R.I.P. Tom Ardolino, The Unsung Extraordinary Drummer

- January 17, 2012

"As a drummer, I study other players’ styles and techniques and have to say Ardolino was one of a kind"

One of my favorite drummers, Tom Ardolino, died recently at the age of 56. As both a musician and a person, he fascinated me. Through his many years with the band NRBQ, Tom displayed a unique and mystifying talent.

NRBQ (New Rhythm & Blues Quartet/Quintet) began in 1967 and throughout its career, eluded major success. Could it be their freewheeling attitude and genre-hopping music makes them difficult to market? On their 1969 debut LP, the ‘Q had remakes of Eddie Cochran and Sun Ra songs mixed in with their original compositions. They turned out to be a record promoter’s nightmare.

While still a teenager, Ardolino began corresponding with NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams. Both were avid record collectors and they traded tapes of obscure recordings. Ardolino often attended their performances and one night in 1974, their drummer didn’t return to the stage for an encore. Adams signaled Tom to step up. Rumor has it that guitarist Al Anderson didn’t even notice the switch. When the original drummer departed the group soon afterward, there was no question who his replacement would be. Mind you, this kid had never been in a band before!

As a drummer, I study other players’ styles and techniques and have to say Ardolino was one of a kind. His playing was unorthodox yet solid and swinging. His attack and sticking methods baffled even pros. With original bassist Joey Spampinato, they became the rhythm section (often jokingly referred to as the Ravioli Brothers), respected by the likes of Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Elvis Costello.

NRBQ never used a set list and Ardolino's ability to know the next song in band leader Adam’s head was nothing short of telepathic. With a repertoire that was limitless, group members had to be ready for anything. For many years, they employed the “magic box” in their live shows, into which audience members would write down song suggestions. The band would pull out titles and play ‘em—rock oldies, show tunes, TV themes, jazz standards, Anything. NRBQ’s spontaneity was impressive, their improvisations creative. The results were always entertaining.

I was fortunate to be able to visit and hang out with NRBQ on various occasions. Ardolino and I chatted about music and ended up swapping tapes. He could be down to earth or delightfully eccentric. The conversation never turned to drumming however and I eventually realized he didn’t know how he did what he did and therefore couldn’t articulate it. Nevertheless, I’d hoped to write an article about him for Modern Drummer magazine. They passed on the suggestion, saying something had already been printed about him. I located the so-called feature from 2005 and found it to be merely a few cursory paragraphs that did him little justice. Then it dawned on me that the magazine wants to sell issues and NRBQ didn’t have hits. In other words, despite his unique approach to drumming, Ardolino apparently wasn’t contemporary or trendy enough. Too bad. I can’t imagine Modern Drummer readers not finding him a worthy subject.

A collection of basement recordings Ardolino made around 1972 was issued on a 2004 LP titled Unknown Brain. He was quite the adventurous 17-year-old, learning drums and also playing whatever other instruments might be handy. In the album’s liner notes, Ardolino wrote “I never learned how to play keyboards or guitars. I would kind of hear something in my head and just try to go for it by wherever I’d feel my hands should go.” The range of material on the Unknown Brain, from obscure oldies to TV themes and improvisations, further illustrates what a perfect fit he was for the quirky NRBQ.

Remember those magazine ads that lured would-be lyricists with promises to get them recorded? “Big money could be yours!” Ardolino had an interest in these song poems—recordings that had been churned out by studio factories. Some were so bad they were good. Others were just...bad. This was exactly the sort of thing Ardolino was attracted to. He assembled a 1992 compilation LP issued as Beat Of The Traps and was featured in the 2003 documentary Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story.

Tom loved cats. His artwork for the latest NRBQ release, Keep This Love Goin’, and 1997’s You’re Nice People You Are incorporated feline themes. It wasn't unusual for him to insert a “Meow” into a conversation and that was often his written signature. Some years ago, the 'Q guys were hanging out at our house in Michigan. While the rest of us talked music and records, Ardolino sat on our kitchen floor, petting and talking to our cat. I'll always remember that scene.

So to Tom Ardolino I say "Meow." I miss you already.