Off-Balance, Eclectic Approach
“NRBQ’s music suggests what might happen if Huck Finn and Bugs Bunny strapped on Strato-casters [electric guitars],” appraised Malcolm Jones, Jr., in Newsweek. Since the late 1960s, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet—known to the world at large as NRBQ and to devotees as “the Q”—have played eclectic, playful, good-time music, becoming known in the process as one of rock’s best live bands and working steadily despite a lack of impressive record sales.
Encompassing everything from 1950s rock to free jazz—Rolling Stone’s Michael Azerrad called them “spectacularly encyclopedic”—they have maintained one of the most loyal fan bases anywhere. “Pop music fans generally divide into two camps regarding NRBQ—those who consider them among the great bands of the last two decades, and those who have not yet heard them play,” insisted Mark Rowland in the liner notes to the group’s two-CD compilation Peek-A-Boo. “For Rock band more than 20 years NRBQ have been steadily converting audiences from the second camp into the first,
For the Record…
Members include Terry Adams, keyboards and vocals; Al Anderson (bandmember 1971-94), guitar and vocals; Tom Ardolino (joined group 1974), drums; Steve Ferguson (left group 1971, returned briefly in 1972 and left again), guitar; Frank Gadler (left group 1971), vocals; Joey Spampinato, bass and vocals; Johnny Spampinato (joined group 1994), guitar; Tom Staley (left group 1974), drums. “Whole Wheat Horns” brass section has included Donn Adams, trombone; Jim Hoke, tenor saxophone; and Keith Spring, tenor saxophone.
Group formed in Miami, FL, 1968. Signed with Columbia and recorded self-titled debut album, 1969; recorded for various labels, 1972—; appeared on A&M Disney movie song tribute Stay Awake, 1988; performed tribute to Sun Ra, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Forward, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Newsletter —New Rhythm & Blues News, P.O. Box 311, Saugerties, NY 12477.
which is the only thing consistent throughout their otherwise confounding career.”
It was a shock to fans when, in 1994, longtime guitarist Al Anderson left the Q; though his departure was the group’s first break with tradition in many years, Anderson was replaced and the group vowed to go on. As Jones observed, “Bands like NRBQ live and breathe music onstage and off, and they’re having much too much fun to dream of quitting.”
Released Debut Album
The group was founded in the late 1960s by keyboardist Terry Adams, his trombonist brother Donn, and guitarist Steve Ferguson. NRBQ’s earliest incarnation was floundering in Miami, Florida, when bassist Joey Spampinato and singer Frank Gadler of the band the Seven of Us arrived in town; the two newcomers joined Terry Adams, Ferguson, and drummer Tom Staley in a new incarnation of the Q, which was a quintet for several years. They signed with Columbia Records and released their self-titled debut album in 1969.
Though only Terry Adams and Joey Spampinato would stay with the band for the long haul, Ferguson left an indelible stamp. Indeed, the bassist remarked to Rowland in the Peek-A-Boo booklet, “He was one of the best guitar players I ever heard. It’s a shame he didn’t stay in the band longer, because he started writing songs that were really good and they never made it onto a record.” The group recorded an album of rockabilly standards, Boppin’ the Blues, with rock pioneer Carl Perkins.
Anderson, whose band the Wildweeds had seen a measure of success in the Northeast, replaced Ferguson in 1971. Webb Wilder of Guitarr Player reported that Anderson considered his predecessor a heavy influence; he also mentioned James Burton, guitarist for early rock icon Elvis Presley, as an inspiration. Gadler left the Q in 1972, leaving the singing to the remaining members. Donn Adams appeared occasionally on recordings but was not a full-fledged member; drummer Staley departed in 1974 and was replaced by Tom Ardolino, who had never before played with a group. Even so, Terry Adams told Sally Eckhoff of the Village Voice, “We knew he was spiritually right for the band.”
Ardolino told Dan Oulette of Pulse! that he heard the band for the first time in 1970 and two years later was called onstage by Terry Adams when Staley didn’t appear for the group’s encore. “I was afraid, but I went up there anyway,” he recalled. “Playing with a real band for the first time was wild. At the end Al turned around and he couldn’t believe it was me. He thought Staley was still onstage.”
Off-Balance, Eclectic Approach
The Village Voice’s Eckhoff described the band’s sound with its longtime lineup: “The Q sound, though achieved with a minimum of electronic gadgetry, can be about as complicated as pop gets. The use of each instrument fits into some iconoclastic tradition, and none of them match.” Melding the modern jazz explorations of The-lonious Monk and Sun Ra (whose “Rocket Number 9” the band covered on its debut) with Anderson’s sometimes countrified, sometimes bluesy leads, Joey Spam-pinato’s love of pure-pop songcrait and Ardolino’s versatile rhythmic approach, which Eckhoff declared “lands between New Orleans session man Zigaboo Modeliste and a bunch of cardboard boxes falling downstairs,” the Q found balance in an off-balance dynamic. The group was often joined by the “Whole Wheat Horns,” featuring Donn Adams. On top of this, a sense of surreal mischief and good-time nostalgia colored their lyrics.
NRBQ soon became known as one of the wildest and most enjoyable live acts on the rock scene. Unpredictability became the group’s trademark, as Village Voice critic Jon Pareles explained: “At some point in their live set, NRBQ generally reaches into ‘the Magic Box,’ which contains song titles tossed in earlier by audience members. Whatever comes out, the band plays: [English rock legends the Rolling Stones’ early single] ‘Under My Thumb,’[the standard] The Shadow of Your Smile,’ anything. They may not play it straight, but they play it, and that’s something.”
