’Q are You?

Terry Adams keeps NRBQ going strong

Jun 18, 2014 at 10:05 am

In the early 1990s, while working at The Denver Post, I did a preview of an NRBQ concert and referenced that the eclectic, rousingly good-natured Rock band had been at it for four decades now. That was true — the band formed in Louisville, Ky., in 1966 and released its first album for Columbia Records in 1969.

But when Terry Adams, the band’s superb keyboard player and its central figure, came onstage, he complained — good-naturedly, of course — that saying “four decades” made them seem so old. Then NRBQ played an invigorating set, a typically wonderful, triumphant mix of Rock & Roll, Soul, Jazz, Country, Power Pop, Broadway, comedy, you name it.

So when interviewing Adams recently by phone, I ask if he would complain if I said the band has now been at it across six decades.

“No, not all,” he says. “In another two years we’re coming up on our 50th anniversary, which I would love to have. I still love all the guys who have ever been in the band and always will.”

Adams is the only one of NRBQ’s founders in the current band, which just released the album Brass Tacks. It’s NRBQ’s third album since 2011. Guitarist Scott Ligon and drummer Conrad Choucroun were on that year’s Keep This Love Goin’ and bassist Casey McDonough joined afterward.

Before that, NRBQ had gone on hiatus in 2004 while Adams received treatment for throat cancer. The other members at that time stayed busy — bassist Joey Spampinato and his guitarist brother Johnny (Joey had been with the band since the beginning) toured as Baby Macaroni with drummer Tom Ardolino.

His health restored, Adams began playing with Ligon, Choucroun and bassist Pete Donnelly in the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet in 2007. When Adams felt the time was right, he revived the name NRBQ for that group of players. Meanwhile, Joey and Johnny continued on as the Spampinato Brothers, while Ardolino (who played sometimes with Adams after the latter reemerged in 2007) passed away in 2012.

“We started recording and writing music for Keep This Love Goin’ and all the guys wrote some great songs,” Adams says. “That seemed like a great time to resume (NRBQ) and get my life back.” (This will be this version of the band’s first Greater Cincinnati visit.)

“What we have now is right on … and the enthusiasm and passion for the music is what makes it matter,” Adams continues. “I never want to put NRBQ on the shelf and just talk about golden memories.”

NRBQ’s backstory is unusual and impressive — and Cincinnati plays a key role in it. NRBQ’s 1970 appearance at Cincinnati’s Ludlow Garage, where it was a favorite, was released on disc in 2006 and it’s a wonderful record of the power and unpredictability of the original band, which, besides Adams and Joey Spampinato, included drummer Tom Staley, singer Frank Gadler and the late Steve Ferguson on guitar.

As a young music listener in Louisville, Adams loved the Rock & Roll he heard on Top 40 radio, but also Jazz, like pianists Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, organist Brother Jack McDuff and others.

“One of the most important experiences in my life,” Adams says, “was when my dad, when I was 14, said, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to go see the Cincinnati Reds play?’ Well, I didn’t really like sports. So I said I wanted to go to the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival in Cincinnati in August, right on my birthday, and see Monk in person. So for my 15th birthday, that’s where I was.”

By then, Adams started playing piano, but he didn’t feel he had to choose between Jazz and Rock & Roll. When his parents bought him a reel-to-reel, he started recording. His brother spontaneously said, “Here’s the New Rhythm & Blues Quintet,” and the abbreviated version of the name — NRBQ — stuck. Ferguson soon came over to play with Adams and the rest is history.

Among other things, Adams probably was the first Rock musician to introduce the music of avant-garde Jazz pianist/composer/orchestra leader Sun Ra to a Rock audience. On its first album, NRBQ recorded Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9,” and Adams has recruited members of the Sun Ra’s “Arkestra” to tour and record with NRBQ both before and since Sun Ra’s death in 1993.

“I saw (Sun Ra) in person in New York in 1967,” Adams says. “He gave me a business card and the 45 of ‘Rocket #9’ and said, ‘This is especially for you.’ I really took it to heart. At that time in the 1960s, his music was more aggressive and you had to be strong to take it. I knew he had something unique and there was a message to it. I always think with music, if you’re going to get paid to make sound, you’ve got to make a difference in the world. It can’t be boring. What’s the point of making music if you can’t make it strong or different or affect people? He had that.

“I know that’s what we’ve been shooting for,” he says, adding, “and not to be boring.”

NRBQ and ROB FETTERS play Southgate House Revival Friday. Tickets/more info here.