Clip: The ABCs of NRBQ's bond to soul sisters, the Shaggs
The ABCs of NRBQ's bond to soul sisters, the Shaggs
April 25, 2004
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
The men of NRBQ have been throwing their unique voices around the world for
35 years. The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet has played with the Shaggs, Carl
Perkins and Grand Ole Opry star Skeeter Davis. Bandleader Terry Adams has
produced artists as diverse as late zydeco king Boozoo Chavis and the Hot
Shots, Tokyo's best country-pop band.
And NRBQ knows how to celebrate its 35th anniversary in style.
Last week NRBQ released "Dummy" (on its own Edisun label), one of the
finest records of its colorful career. Recorded in February, the project
features heartfelt Adams compositions such as the Eddie Cochran-tinged "One
Big Parking Lot," and a surf-soul-hip hop workout called "Hey Punkin'
Head," which Adams wrote for a 1980s Hulk Hogan movie but that the band
Cool covers include "Little Rug Bug," which was a playful song-poem in its
earlier life. (NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino was a major song-poem collector
who sold his inventory to comedian Penn Jillette.) "Dummy" closes out with
a timely '60s pop-meets Slim Galliard track "Misguided Missles" that
features ex-Qster Al Anderson on guitar. The track had been intended for
NRBQ's hit 1994 "Message for the Mess Age" album.
"Dummy" is connected by engaging beats and dissonant rhythms. "This record
felt good to do," Adams said from his home in Florence, Mass. "If you can
record how you feel, that is a good thing."
The album art features ventriloquist dummies created by Hedi Kennedy. Her
talking heads tribute to NRBQ started with drummer Ardolino. "Then came
Terry Jr.," Adams said. "They [the dummies] started making up their own
minds about everything. We had to keep the dummies in a box. Now they've
gone nuts, running an album and everything."
That's not the first time that's happened.
NRBQ knows stupid. In 35 years, the band has recorded for (in order), CBS,
Kama Sutra, Red Rooster (twice), Mercury, Bearsville, Rounder (twice),
Virgin, Rykodisc, Rhino, Sundazed (vinyl) and now Edisun. "Everybody's got
a piece of us," Adams said. "That's why they're all hoping the most success
for us. It will pay off for everyone. We've auditioned every label. None of
them have been good enough."
To celebrate its 35th anniversary, the band will perform reunion shows
Friday and Saturday night at the Calvin Theatre, in Northampton, Mass. NRBQ
will play with everyone who was once in the band, including Al Anderson,
Ferguson and the Whole Wheat Horns, which includes Adams' brother Donn.
Honorary NRBQ member John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, might
show up. (In 1982, Sebastian played on NRBQ's "Grooves in Orbit.") "I think
I'll just buy a ticket myself and sit in the audience and watch it," Adams
said. "I want to see these guys play."
As for reunions, Betty and Dot of the Shaggs reunited at NRBQ's 30th
anniversary concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. It was their
first appearance outside their hometown of Fremont, N.H. They will not
appear at the 35th anniversary reunion, however. "I talk to Dot two or
three times a week," Adams said. "The whole band loves the Shaggs. There
might have been 50 copies of that album [the Shaggs' "Philosophy of the
World"] around when we came across it. So we went and found them. It wasn't
Adams led his bandmates on a road trip to New Hampshire in search of the
Shaggs. They found the Wiggin sisters and discussed the re-release of
"Philosophy of the World" for NRBQ's Red Rooster label, which it had just
launched. Adams even got Dot signed up with ASCAP so the Shaggs would
"Somebody may tell you that somebody did this or that, but it was just us,"
Adams said. "My concern has always been to make sure they were treated
right. We thought the music was so good we made sure that certain musicians
heard it. It was amazing how fast they took off with musicians, because
their music is so full of originality and spirit. Then you get this other
side where people think it's about something else. It's strictly about the
music. They speak their own language. I'm not interested in the play or the
movie or whatever," he said, referring to Joy Gregory's musical.
"There's more Shaggs music to be heard, and I hope to work that out
someday. There's lots of stuff [tapes, and home movies of the band's
performances in the Fremont town hall]. Dot and I were talking about that
the other day."
"It's just the music."
NRBQ was formed in Louisville, Ky., before moving to Miami and then New
York City, where Bruce Springsteen once opened for the band. NRBQ began as
the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet, with lead vocalist Frank Gadler. When
Gadler left in 1972, NRBQ became a quartet.
Another longtime member, Al Anderson, left NRBQ in 1994 to concentrate on
his Nashville songwriting career. At the same time NRBQ bassist Joey
Spampinato was auditioning for Bill Wyman's spot in the Rolling Stones.
