Any lingering delusions concerning the silly charade that is the “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame” can be quickly dispelled by a single ludicrous oversight: NRBQ, short for the New Rhythm And Blues Quartet, has never made it onto a single ballot. Over the course of four decades, the band’s vibrant, unruly take on everything from power pop to barrel house blues to free jazz has inspired generations of younger artists to emulate their infectious spontaneity. Peerless as musicians and songwriters, and unforgettable as performers, the group’s classic line up of pianist Terry Adams, bassist Joey Spampinato, guitarist Al Anderson and drummer Tommy Ardolino was a musical Mount Rushmore, regularly drawing thousands of fans throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s to see their live spectacle, usually with little or no backing from a music industry too myopic to recognize their extraordinary appeal. When Anderson departed amicably in 1994 in order to pursue a highly successful career as a Nashville songwriter, Joey’s brother, Johnny Spampinato nimbly replaced him on guitar, and NRBQ rolled on gloriously for nearly another decade.
Often called “the world’s greatest bar band,” NRBQ are that rare group that’s eclectic, stylistically innovative, and creatively ambitious while also sounding thoroughly unpretentious and accessible. At its best, NRBQ’s music casually mixes up barrelhouse R&B, British Invasion pop, fourth-gear rockabilly, exploratory free jazz, and dozens of other flavors while giving it all a stomp-down rhythm that makes fans want to dance and expressing a sense of joy and easy good humor that comes straight from the heart. Over the course of a career that’s lasted more than 40 years, the band has barely flirted with mainstream success, but has still earned a sizable, passionate cult of fans.
It remains nearly impossible to overstate the devotion that the name NRBQ inspires in their ardent fan base. Counted within this coterie of admirers is a startlingly impressive cross-section of fellow artists and musicians, whose diversity and high-ptofile are a tribute to the band’s protean agility. Paul Westerberg and Elvis Costello have borne witness to the band’s genius, and Keith Richards once handpicked Joey Spampinato to man the bass for his Chuck Berry tribute concert film Hail, Hail Rock And Roll. Everyone from Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt to Steve Earle to She and Him covered their songs. Mike Scully, producer of “The Simpsons” counts the band as one of his very favorites, and has used NRBQ songs in multiple episodes. This is unsurprising – amongst other attributes – NRBQ songs are often hilarious.
It’s perhaps appropriate for an operation as idiosyncratic as NRBQ that their origins feel somewhat murky. What is known and agreed upon is that in 1966, a 17-year-old Terry Adams “had a vision to put together a band that plays whatever it wants, whenever it wants.” Adams recruited a few players from his neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, including Keith Spring and his horn-playing brother Donn soon to be known as the Whole Wheat Horns, along with his classmate, guitarist Steve Ferguson. “When Steve and I first met,” recalls Adams, “we brought out the best in each other. I was the brains and he was the heart of the early NRBQ.” Later members of the band echo the pivotal nature of Ferguson’s role in formulating NRBQ’s unique aesthetic. To this day Al Anderson, who replaced Ferguson in 1971, says that his favorite NRBQ records are the ones Ferguson plays on, before he joined. Adams summarizes Ferguson’s contribution this way: “He defined what the guitar in NRBQ is supposed to sound like.”
The band landed a recording contract with Columbia Records, and in 1969 NRBQ released their self-titled debut; displaying a stylistic range that would become the band’s hallmark, the first two tunes found them covering Eddie Cochran and Sun Ra, with numbers by Carla Bley, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Bruce Channel, and popping up elsewhere alongside a handful of group originals. The album was well reviewed but sales were spotty, and for their second LP Columbia hoped to trade on a revival of interest in first-era rock & roll by pairing the band in the studio with rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. Boppin’ the Blues was an interesting experiment that didn’t fare much better than NRBQ’s debut, and they parted ways with Columbia.
