Note: I corrected Tommy’s birth year/age from the original post. When I learned of his death last night, I hit Google looking for news. What I got were several news sites that had some future “today’s birthdays” stockpiled into next week, and every one of them said Tommy would be turning 55 on Thursday. However, Hartford Courant music writers present (Eric Danton) and past (Roger Catlin) listed Tommy’s would’ve-been age as 57 on their blogs, and now there’s a photo of him with “Tom Ardolino: 1955-2012” on the nrbq.com home page.
I have this weird psychic bond/sixth sense about death sometimes — not nearly the great disturbance in the Force that Obi-Wan felt when Alderaan was death-starred, but a sense, nonetheless. I just know it.
I first noticed it that March morning in 1975 when I woke up with a start at 8 a.m. for no apparent reason — two seconds before the phone rang to tell us my grandmother had died.
It also happened three times in the course of a week in February 2006 when my childhood friend Rick was dying of lung cancer. (Ran triathlons, never smoked,was an architect to the stars, had a great family. Life is not fair.) We had drifted apart quite a while back — last time I saw him was at our 20th high school reunion in 1999 — but he came in loud and strong three distinct times in the week leading into his death, the last time the day before.
Sometimes I just know without anyone telling me.
Well, I was hardly an acquaintance with Tommy Ardolino, NRBQ’s longtime drummer; we met a couple times after shows and I interviewed him once, as I did all the other band members, during my time at the New Haven Register. I knew he had been in poor health for a while, and the news came out that he went into the hospital the week before Christmas for what was to be a long stay.
It wasn’t so long.
I was just getting ready to jump in the shower late yesterday afternoon when a random thought hit me out of nowhere, and kind of in the form of a news flash: “NRBQ drummer Tommy Ardolino died today.” I just shrugged it off as an overactive imagination at work.
Last night, sitting at the coffee shop, a musician friend posted the news. He got it from one of the guys in the current NRBQ.
Sure enough, there was indeed a disturbance in my Force. Tommy, one of the best rock’n’roll drummers to ever sit at a kit, an eternal cherub-boy who never quite grew up, and who got to live a fan’s wildest dream for three decades, was gone. He would have been 57 on Thursday (Jan. 12).
If you live outside of the Northeast, the Bay Area or Japan, you might not have even heard of NRBQ, and you might wonder why I’m devoting so much space to an unknown musician in an unknown band.
Well, that they were unknown to so many music fans is one of the most egregious mortal sins in the history of popular music.
NRBQ was one of the great “musicians’ musicians” bands. They got some mileage in the late ’80s out of an Elvis Costello quote; he called them “the greatest band in America” and added, “I’d much rather any day go see NRBQ playing than any of our illustrious punk bands in England.”
Growing up in Connecticut, the home state of longtime guitarist Al Anderson (from Windsor, a town just north of Hartford), you couldn’t turn on an FM station in the pre-sterilization days and not hear NRBQ, who were always playing a gig at Toad’s Place in New Haven or the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic. Whether it be their minor hit from the Arab oil embargo days, “Get That Gasoline,” or “RC Cola and a Moon Pie,” or most especially their most eternal gem of a tune, from the summer of 1977, Big Al’s “Ridin’ in My Car.”
What was started in 1967 as the New Rhythm & Blues Quintet by a pair of transplanted Kentuckians, keyboardist Terry Adams and guitarist Steve Ferguson, had gelled into a quartet by the mid-’70s. And they all brought an encyclopedia of influences with them.
The mercurial Terry, free-form yet rigidly single-minded, brought an avant-jazz background with him — the group did a version of Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” on its 1969 debut album, and later had two members of the Arkestra on horns — and would play from time to time with Carla Bley. Plus, he could bang a rock’n’roll piano with the best.
Bassist Joey Spampinato, who in the ’80s and ’90s was married to country legend Skeeter Davis, was extremely respected in the music community. A George Harrison semi-lookalike save for the Italian nose, Keith Richards recruited Joey to play in Chuck Berry’s backing band in the film “Hail, Hail, Rock N’Roll,” alongside Keith, Eric Clapton, Johnnie Johnson and others, and it was rumored that the Stones wanted Joey as Bill Wyman’s replacement.
As a teenager, with The Wildweeds, Big Al, who replaced Ferguson in 1971, sang some of the best blue-eyed soul ever recorded (“No Good to Cry”). After leaving the Q in late 1993, he became a renowned country songwriter.
And then there was the drummer. Who just happened to live the rock’n’roll fanboy’s dream.
It’s the stuff of legend. Tommy, who grew up deep in Q country, in Springfield, Mass., was a huge fan from the first time he heard them in 1970, and learned to play the slophouse rhythms laid down by the band’s original drummer, Tom Staley. And so the legend goes, one night in 1972, Staley got sick and Terry brought Tommy up to play the encore. Al didn’t even notice until he turned around. Two years later, when Staley left, Tommy became a full-time member.
For the next two decades, this was the lineup we heard — the “classic” lineup. Four distinct personalities. Three of them were headstrong. Al was a massive presence sonically as well as physically, and he took up the entire stage right, even after he sobered up and slimmed down in the early ’90s. Joey, a rock on bass was firm in purpose and focus.Terry, as mentioned, was mercurial and freewheeling; you never knew what was gonna come next.
And then there was Tommy — always with a look of bliss on his face; always in some sort of zone; in sync with the others, yet seemingly oblivious to them at the same time.
