Art and Elton John, with Bill Ferguson
Updated: Jan 15
Introducing, artist and friend, Bill Ferguson (above R). I first met Bill at an Elton John concert in January 2019, at the Oakland Arena whilst I was shooting the first leg, (pre pandemic) of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road, Elton John tour.
As per publicists' instructions for me, the photographer, after I shot the first three songs I put my gear away and took my seat. During the show I noticed the guy next to me and I were obviously EJ fans from way back because we were singing every word to every song in unison. And enjoying the show to a level only big EJ fans can! As soon as I could, I spoke to him and we became acquainted. Apart from our love for EJs music, we both found we have painting in common, as we have both been painters all our lives. (My art).
When the concert finished, Bill told me that he and Jovilisi, (sitting next to him, and pictured above L), had just come from the court house, where they signed their marriage license, and would soon marry. After more conversation, Bill also let me know that he and Elton are friends, and have been since 1979.
It's been a few years now, after our meeting at the EJ gig. We had been keeping in touch since that show in 2019. And had planned to meet again, once the pandemic was over. Although the pandemic is not finished, we are now both vaccinated and were ready to meet up! I finally went to Oakland to meet up with Bill at his home and studio to chat last week, and see some of his work. Which fits in well as this months' Elton John issue of The Music Soup!
That afternoon at Bill’s turned into a bit of an Elton John fan fest. He shared so many wonderful stories with me about his time with Elton John and the concerts we've both attended. He pulled out a suitcase full of concert programs, photos and memorabilia. For me, a long time EJ fan from childhood, and now music photographer/journalist, I appreciated every moment, and the stories that Bill shared.
About Bill and his art, and his personal introduction to Elton John...Bill Ferguson is originally from a rural farm town in Iowa. He has had a natural talent for painting since he was a kid. He paints with acrylics and his style is realism. Not by choice but thats just where his talent has always been. Many years ago, he was exposed to the art of Richard Estes and Chuck Close. Photorealism was just becoming popular so Bill kept taking pictures with his camera and painting what he shot. The hobby turned a corner when Bill won “The People’s Choice Award” whilst he was at college. Bill then started getting commissions and sales of his art. After Bill received the People’s Choice award in Iowa, he was offered had a one man show at a gallery in Des Moines. The art reviews of the show compared him to Richard Estes in the newspapers, and the gallery sold some of his work. Soon after this, he decided to move to a big city and pursue art more seriously.
In 1978 Bill moved to San Francisco. He then had his first one man gallery show there in July 1979. The show generated favorable reviews in the San Francisco Examiner, and ArtWeek. Around this time, Elton John was performing in the Bay area. Bill has always been a huge fan of Elton’s music, having first seen his show in Ames, Iowa at 16 years old. Elton’s immense talent that evening inspired Bill to pursue his own art more seriously and moved to San Francisco with that goal in mind. So Bill bought tickets to Elton’s Berkeley show, and realized at that moment how much Elton had inspired his own artistic pursuit, having coming from Iowa to his first California gallery representation. Filled with a sense of gratitude, Bill pulled one of the 5’ tall paintings from the show and shipped it directly to Eltons' dressing room as a gift; simply as a gesture of appreciation for Elton’s music and the inspiration which he had provided throughout Bill’s life. Bill had listened to Elton’s albums incessantly during the 70’s whilst painting.
That night after the Berkeley concert, Elton phoned Bill from his hotel, thanked him for the gift, told Bill that he liked the painting a lot and invited him over. Bill went over to meet him at the hotel, and the next day Elton John purchased the whole art show, 9 more canvases from the art gallery. A few months later, Elton invited Bill to watch the making of his newest album, 21 at 33. Elton and Bill became friends and have kept in touch since. Needless to say, Bill started really liking California!
When Bill was in college, Bills art teacher, Richard Dutton said, "art would not necessarily be a lucrative career, but that success in anything was determined by your love for the work itself, and the perseverance in pursuing it." But for Bill, the combination of early success in his painting career and meeting his music idol in that context was a synergistic event that he could never have imagined. Many people say the same thing. Like, Gary Zukov in his book, The Seat of the Soul. Zukov says that marrying up your passion with a career is what your soul was meant for. And if you can achieve that, that's what you were meant for here on earth. Elton John is a perfect example of this. He was a child prodigy at the piano, born to play, and when he was very young he would play the piano for his Mums' friends and family. Thankfully, he followed that passion, and 75 years later with a lifetime of magnificent achievements, it shows. Elton Johns' talents shine through everything. He was meant to be a performer, he was meant to play piano, compose music and sing to the masses. He married up his passion to what he is genuinely good at, what he was meant for in life. Just like art was meant for Bill and I, and so many others especially in the art and music industries. Unfortunately, many times, even though your innate talent and passion happen to be in art of somekind, you may not always be able to make a living with that talent/passion. For Bill, he painted until he had to take a corporate job to provide for his family and send his son to college. I personally know many artists, (musicians especially), that are making their living from being teachers, lawyers, cooks, secretaries etc. It's like they have a 'trapped passion' in their soul that just wants to come out, but we live in a world where we have to earn a living in order to survive, feed and provide shelter for ourselves and our families. So life presents that dilemma. If you're one of the lucky ones that can follow your passion AND earn a living with that passion, be grateful that you get to live your life this way, as many more are not as fortunate. Sometimes the universe needs to help out.
One thing I'm sure about is when art chooses you, it's simply something you are naturally good at. I think its a "soul thing". And it finds you in different mediums. Whether it be music, photography, painting, or design etc...it does find you. Whether or not you are lucky enough, and persistent enough to make a living from it, is another story.
Bill Ferguson is a lovely kind hearted guy who has found happiness in the Bay area. He still resides in Oakland with husband, Jovilisi. He speaks very warmly his long-time friend Elton John. And it was a magical afternoon for me walking down that memory lane with Bill. We were reminiscing about the EJ albums and shows we've experienced in our lives. He is getting back into painting with Jo’s encouragement, and plans to paint a series in the next year. He and Elton continue to communicate occasionally, and now they discuss real-life things like the satisfaction found in being a father. Jovilisi believes in Bill’s talent, which is huge. We all want that special someone in our lives that 'gets us', shares an awesome and deep connection with, and believes in us. Something we all hope to find at least once in our lives. Bill says, "I get up every morning smiling. Life is good!"
Upon leaving his loft apartment in Oakland, Bill gave me a hug and said, "we're gonna be friends for life now, you know that dont you"...what a lovely thing to say to another human being. I received that warm message, and I believe him. I'm looking forward to attending his art show in the next year or two, when the new series of paintings are ready. I intend to be the photographer on hand to capture his re-opening of Bill Ferguson art!
To me, the heart of this story and the meeting of Bill Ferguson and myself, is really about how music connects people. If not for our deep love of Elton Johns music, and then through chatting, finding that we are both painters and artists in our souls, we wouldn't have connected the way we did. And I do hope that Bill and I can be friends for life, as he said.
Bills' current inspirations are David LaChapelle, Damian Loeb, Jenny Saville, Wayne Thiebaud, Herb Ritz, Steve Walker, the new work of Chuck Close, and the late Gianni Versace. His journey has sometimes been rocky but always fascinating. Here are a few photos of Bill, Jovilisi and Elton, and his work. You can find more of his work on his website, http://billfergusonfineart.com