Essentials: The top 10 NRBQ albums

The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (originally Quintet), NRBQ or simply just The Q, if you haven’t heard of them, and worse still, haven’t heard any of their music and are a lover of good music that encapsulates everything good about American roots music, and that is roots music in the widest possible sense, then you definitely need to remedy the situation. While it is true that not too many people have heard of and actually heard the music of NRBQ, there are certainly a lot fewer listeners who didn’t become lifelong fans after exposure to the joys of the Q’s music. If you don’t believe or trust me, then you can always ask Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds, John Sebastian, R.E.M. Los Lobos and The Replacements who all count themselves as fans of the band.

The band’s history goes back to 1965 in Kentucky, and while there have been various changes in band members and there was a period in the ‘60s and ‘00s when the band didn’t exist, they are still going strong today and remain true to the template of their self-titled debut 1969 album which included covers of Eddie Cochrane and Sun Ra, which just shows their eclecticism. Also in place is the band’s sense of fun and founder and current leader Terry Adams’ unique keyboard flourishes, vocals and writing skills, and the songwriting and musical chops of bass player and vocalist Joey Spampinato. Over the years drummers and guitarists have changed, and horns have been added and removed and founding member, bassist and songwriter Joey Spampinato left in 2004 leaving Terry Adams as the last founding member.  Among NRBQ aficionados, The Q line-up from 1974-1993 with Terry Adams and Joey Spampinato being joined by songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Big ‘Al’ Anderson and drummer and occasional live vocalist Tom Ardolino is considered to be the classic line-up and the run of three albums from 1978 – 1980 to be their studio recorded peak. Al Anderson left The Q in 1993 and subsequently became a leading Nashville songwriter, guitarist for hire and he also maintained a lower-key solo career, and while his songwriting and guitar skills are exceptional, the overall quality of The Q’s music was not lost over subsequent years.

If The Q are so good with excellent power pop and country rock credentials, and not forgetting their Tin Pan Alley and jazz credentials, then why I hear some of you ask are they only a cult band, even if they are the template for all cult bands. That is a difficult question to answer, it could be that they were just too eclectic and too quirky in their humour. The more likely reason is that for the majority of their career they were on independent labels which, while allowing them to be true to their own artistic ideals, they were never shaped and polished by a major for the stardom their talents warranted. They established themselves as one of the best live bands around with a very large catalogue of songs and this provided a very steady income that allowed them to support themselves. The quirkiness of The Q is again shown by the fact that a band, famed for their live performances, didn’t release a live album until 1987.

Drawing up a top 10 album list for a band as long-lived and prolific as NRBQ is not an easy task. I don’t think there will be too much argument about the top three albums, though many may argue with the ranking within the three. After that, it is virtually impossible to think of a list that would get unanimous agreement from their fan base as they have never released an album that is without some merit. One final note, some NRBQ albums are out of print and if any reader wanted a cost-effective introduction, you can do worse than purchase a copy of their latest archive release ‘In . Frequencies’. While this comprises 16 rarities from their whole career, it does encapsulate the spirit of the band if not their most famous tracks.

Finally, just a reminder that Terry Adams, Big Al Anderson and Joey Spampinato have recorded albums away from NRBQ and all are worth investigating by anyone bitten by The Q bug. All band member albums have been excluded from this list simply because it was hard enough listing NRBQ albums. As always, the fun of lists, particularly musical ones, is in the disagreement they generate rather than any agreement, so comments are always encouraged by Americana UK.

Number 10: ‘NRBQ’ (1969)
While certainly not their best album, and that is not just my opinion, it is very interesting, and we can only wonder at what it sounded like to ’69 ears. Vocalist Frank Gadler, guitarist Steve Ferguson and drummer Tom Staley joined founding members Adams and Spampinato on what is a blueprint for NRBQ’s subsequent music. As is to be expected with a debut recording, The Q aren’t as comfortable in the studio as they would become despite the presence of famed producer-engineer Eddie Kramer. However, the album was recorded and played virtually live and the opening with Eddie Cochrane’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ and Sun Ra’s ‘Rocket #9’certainly made first-time listeners sit up and take notice.  Among the various self-penned tracks, Joey Spampinato’s ‘You Can’t Hide’ is a slice of classic rock. A final recommendation, this album was re-released in 2018 on Omnivore Recordings.

Number 9: ‘High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective’ (2016)
As you would expect with a band with such a distinguished and long history there have been quite a few retrospectives and archive releases over the years. In 2016, Omnivore Recordings released this five-CD retrospective which was themed for listening and not chronological, and it also included a wealth of rare and unreleased tracks. The fact that the compilation was themed means that each track can be judged on its own merits and, as a consequence, the newer tracks stand up remarkably well with the classic tracks. Five CDs may be too daunting for someone who just wants to have a quick sample of NRBQ’s vast oeuvre, but if anyone wants to belatedly pick up on their true greatness then this is the one album to get, and it is available. ‘Flat Foot Flewzy’ is a highlight from The Q’s 1970 album with Carl Perkins, ‘Boppin’ The Blues,which, while an interesting experiment, was not a complete success.

