NRBQ Pieces: A Brief Dialogue

with Tom "Time Bomb" Staley

 

by Phil Rice

Vignette, 1979

Sitting behind the wheel of the '72 Chevy Monte Carlo, I carefully shuffle the eight-track tapes in search of a soundtrack for the three-hour drive through the mountains to Chattanooga. My mom is riding shotgun. We’re on our way to visit her mother in a nursing home. Mom is fairly flexible with regard to tunes, as long as she is not driving, but I try to include some music we can both enjoy. For today’s trip, in addition to Charlie McCoy, the Statler Brothers, and Jim Reeves, I select a homemade eight-track featuring songs by NRBQ from a double-LP I had recently picked up that was, in fact, a re-issue of two previously released albums — Scraps (1972) and Workshop (1973). The music matches the make of the Chevy remarkably well.

 

At 19, perhaps I am taking a chance thinking NRBQ will be acceptable for Mom’s nerves, but I’m confident of the choice. Mom survived the music explosions of the late 60s and early 70s with minimal damage. She has an internal shut-off valve that serves her well; she simply doesn’t usually notice. She comments on 'Howard Johnson’s Got His HoJo Workin’,' but is really just amused by the lyrics. She is not one to discuss music beyond initial impressions.

Then 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive' leaps out of the speakers. Mom immediately perks up. “My brother Buddy used to sing that to me when I was a little girl, after he had finally come home from the war. I can remember him doing a little dance as he sang it.” She says this wistfully, with a faraway look in her eyes. To this day, when I listen to the song, I see my Uncle Buddy, young and dancing around in the uniform of the U.S. Navy “Seabees,” entertaining his little sister. It’s a wonderful image.

The music of NRBQ is embedded deep in my story. Different times, different places — but there.

 

Growing up, I first heard the band’s music rising with the secondhand smoke from my brother Hal’s basement bedroom, but my real introduction to NRBQ came via their At Yankee Stadium LP in 1978. The band on that album consists of Terry Adams (keyboards), Joey Spampinato (bass), Al Anderson (guitar) and Tom Ardolino (drums). This is the band that would play together for about 20 years. For the final decade or so of the 20th century, Johnny Spampinato (brother to Joey) took over the guitar duties, and in the 21st century Terry Adams rebooted the band with new members. Scott Ligon (guitar, keys), Casey McDonough (bass) and John Perrin (drums) currently fill-out the line-up, and they do so as peerlessly as their predecessors. Regardless of which era, every recorded or live performance of NRBQ is a valuable experience worth revisiting as often as possible. But when I first put At Yankee Stadium on the turntable, most of that hadn’t happened yet.

 

Once the hook was firmly caught in my lip, I began scouring the record bins for more Q music. I discovered that the band’s eponymous debut album in 1969 is an eternal moment unto itself — alive and organic. Featured on that LP are Steve Ferguson (guitar), Terry Adams (keyboards, harmonica, percussion) Joey Spampinato (bass), Tom Staley (drums, percussion) and Frank Gadler (vocals, percussion). This same quintet would perform on the band’s second album, Boppin’ the Blues, which also includes rockabilly icon Carl Perkins (having listened to the full Carl P. catalog several times over, I don’t mind venturing the opinion that the great man never sounded better).

Ferguson departed before the release of Scraps, and Gadler left the band before the release of their fourth album, Workshop, which was the last studio album to feature Staley. Tom Ardolino is behind the drum kit starting with All Hopped Up, released the year before At Yankee Stadium.

 

Keeping up with the careers of Ferguson, Gadler and Staley after their departure was not easy. Those first four albums form a musical bedrock upon which many of my own artistic explorations have been built. Adams, Spampinato and Anderson are of course integral to those records, but each of the other three brings a unique energy to the mix. They were special—and yet, except for some later recordings by Ferguson, I had no idea what had become of these artists beyond their life in the Q.

 

Thus, after 40 years of processing his musicianship, in my world drummer Tom Staley is a legend bordering on myth — at least until we recently spoke on the phone. From that moment forward he has been simply a legend, which is why my expecting to write an essay based on the interview was perhaps ill-placed. The interview quickly became a conversation between a legend (Tom) and an awestruck fan (me). Fortunately the humble legend was more amused than impressed by the fan’s platitudes.

