality to draw attention to your record line.

For a more stable well-established company like Savoy someone like Ferguson represented a crucial piece for them during a period of transition. They’d just lost Johnny Otis, their biggest hitmaker, a year after his star vocalist Little Esther departed. The sax instrumentals that had gotten them their early hits were past their heyday and only Paul Williams remained in the fold.

So Savoy was now searching for potential replacements in Varetta Dillard and their most recent signing, H-Bomb Ferguson, which makes Bookie’s Blues oddly important in the company’s fortunes going forward.

His first single for the label, Good Lovin’, released only a few weeks ago, hit the regional charts down south, so while it might’ve been smart to hold this back another month or two to give that record more time to spread to other markets, maybe the lyrical nods to current events here made getting it out in a timely manner more important.

Or maybe Herman Lubinsky just made another unforced error that quickly made Savoy, once the leader in the independent record label field of the 1940’s, an afterthought in the rock ‘n’ roll era.

But that’s not something you can place at the feet of H-Bomb Ferguson.


Hello, Bookie’s Office?
The most notable aspect of the recording itself is the dramatic scripted set up, a very credibly performed spoken-skit replete with sound effects that finds H-Bomb Ferguson placing a call to his bookie to play the numbers.

It might not be the very first time something like this was used, Cecil Gant had ad-libbed numerous spoken intros and Kay Starr’s current Wheel Of Fortune featured a spinning roulette wheel sound effects on it, but this was still influential in expanding the possibilities of what could be done with a record to make it stand out.

We only hear Ferguson’s side of the call, but it effectively sets the scene in a way that sets this record apart. We’ve had previous songs about this topic in rock songs in the past – Jimmy Preston’s Numbers Blues being most notable – and for those in the audience where this was a popular pastime in the early fifties, this was sort of a private joke, while for those on the outside looking in it provided a colorful peak behind the curtains of that community.

What follows is like a newspaper article with a beat. Ferguson name-drops the Kefauver Committee, a Congressional body who had become infamous for their televised hearings on organized crime in 1951 which dragged big name mobsters into America’s living rooms, while focusing not on the larger goal, which may have been for the greater good, but instead telling about the impact on the day to day activities of the communities who were invested in this brand of “entertainment”.

One aspect of this attempted take down of the mob was in trying to collect taxes on illegal gambling, a rather dubious proposition considering the low level bookies were breaking the law collecting these bets in the first place and so the proposition of them voluntarily admitting their crimes in order to PAY taxes to the government is rather laughable.

Ferguson’s certainly frustrated about the idea on Bookie’s Blues as he’s thwarted in his effort to place a bet now that the bookie’s have slowed down their business while they mull their options.

It sings better than it reads thankfully and is helped even more a fairly strong rhythm track featuring boogie piano and some riffing horns and thumping drums. Ferguson meanwhile is riding it at a surprisingly steady pace rather than barreling ahead at full gallop, but the instrumental break starts to speed things up as the piano rather than the horns take the lead.

This provides enough of an inducement for H-Bomb to get a little more unrestrained when he returns, though he’s still not trying to upend the record as he’s sometimes prone to doing and if the resolution of the story is somewhat underwhelming, even that makes some sense because this was an issue whose real life outcome was still in doubt.

In case you were wondering though, gambling still exists, although the government found a more efficient way to horn in on it than the honor system they were promoting in the Fifties by centralizing the numbers game and calling it a lottery, then taking a cut for themselves and eliminating the mob from the equation altogether.

Somehow though rock songs about buying a scratch ticket or bucking the odds in PowerBall or Mega Millions drawings don’t have quite the same allure.

If You Ever Get Lucky The Money Won’t Come Your Way
There’s a lot of parallels to be found in gambling and the record business of course and while that wasn’t necessarily the intent of H-Bomb Ferguson’s screed, it does bear pointing out that in both instances those responsible for running the operations felt entitled to taking a larger share of the profits than otherwise was their due.

The difference being of course that you voluntarily gamble and thus have to accept the risks that go with it, whereas a singer is making their career in music and are bound to be ripped off by the company that stands to profit off their skills.

I’m sure Savoy claimed the recording expenses for Bookie’s Blues far outweighed the royalties Ferguson was due for both writing and performing the song. They’d already taken the publishing for themselves so lying about sales and exaggerating studio session costs was hardly out of character.

To be fair, this wasn’t a hit and not quite rousing enough to become one, though it is an interesting song with pretty good turns by singer and band alike.

What Savoy seemed to be banking on here, based on the quick turnaround and the ads for it, was to capitalize on the headlines of the day but maybe they miscalculated the curiosity factor. After all, those who were familiar with playing the numbers firsthand were having trouble placing their bets because of this action and certainly didn’t want to have to think about it during their leisure hours even if H-Bomb is firmly on their side.

Meanwhile it’s a pretty safe bet – pardon the expression – that the government agencies didn’t buy enough rock ‘n’ roll records to make up the difference.


(Visit the Artist page of H-Bomb Ferguson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)