More than the other three, this was his life. He started with them as a teenager; this was the only band he played in and all he ever wanted to do. Even when he grew a beard in the early ’80s, Tommy had the face and body of a cherub; with his long strands of ringlets, and his wide, eternally childlike brown eyes, he probably would’ve been in someone’s painting were he around during the Renaissance.
And he laid down a deceptively powerful slophouse beat — this huge, roundhouse, lazy-yet-mighty syncopated backbeat. I’d look at him sometimes, the loose way he held the sticks, maybe using two or three fingers and his wrists, coming down from up high with a crash, and wonder how the hell the sticks didn’t go flying. Or how he kept such a busy tempo when it seemed as if he was winding into most of his beats. Or how he would come up with machine-gun snare bursts, such as the one us used to help kick off “Wild Weekend,” while starting his delivery so high up.
But he did it. And he had to in order to hold his own and anchor the three forces of nature up front.
The album first I ever reviewed, for my high school paper as a junior in the spring of 1978 — the fourth album I ever bought — was “NRBQ at Yankee Stadium” (which, back then, included “Ridin’ in My Car” as the last track; taken off subsequent re-releases). The first band I ever saw at a club was NRBQ, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, two weeks after my 18th birthday in June 1979.
I lost count of how many times I saw them over the next 14 years.I just know that I was spoiled, as was everyone who was a fan of the band. There were a couple of real clunker shows in there somewhere, but for the most part, there was magic at some point. Maybe it was the huge climax of “Ridin in My Car.” Or maybe it was just some of the inspired goofiness.
They never worked off a set list, and even they never knew what would transpire. It could be the “Magic Box,” where fans would place song titles in the box, one of them would draw one and they’d play it. Or the night they sang “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” a cappella at Toad’s. Or blowing up Cabbage Patch Kids onstage. Or the Moon Pie fests — or the later incarnation, Big Al’s Big Thing — the Easter-weekend shows where, of course, copious dozens of Moon Pies were tossed into the audience when it came time to sing “RC Cola and a Moon Pie.”
In the early ’80s, before he became Cyndi Lauper’s dad, the band even hired wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano to manage them. Well, “manage” was a term to be used loosely with them. Their eclecticism and stubbornness of purpose were their blessing/curse — it’s what endeared them to fans but made them poison to record companies.
And on top of that goofiness, Tommy had another passion away from the group: song poems. Those ads in magazines in the ’60s and ’70s where aspiring songwriters sent their poetry to a studio in Los Angeles, MSR Records, where the house musicians would turn it into song. Tommy collected these recordings, and the end result was a couple volumes, “Beat of the Traps” and “The Makers of Smooth Music.” One such gem, Rodd Keith’s “Little Rug Bug,” was actually remade by the Q on their 2004 album “Dummy.” Which would be the end of an era.
Who ever expects the ride to end when you’re having so much fun?
Well, for some, it ended when Al left and Joey’s kid brother, Johnny, came on board. Johnny, who also still plays with Cape Cod legends The Incredible Casuals, is of a totally different style than Al, and it was unfair to compare the two. But the difference in presence was felt on stage — Johnny’s softer, slighter, more laid-back style a marked contrast from Al’s huge frame and loud, muscular tones.
Still, the band persevered for another decade, then splintered. Terry had stage-4 throat cancer, but recovered, while Joey, Johnny and Tommy soldiered on briefly as Baby Macaroni. Terry toured with Staley and Japanese rockabilly group The Hot Shots, then did an album with Ferguson, who died of cancer in 2008 (“Louisville Sluggers”). All four of the Q members, plus Big Al, recorded separately on the star-studded SpongeBob SquarePants album “The Best Day Ever.”
And the final nail: Terry formed The Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet in 2007. Last spring, Terry posted an open letter announcing, controversially, that he was going to rechristen his band … as NRBQ. Meanwhile, Joey and Johnny formed The Spampinato Brothers. Clearly, there was a rift of some sorts. And by that time, Tommy’s health was in decline.
I mean, we all know things have to end. These guys gave us more than a 35-year run, depending on your math — especially the nearly 20 years of Terry, Joey, Al and Tommy. As I said, we were spoiled. And lucky.
And lucky to have Tommy Ardolino on drums. I always contended that rock’n’roll is the ultimate youth serum. On one hand, we have Iggy still running around with his shirt off at 64. On the other, at least until yesterday, we had Tommy banging and crashing in time, with that look of a wide-eyed, 5-year-old innocent. Peter Pan with a beard.
And it sucks not to have him still with us. Though, after seeing some of the videos and playing a lot of their music, I’m not crying; I’m smiling broadly. A celebration of life,.
Anyway, I picked 10 songs (and then added a couple more because two weren’t up on YouTube) where Tommy played a prominent role. Not all of them were NRBQ’s best, but most of them were. Check them out — watch him attacking the drums — and see what I mean. Enjoy:
Rain at the Drive-In
A Girl Like That
Tags: Al Anderson, All Hopped Up, Baby Macaroni, Beat of the Traps, Captain Lou Albano, Joey Spampinato, Johnny Spampinato, Little Rug Bug, MSR Records, NRBQ, NRBQ at Yankee Stadium, Ridin' in My Car, Rodd Keith, Steve Ferguson, Terry Adams, The Incredible Casuals, The Makers of Smooth Music, Tom Staley, Tommy Ardolino