NRBQ, 1969 

(L-R) Steve Ferguson, Frankie Gadler, Tom Staley, Terry Adams, Joey Spampinato

Trying to demonstrate a keen mind for asking the right question at the right time, I suggest we start at the beginning. “I was born in Hollywood, Florida,” Tom says, clearly prepared for the query. “Fort Lauderdale was dreamy when I was growing up. The bridges were still made of wood; it was old-time Florida.” That was a good, conventional start, but I can’t keep up the momentum. You played with Steve Ferguson, I blurt out. It isn’t a question. More of an astonished, Wow! You played with Steve Ferguson. Tom fields it like a pro.

 

“Steve and I were brothers — not just because we were in the band together, but because we really bonded. Our relationship went on right up to the day he died. An amazing, intense, beautiful cat.” The interview is 100% audio, but I can feel Staley’s smile as he recalls his friend. “His search for the truth was admirable beyond belief. I was always playing catch-up — spiritually, psychologically, and musically — with this guy. It was a beautiful experience knowing him.”

 

Now desperate to sound like an interviewer, I mention how the band’s first album is an important work like no other. That it successfully starts with a cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Come on Everybody’ followed by Sun Ra’s ‘Rocket 9’ is a brilliant achievement in itself. But I need a question. Was the drummer familiar with the work of Sun Ra before playing on these gems?

“When I got introduced to the band, we spun records at Terry’s pad and I was introduced to all this music — but I had already heard them play it live.” As he slips into the vernacular of the time, I silently envision the face of Tom Staley, circa 1969, on the other end of the phone. The Time Bomb. “I first heard the band in its earlier incarnation, a group called The Seven of Us, which was Frankie, Joey, Steve and Terry with a different drummer and a second guitar player (Lee Tiger). We shared the same stage at a place in Miami called The World. Seeing Frankie for the first time was an incredible experience — I had never seen or heard anyone like him — a total showman. Then you add in Steve, chicken-pickin’ all over the place in his Davy Crockett coonskin cap, bowling shoes, and checkered shirt — where did this cat come from? Terry’s hair is slinging around and hanging down on the keyboards, a bundle of frenetic creative energy. Joey’s got the smooth Motown scene happening with his voice and fluid playing.” There’s a slight pause on the phone line. He is back to being Tom Staley in the 21st Century. “Playing with this band was like trying to hold on in a windstorm. It could be insane and angelic at the same time.”

On 'Flat Foot Flewzy'

 

I wasn’t the kind of musician who was great at just coming in and immediately knowing what to do. Steve, Terry and Joey aren’t like that — they can just make it happen. But my preference is to play it live at least a couple of times so I can find the groove. Some of the songs I learned in the studio on the fly. That happened with 'Flat Foot Floozy,' for instance. I’m just kinda making it up as I go along, which can leave you a little dissatisfied with the recorded version because new ideas jump out when you hear it. But you learn to let it go. (I’m always the guy who wants to do it again, but eventually I get out voted.)

There are so many ideas racing through my mind, but they are being redirected through an overflow spout. All I manage is another reference to Steve Ferguson. There is a strong connection between Staley and Ferguson, and after 40 years of listening to the music, the masterful Ferguson remains the most mysterious and intriguing musician on the Q landscape. “Once Steve found out I loved Lonnie Mack, I was home free. Lonnie’s a major influence on Steve’s playing. I was talking about how Lonnie’s drummer is pretty quick, and keeps up that left hand, 8th note pattern going on. So I started playing like that. And he loved it."

“Steve and I shared an apartment in Brooklyn for about nine months. I was used to being on the beach, and now suddenly I’m cooped up in the city, which was depressing. Then the band found a beautiful farmhouse about 2.5 hours north of the city in the Catskills. It was a dream. We all shared this house — all of us, our wives, and about three cats and four dogs. It’s like we were led out onto this green field and we ran as fast as we could. That went on for another two years. That’s what cemented this band together spiritually, living together and playing music. We weren’t trying to be big stars; we were just keeping it on the ground and being NRBQ.”

