He was my dad’s friend more than mine.
Growing up, I knew Fernando Gonzalez simply as Ferdie. He was one of the frequent long-distance callers to our house back when the only phone you had was attached to the wall. The telephone line sparked and hummed with persons identifying themselves as “Richard from Bear Family” and “Andy from MCA,” and many others wanting to talk to my dad about rhythm’n’blues, doo wop, jump blues, and the like.
Ferdie could talk the paint off your cabinets and the letters off your books. Like Columbo, there was always one more thing, but unlike Columbo, he didn’t bother saying “just one more thing,” he just went ahead and said it. And another thing. And another.
He was working on this massive thing called a Disco-File, the “Discographical Catalog of American Race, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, and Soul Vocal Harmony Groups,” an ever-expanding tome that included not just vocal groups but duets. Group line-ups, albums, song titles, master numbers, release dates. . .there was always another facet to be added.
I finally met him myself in 1999. It was spring or possibly summer. We’d been invited to a weekend party at Ferdie’s house out on Long Island.*
This was not just any party. Ferdie had stuffed his house with food and his yard with tables and chairs–all that was normal. But he’d also arranged a makeshift stage with instruments and microphones up on his back patio. And the place was filled with rhythm’n’blues artists, avid collectors, historians, and for all I know, record producer notables.
I didn’t know anybody. I just knew of them. Yet it was glorious.
Lillian Leach (of Lillian Leach & the Mellows) was hanging out like she was just anybody. “Look, we have the same shoes!” she said to me. She was right.
I remember being told that Arthur Crier, the bass voice you hear in “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” was the person wandering around with a video camera. I recall mention that the bass singer from the Orioles was there as well.
Another friend of my dad’s, Marv Goldberg (Unca Marvy!), was much in evidence and having a great time. Mitch Rosalsky came right up and said he was my dad’s biggest fan. Caleb N. Ginyard III, son of Caleb Ginyard of the Golden Gate Quartet, spent some time deep in conversation with my dad, as he was one of the people Caleb had contacted to help with his then-forthcoming book. (Dad was great friends with the Quartet, and still has their letters, Christmas cards, photos, and albums they’d sent him over the years.)
It was as evening was rising that the magic really began: People had started to sing.
Lillian Leach got up on the stage and sang, “Smoke From Your Cigarette.” That hush so dear to performers fell on the crowd as she sang with heartfelt dignity and power, the audience’s love and respect swelling out as they joined her in lines such as “But now those days are gone,” as respectfully and tunefully as if it had been rehearsed.
A short, older gentleman whom I don’t think I ever knew, who had to walk with two canes and take the few steps up to the stage carefully, approached the microphone. As he sang, it was as if the two canes and the need for them just fell away. He stood straight and proud, and his voice was beautiful.
Others sang and played, including Caleb. I don’t remember what time we left, but it stayed grand all the way through. Ferdie had many such parties, though that was the only one we ever attended.
We all kept staying in touch, of course. Ferdie was fun to talk with, despite knowing you’d never get off the phone in under an hour; he was also perpetually sending us CD copies of the latest edition of his Disco-file for free even though we weren’t asking for them. It was a fond joke among those who knew Ferdie that this was a project never meant to end. It was so much of what he was. I said he should call it the Encyclopedia Ferditannica and suggested, as a way of prolonging his happiness, to go through and add the first lyric line of every song he had listed.
Well, I’m writing this all now because I just learned that Ferdie died on October 24, 2020 at age 77. He wasn’t a well man, plagued with serious health issues in his latter years. These issues could have been partially foreshadowed or at least aggravated from earlier incidents and accidents–such as being caught in the unfortunate World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In sad fact, when 9/11 occurred, the first thing I asked my dad was, “Is Ferdie okay?” I had no reason to think he’d be anywhere near, but it turned out he’d been there that day, too. Ferdie later said he came to himself wandering blocks away, not sure where his glasses went, in a daze.
I never thought this year would close without him still being around. As his health problems increased, he was less likely to be on email, and his calls to my dad lapsed, too. I haven’t talked with him myself for years. But the sadness was immediate, and very real.
Ferdie knew the music, but more, he appreciated it. I’m not sure what happened to his record collection after he moved to Florida in his latter years, but I hope he kept some of it and played it, too. That Disco-file, much as we all liked to joke about it, is a legacy he’s left behind that I’m not sure anyone will care for, and that would be a shame. We’re in an era of “audiophiles” who scorn used records, content to shell out inflated sums of money for brand-new pressings, which to me is ridiculous; what’s the harm in a gently-used record? When you get a record that’s been treated correctly, it takes you back right to when the era was live and fresh and new. It carries its own history.
There is so much that will never be reprinted. Fortunately, we do still have YouTube, and incredible old music is uploaded every day. Perhaps that last edition of Disco-file will have relevance for generations on.
Take a look at a few fuzzy pictures from a now-defunct camera at that once-in-a-lifetime-for-me party:
*I hope I’m remembering all of this correctly. I definitely remember us being fogged in afterward and unable to leave as planned, so the airline helped us arrange for a hotel. I called into work that I was stranded in Long Island and would be a day late, and came back to much amusement from my boss and coworkers.