If you watch NRBQ closely on stage at the Warner Theatre tomorrow night, you will notice that Al Anderson, the band's grizzly bear guitarist, and Joey Stamtinato, the chipmunk bassist, will lean slightly toward Terry Adams before each song. That's because the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet plays without a set list; Adams, a blond mop top, simply chooses each song on his whim at the moment.
"It's all in Terry's mind," Anderson chuckles. "Sometimes he'll shout one word; sometimes he'll just play a note, and we'll know what it is. Sometimes we know what he's going to do before he does it, just because we feel it. It's spontaneous. Nothing's worse than to go on tour and do the same thing every night."
Adams is likely to call out any one of the 500 numbers in the band's repertoire. It could be Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm," Thelonious Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie," Willie Dixon's "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover," Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" or "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen." It could be one of the group's much-covered originals: "Me and the Boys," "Green Lights" or "Ridin' in My Car."
Adams could stand up from behind his clavinet to introduce one of the band's friends who are frequent guests: country music legend Skeeter Davis, Lovin' Spoonful founder John Sebastian, wrestling champion Captain Lou Albano, the Whole Wheat Horns, Garage-punksters, the Half Japanese or . . . the Cabbage Patch Doll.
About a year ago, displaying its typically perverse commercial instincts, NRBQ jumped on the Cabbage Patch doll bandwagon. Because the country had fallen in love with the doll with the birth certificate, the group adopted the first Cabbage Patch doll with a death certificate. NRBQ exploded one doll with a firecracker at the Bayou in Washington, tarred and feathered another in Boston and made one walk the gangplank off a cruise ship in Baltimore Harbor.
"We don't have anything against them," Adams says, like a schoolboy in a principal's office. "Something just comes over us. We usually feel sorry about it afterwards. We're bringing a Cabbage Patch Doll to Washington Tuesday night, but we don't know what will happen to it."
NRBQ doesn't have any plans to release a record with the Cabbage Patch Doll, but it has just released a long-planned album with Skeeter Davis, plus the first NRBQ Christmas album. In the works are projects with Albano, Sebastian and Hal Willner's tribute to Charles Mingus as well as an all-new, all-original NRBQ album.
Davis, who will appear with the band tomorrow night, has enjoyed a career nearly as unusual and eclectic as NRBQ's. Born Mary Frances Penick 54 years ago today , she got her start with her friend Betty Jack Davis as the Davis Sisters. The duo had an eerie Kentucky harmony that jumped to a rockabilly beat, and scored a No. 1 country hit in 1953 with "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know."
"Ever since my father came home one day with a Davis Sisters' record," Adams recalls, "that sound has haunted me. I liked their music because it was so country and yet it had a smell to it: It was genuine and innovative. The way the pedal steel guitar is used in country music is all based on the way the Davis Sisters bent harmony notes. The first Everly Brothers album was almost an exact copy of the Davis Sisters sound."
Two years after Betty Jack Davis died in a 1953 car wreck, Skeeter Davis moved to a more mainstream country career. Her 1963 single, "The End of the World," became a pop hit all over the world; even today she regularly tours Africa and the Caribbean. When she isn't out of town, she's still a regular at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry every weekend.
In September, NRBQ joined Davis at the Grand Ole Opry to perform "Ain't Nice to Talk Like That" from its new album together, "She Sings, They Play" (Rounder). "That's something we'd always wanted to do," says Adams. "We've done just about everything else. It felt crazy. It's like playing for an entire roomful of my parents: 5,000 moms and dads."
The NRBQ holiday album, "Christmas Wish" (Rounder), contains an appealing carol by Stamtinato, a heartfelt arrangement of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas," plus such items as a free jazz version of "Jingle Bells."
"Every year we get together and record a Christmas tune, even if it's just for ourselves," Adams says. "Over the years we've recorded a lot of Christmas stuff and we just thought we'd put the best of it together in one place.
"My favorite Christmas records of all time are the first one by Elvis, the one by the Beach Boys and the Stan Kenton Christmas album. I like Christmas music that sounds like Christmas. A lot of groups today put out records that mention Christmas in the lyrics but don't really sound like Christmas."
A third NRBQ album, "Lou & the Q" (Rounder), should be released in January. This album will document the group's collaborations with Albano, both on stage and in the studio. Though Albano is now famous for his videos with Cyndi Lauper and for the Epic Records "Rock and Wrestling" Anthology, it was NRBQ that first introduced Albano to the music world in 1979.
"We've all been big wrestling fans since we were kids," Adams confesses. "I never cared much for the other sports -- just wrestling and ping-pong. In the '70s, we used to get pro wrestlers to emcee our shows; Captain Lou was our favorite. At the time though, we weren't able to convince the music industry of pro wrestling potential.
"Now I think wrestlers are in danger of making a mockery of themselves. . . . Whenever you have a good idea and you can't get it across, usually somebody else does. All I can say is, wherever rock 'n' roll goes, we've already been there and gone."