by A.J. Wachtel
Founded in 1967 and known for their incredible live shows and their unique blend of rock, pop, jazz, and blues in their music, NRBQ has a strong connection with New England. They have decades of legendary local shows under their belt, and in 1994, when their guitarist, Big Al Anderson, left the band to write songs full time in Nashville, original bassist Joey Spaminato’s younger brother Johnny replaced him. Johnny was and still is a member of the Cape Cod-based surf-rock band The Incredible Casuals. I talked with founding member Terry Adams and ask him about the band’s history and music. Here you go:
Noise: Bonnie Raitt saw you for the first time at a 1969 gig at Boston University while she was a student at Radcliffe. Do you remember that college gig and care to share a cool story of Bonnie with us?
Terry Adams: I remember playing in Boston many times. Maybe among the first times was a concert that included Ricky Nelson. He had his brother David with him. So for a few minutes the Nelson brothers and the Adams brothers were alone to talk. It was mystical. As for Bonnie, we’ve known each other for many years. There are TOO many Bonnie stories and the coolest ones can’t be shared.
Noise: Peter Wolf has said about NRBQ: “They had astounding musicianship and live, they had a kind of amorphic quality that made each time you saw them like the first time.” How did you meet Wolf and have you ever gone club-hopping in Boston with him holding court? Care to share a cool Wolf story with me?
Terry: He said that? He’s known for having good taste in music, so that’s nice. Actually, the last place I’d like to be is club-hopping. I would be expecting to be paid! [laughs] I have seen Peter perform recently and it was very good. He’s a great talent and his whole band knows what the heck they’re doing.
Noise: NRBQ was briefly managed by pro-wrestler Captain Lou Albano. Looking back was this a smart or not so smart move?
Terry: We met in New York City around 1979. The first thing I was to ask him was if he wanted to get in the music business and pose as our manager and he readily agreed. He was mainly my responsibility from then on. On gig days, he’d show up six hours early, knocking at my door. Wherever we went during the day before the show he was really popular and always telling jokes to those who crowded around him. Lou was one of the smartest persons I ever met. The most fun, and a true inspiration. You wouldn’t believe how controversial our partnership was at the time. TV stations, radio stations, all refused to play the ads that we produced. They’d send the money back! What happened with the so called “rock and wrestling connection” after that was a disgrace. Wrestling stopped being family entertainment and became a teenage comic book.
Noise: You guys were signed and dropped by at least six different record labels. Why?
Terry: I don’t remember being dropped by any label. We signed deals with various different labels to make one or two albums. And we fulfilled them, making their catalogs richer! I like to give everyone a chance.
Noise: You did a great version of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.” Have you ever met Gordon Lightfoot and what did he think of your different version?
Terry: There was no difference in our version from his; we did it very straight. But there was a difference just by the fact it was NRBQ doing it. As a composer, I couldn’t help noticing that there was no melodic theme development and that for a pop record, it was quite lengthy. So I wanted to demonstrate that. MY arrangement is HIS arrangement. So many people remember that, and some people think we were purposely turning off the audience. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. We ALWAYS got big encores when we closed with it.
Noise: Terry, you play piano and clavinet with your fists, elbows, and even feet. Who were your influences growing up?
Terry: I’ve used a forearm to get a two octave percussive smash. I’m a drummer really and I’m the third part to one of the world’s greatest rhythm sections. I’m the rhythm guitarist in a sense. That’s what the clavinet is about in NRBQ. I’ve never played piano with my feet despite what has been written. I hate to see that. It looks stupid. Even when Jerry Lee does it, I hate it. As for influences; I’ve got a very open mind. I’ve never been closed to the beauty in different musics. And it’s very important to let things that might not be considered music to influence or affect one’s music too.
Noise: As an artist you have been described as part Thelonious Monk, part Chico Marx. Is this a fair statement and in plain English, what does it mean?
Terry: I only remember Chico Marx making his hand in the shape of a gun and shooting the keys for each note. I could never do that. That’s his. It looked great on film. I don’t know what I do, but I’m doing it to get a sound.
Noise: Keith Richards is a big NRBQ fan. What’s it like to have a Glimmer Twin in your fan club and care to share a cool Keith story with me?
Terry: Keith met all of us when drummer/producer Steve Jordan brought him to hear us at the Bottom Line in NYC. Steve told me the original idea was to hire all of NRBQ to be the band for the Hail Hail Rock And Roll movie. But when Johnnie Johnson surfaced he was the obvious choice for piano. Then Steve said to himself, “Wait a minute. I wouldn’t mind playing drums on this myself.” Anyway Joey [Spaminato] remained the best choice for bass, and did a great job. Every time I’ve been around Keith, before and since, he’s been a friendly fun guy who happens to have a very good job.
Noise: Several of your songs and even your cartoon images have appeared on The Simpsons. (In one episode, there is a cartoon likeness of the band performing in a biker’s bar). In your opinion, are there any things that have happened to you that are cooler than this?
Terry: It was great. I arranged “The Simpsons Theme” for NRBQ and that’s what we do in the flesh on the end credits.
Noise: The band never chased musical trends and you’ve stayed true to yourselves and to what you enjoy musically. Has this helped or hindered your career?
Terry: Helped. Everything we do helps our career because WE are defining our career.
Noise: You’ve been called The Best Bar Band In The World. Is this a fair legacy for the group?
Terry: Once, a lazy management company made the mistake of duplicating a review that used that phrase. And you know how easy it is to repeat things in your business. No one with any depth or knowledge of what we do actually calls us that. We take the music to the people wherever they happen to be—festivals, theaters, clubs, indoors, outdoors, private parties, TV shows, big stages, little stages. You know… Jesus in the Tabernacle or the Sermon on the Mount… same guy!
Noise: Your new 12-song CD, Brass Tacks, was just released. It has rhythms that swing with a pounding bass and great guitar and your jazzy, chiming piano. What should we be listening to on it?
Terry: Oh, rhythms that swing, a pounding bass, a great guitar, my jazzy, chiming piano, I guess. After that, you’ll notice a band running on clean energy that is connected to our hearts. All four members of this band are dedicated musicians.
Noise: Your live shows are legendary. Is there a follow-up to 2012’s release of your live We Travel The Spaceways in the works?
Terry: Thanks. Live music is where a lot happens. So yes, our next release will be an album of my arrangements of the music of Thelonious Monk; recorded live recently. It is something that couldn’t have happened until now. The challenge for years has been how to apply the music to myself and NRBQ. I wanted to arrange and play it my own way without compromising the original intent. The guys are brilliant on this work. I brought in the multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke too. His talent and dedication made it a lot easier for me to see it through. Jim, by the way, also wrote one of my favorite tunes on Brass Tacks. It’s called “I’d Like To Know.”
Noise: In 2007, NRBQ gave a pair of 38th anniversary performances in Northampton, MA. Both Big Al Anderson and Johnny Spaminato played guitar in the lineup. Is everyone on good terms and will this ever happen again?
Terry: I love getting together and playing with all members. We’re coming up on our 50th year. People like round numbers like that so you never know!
Noise: Do you have any advice to artists struggling to get their music heard in these tough times?
Terry: You’ve got to make music good enough to get people to struggle to hear you.
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