NRBQ came close to being kaput. But all is well now.
Joey remained with the band and recruited his younger brother Johnny to
replace Anderson's sharp Telecaster solos. Johnny's whammy, single-note
runs are reminiscent of Lonnie Mack, an influence on original NRBQ
guitarist Steve Ferguson, whom Anderson replaced in 1971.
Meanwhile, over the years, Adams dabbled in everything. He had a cameo in
the Robert Altman film "Short Cuts." He recruited his bandmates to be cast
as walking zombies in George Romero's "Day of the Dead." And Adams produced
the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Born in Louisville, Adams grew up in a musical home. His mother played
piano in the church. "At a very early age, music took me out of everything
that was being offered to me," he said. "All that was boring. I heard the
possibilities coming out of an eight-inch oval speaker that I'm looking at
right now. I would never let my parents throw it away. At age 5, I knew
there was something out there."
Adams first played trumpet before switching to piano at age 12. "I had to
play piano once I realized the thrill of playing more than one note at a
time, which I was unable to do with a trumpet. But then it was the
combination [piano, trumpet], and here it comes..."
Adams' gift as a bandleader and producer is his ability to strip away
labels and pretension to make the most genuine music. He did it in working
with the Shaggs, he also did it while producing the Tokyo-based trio the
Hot Shots, whose "Jubilee!" (1997) was recently re-released on Sundazed
The Hot Shots are a minimalist country-pop quartet trio consisting of
female vocalist Chie Kodama (acoustic guitar), Yuichiro Matsushita (guitar,
vocals) and Kenji Ohyama (upright bass). "Jubilee" is a joyful Japanese
romp through Elvis Presley's "Treat Me Nice," Buddy Holly's "Everyday" and
others. "Tom [Ardolino] had one of their 45s," Adams said. "Then I picked
up a Japanese 45 I really liked. We met them while we were in Tokyo. Chie
called me and asked me flat out if I would produce them. Since 'Jubilee!,'
we recorded a much better record."
During the recording of "Jubilee!" the Hot Shots drummer became ill and a
series of guest drummers sat in on sessions done in Los Angeles. Legendary
New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer plays on "Whole Lotta Lovin'," and Adams
takes over on "Treat Me Nice." "That was like a party, which is why it is
called 'Jubilee!' But this record that is in the can is strictly the Hot
Shots," Adams said. "They have an amazing rhythm section on their own and
one of the best guitarists [Matsushita] I have ever heard."
NRBQ also is the subject of a hot tribute album called "The Q People"
(SpiritHouse Records) featuring contibutions from Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle,
Los Lobos and Widespread Panic. "It is amazing somebody had the energy to
stick with that whole project," Adams said. "I thought the whole thing was
great, but I really liked the [David Trenholm] string quartet arrangement
on [King Radio's] 'Yes, Yes, Yes.' And it was an honor to have Spongebob,"
referring to Tom Kenny, who closes out the record with an NRBQ medley.
Earle is a longtime NRBQ fan. "Pre Wal-Mart, there used to be a chain of
discount stores in Texas called Gulf-Mart," Earle said from his Nashville
home. "I bought 'Boppin' the Blues' [NRBQ's 1969 collaboration with Carl
Perkins]. It looked cool -- Carl Perkins playing with a bunch of hippies."
Earle relates to NRBQ for personal connections as well. "I moved to
Nashville when I was 19, and I knew a lot of people from Louisville," he
said. Earle's friend and guitarist Tim Kreckel (James Brown, Jimmy Buffett)
has turned down being in NRBQ three times. "He had to think about it every
time. Him and [Steve] Ferguson were in a band together."
For the tribute disc, Earle and his band covered Adams' "A Girl Like That."
The song's sweet chords and appointed melodies is a good match for Earle, a
huge fan of the Beatles. "NRBQ may be the closest thing to that [Beatles]
sensibility this country has ever produced," said Earle, who is wrapping up
his next album, "The Revolution Starts Now." "There was the Lovin'
Spoonful, but that was only for a minute. There's been an NRBQ since 1969.
We got to a point where we would watch videos of NRBQ on the bus before we
NRBQ has never done the same set twice. The band has a repertoire of more
than 500 songs.
"'A Girl Like That' fascinated me, and I didn't realize how fascinating it
was until I tried to learn it," Earle said. "Roscoe [Eric Ambel, Earle's
electric guitarist] had to sort it out for me. Every inversion in the key
is in the song. It's a Rubik's cube. It's not quite right unless you play
the chords exactly how NRBQ played it. And the lyrics are so Terry [Adams].
They're so f-----d up, and they don't repeat themselves as much as the
normal pop song does.
"I love that band. NRBQ is one of the constants in my life."
He is not alone.