BIG AL" ANDERSON
"300 Pounds Of Twangin' Steel & Sex Appeal!"
He wasn't the first. He wasn't the last. However, Al Anderson did spend an amazing 22 years there - playing guitar in the college of muscial knowledge known as The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet or more simply, NRBQ.
Alan Gordon Anderson grew up in Windsor, Connecticut, the son of a bass-playing father and piano-playing / teaching mother. His ear tuned to radio station WWVA out of Wheeling, West Virginia, he heard the sounds of country music that would later so much influence his guitar playing and singing. 'Though he did have some formal guitar training under Dick Provost in Hartford, Conn., most of his learning was done by ear. Early influences included James Burton, Duane Eddy and Chet Atkins. He has confessed to buying every record he could find by Mr. Atkins. (Later in his career, he wrote a song specifically for the guitar legend - regrettably, though, "In My Dreams," went unrecorded by Chet, turning up instead, on the Asleep At The Wheel release, The Wheel Keeps Rolling (Capitol)). The first song he remembers hitting him in a big way was Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line". (Al and the band didn't record this Cash-penned tune but look for his "Get Rhythm" on the 'Q release At Yankee Stadium - Mercury CD 824 462-2.)
The Visuals, Al's first band experience at age 11 were followed by other high school bands such as The Altones and The Six-Packs. At 13, Al joined a couple of bands - an unamed jazz trio and the Blues Messengers. It was in the latter band that he cut his soul teeth.
Anyone interested in very early solo Al should look for Little Al (Red Rooster EP-4) , featuring a 10 year-old Al recorded on a family friend's tape recorder. Interestingly, the standard "Tenderly", found here would later show up in the 'Q's repertoire documented on the Red Rooster/Rounder release Kick Me Hard - The Deluxe Edition (Rounder CD 3030). The Everly Brother's hit "Bye Bye Love", later played in performance by NRBQ is here as well.
In 1966, The Six Packs were re-christened The Wildweeds (Bob Dudek, bass; Skip Yakaitis, percussion; Andy Lepak, drums; Ray Zeiner, organ; Al Anderson, guitar), and the band got serious about their career in music. A teenage Al and the 'Weeds out of Windsor, Connecticut, fought it out for the attention of local fans with The Squires (Bristol, Conn.) and The Blue Beats (Hartford, Conn.), playing Friday night teen hops and frat parties at the University of Connecticut (reportedly playing a killer version of Sam & Dave's "I Thank You").
In the summer of 1967, the bands' huge regional hit (and just the third song Al ever wrote) "No Good To Cry," was picked up by the Chess subsidiary Cadet .The song climbed to #88 on the national charts. As covered by the Florida band Hourglass, "Ain't No Good To Cry" later turned up on the Allman Brothers box set Dreams (Polydor), credited to "songwriter unknown"!
The next few singles failed to reach that height and with a switch to Vanguard, Al turned the direction of the band back to his first love, country music. The lp, The Wildweeds (VSD*6552), released on Vanguard in 1970, featured a new 'Weeds lineup - gone were Ray Zeiner and Andy Lepak. In their place were Andy's brother, Alex, (who came in on bass), and Bob Dudek who made the switch from bass to drums. A couple of better-known songs from this release, "And When She Smiles" and "Mare Take Me Home," were both covered on the Matthews Southern Comfort release Later That Same Year (Decca) and were both covered live in later years by NRBQ.
Those interested in more by the Wildweeds should seek out the "semi-bootleg" recording, Wildweeds Greatest Hits...and More! (CLUB 51 2). This LP, released in 1988, features most of the Cadet singles, a few Vanguard tracks and some unreleased songs.
"Flat Foot Flewzy" (Boppin' The Blues) was Al's introduction to NRBQ, leaving Al a fan of then-'Q- guitarist Steve Ferguson. "Steve Ferguson was a master guitar player. I used to study the records because he was one of the few guys who could play that style better than me."
'Big Al' ("I was big right out of the oven"), as he's been known for most of his career, first met the members of NRBQ at Electric Ladyland studios in New York City where the Wildweeds were busy mixing songs. NRBQ later heard the Wildweeds' album and asked the band to play a show with them in August '71 at Folly Farm in Clinton Hollow, New York - really just an audition for Al as Steve Ferguson had already left the band and they were looking for someone to fill his formidable shoes.
