When Joey Spampinato’s birthday rolled around in 1978, his three comrades in NRBQ decided to throw a party. Since the bassist was a Bronx native and a dedicated baseball fan, they rented Yankee Stadium for the occasion, picnicking on second base and then posing for photos in a field box. One of those shots provided the cover for the band’s next album, At Yankee Stadium, and to fans the whole notion amounted to a perverse inside joke. Far from being a stadium mainstay, NRBQ was an idiosyncratic bar band whose popularity with critics and fellow musicians rarely translated into large audiences or much money. And as if to underline the point, Mercury Records dropped NRBQ from the label only two weeks after At Yankee Stadium appeared.
But on an October night a little more than a decade later, as NRBQ scrambles onto the stage before thousands of listeners at the Memorial Coliseum, in Portland, Oregon, irony is coming closer to reality. A sixteen-date tour of basketball arenas and outdoor amphitheaters with R.E.M. will bring NRBQ’s impertinent amalgam of roots rock, modern jazz and novelty tunes to more than 100,000 listeners, or as many as hear the band in nearly three years of the club shows that have traditionally been its ballast. A major label, Virgin Records, has put its marketing muscle behind NRBQ’s first studio album in six years, Wild Weekend, and its first video ever. Rave reviews have already appeared in an array of major newspapers and national magazines. After twenty years and fifteen records, then, something approaching fame is at hand.
And precisely because it is such a veteran outfit, NRBQ greets the prospect with circumspection. “A certain amount of success isn’t what keeps us together,” says Terry Adams, the band’s keyboard player. “It’s not our purpose in life. But it’s something that this band deserves to have. People think we’ve tried on purpose to stay sub-underground, but we’ve always tried to have a hit record. We’ve always given labels singles. We’ve always had high hopes of being on the radio, being on the charts. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right. Maybe it didn’t happen then so it could happen now.”
Whatever rewards NRBQ earns, it is clear, it will earn entirely on its own terms. The new record, coproduced by Bill Scheniman and Andy Paley, wanders in typical NRBQ fashion from pop ballad to zydeco stomp to obscure cover. Opening for an austere and increasingly stylized R.E.M. on the road, the band members present themselves as serious musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Adams wears his blond choirboy locks tied in a kind of sumo knot, while Spampinato, the sloe-eyed heartthrob, has several strands braided and beaded à la Bo Derek. The large and scowling Al Anderson, on guitar, brings to mind Ronnie Hawkins, while Tom Ardolino, behind the drums, is a Buddha with bobbing curls. As the half-hour set begins, Adams bangs and chops dissonant chords on his clavinet, then pinwheels around the instrument much like his idol, the late jazz master Thelonious Monk, and finally drops to his knees as he strikes the cue notes for “Me and the Boys,” a powerpop ode to male bonding. From there the band careens from the blue-eyed soul of “Let’s Make Love” to the rockabilly “White Lightnin’,” each verse punctuated by an Anderson belch, to the jazzy jump of “That’s Neat, That’s Nice.” Along the way, Ardolino’s beat stops only long enough for Adams to exclaim with mock jubilation, “They liked that one!”
For NRBQ followers, such eclecticism and humor are the band’s hallmarks. For the young and uninitiated, the same traits can bewilder as well as beguile. “They weren’t what I expected,” Kelley Callison, a seventeen-year-old high-school student, says delicately. “I thought they’d be more like R.E.M.” A few rows away, however, Tom Crestodina pronounces himself a true believer. “It’s a good thing there are still a few rock bands that aren’t afraid to just get out and jam,” says the eighteen-year-old. “Most of what we get are slick types, New Kids on the Block. I got the feeling these guys were really enjoying themselves.”
Enjoying themselves, for that matter, has been the credo of NRBQ’s members since the band’s origin in the late 1960s. Both Adams and Spampinato hail from the band’s earliest days, when it went by the full name of New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, and each arrived carrying the seeds of what would become its catholic style. A formally trained piano prodigy from Louisville, Adams adored both the barrelhouse rock of Link Wray and Little Richard and the thorny jazz improvisations of Monk and Sun Ra. Spampinato had trained his pop ear listening to the Everly Brothers and singing in street-corner doo-wop groups before taking up the bass. What the two shared, besides a mutual respect, was a conviction that their nascent band not be bound by genre. So they covered Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine” on their maiden album, then teamed up with Carl Perkins on their second, and overall sounded like nothing so much as a free-form radio station governed by intelligent whim.