Despite the large footprints left by Ferguson’s departure, the band’s greatest notoriety came in its next iteration. When Big Al Anderson joined the band, a former member of Connecticut white soul heroes the Wildweeds (one of my favorite one-semi-hit-wonder bands) took over on lead guitar for 1972’s Scraps on Kama Sutra Records, playing his first gig on September 10, 1971, a legend was born: Four distinct (and distinctly unusual-looking) musicians playing unfashionable, brilliant music, in a manner with little precedent. When questioned about the compelling uniqueness of NRBQ’s live act, Terry Adams says, “Music should be anything but boring. I can get bored listening to a great band if they don’t know how to vary their great sound.” NRBQ was famous for never having a set list and for offering their audience a “magic box” where they could handwrite requests for any songs (not necessarily NRBQ songs) and the band would be obliged to play them. The outcome of this approach to playing live was challenging, exciting and above all, spontaneous. It is the sort of high-wire gymnastic act that contemporary indie rock bands have managed to make into a commercial virtue. But for Anderson, the devil-may-care approach that resonates with present-day musicians was, in his words, “the death of us. We played all different kinds of music and at the time, that was against the law.”
Released in 1973, Workshop featured a minor hit single in the topical novelty rocker “Get That Gasoline Blues,” but it was also the band’s last album for Kama Sutra due to disappointing sales.
By the time they released another album, 1977’s All Hopped Up, NRBQ had relocated to the Northeast, they were recording for their own Red Rooster label, and new drummer Tom Ardolino (a fan who impulsively hopped up on stage and sat in on the traps during an encore at a gig) had signed on, solidifying a lineup that would remain stable until 1994. One number from All Hopped Up, “Riding in My Car,” attracted enough regional notice that Mercury signed the band and tacked the tune onto its next album, the marvelous NRBQ at Yankee Stadium (they didn’t play there; they just sat in the stands). Of all their records, this one is my personal favorite.
The Mercury signing proved to be a one-off, and Red Rooster struck up a distribution deal with the respected roots music label Rounder Records; outside of Grooves in Orbit, released by Bearsville Records in 1983 (shortly before they went out of business), Red Rooster/Rounder would be their home for the better part of 20 years as they released a steady stream of independent albums and played seemingly every club in the United States at one time or another, building a well-deserved reputation as a stellar and wildly unpredictable live act.
In 1989, NRBQ took one last chance with the major labels, signing with Virgin for the album Wild Weekend. The album fared better commercially than most of their LPs, but it was still well short of a hit, and their next disc was an archival live release for Rykodisc, 1992’s Honest Dollar. In 1994, Rhino Records (who had previously compiled an excellent NRBQ anthology, Peek-A-Boo) released Message for the Mess Age, which proved to be Al Anderson’s last album with NRBQ. Anderson was tired of the band’s busy touring schedule and left the group to work as a contract songwriter in Nashville, penning hits for Carlene Carter, Trisha Yearwood, the Mavericks, and LeAnn Rimes among many others. (Anderson told a reporter he left NRBQ on good terms, adding “It was a great band before, and will be a great band after.”)
Al was replaced by Joey Spampinato younger brother Johnny, already an esteemed guitarist in the power pop band The Incredible Casuals. At the outset, the line-up shift perhaps seemed precarious – Anderson was literally and figuratively a gigantic presence and it was difficult to imagine the band without him, but there could be no better replacement in terms of retaining the NRBQ gestalt. Johnny had been a fan of the band from an early age and coveted the chance to play with his brother. “I didn’t want to let the boys down. I was influenced by Steve Ferguson and by Al,” Johnny recollects. “You want to fill the hole for what was there, but you want to be yourself.”
The band continued to tour regularly and record sporadically They also began popping up regularly on the popular television series The Simpsons; one of the show’s top writers, Mike Scully, was a major fan, and he recruited them to record several numbers for the show, as well as appearing on the show in both animated and live-action form (they even wrote a tune specifically for The Simpsons, “Mayonnaise and Marmalade”). The band formed a new label, Edisun Records, to release 2002’s Atsa My Band and 2004’s Dummy , and in 2004, NRBQ staged a pair of 35th anniversary concerts in Northampton, Massachusetts, which featured appearances by every current and former member of the group.