The Big Man joined the band December 10, 1971, just one week prior to the recording of NRBQ's Kama Sutra release Scraps (KSBS 2045). Due to his ongoing contract with Vanguard Records, Al was unable to provide vocals on Scraps. He does, however, play guitar on all tracks (except for one recorded before his arrival), sharing guitar duties on three tracks with Ken Sheehan. Al's first vocal tracks with NRBQ wouldn't be heard until the departure of lead singer Frankie Gadler and the release of WorkShop (Kama Sutra KSBS 2065) in 1972.
Al fulfilled his Vanguard contract obligations in '73 releasing the self-titled solo release, Al Anderson (Vanguard Stereo VSD*79324, Quadraphonic VSQ*40018) which featured NRBQ members Tom Staley (drums) and Terry Adams (keyboards) , Wildweeds' bassist Al Lepak as well as long time Whole Wheat Horn trombonist Donn Adams. Primarily self-penned (along with one Hank William's tune), it remains a much sought after LP (recently released on compact disc in North America on Vanguard).
His Vanguard days behind him, NRBQ's All Hopped Up (Red Rooster 101, 1977) contains Al's first 'Q songwriting credit - and what a song it is! A staple of the NRBQ songbook (still performed today even without Al, vocals by Joey), "Ridin' In My Car", makes it's first appearance on LP here. According to Al, he wrote this tune in five minutes - "They just come in the front door and go out the back." In the tradition of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," it's the first instance of the 'Q's recurrent theme of autos in their songs ("Little Floater", "Me And The Boys", "Rain At The Drive-In", "Boys Life", "Green Lights" being others).
Nineteen eighty-nine saw the release of Al's second solo LP, Party Favors (Twintone - TTR88110-1). Including "Crazy Like a Fox," (a 'Q performance favourite), it's largely a solo effort with appearances by NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino and former Lovin' Spoonful frontman John Sebastian on autoharp. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, Al was also busy around this time in Nashville writing songs with, amongst others, John Hiatt.
In 1993, Al was voted one of "the top 100 guitarists of the 20th century" by MUSICIAN Magazine, receiving accolades in the "team player" catagory. Fully capable of the "big guitar solo" that characterizes many rock guitarists of the day, Al is equally adept at providing the rhythmic background upon which many of NRBQ's own songs are built. Carefully crafted solos abound in the Al catalogue.
Unfortunately, most good things come to an end. Al's tenure in NRBQ ended New Year's Eve, 1993 following a show at New York City's Tramps club.
Earlier that year, Carlene Carter had asked NRBQ to sing on the track, "I Love You 'Cause I Want To," from her upcoming release Little Love Letters (Giant CD 24499). She and Al had a talk about songwriting which resulted in Al making a trip back to California where the two co-wrote, "Every Little Thing." That song would turn out to be the biggest hit of Carlene's career (so far) and a top five hit around the world. Al confesses he never thought the song would be such a huge hit. Success of this kind appealed to Al and he decided to get off the ride.
He admits to being dissatisfied in the band for maybe four years at the time of his departure. Playing the same songs in the same places was getting old to him. "No hard feelings. It was a great band before and it will be great after". As for NRBQ, they never missed a beat, picking up Johnny Spampinato ('Q bassist Joey's brother) from the Incredible Casuals and continuing on their musical marathon.
Pay Before You Pump (Imprint IMPCD10004), Al's third solo release, was released to positive reviews in the fall of '96. The "Joined At The Hip Band" (Reese Wynans, Glenn Worf, Chad Cromwell) provide solid backup with guest appearances on vocals by Elvis Costello, Delbert McClinton and Ron Sexsmith. Recorded during a two-day period in Nashville, it's a return to Al's hard-rockin' roots with dashes of country, zydeco and a trip to Muscle Shoals. "The record gave me a chance to stop doing country", explains Anderson. "After five years, I was ready to rock. Every song on this record is a first take, except 'A Change Is Gonna Do Me Good' because I decided to change a chord and 'That Thang' which is a second take because it was too much fun to play only once." Of the album, Al says, "This is the first good one. There were no hurdles on this record. That's what I like about it". Unfortunately, Imprint suspended its music operations in 1997. Al hopes to buy the record back, so it doesn't, in his words, "fall into the hands of some cutout guy in New Jersey."