“We did what we wanted to do the way we wanted to do it whenever we wanted to do it,” Adams says. “We started it that way, and we were spoiled, because we got away with it for so many years that if anyone tried to tell us we couldn’t, it was too late.”
Already a Connecticut hero with his own band, the Wildweeds, Anderson joined NRBQ in 1971, supplying prolific songwriting skills and a longtime love of country music, and three years later Ardolino came on board fresh from his high school in Springfield, Massachusetts, establishing a lineup that has not changed since. As it recorded innovative and eccentric albums and built a fervent club following in the Northeast, NRBQ periodically ventured into the arenas as an opening act. Some of the pairings, as with B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner, at least made musical sense if they did not result in commercial breakthroughs; the tours with Deep Purple and Alice Cooper, however, were blueprints for disaster. “All we wanted was for people to listen to our music,” Adams recalls, “and we’re competing with guys hanging themselves.” In a different sort of irony, Bruce Springsteen opened for NRBQ several times in the early 1970s.
Times changed and NRBQ did not, creating a wider distance between the band and the market. It was not, as Adams has said, that the band deliberately sought the fringe, for over the years NRBQ recorded songs like “Ridin’ in My Car,” “A Girl Like That” and “I Want You Bad,” which were tuneful enough that they could, and probably should, have been hits. But making a hit was never an end in itself. The band’s albums maintained a kind of inspired sloppiness, which led its members to a certain wariness of outside producers, and its live shows celebrated anarchy. On a given night, either the professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano or the comedian Professor Irwin Corey might introduce the band, and it was Corey who lampooned the group’s cult status by telling one crowd, “Here is an organization that has done so much for so long for so few that you as a people represent the conflict in that order.” And from a repertoire of 600 songs, NRBQ was as likely to launch into Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” as Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” or even Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” The band’s sound, far from being tight, had the casual telepathy of a great jazz ensemble for which any melody is an invitation to improvise.
“Lee Marvin said in Paint Your Wagon, ‘They civilized freedom so nobody’s free,’ ” Adams says. “I think sometimes that’s what’s happened with pop music. It’s gotten so in tune, so perfect, so well produced, it’s no longer music. I’ve got to hear someone improvise a little out of tune every once in a while. A band has to be relaxed. They can’t be thinking about how much money they’re going to make that night, or will they get the record deal, or all these other things people could be thinking about under pressure.”
“I equate us with a stainless-steel diner on a row of trashy fast-food restaurants,” Anderson adds. “You go to the franchises, you get the same thing every night. You know what you’re gonna order from the minute you walk in. And that’s most other bands. We use fresh ingredients. We have blue-plate specials. So it’s fresh every night. For the audience and for us.”
With the revived interest in roots music, the ascendance of college radio and the flourishing of independent labels in the 1980s, this should have been the decade for NRBQ. And in some respects it was. In 1984, NRBQ became the first band to play the Berlin Jazz Festival, the New York Folk Festival and the Grand Ole Opry in the same year. Keith Richards selected Joey Spampinato as the bassist for Chuck Berry’s sixtieth-birthday concert, later released on film as Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! Carla Bley, a highly acclaimed jazz composer and arranger, placed Terry Adams in her big band’s piano chair for a European tour. Musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds and the All-man Brothers covered NRBQ songs.
But the band’s then label, Bearsville, folded in 1983, and for the next four years litigation related to its demise barred NRBQ from recording. The group had to settle for releasing material that had been cut prior to 1983, resulting in albums that were dated and, in the case of Tapdancin’ Bats, decidedly weak. Meanwhile Cyndi Lauper enjoyed a publicity coup with a “rock & wrestling connection” that recalled NRBQ’s own, and the Replacements vaulted from bars to basketball arenas with a loopy style that shared more than a little with NRBQ. “I guess it was good discipline for the band,” says Adams, putting the best spin on what must have been a maddening situation. “You ask yourselves, ‘Do we really want to do this?’ Most groups, I think, could not go five or six years without making an album.”