Number 8: ‘Turn On, Tune In’ (2019)
In 2004 NRBQ were paused when Terry Adams was diagnosed with throat cancer and he then started his solo career. In 2011 he renamed his backing band NRBQ, which raised a few eyebrows among their fanbase. ‘Turn On, Tune In’ is a live recording of this new version of The Q with Casey McDonough on bass, Scott Ligon on guitar and John Perrin on drums, and while the new NRBQ shares many characteristics with The Q of old, they have been able to bring their own style to the overall sound. Terry Adams is as inventive on keyboards as he ever was, and the other musicians sparkle on a mix of NRBQ tunes and covers of The Beach Boys and Carole King. While there are plenty of vocals on the album there is an instrumental version of Red River Valley retitled ‘Red River Rock’ that is pure NRBQ.  The album includes 21 tracks recorded at two radio shows and a DVD of one of the performances. As with any NRBQ live album, ‘Turn On, Tune In’ is not simply a live greatest hits package, but an accurate and individual representation of the current incarnation of The Q. As such it can be enjoyed by long-term fans and newbies alike.

Number 7: ‘God Bless Us All’ (1987)
Many people have called NRBQ The Best Bar Band In The World because of their live performances. While this is meant as a compliment, it does a disservice to the quality and variety of their sets. The Q never have a setlist for any given concert, preferring the spontaneity, which according to some sources, was based on Terry Adams choosing the best song to fit the mood of a concert at a particular time. This makes it all the more surprising that they didn’t release a live album until 1987’s ‘God Bless Us All’. It answers one question very well, what was it like to witness a concert by the classic band line-up? The Q are joined by the Whole Wheat Horns, and this is a single show recording with no overdubs to ensure an authentic experience and, as such, it is not full of their greatest hits but does show their ability across multiple genres. They come out of the starting gate like a rocket with Big Al Anderson’s ‘Crazy Like A Fox’ and you know you are in for one hell of a ride.

Number 6: ‘Scraps’ (1972)
‘Scraps’ is The Q’s third album and things are really beginning to fall into place. Al Anderson is on board as lead guitarist, but due to contractual issues wasn’t allowed to sing. Back in 1972 two and three minute pop songs weren’t all the rage, but NRBQ managed to get 14 tracks on the original album. That is a lot of songs, and fortunately, Joey Spampinato comes into his own as a songwriter with 5 tracks he wrote or co-wrote and also takes lead vocals on.  While I said pop songs, these included such songs as ‘Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working’ and ‘Who Put The Garlic In The Glue’, which gives a hint of the thought processes going on in the band. Columbia had released NRBQ from their contract after two albums and ‘Scraps’ was released on Kama Sutra which was a clear sign they were not heading for major label success while they honed their own sound and style. Joey Spampinato’s ‘Only You’ is a standout track. ‘Scraps’ may be available as a Japanese import.

Number 5: ‘Workshop’ (1973)
They may not have been shifting truckloads of records, but their critical stock was rising and The Q with the help of Eddie Kramer continued to develop their sound. This is the last album with drummer Tom Staley and it also marks the first appearance of The Whole Wheat Horns, frequent NRBQ studio and live collaborators. Al Anderson still can’t contribute any songs for contractual reasons, but Joey Spampinato and Terry Adams are firing on all songwriting cylinders. If that was not enough, they also include a Delmore Brothers and a Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee cover. ‘RC Cola And A Moon Pie’ is a long-lasting Q classic. For those Brits reading this, RC Cola and Moon Pie was a workingman’s lunch of a drink with a confection of two cookies filled with marshmallow and dipped in a flavoured coating.

Number 4: ‘All Hopped Up’ (1977)
Things are really happening now. The classic line-up is in place with Tom Ardolino joining on drums and they went into Bearsville Studios to record this classic which was originally released on the band’s own Red Rooster Records following their stint with Kama Sutra Records. As if in recognition that something momentous had happened, the band concentrate on their serious songwriting and instrumental skills rather than push the wackiness of earlier albums. However, this is still the Q, and they do include a Q’d version of the ‘Bonanza’ theme. ‘All Hopped Up’ includes 13 songs and nearly 13 genres, with Big al Anderson finally contributing on the songwriting front. Big Al Anderson’s ‘Ridin In My Car’ is a fine first track that was expected to be a hit. The fact it wasn’t is one of life’s mysteries. ‘All Hopped Up’ is currently available on Omnivore Recordings.

Number 3: ‘Tiddlywinks’ (1980)
‘Tiddlywinks’ is the third of a consecutive trio of albums that are still the pinnacle of NRBQ’s recorded output. It was again recorded at Bearsville Studios and released on the band’s own imprint, confirming that artist success did not always translate into commercial success. The songwriting of Adams, Spampinato and Anderson was in sync as was their musical empathy. There is little to separate ‘Tiddlywinks ’and the other two records in the classic trilogy and their ranking is more down to preference than any real difference in quality. While all the songs are excellent, it was Terry Adams’ ‘Me And The Boys’ that got the most attention, being covered by Dave Edmunds and Bonnie Raitt.