Big Al's release, After Hours, arrived early 2004. On this independantly released CD, he's fully embraced his role as singer/songwriter, sharing writing credits with (amongst others) Jeffrey Steele (ex-Boy Howdy), Delbert McClinton, Miles Zuniga (Fastball), Tia Sellers (who co-wrote "I Hope You Dance" & "There's Your Trouble") and Gary Nicholson ("Better Word For Love"). Co-produced by Scott Baggett, After Hours features the same core band as Pump (Cromwell, Worf, Wynans) and horn charts by NRBQ horn man Jim Hoke. You'd be hard pressed to find a "guitar solo" on the whole album but the songs are uniformally great and the performances spot on. Al even shares lead vocalist duties with co-writers Tia Sellers and Sharon Vaughn as each take a turn a turn on their respective songs. Look to hear the NRBQ classic "Better Word For Love" and the song Al penned for Chet Atkins, "In My Dreams". This ain't no party album, but then, that isn't what it's trying to be, either. This is Al Anderson singing the Al Anderson songbook and includes some of the very best songs Big Al has written.
Big Al appeared on a total of 12 NRBQ full-length releases (13 if you count RC Cola and a Moon Pie which is essentially a re-worked Workshop - 14 if you wanna count the EP Christmas Wish). He also appeared with NRBQ on the Skeeter Davis release She Sings, They Play and the late, sometime-Whole-Wheat-Horn saxist Gary Windo's Dogface. Al and the band provide music on Stormalong, a children's story (narration by John Candy) as well as backing up John Sebastian on his tracks contributed to the soundtrack for the feature length cartoon, The Care Bears Movie ( Kid Stuff DAR 3901 LP).
These days, Al is working primarily as a song-writer. Hank Williams Jr. kicked off Al's songwriting career back in '88 (however, Big Al did receive the first annual "Connecticut Songwriter if the Year Award" in 1979), recording his "You're Gonna Be A Sorry Man" for his gold-award winning release Wild Streak. His songs have since been covered by a veritable who's who of "new country" artists including The Mavericks, Hal Ketchum, Deanna Carter and Lee Roy Parnell. Also in demand as a session player, Big Al's guitar playing can be found on releases by various artists including Brothers Phelps, Kevin Welch, The Highwaymen and more. These days, Al splits his time between Connecticut and Nashville where he writes with some of the best tunesmiths in Music City. At this point in time, he has said he is not even slightly interested in forming a touring band. "I'm very reluctant to go on the road. They don't make a bunk long enough." He has performed with the "Hip" band in Nashville at clubs like the Birds Eye Cafe and the Exit/In. Big Al was also one quarter of Three Chunks and A Chick, performing at The Bluebird Cafe with writing partners Bob DiPiero, Craig Wiseman and Sharon Vaughn. Presently, you might find Al performing around Music City with his Nashville-based combo,Whitey, which also includes Jeffrey Steele, guitarist Scott Baggett, bassist Glenn Worf, keyboardist Reese Wynans and drummer Chad Cromwell. With any luck we'll see a new release by the group in the near future.
Al has also kept himself busy singing radio and television jingles - Tide, Rax Roast Beef and United States Fidelity and Guaranty have been mentioned as ads his voice has graced. Also, you may have seen or heard him in "Double J" Jeff Jarrett's backup band for a WWF pay-per-view event or performing the entrance music for WWF wrestler Billy "Rockabilly" Gunn.
Being the guitarist for NRBQ is no easy feat. In the course of an evening's show, you might be called on to play a Duke Ellington tune, some Carl-Perkins-rockabilly, country a-la No-Show-Jones, NRBQ's own grab bag of songs or perhaps something from the Magic Box - a box into which the crowd submits songs for the band to perform - anybody's songs. Perhaps overshadowed by his guitar playing, let's not forget Al's fine soulful voice. Just as his guitar playing ran the gamut of styles, so was he called on to sing a wide variety of cover songs and originals. Big Joe Turner, Johnny Cash, Billy Stewart, Charles Wright. Al could sing 'em all and make them his own. Some of Al's personal favourite NRBQ tunes include "Magnet" (Scraps), "Roll Call" (Tiddlywinks) and "I Want You Bad" (At Yankee Stadium).