This, for Joey Spampinato, is the “essence” of NRBQ. “There were different versions of the band,” he says, “but it always had the same spirit. After Al left, my brother came into the band and picked up on the spirit. ” Terry Adams feels similarly with regard to the changes in the band personnel over time. “It’s always so difficult. But as great as Steve Ferguson was, we would have never had Al Anderson. We would have never had Tommy Ardolino. If Al hadn’t left, we wouldn’t have had Johnny.” And for Joey, “You can interchange people, as long as the spirit’s there, it works.”
Terry Adams considers NRBQ to be his life’s work. For him, the vision that he had in 1966 when he started NRBQ is the vision that he maintains to this day, “That desire to make music, any music we want, any style, any time, regardless of the consequences, is a philosophy I am not going to let go of at any time. I love the idea of playing reunions and playing the old songs, but I can’t say that really satisfies my purpose. I need to keep NRBQ going and make new songs that apply to now, and move forward.” To this end, Adams has in recent years rechristened the Terry Adams Quartet the “New NRBQ,” released the positively-received studio album Keep this love Going in 2012, as well as a 2013 live record documenting the largely successful touring with the new lineup. Audiences seem enthused, but the question remains, for some, can this be considered the “real deal?”
.Joey Spampinato and his brother Johnny put together their own foursome called The Spampinato Brothers and worked together on a series of ambitious recordings. Al Anderson’s star continued to rise in Nashville, where he wrote several award-winning songs, and released a handful of well-received solo albums. Each of the principal members has recollections of what was, what might have been, and what the future holds
“I guess nothing can really last forever,” says Joey Spampinato, who in 2011 played a series of highly successful shows with his brother and his old band mate Al Anderson. Joey is an equal claimant to NRBQ’s extraordinary legacy, having participated in the band’s earliest recordings and staying on for nearly four decades. He recalls, “I met Terry Adams in ’67. We thought the same. We put that band together. The two of us were what kept it going when other people weren’t there anymore. But things have changed today. Terry’s gone on now [as NRBQ] and I hear the band is great. When he decided to change the name to NRBQ I was a little bit put off and I was hurt, but I’ve come to terms with it and I’m ready to move on. If he needs that, he should have it.”
When Tommy Ardolino, NRBQ’s longtime drummer succumbed to a variety of illnesses on January 6, 2012, fans and band members alike experienced an outpouring of grief that reflected his stature as a truly singular performer and the loveable linchpin to the band’s greatest achievements.
Founding member Ferguson died of cancer at his home in Louisville on October 7, 2009 at the age of 60. Adams also struggled with health problems; he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004, though in 2011 he announced he was free from the illness. Joey and Johnny, meanwhile, hit the road as the Spampinato Brothers and released a fine album, 2010’s Pie in the Sky. In the spring of 2011, Adams announced that The Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet had been renamed NRBQ, and they released an album under their new moniker, Keep This Love Goin’, in May of that year. Longtime drummer Tom Ardolino appeared on two tracks and drew the album’s cover art, but health problems prevented him from touring; he died on January 6, 2012 in Springfield, Massachusetts at the age of 56. Ardolino final recordings with the new edition of NRBQ appeared on 2012’s We Travel the Spaceways, with the band members once again indulging their fondness for Sun Ra on the title cut. Adams’ NRBQ’ returned to action in 2014 with the album Brass Tacks. In 2016, NRBQ hit the road for a well received tour in tandem with masked instrumental rockers Los Straitjackets. Later that same year, Omnivore Recordings commemorated NRBQ’s golden anniversary with a five-disc, career-spanning box set, High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective.
Between the members, a complicated cocktail of long-standing enmity, sympathy, bitterness and admiration continues to persist. This is only too understandable: for the outsider, there is no imagining the fallout from all of the exultations and frustrations incubated throughout forty hard years on the road. But for longtime fans, the seemingly implausible hope of a reunion will remain a paramount fascination. We have tragically lost Tommy Ardolino, but with the remaining members hale, hearty and practicing their craft at the highest level, it is nearly impossible to not dream of Anderson, Adams and the Spampinato’s working together again. They might not feel that they need or can even stand one another. But for an audience nourished on the uninhibited joy of their inimitable music, only NRBQ puts the good in us all. Our love is never-ending.