Number 2: ‘Kick Me Hard’ (1979)
We are nearly there, and ‘Kick Me Hard’ could easily have been at number 1. It has great songs from Adams, Anderson and Spampinato and cover versions, again, that cover many genres, again, the Q are at a peak of instrumental synchronicity and their wackiness factor is turned up a notch.  It was recorded by the classic line-up with the Whole Wheat Horns and was recorded around various studios in New York, including Electric Lady. If you wonder where Shakin’ Stevens got the idea to cover ‘This Old House’ then look no further than The Q, they add new lyrics to Alvin and the Chipmunk’s creator Ross Bagdasarian’s ‘Things We Live To Do’ and give a then-current commentary on American drug laws with Terry Adam’s ‘Wacky Tobacky’.

Number 1: ‘At Yankee Stadium’ (1978)
Well, this is it, the best and most representative album in the whole NRBQ canon of recorded music. Why does this album just nudge ‘Kick Me Hard ’and Tiddlywinks’? While all the albums are of a piece and show the Q at their very pinnacle, ‘At Yankee Stadium’ rocks a little harder and eases back a bit on the wackiness making it the best all-round single example of their art.  While the wackiness may be a bit more restrained, the jokes start with the album title. ‘At Yankee Stadium’ is only a studio album named for bassist Joey Spampinato, who is a lifelong New York Yankees’ fan, and the album title and cover shots were meant to be a birthday present for him. The band songs are some of the best they have written, with Adams and Spampinato’s ‘Green Lights’ being a perfect first track. Spampinato hits pure pop gold with ‘I Want You Bad’. The Q also look back at the roots of rock’n’roll with covers of Big Joe Turners ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’, which was there before rock’n’roll was even recognised as a genre, and Johnny Cash’s 1956 B-side ‘Get Rhythm’ which they turned into a real rock’n’roll song and thereby adding insight to their own capability and Johnny Cash’s artistry. On its musical, performance and mixed genre merits. ‘At Yankee Stadium’ deserves to be classed as NRBQ’s best album, and in a fairer and better world, it would feature in every list of the best albums of all time. The Q and this album are that good.


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About Martin Johnson 140 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

16 Comments

  1. Lovely to read something about NRBQ, and it’s impossible to draw up a best of list from such a long and diverse career. However, an honourable mention for the utterly charming You’re Nice People You Are, a collection of songs for children that came out in the mid 90s. The same sense humour as their more conventional material, and speaking from experience as the father of one at the time, it was irresistible to five year olds.

    • As you say Tim, it is impossible to draw-up a top 10 list for the ‘Q’ that everyone would agree on given their longevity and productivity. I agree age is not a requirement to enjoy You Are Nice People You Are. I’m cheating, and sneaking an extra link in just for you .

      https://youtu.be/C3i77Jcqawg

  2. So good to read this feature on nrbq and I agree it is very difficult to rank so many great records. Your list would be a perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with the Q.
    Not sure if many remember but the band played two nights at Camden’s Dingwalls in February 1986 and were fantastic, I’ve seen them in Sweden and the States a few times and they have always been incredible. Terry Adams appeared at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago at one of Hal Wilners productions. Joey also played with Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall.
    And a new album I believe is on its way. What a story.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the piece Andrew, and you are right, I did try and aim it at those poor unfortunates who had never really heard NRBQ to try and help them navigate over 50 years of history.

  3. Martin – Thank you for this top-shelf review of Q’s finest — you know whereof you speak! I’ve been a fan since their debut album in ’69 and first saw them live in ’74. The world would be a better place if NRBQ were superstars. Alas…

    • Thanks for the feedback Michael. I agree the world would be a better place if the Q were better appreciated.

  4. Good stuff and the late 70s trilogy certainly contained some gems most of which you’ve named above. However I also consider ‘Wild Weekend’ (1989) and ‘Message for the Mess Age’ (1994) to be worthy of mention. The latter has the outstanding opener ‘Over Your Head’ and ‘Everybody Thinks I’m Crazy’ both of which would be in my Top 10 NRBQ tracks every time.

    I know you excluded solo efforts but I must just mention Big Al’s ‘Pay Before you Pump’ (1997) as I’m here. An absolute beaut.

  5. A great article. I agree that it is near-on impossible to choose 10 albums … every album contains at least 3-4 killer tracks. At Yankee Stadium is probably the best, for no other reason than it has the pristine I Want You Bad back to back with the sublime and just utterly brilliant The Same Old Thing. Play both of those at maximum volume and you will not experience a better 5 minutes and 32 seconds in your life! And I also have a quiet love for their collaboration with Skeeter Davis – She Sings, They Play. It is almost a guilty pleasure. But there are just a few really weird but cracking tracks on there. Possibly an acquired taste … but when you do acquire it, it is worth it!

    • Another great shout-out Jonathan. ‘She Sings, They Play’ was a true collaboration between The Q and Skeeter, with everyone selecting specific material for the project. As you hint at, once anyone gets the NRBQ bug, 10 albums will never be enough.

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