We’ve mourned many mighty musicians recently, including Richard Lainhart, Sam Rivers, Jackie Leven and Robert Dickey of James and Bobby Purify (“I’m Your Puppet”). More on them in a minute, but the one that really hurts is the death of Tom Ardolino a week ago today.
Tom went from high school in Springfield, Mass., to playing drums in NRBQ for 30 years. Reports on his death vary, but I heard that after snowstorms knocked out the power to his home, still in Springfield, he lost power and heat, suffered a seizure and fell into a coma. He never fully emerged from it, though he did respond by smiling when his longtime bandmate, pianist Terry Adams, played Beach Boys records for him in the hospital.
NRBQ was the greatest band I ever saw, and Tom was more than one-quarter of it. But so was each of the other three, because they found a way to multiply their talents rather than just adding them together. Longtime guitarist Al Anderson told the Boston Globe after Tom’s death, “We were so great because we were playing 250 nights a year and we started thinking with one mind. That was the baddest-ass rhythm section that ever lived.”
Bassist Joey Spampinato, the other half of what some called NRBQ’s “Ravioli rhythm section,” told the Globe, “I lucked out: I had my own Ringo Starr. Tommy was absolutely the best.”
Tom Ardolino joined NRBQ in 1974 when original drummer Tom Staley didn’t come back to the stage for an encore and Adams summoned Tom Ardolino up to play, recognizing him in the crowd from backstage fan meet-ups. Tom had learned to play in his basement, playing along with records and preparing to join a band that was all about chemistry and fearlessness by playing all alone.
I saw him play a few times before I first met him in spring 1987 at the Woodstock home of then-NRBQ manager Jill Christiansen, the nicest person I’ve ever met in the music business. He drove up in an American Motors Pacer, a strange bulbous compact car that was mostly glass. Behind the seats, it was completely full of drums, and a perfect metaphor for Tom. He was roundish, transparent and completely full of music. He said on a TV show years ago that if he weren’t playing in NRBQ he’d have been working in a convenience store, and I believed him.
Tom played like no one else, holding his sticks loosely between his fingers, and with the wrong fingers at that, but hitting his snare like buildings slamming together.
My brother Jim Hoke wore earplugs to play saxophone alongside Tom as a frequent NRBQ guest because Tom’s rimshots hit so loud. “Tom was a true original,” said Jim. “I was so privileged to get to know him and play with him. So many memories — riding to a gig with The Q in their rental car singin’ ‘This Boy’ in three-part harmony with Tom and Joey. Tom didn’t have a mean bone in his body. This really sucks.”
“Tommy deserves an entire wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Bonnie Raitt told the Globe. “There’s [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts, and there’s Tom Ardolino. That’s it.”
Playing with NRBQ was demanding because of their proud versatility, swinging tightness and fearless willingness to tackle almost any song, any time — whether they knew it or had to learn or make it up on the spot. Tom had to master many beats, but he also had to come out from behind the drums as part of NRBQ’s unpredictable rock ’n’ roll vaudeville to sing or play keyboards or guitar.
Just as NRBQ challenged themselves through the ’70s with The Magic Box where fans submitted written song requests, Adams constantly challenged Tom — a shy and quiet man who greeted those he knew with “Meow!” — to do in public some crazy things way beyond his comfort zone. In April, when Adams brought his new version of NRBQ to WAMC’s The Linda, Tom played as a guest alongside new drummer Conrad Choucron, and those guys rocked the house. Adams also shanghaied Tom up to the mic to sing “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby and the Romantics, and it was a delicious disaster that left newbies cringing and old ’Q fans falling on the floor laughing.
Backstage, Tom seemed frail, candidly acknowledging health problems and medications that sometimes collided with each other. He’d essentially retired from the road when NRBQ went on hiatus in 2004 as Adams fought throat cancer. Once healed and back in action, Adams brought Tom back onstage whenever possible. When I went to see NRBQ at the Bearsville Theater the night before the show at the Linda, I felt a huge lift when I spotted Tom playing alongside Conrad at sound check; his appearance hadn’t been announced. On those two nights, I think Tom played as well, and as hard, as he ever had; and nobody was happier than Conrad.
I doubt anybody ever enjoyed being in a band more than Tom Ardolino loved playing in NRBQ. That joy came at you even louder than his rimshots. He leaves a wife and two stepchildren, and so many fans, like me, who can’t believe we won’t see him grinning back there on the bandstand again.
The original Doc Scanlon of Doc Scanlon’s Rhythm Boys (he played vibes), Lainhart (1953-2011) studied electronic music with Joel Chadabe at the University at Albany and played with other groups here as well as making his own music. It was cerebral but also swung.
A saxophonist and bandleader of groups large and small, Rivers (1923-2011) was a trained composer and arranger, grounding improvised music in carefully made structures. His Studio RivBea (co-hosted by wife Beatrice) was an early outpost of what became New York’s loft scene. At an early 1970s show at Albany’s Last Chance — not far from WAMC, Pauly’s Hotel and J.B. Scott’s — Rivers led a small band with a huge sound, playing long, steady tones with another saxophonist in close harmony that vibrated into beats.
When my colleague Greg Haymes told me he keeps Leven’s albums in the honored under-the-stairs shelves alongside the late, great Chris Whitley’s, I knew I had to catch up. A burly Scot, Leven (1950-2011) has richly rewarded my attention with the beauty of a peerless voice and an ambitious, sonically opulent musical vision. He said he made music to find “beauty in his wounds,” and those were plentiful and profound: heroin addiction, brawling and drinking. He lost two years away from music to injuries to his throat in a mugging. But the beauty from the wounds remains.
Dickey (1944-2011) was the “Bobby” of James & Bobby Purify, a Southern ’60s soul duo whose hits included “I’m Your Puppet” (by the great Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn) and “Shake a Tail Feather,” originally by the Five Du-Tones.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.