NRBQ never had a top hit record and were never played on the radio very much. But for more than 50 years, they have built and preserved a niche market and fandom based on a blend of rhythm and blues, country, novelty, rockabilly and a tinge of jazz. Originally called the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet, later just known by the acronym NRBQ and then eventually known locally as simply “The Q” they came together in 1965 from remnants of other bands. Over the next 50 years, dozens of band members would come and go yet they would release 22 studio albums, 11 live albums, and 14 compilations all the while maintaining their inimitable eclectic and unmistakable sound largely due to the influence of Terry Adams, their one and only original member and founder. From humble beginnings in their home near Louisville, KY, brothers Terry and Donn Adams began rehearsing and then inviting other band members to join including friend, guitarist, and country-styled singer Steve Ferguson formerly of the Mersey Beats (no relation to the Merseybeats from the UK) and Jimmy Orten formerly with Soul Inc. on bass and vocals. That band iteration left Kentucky for Miami in 1966 where keyboardist Terry Adams and guitarist Steve Ferguson joined up with several members of another band called The Seven of Us—Joey Spampinato (bass) and Frank Gadler (vocals)—along with local drummer Tommy Staley. After regrouping back in Louisville and eventually moving to NYC, thus was born the first iteration of NRBQ that recorded their first album for Columbia Records in 1969. Around this time, they also collaborated with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins on an album titled Boppin’ the Blues.
The first New England connection for NRBQ began with the addition of Al Anderson, formerly of the CT-based Wildweeds. A brilliant guitarist and a powerhouse vocalist, he first appeared on their album Scraps. The album titled Workshop followed and included the song “Get That Gasoline Blues” which was the only song of theirs to be classified as hit, reaching No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974. Around this time, they added another Louisville refugee to the band lineup, tenor saxophonist Keith Spring. He and Donn Adams came to be known as ‘The Whole Wheat Horns’. They had several New England-area hits, most notably 1977’s instant-classic “Ridin’ In My Car.”
The Q were quite renowned for their adventurous live shows, playing in an unpredictably wide array of music styles, touring steadily throughout the Northeast US, popular in college towns, and better known through word-of-mouth than from their records. To add in yet another New England connection, the Q drum chair was filled by Springfield, Massachusetts’ own Tom Ardolino. A fan of the band, he began corresponding and trading tapes with Terry Adams. This led to him meeting and befriending the band. At one live show, when original NRBQ drummer Tom Staley did not return for an encore, Adams invited Ardolino to fill in. He performed well enough that when Staley left the band in 1974, his bandmates agreed that Ardolino was the natural choice as successor.
To add yet another New England connection, in 1994 Anderson departed the group to become an award-winning Nashville songwriter for many country-western acts. He was replaced by Joey Spampinato’s younger brother, Johnny Spampinato, who was a member of power-pop band The Incredible Casuals. Eventually, NRBQ was associated with western Massachusetts, often appearing in live settings in and around Northampton, and were regulars at places like Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, the famous Shaboo Inn in Willimantic CT, Bushnell Park in Hartford, plus recording for their own independent Red Rooster label. They became the signature ‘best bar band’ in the US, especially with their ‘Magic Box’ routine and their extraordinarily vast knowledge of western pop music.
As time passed, further personnel adjustments, health issues, and other changes have shaken their career more than once, but they carry on with Adams leading. After an engagement in Milwaukee in 2004, NRBQ went on hiatus as Adams had developed stage 4 throat cancer. In April of 2007, NRBQ gave a pair of “38th Anniversary” performances in Northampton, Massachusetts, the first public NRBQ shows since 2004. Both Anderson and Johnny Spampinato appeared in the lineup, along with “Whole Wheat Horns” Donn Adams and Jim Bob Hoke, and unannounced guest appearances by John Sebastian, original NRBQ drummer Staley. Gadler, former lead vocalist, also appeared.
NRBQ maintains a following from years of live shows. The band has been known to perform without a set list which makes the band, in the words of AllMusic’s Mark Deming, “a stellar and wildly unpredictable live act.” In addition to its own compositions, the band performs a broad range of cover material and audience requests.
The Q lives on—the current lineup being:
Terry Adams – keyboards, vocals (1966-present)
Scott Ligon – guitar, vocals (2011-present)
Casey McDonough – bass, vocals (2012-present)
John Perrin – drums (2015-present)
Steve Ferguson died of cancer on October 7, 2009, Tom Ardolino died on January 6, 2012, following a long illness, and Bobby Lloyd Hicks died of bronchiectasis on February 20, 2017.
(By Steve Haag & Karl Sharicz from material provided by Stuart Troutman)