Hondells Made Sure Firing Frank Zappa Wasn’t Al Ferguson’s Only Claim to Fame

Al Ferguson of the HondellsThe guy had to go. The boss was adamant about that. If Al Ferguson wanted to keep his gig at the Red Flame, a rough beer bar in Pomona, he had to get rid of the guy who had been sitting in with him the past couple weeks.

The guy was a good musician and knew what he was doing, plugging in high-tech amps for gigs. “He used to come in all the time and talk music, sitting next to the stage,” Ferguson recalled. When the band’s lead singer was drafted for the Vietnam War, Al asked him to sit in.

But the guy would substitute his own weird, profane-laced lyrics for the words in songs, especially late in the night, and this was the 1960’s, when such stuff wasn’t tolerated by the cops, who threatened to close the bar down.

So Ferguson ended up firing Frank Zappa, a fact the rock legend and his band were only too happy to bring up years later. “I was playing at the Pussycat a’ Go-Go in Las Vegas when I hear a guy yell: `Hey Ferguson, didn’t you fire Frank?’ They were laughing like crazy at a table,” he said. “Good move Ferguson!”

Fortunately Ferguson became known for more than just firing Zappa. Now he’s the owner of Haus and Home, but in his rock-and-roll days the Big Bear resident was guitarist for The Hondells, a 1960’s surf rock band a la the Beach Boys. In fact, The Hondells were best known for their cover of a Beach Boys song, “Little Honda,” which peaked at #9 on the charts in 1964, plus “Younger Girl” and others..

The Hondells opened for headliners like Jan and Dean, BB King, the Righteous Brothers and the Beach Boys among others, pretty heady stuff for an aspiring musician like Al. The first big concert he ever went to was the Rolling Stones first USA tour in 1964 and he was in the opening band! That was when he was with Don and the Deacons, house band at Cinnamon Cinder in North Hollywood, run by Bob Eubanks of game show fame.

When that gig ended the Hondells came calling, at least vice-versa. “I knew Dick Burns, leader of the Hondells, and had heard he started the band, so I gave him a call,” Ferguson said. “Dick said he needed a guitarist. Then we went in the studio. That’s when I met Glen Campbell.”

The music legend was singing mostly high notes for the Hondells album and would accompany the group to New York in 1964 to record a Pepsi commercial. “Glen had to go to Phoenix for another recording session so we only had like three days to get it right,” Ferguson said. “Back then there was no digital and we did track after track to get it right. We literally pushed Glen into a taxi on the third day.

“A couple months later he released `By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ ” he said. “It didn’t have anything to do with our session but the coincidence made quite a memory. Glen is the most humble, talented, greatest guitar player I ever met.”

For about three years the Hondells were on top of the world. The band toured the California coast with the Beach Boys and County Fairs in the Midwest with the Righteous Brothers. None of the shows meant as much to Ferguson though as a USO Tour of Vietnam in 1966.

“These weren’t the big Bob Hope-style shows,” Ferguson said. “We would fly by helicopter to the front lines deep in the jungle, play for maybe 30 GIs in a rain soaked jungle. Our equipment would short out before we would get through one song. We would also visit the hospital at each camp and I enjoyed those visits almost as much as playing the shows.”

The tour started for Ferguson, who was declared 4F due to bleeding ulcers—“I almost died when I was 17, the result of playing teenage clubs and drinking soda pop”—with the chance meeting of a lifetime. He was checking into his Saigon hotel when he bumped into someone and turned around to apologize, only to recognize his best friend Craig Schoenbaum!

“We had come halfway around the world to run into each other,” Al said. “He had been drafted. So we spent the day running around together. I heard after I got back to the States that he had been killed.” And when the traveling Vietnam Wall Memorial came to Big Bear a few years ago, Al traced his friend’s name.

Next Ferguson found himself in Las Vegas for a two-year run with The Sands Playmate Revue, a rock extravaganza with lots of pretty girls. And stories! From rubbing elbows with Elvis to playing cards at the same table with Sammy Davis Jr. Playing with the likes of Lee Greenwood who brought the casino to a halt by singing a Japanese folk song to the sons of Arab sheikhs, Al was living the good life.

But he also a divorced father with custody of his kids, so he hung up his Fender Telecaster and eventually wound up in Big Bear. He still breaks it out, for a recent show at The Cave or sitting in with Art Harriman at the Barnstorm, so catch him when you can!

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