NRBQ’s music is a rollicking blend of everything from stomping rockabilly to Beatles-influenced pop to Thelonious Monk-inspired jazz , has attracted fans as diverse as Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Keith Richards and Penn and Teller. NRBQ songs have inspired cover versions by Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, and Dave Edmunds, among many others. In addition, they served as the unofficial “house band” for “The Simpsons” for the season 10-12 period in which NRBQ fan Mike Scully was head writer and executive producer, contributing several songs and even appearing in animated form during one episode. They have also appeared in feature films, including 28 Days and Day of the Dead.
The band’s devoted following has been stoked by years of legendary live shows. The band never works with a set list, so fans never know what songs they may hear. A former staple of the group’s gigs was “The Magic Box”, a mysteriously-painted crate into which fans could drop slips of papers with requests on them. The band would play whatever songs they drew out of the box. The results could be anything from a sublime version of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline No”, to a discordant and nearly traumatic “Jingle Bells”.
NRBQ formed in 1967 in Miami, Florida, coming together from the shards of several other bands. The original members were keyboardist Terry Adams, guitarist Steve Ferguson, singer Frank Gadler, drummer Tom Staley, and bassist Joey Spampinato (originally known by the stage name of Jody St. Nicholas). In addition to their instrumental prowess, everyone except Staley sang lead vocals at various times. The group relocated to the northeastern US and gained attention in local clubs. They were signed to Columbia Records in 1969, and released their self-titled debut album the same year. The record featured cover versions of everyone from Eddie Cochran to Sun Ra, along with a number of similarly wide-ranging original songs. The following year, the group collaborated with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins on an album titled Boppin’ the Blues.
However, before NRBQ could finish their third album, Columbia dropped the group, unhappy with their lack of chart performance. Over the next three years, the band would experience heavy turnover, with the departure of Ferguson, Gadler, and Staley, and the arrival of two new members: guitarist/singer Al Anderson and drummer Tom Ardolino (Tom got the job when, at a concert the original drummer was sick and had to go back stage, Tom came in to replace him). The Adams/Spampinato/Anderson/Ardolino quartet would stay together for twenty years (from 1974 until 1994), and is considered by most fans to be the classic NRBQ lineup. The quartet was often augmented by the Whole Wheat Horns, consisting of tenor saxophonist Keith Spring and trombonist Donn Adams, Terry’s older brother.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, NRBQ recorded a number of great albums, mostly on Rounder Records or the band’s own label, Red Rooster Records. The band would receive another shot at major-label stardom in 1983, with the release of Grooves in Orbit on Bearsville Records. However, a feud developed between the group and label owner Albert Grossman, and Grossman refused to let the band out of its contract. As a result, NRBQ couldn’t record any new material for several years, until Grossman died in 1986. Fortunately, the band could still release archival material on the Red Rooster Records label.
In 1989, free from the Bearsville debacle, the band got another one-album major-label deal with Virgin Records. Wild Weekend became the first NRBQ album to reach the charts since their 1967 debut, but it wasn’t enough for Virgin to extend the deal.
The early 1990s saw appearances by various NRBQ members on albums by Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, and Johnnie Johnson. In addition, Ardolino became active in the rediscovery and release of musical recordings in the “song poem” genre.
The band’s long-time classic lineup came to an end in 1994, as Al Anderson left to pursue a successful songwriting career in Nashville. He was replaced by Joey Spampinato’s younger brother, Johnny, formerly of The Incredible Casuals, and a formidable guitarist, singer, and songwriter in his own right. The band’s recording and concert career continued unabated, with highlights including the first NRBQ children’s album, 1997’s You’re Nice People You Are, and the creation of their new label, Edisun Records .
In May 2004, the group celebrated their 35th anniversary with two days of concerts at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts . The shows featured every former and current member of the band, as Ferguson, Gadler, Staley, and Anderson came back for a mammoth NRBQ reunion.
Near the end of 2004, NRBQ went on hiatus when Adams came down with a severe case of tendonitis in his hands. In his absence, the three other members (Ardolino and the Spampinato brothers) started playing shows as a trio, under the name Baby Macaroni. (Many years earlier, NRBQ had performed under this name during a brief period when they were trying different names for the band. Other names used included “Billy the Kid” and “The Marlboro Men.”) Adams would recover well enough to tour with former drummer Staley and Japanese rockabilly group, the Hot Shots . However, as of April 2006 (a year and a half after going on hiatus), the band has not reunited for any concerts or new recordings, leaving some NRBQ fans to speculate as to whether there are problems within the group.