This loyalty to the spontaneous, Parelesnoted, “smacks of foolhardy bravado as well as craftsmanlike pride. We play popular music, they seem to be saying, and we play it all.” As Terry Adams declared to Eckhoff, “I’m never happy unless something happens I didn’t know was going to happen.”
The band’s trademark goofiness—an attribute not treasured equally by all fans—can be witnessed in NRBQ’s song titles, such as Terry Adams’s compositions “Wacky Tobacky” and “RC Cola and a Moon Pie”; through collaborations with wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano; and in the between-song performance art at their gigs. But even this lightheartedness seemed part of a serious commitment on the group’s part to work on its own terms. The record industry, always enthusiastic at first, never knew what to do with the Q; as a result, the band shuffled from label to label.
Their 1970s album At Yankee Stadium received numerous plaudits, but it didn’t keep them at Mercury for long. They moved from Red Rooster/Rounder to Bearsville to Virgin, eventually landing on Forward, the continuing artist subsidiary of the beloved reissue label Rhino. “There have always been other labels after us,” Terry Adams told Pulse!, “but Rhino just seemed the rightest.”
Despite not having had any mainstream hits themselves, NRBQ has recorded songs that are covered and admired by a number of other artists. British rocker Dave Edmunds fared well with his rendition of “Me and the Boys,” and the Q has enjoyed the acclaim of respected rock songwriters like Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, and the members of R.E.M. As Terry Adams remarked in Down Beat, the group’s music “is made by people, not machines,” unlike many of the records dominating the pop scene. NRBQ’s esteem has led the individual members into some prestigious side projects: Joey Spampinato played with seminal rockers Chuck Berry and Keith Richards in the band Richards assembled for the film Hail! Hail! Rock & Rolland briefly filled in for the Stones’ departing bassist Bill Wyman, joining celebrated guitarist Eric Clapton on tour as well; Anderson toured and wrote with singer Carlene Carter and composed for country star Hank Williams, Jr.; and Donn Adams has played with jazz artist Carla Bley and participated in producer Hal Winner’s tribute album to Thelonious Monk. Willner invited the whole quartet to play on the album of songs from Walt Disney films he produced, and they obliged with a full-tilt version of “Whistle While You Work.”
Exit Big Al
In 1994 NRBQ released Message for the Mess Age, a more political album than they had hitherto attempted. It was generally well received—Musician dubbed it their best since At Yankee Stadium —though Spin’s Michael Corcoran used his review as an occasion to label them “the world’s most overpraised bar band.” The foursome also played a tribute concert to Sun Ra after the jazz innovator’s death, employing his horn section for a mixture of their own standard repertoire and a number of Ra’s compositions.
Anderson’s rather abrupt exit, therefore, stunned their loyal following: “It is hard to imagine NRBQ without Big Al,” Guitar Player’s Wilder had mused some years earlier. “Say It Ain’t So” read the headline over Musician’s announcement of his split from the group. Joey Spampinato’s brother Johnny, late of the Incredible Casuals, took Anderson’s place; BAM reviewer Sean O’Neill declared that since “an essential, seminal element of a delicate balancing act had been removed,” he feared at first that “the band would surely never be the same.”
Anderson’s departure gave too-free reign to Terry Adams’s penchant for silliness, O’Neill reported of the early post-AI shows, “But guess what! It was still a helluva a lot of fun.” Johnny Spampinato, he noted, “sounded like he’d been studying the role for years. He had Big Al’s squealy leads down pat, and NRBQ’s trademark roadhouse sound remained intact.”
The group clearly had no intention of slowing down, despite Anderson’s departure. As Terry Adams told the Village Voice, “I’ve never had another job.” In the words of Newsweek’s Jones, “Bands like NRBQ live and breathe music onstage and off, and they’re having too much fun to dream of quitting.” Whether the mainstream music world ever came around to their offbeat view of things was as moot in the mid-1990s as it had been in the late 1960s.
NRBQ (includes “Rocket Number 9”), Columbia, 1969.
Boppin’ the Blues, Columbia, 1969.
Scraps, Kama Sutra, 1972.
Workshop, Kama Sutra, 1973.
All Hopped Up, Red Rooster, 1977.
At Yankee Stadium, Mercury, 1978.
Kick Me Hard, Red Rooster, 1979.
“Me and the Boys,” Red Rooster, 1980.
Tiddlywinks, Red Rooster, 1980.
Grooves in Orbit, Bearsville, 1983.
RC Cola and a Moon Pie, Red Rooster, 1983.
Tapdancin’ Bats, Rounder, 1984.
God Bless Us All, Rounder, 1988.
Diggin’ Uncle Q, Rounder, 1988.
Christmas Wish, Rounder, 1988.
Uncommon Denominators, Rounder, 1989.
Wild Weekend, Virgin, 1989.
Peek-A-Boo: The Best of NRBQ (includes “RC Cola and a Moon Pie” and “Wacky Tobacky”), Rhino, 1990.
Honest Dollar, Rykodisc, 1992.
Message for the Mess Age, Rhino/Forward, 1994.
(With Skeeter Davis) She Sings, They Play, Red Rooster, 1985.
(With various artists) Stay Awake: Music From Vintage Disney Films (appear on “Whistle While You Work”), A&M, 1988.
Group members have also participated in various recordings for other artists.
BAM, May 20, 1994.
Billboard, October 14, 1989.
Down Beat, April 1989; November 1992; May 1994.
Guitar Player, July 1989; August 1989.
Musician, March 1994; May 1994.
Newsweek, April 25, 1994.
Pulse!, March 1994; May 1994.
Rolling Stone, April 12, 1984; February 24, 1994.
Spin, April 1994.
Village Voice, April 3, 1978; October 31, 1989.
Additional information was provided by printed materials accompanying Peek-A-Boo, 1990, and by Forward Records publicity materials, 1994.
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