On 'Ain't It Alright'

There was a big barn at the farm, even a few animals. There was power out there and our instruments were always ready to play anytime someone felt like drifting out and playing. Steve and I came in one day, tripping our brains out, picked up our instruments, and ‘Ain’t it Alright’ came right out. Then we spent about 30 minutes talking about how beautiful Buddy Holly was, about the magic he had inside that came out in the music. Pretty high-minded stuff … that riff reflects an energy of Buddy Holly, the tunes going through our heads … very airy and magical.  ‘I Say Gooday Goodnite’ came out of that same trippy session.

Staley’s ability to pick up on subtleties such as Lonnie Mack’s drummer’s technique is a measure of his talents. As his recorded catalog well-demonstrates, he has a knack for finding his place within the music of any “genre.” And that’s been one of the consistent hallmarks of NRBQ for 50 years. Putting tunes in a particular genre is an unnecessary restriction. No need to place expectations on a song by calling it jazz or country or rock. Just play the music. This comes through brilliantly on their debut record and on every one that follows.

 

“The most striking thing about my playing on that first album was the intensity of every note I played. We had just come off a period of playing and hanging out at Miami Beach, getting lots of sunshine, expanding consciousness … all that stuff. We poured that energy right into the Record Plant in New York that one night. ‘Kentucky Slop Song’ comes flying out of the speakers. Steve’s solo on Joey’s tune (‘You Can’t Hide’) is frantic beyond belief but it’s beautiful. The slide takes off like it’s going to Jupiter.”

Staley is loyal to NRBQ, then and now. Everything he says is supportive of the band and its legacy. There isn’t any hint of disappointment or regret in his words, and certainly no over-sized ego. He marvels at the talents of every musician who has played with the Q. He genuinely enjoys talking about his friends and the band, and he keeps love and gratitude in the forefront: “Terry wanted a band that was unlimited in every way that could play any genre authentically — but also in NRBQ’s style. It was his dream. I’m just really grateful that I got to be a part of the early realization of the vision.”

On 'Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Working'

‘Howard Johnson’s’ is an authentic tune. We’re on the road, stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Everybody’s a vegetarian and there’s no place to eat … so we stop at Howard Johnson’s because that’s your choice on the Turnpike. We were griping—‘Howard Johnson’s? The grilled cheese sandwiches are too expensive,’ and other complaints. That’s where the tune came from—bitchin’ at Howard Johnsons. But in there it says “not the boy who plays the tubaaaaaaa.” This is great because stuff like that will lead people to Howard Johnson the jazz artist, which leads to something else … and something else.

After his time with NRBQ, Staley continued to play music professionally, including in bands with fellow Q-alumni Ferguson and Gadler. He toured Europe with Terry and the Hotshots in 2005, and he toured with Adams and Scott Ligon as the Terry Adams Crazy Trio in 2006-07. In addition to session work and other projects along the way, his solo albums include Twitchin’ ‘N the Kitchen (2001) and We’re Gonna Be OK (2011), and he paired with Rick Harper for thenceforward (2006). While he is frequently joined by a talented array of players, on these recordings Staley often provides guitar, piano, and vocals in addition to drums and percussion. Just as he has always done as a drummer, as a multi-instrumentalist he demonstrates a superb self-awareness, which extends to his talents as a songwriter and producer. He’s simply an artist whose sensibilities infiltrate every endeavor.

Having spent most of his life in his native Florida, Staley has retired with his wife Karen to Flowery Branch, Georgia, a quaint little village located at the southeastern tip of the Appalachian Mountains. He and Karen married in 1969, which puts them at the half-century mark. That must be some kind of record for a world-class rock ‘n’ roll drummer from the 60s. The family includes son Colby and daughter Terra, and grandchildren Cameron, Chloe, and Baxter. When the subject is his family, the love in Tom’s voice shines brightly.

The conversation concludes with the energy of a commencement. The legend has supper to consider, and the interviewer has conceded to his own journalistic ineptitude, but there is a seedling planted where their voices met. In the words of Mr. Staley, “It becomes organic and you don’t think about what you are doing, you just become one with it. Then it’s over and you don’t want to pass judgement on it — you just want to move on to the next tune.”

 

Indeed.

"As a drummer you have to complement the band, obviously; a good drummer will play in the space around the notes. It won’t sound cluttered or frantic or forced — it will be a nice open space between the notes, a space that is graceful and flows. That’s always been my goal — to be that kind of drummer."

— Tom "Time Bomb" Staley

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