NRBQ is shown in 1990. Clockwise from left are Joey Spampinato, Tom Ardolino,… (Waring Abbott )
Members of the category-defying band NRBQ knew from the outset that their prospects of mainstream success were slim to none.
With a sound and attitude that embraced the seminal rock of Chuck Berry and no-borders expanse of free-form jazz experimentalist Sun Ra, the invigorating dance rhythms of zydeco kingpin Boozoo Chavis and dreamy multilayered pop of Brian Wilson, the quartet spent the '70s, '80s and '90s recording and touring chiefly for the reward of accolades from fellow musicians including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, as well as from a coterie of devoted fans scattered across the planet.
The group's anything-goes-and-usually-does approach was what first caught the ear of 15-year-old drummer Tom Ardolino, who sent a fan letter to keyboardist Terry Adams after catching one of the group's shows in Springfield, Mass. In 1974, Adams invited him to join the group when drummer Tom Staley quit.
Ardolino spent the next few decades providing nimble, propulsive backbeats for bandmates Adams, guitarist Al Anderson and bassist Joey Spampinato until health issues forced him to quit touring. Those problems contributed to his death Friday at age 56 from alcoholism-related illness.
"Tommy deserves an entire wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Raitt told the Boston Globe last year. "There's [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts, and there's Tom Ardolino. That's it."
During NRBQ's relentless touring schedule — they often logged 250 shows a year — Ardolino projected the image of the world's happiest bus driver. Under a mass of long, black curly hair and peering out from behind a grizzly beard and mustache, Ardolino bounced atop the stool of his drum kit as he pounded out sultry shuffles, effervescent swing beats, insistent rock and slinky R&B pulses, country two-steps or intricate jazz polyrhythms that anchored his fellow players' flights of musical fancy.
"Between 1974 and whenever I left that band, I can tell you that that was the baddest-ass rhythm section that ever lived," Anderson told the Boston Globe, referring to the Ardolino-Spampinato half of the group that Anderson left in 1994. "NRBQ was kind of destined not to make it big because critics and radio couldn't put a name on it. But we were so great because we were playing 250 nights a year, and we started thinking with one mind."
Ardolino was born Jan. 12, 1955, and was a teenage amateur drummer in Springfield when he got a call from Adams after Staley decided to bow out.
"I was ready," Ardolino told the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate in 1999, when the band was on a 30th anniversary tour. "My problem was I had to learn to play for like a whole set long, and [to play] harder, because I was used to playing with records, which was soft."
Responding to the moment was NRBQ's calling card in concert, a trait that rarely translates into commercial success, which typically requires steady predictability.
NRBQ could never be easily pigeonholed, and therefore handily marketed, so only three of the group's albums ever charted, in the lower reaches of Billboard's Top 200 Albums rankings. Their 1969 debut "NRBQ," which originally stood for New Rhythm & Blues Quintet, and their 1990 album "Wild Weekend" are among the group's best-known recordings.
"We get disappointed sometimes, and we don't understand," Ardolino told The Times in 1992. "One of our old record labels sent us a statement once claiming the total sales of one of our albums was three cassettes. But it ain't gonna stop us. Besides, I think we have a great life. We get to play whatever we want, and we got to meet a lot of great people. I know all the good record stores in every town."
After the band went on hiatus about a decade ago, Ardolino released a solo album, "Unknown Brain." Adams resurrected NRBQ in recent years and has continued touring and recording, with himself as the only remaining original member.
Elvis Costello once told Rolling Stone, "I'd much rather any day go see NRBQ playing than any of our illustrious punk bands in England."
Ardolino's alcoholism progressed in recent years, according to the Boston Globe, and he was hospitalized in November. He died at Kindred Hospital in Springfield, Mass., the newspaper reported.
He was separated from his wife, Keiko, with whom he had a stepdaughter, Emiko, and a stepson, Liku. He is also survived by his brother, Richard.