Here the story gets personal. Everyone familiar with my journalistic MO knows I hate to break the spell by interjecting myself into the story. But there’s no way around this.
I got to know Vanessa Ferguson more through collateral associations than direct contact. As a music writer in the Triad, I reached out to Jeremy Johnson, a former public school teacher turned singer, after hearing an interview with him on 103.1 FM WUAG, the campus station at UNCG. I wrote a story about Johnson as a solo artist in 2006, and then in 2007, likely at Johnson’s instigation, William Trice approached me about doing a story on Solcetfre Project, which first exposed me to Ferguson’s music. Roughly a year later, when Johnson put together an extravaganza at Greene Street Club to celebrate the release of a new solo album, Ferguson performed a warm-up set, and I remember encountering her mother wearing a summer dress and beaming with pride at the favorable response the crowd lavished on her daughter’s performance.
I bumped into Ferguson occasionally after that — a friendly hello after a performance at the Fun Fourth Festival in downtown Greensboro, a chance encounter during a late-night set when she wowed my work buddies with a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — but for the most part I lost track of her. Part of that has to do with taking a hiatus from music writing from 2009 through 2014.
In 2010, Johnson, who had relocated to Atlanta to pursue music, contacted me. I can’t remember the format, but while we were catching up, I happened to mention that I was planning to get married. A couple weeks later he contacted me again, and told me he was going to perform at my wedding. I gently tried to discourage the idea, informing him that my fiancé and I didn’t have a budget to pay for a band. But he wouldn’t be dissuaded, insisting it had nothing to do with money and he wouldn’t take any payment.
I think he mentioned that he was going to see if he could find any other musicians in Greensboro to join him for the performance. Beyond possibly putting Johnson in touch with the DJ we hired for the wedding so he could arrange to borrow her PA, I don’t think we discussed it any further.
When the big day came, Jeremy Johnson showed up with Vanessa Ferguson to sing at my wedding. I’m afraid that the performance is a pleasant blur to me, but my uncle, Larry, has pictures to prove that it happened. I’m slightly mortified that I don’t retain distinct memories of the event. From the best of my recollection, when I realized they were singing I went to look for my newlywed to alert her, and ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and got caught up in a conversation. Yet the gesture of making music to celebrate Cheryl’s and my wedding by two talented artists is a gift I will forever cherish.
Ferguson never reminded me of the performance or used it to try to call in a favor. I asked her recently to tell me the motivation behind what strikes me as a singularly generous and unselfish act.
“I do some things because it’s the human that I am,” she told me. “I believe we’re all here to help each other. We have different gifts for the betterment of everyone. I help people. Some of the things are public, and some of the things are private that nobody even knows about.”
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