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On Tommy Ardolino

Drummer Tommy Ardolino was born on 12 January 1955 and died 6 January of this year from “illnesses related to alcoholism,” reported the Boston Globe. It’s likely that most people haven’t heard of him, though his career in music was long and consistent. From 1974 (right after high school) to 2004 he played with NRBQ, a band the New York Times called, in a slightly off-key obit for him, “one of the longest-lasting and most beloved rock groups never to have a Top 40 single…” (as if having a Top 40 single automatically equates with being successful at your art) and, after NRBQ dissolved temporarily in the late 2000s, with a spin-off group, Baby Macaroni, comprising him and former NRBQ members Joey and Johnny Spampinato (bass and guitar respectively).

I first heard the Q in 1976 when my eldest brother, music director at a radio station, gave me three albums the station would never play. I forget what one of them was, but the other two I liked: the first recording of the Earl Scruggs Revue, and a double-album by NRBQ, Scraps/Workshop, with the original drummer, Tom Staley, as well as Terry Adams (keyboards, vocals), Joey Spampinato (bass, vocals), Al Anderson (guitar, vocals), and Frankie Gadler (vocals). By the time Scraps was recorded Steve Ferguson, the first guitarist, had departed, though he never went out of the orbit of the band. (In 2006 Adams and Ferguson recorded the excellent Louisville Sluggers, with Tommy on drums.) Gadler left the band after Scraps, and Staley after Workshop. Tommy and Adams had been corresponding and meeting now and then, and there’s a great story about his first time on stage with this band whose music he knew well. One night Staley left the bar their gig was in for the bus, either ill or simply thinking the show had ended, but the encore required a drummer. Adams recognized Tommy in the audience, invited him up behind the drums and, though he’d not played with anyone, he fit right in. When Staley moved on to other projects Tommy took his place. (A few years ago Adams and Staley toured together. In 2010 Adams, according to his website, helped produce Jim Stephanson’s CD Say Go, and played on it, as did Tommy, Ferguson and Joey Spampinato. A close bunch, these guys, and I haven’t even mentioned The Incredible Casuals, P.J. O’Connell or the Chandler Travis Philharmonic.)

What do they play? With respect to the NYT above, rarely rock, though “Me and the Boys” might qualify, but a lot of jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, country, a bit of zydeco, pop, and more, as well as covers from long-ago (“My Blue Heaven”), humourous songs (“Derby Town”), and the rank (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”). You put on a record of theirs and it’ll not sound like their last one except for that certain something that could be called a watermark of sensibility. There’s a good feel about them that leaps off the vinyl or tape or CD.

But in 1976 all I knew was what I heard. To those who’ve not listened to the band, try finding that LP set, and place the needle in the groove of “RC Cola and a Moon Pie” to feel the bass as it rolls along. (It’s with good reason that Keith Richards chose Spampinato for Chuck Berry’s back-up band in 1987’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.) Up to that time, whether at home or in the car, all I heard on the radio and stereo were Al Martino, Glen Campbell, Liberace, Jesus Christ Superstar, Nana Mouskouri, various wretched Canadian pop bands, folk music, trad Irish… As the youngest, I never had control of the knobs. (Years later “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello—a big Q fan—summed up, retroactively, the state of radio when I was young.) There were the occasional odd noises from my other brother’s collection, but they didn’t interest me, except for the Stones. Set in that bland and, frankly, dispiriting context the Q were a revelation, and yet, no one but me had heard of them. In 1979 I accidentally came across a new album, At Yankee Stadium. Not a live recording (if I remember right, Rolling Stone cracked that they didn’t have enough fans to fill the infield), but the four members–now the “classic” 1974-1994 lineup of Tommy, Big Al, Terry and Joey–seated in the empty stadium. Appropriate. This recording has killer tunes like “Green Lights,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” “That’s Neat, That’s Nice” (with the Whole Wheat Horns, comprised of trombonist Donn Adams, Terry’s brother, and, over the many years, a variety of sax and trumpet players), and a speeded-up version of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.” From then on I was theirs, and they were mine.

They’re not to everyone’s taste, I found out right away. The middle brother once said, “They’re like the opposite of the Stones. The Stones are terrible on their own, and the Q are better on solo projects than together.” So untrue of the Q, but I appreciate the wit. Living in the far east of Canada I’ve never seen them live, but I hear their shows were and are tremendous. (There’s some controversy about the new NRBQ among fans, but it’ll pass.) Their music has done more for me than most books, they’ve sustained me in rough time, and they’ve influenced how I listen to other bass, piano and drum players.

Back to Tommy, then. The online obituary from Legacy Funeral Home states: “In addition to a lifelong career in NRBQ, Tommy recorded and performed with such notables as John Sebastian, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan & Brian Wilson. Tommy was often portrayed on episodes of The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants. Tommy was a walking encyclopedia of all things music, from ‘song poems’ to being a leading authority on album collecting and vintage music of all genres. Tommy was a great lover of cats ‘Meow’ and will forever cherish Tuffy, Federal & Megu.” I have a CD signed by the 1994-2004 version of the band (when Anderson left Johnny Spampinato, Joey’s younger brother, took over on the guitar), thanks to a fellow fan and friend who purchased it at a show and sent it on. Tommy’s signature reads: “Meow.” In reporting his death the Boston Globe (the Q are big in Massachusetts and New England) quoted a well-known blueswoman: “‘Tommy deserves an entire wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ singer Bonnie Raitt told the Globe last summer. ‘There’s Charlie Watts, and there’s Tom Ardolino. That’s it.’’’ Anderson said to the same paper: “‘Between 1974 and whenever I left the band, I can tell you that that was the baddest-ass rhythm section that ever lived.’”

The Washington Post obituary goes into a bit of what Tommy’s drumming was like: “Bouncing up and down on his drum stool with a joyous, almost cherubic presence, Mr. Ardolino pulled the disparate strands together, often playing swing, polka, rock-and-roll and funk rhythms in the same night. Writing in the New York Times, music critic Peter Watrous said Mr. Ardolino’s drum work ‘kept the backbeats secure, guaranteeing a dance impulse while regularly varying rhythms interacted with the soloists and never allowed the drums to fall into simple accompaniment.’”

Take a few minutes to appreciate Tommy, 1/4 of the best band in the world—ever—and what he does with those sticks.

From 1980, with Big Al Anderson on guitar:

From 1999, in Japan, with Johnny Spampinato on guitar:

From 2003, with Tommy singing, and a talking bit from Mike Scully:

When Adams reformed NRBQ in 2011 (the sole original member in the new lineup) he needed a drummer who could handle the very many styles the band has always been famous (or infamous, depending on the critic) for going through in the course of a set. Years before he and Tommy saw a guy named Conrad Choucroun play. Here’s a quote from Terry Adams’ website: “We were both impressed and at one point Tom looked at me and said, ‘If anything ever happens to me, that’s the guy.’ When I was looking for a drummer, suddenly that memory hit me.” Below, you can see the third NRBQ drummer, Adams, Scott Ligon on guitar and Pete Donnelly on bass. (At this time they were called the Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet.) Note the physical appearance of Choucroun. He looks a bit like Tommy.

Of course, only Tommy can be Tommy, so no comparisons are worthwhile. Thanks to all the many recordings the band made, live and in the studio, his sound remains.

  • Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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