That NRBQ endured the lean times Adams attributes largely to two old friends, Hal Willner and John Sebastian. As a producer, Willner booked NRBQ on the television show Night Music and featured the band on his albums of modern musicians reinterpreting Thelonious Monk’s compositions (That’s the Way I Feel Now) and songs from Walt Disney films (Stay Awake). Sebastian hired the band to accompany him on the sound-tracks for The Care Bears Movie and a children’s television special, What a Day for a Daydream. These engagements clearly meant more than money or exposure to NRBQ. “Hal and John were the only two people, except our fans, who didn’t say, ‘Go away,’ ” Adams says. “They believed in the band when no one else seemed to.”
That changed quickly. On the weekend in April 1987 when the recording ban expired, NRBQ cut two live albums for Rounder, God Bless Us All and Diggin’ Uncle Q. Eighteen months later, Virgin signed the band to a seven-record deal. The contract followed a one-woman campaign on NRBQ’s behalf by Nancy Jeffries, Virgin’s vice-president for A&R. Having heard testimonials to the band from such trusted informants as Syd Straw and R.E.M., Jeffries in mid-1988 took in an NRBQ show (her first in more than a decade) at New York’s Bottom Line and came away evangelized. “People in the company were asking, ‘Why?’ ” she says of the internal debate that followed. “They felt if NRBQ had had so many chances over the years, why hadn’t anything big ever happened? And I said, ‘All I know is that I saw one of the best live bands I’d ever seen.’ You don’t find bands with that quality of musicianship.”
After years of prickly relations with producers, NRBQ found not one but two it trusted – Bill Scheniman, who oversaw both live albums, and Andy Paley, whom Scheniman brought in for the initial Virgin release, Wild Weekend. “It’s a question of finding people that respect us and people that we can respect,” Adams says. “In the old days, once someone suggested we use a producer, it was usually someone who didn’t know us and could care less, and it produced a record we just hated. It was sort of like ‘Let’s straighten these guys out.’ We didn’t want that to happen again. The change in the last four or five years is that big-name producers have approached us. It means a lot for me for a producer to say, ‘I love this album, I want to work with you.’ Instead of us going to them and having to beg.”
From a backlog of several hundred songs, NRBQ chose twenty-five to record in the studio; twelve of those appear on the album. The first single, “It’s a Wild Weekend,” is an adaptation of the Rockin’ Rebels’ 1963 hit, with lyrics and a nine-bar bridge added to the original surf-rock instrumental. (When the song didn’t break out, Virgin remixed the rocker “Fireworks” and readied the ballad “If I Don’t Have You” as possible second singles.) Spampinato and his wife, country singer Skeeter Davis, collaborated on “If I Don’t Have You.” Zydeco master Boozoo Chavis graces Adams’s biographical ditty, “Boozoo, That’s Who!” Elsewhere one can hear echoes of everything from polkas to country blues. For a record being aimed for the Top Forty, Wild Weekend makes few concessions to convention, following instead the chaotic and invigorating leaps of an NRBQ performance.
The same healthy indifference to vogue has typified NRBQ’s appearances on the so-called Acronym Tour with R.E.M. The half-hour sets are essentially club shows compressed in time and writ large in volume. Although the band has been obliged to conduct sound checks, a nicety it normally omits, NRBQ continues to disdain written arrangements, set lists and even the usual protocol of hawking new “product.” Some nights NRBQ plays songs from Wild Weekend, some nights it devotes wholly to old favorites. Most of the listeners, newcomers to NRBQ, would not know new material from standards in any event. The challenge is to catch their interest at all.
Which is famously difficult for an opening act, even one considered legendary in some quarters. Even as national publications were touting Wild Weekend, the two daily newspapers in Seattle devoted only one sentence apiece to reviewing the band’s performance. As if to endorse NRBQ for their fans and engage in a bit of ancestor worship, Mike Mills and Peter Buck of R.E.M. watched each opening set from the stage’s edge, tapping shoes against amplifiers in pleasure. While many in the crowd listened with similar delight, there were others who fixed doting eyes on Mills and Buck rather than on the working band.
But there were also abundant signs of conversion, including the several hundred spectators in Seattle who rose in a standing ovation, the Boise fan who donated a fifty-pound bag of organic potatoes and the Portland woman named Mary Ann who tossed the band’s I Ching and hand-delivered the result to the Memorial Coliseum’s stage door. The first word that fortune offered to NRBQ was duration.