Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers' Rumble. [July 9 - August 9]
Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers
- Biography -
Columbia Records Press and Publicity
Philadelphia’s Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers play their music with one goal in mind – to keep it honest, with a distinctive edge. It has been this edge that’s taken Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers from the trenches of local rock to the brink of national acclaim. Rumble, their aptly-titled debut album for Columbia, grabs hold of the raw intensity and honesty that characterize both Conwell and his music.
Each of the ten tracks on Rumble exhibits a straightforward approach to rock ‘n roll that is deftly meshed with touches of blues, pop, funk and gospel. The record is raw rock and pure pop; each cut as infectious as the one before. Rumble was produced by veteran Rick Chertoff, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Hooters’ Nervous Night and One Way Home, the Outfield’s Play Deep, and Patty Smyth’s Never Enough – which features Tommy’s guitar solo on the single, “Isn’t It Enough.”
Uncharacteristic of many bands, Rumble is true to the sound of the band. There are no special effects or filler orchestration to detract from what is a distinctive rock ‘n roll album. What is most apparent is the startling clarity of the vocals and musical arrangements. Most importantly, says Tommy, “Rumble sounds like us.”
This message is brought home on the opening “I’m Not Your Man,” a bluesy rocker that was Tommy’s first collaborative effort (with Philadelphia songwriter Marcy Rauer, who also wrote the gospel-soaked “Gonna Breakdown” with Conwell) that is also the LP’s first single. In between, Tommy’s passionate singing and the band’s well-crafted harmonies provide the album’s cohesive strength, starting with “Half a Heart,” a collective effort from Conwell, Chertoff, and Hooters Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian.
“If We Never Meet Again,” described by the singer as “a real loving song,” was penned by Jules Shear; he and Tommy co-wrote “Tell Me What You Want Me To Be” with its strong Bo Diddley beat. Another collaborator is fellow Philly rocker Robert Hazard (composer of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), who joined with Tommy on two songs, “Love’s On Fire” and “Everything They Say Is True,” the latter employing a “Texas trick” of playing the guitar directly into a Lesley lamp generally used for organs.
Kae Williams is a funk songwriter/producer who provided the working groove for “I Wanna Make You Happy”; Chertoff and Conwell completed the lyrics to the song, which the singer says is “very much inspired by Sly Stone, with a ‘Family Affair’-type vibe to it.” The album closes with “Walkin’ On the Water,” an old Rumblers number brought up to date, also a bit of church/gospel feel in the background vocals.
Working with producer Chertoff proved a positive experience. “Some people think producers force the artist to do what they want or think will sell, but Rick is just the opposite of that. He tried to get me to be my best, which is a very important goal, and the amazing thing is that he succeeded. We had a true artist/producer relationship. He pushed me to do things that I might not have done without him, but that were inside me.”
Tommy Conwell was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia. Brought up in a supportive family, he remembers music always being an influence. “I remember the first record I ever bought was ‘Wipe Out.' I remember it because I went to the shop with my buddy who bought ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’ and all the guys were laughing at him.” He got his first guitar in 9th or 10th grade and taught himself to play; soon after, he picked up an electric. His first band, the Elastics, had the distinction of once playing an outdoor concert event at Tommy’s high school.
“I was real ambitious when I first started playing,” recalls Conwell, a bonafide guitar junkie from the start, who remembers staying home from school or cutting classes with only one thing in mind: playing guitar. “I wanted to be the best, the best guitar player. So I said to myself ‘What’s the hardest music?’ There was a lot of jazz in Philly, and that type of music was a challenge. Plus, it felt right. Traditional jazz was something I felt I could do and no one else was doing it.”
He first encountered the real blues when he entered the University of Delaware at Newark. “I saw blues as a liaison between jazz and rock. I was really into punk, which I loved for the performance, drive and party of the music, and jazz which I felt just emoted from the guitar. Blues seemed like earthy rock ‘n roll with a lot more improv.”
While at school, Tommy joined an established grind-it-out-six-shows-a-night blues bar band as a sideman guitarist. Although the position wasn’t the one he aspired to, it was during that year and a half that he feels he got his “chops.” He also began turning the heads of local music scene insiders.
Tommy Conwell formed the Young Rumblers in February 1984. By the fall, the lineup had solidified with Delaware musicians Paul Slivka on bass and Jim Hannum on drums. Almost immediately the Young Rumblers became a fixture on the mid-Atlantic music scene, consistently filling night clubs to capacity and clearly affecting the audience. Their stature grew to the extent that eight of their performances have already been broadcast live, including a television simulcast from Veterans Stadium on Labor Day 1986.
That same fall, the Rumblers’ lineup expanded with the addition of rhythm guitarist and vocalist Chris Day, and keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Rob Miller, formerly with Robert Hazard and the Heroes, and the Hooters. Soon afterwards, the new group went into the studio with now-former Hooter Andy King, who co-produced Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers’ first album, Walkin’ On the Water. An independent regional release, the LP has sold over 70,000 copies and received heavy airplay on Philadelphia radio, as well as on numerous AOR, CHR and college stations across the country.
Walkin’ On the Water also included early versions of four songs redone for the band’s Columbia debut: “I’m Not Your Man,” “Love’s On Fire,” “Everything They Say Is True,” and “Walkin’ On the Water.” The LP attracted the attention of record companies and national media, ultimately resulting in a deal with Columbia Records in May 1987. The summer of ’87 found the Young Rumblers opening for Squeeze, Robert Palmer, Pretenders, Bryan Adams, and David Bowie. By October 1987, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers had been profiled in Rolling Stone; a month later, they received the “Most Promising New Artist” award at the first annual Philadelphia Music Foundation Awards show.
As a musician, Tommy Conwell is influenced by a wide variety of artists. He cites Charlie Parker as his all-time biggest influence, but also includes Jimmy Vaughan (the Fabulous Thunderbirds), Chrissy Hynde (Pretenders), George Thorogood, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. Tommy’s innate talent strikes all who come in contact with him, but is something he develops without dwelling upon it. “From the start,” he says, “I think that my best asset is that God made me different from everybody else. Everyone has that asset, but not everyone chooses to use it.”
The musicians that complete the Rumblers’ sound are best described as intense perfectionists. Jim Hannum’s strong drums and obvious love of the stage pervade each performance. A passionate music lover, he and Conwell often grill each other on new music. Paul Slivka’s steady rock bass playing shows control and technique that have developed strongly over the years. Rhythm guitarist Chris Day’s musical background is anchored in hard rock, and provides a creative balance with the leader’s often blues-oriented lead. Initially, however, it was Day’s stage presence and performance that drew Tommy to him.
Rob Miller adds depth to the overall sound on keyboards and guitar. “He’s the analyst of the band,” laughs Tommy. It’s great because we didn’t have that before. He forces us to look at areas, to evaluate in a technically musical sense. I’m just interested in the magic. Rob is my other half, plus he’s a very, very talented musician.”
The songwriting collaborations on Rumble are a natural extension of the process that started on Walkin’ On the Water. “Collaborating has helped me as a songwriter,” Tommy asserts. “After awhile, it’s lonely writing songs by yourself. It’s a lot more fun writing with someone else. When you write on your own, you’re thinking; when you write with someone, you’re talking, and there’s something nice about that. I’ve been real lucky in that all the people I’ve worked with are great writers.”
Although Tommy Conwell has achieved a degree of stardom in his own right in the mid-Atlantic region for some years now, noticeably absent is the arrogance or attitude often witnessed in new up-and-comers. Sincere, amicable, and unaffected by the national recognition that looms ahead with his first Columbia LP, Tommy is as real as his hard-hitting music. Yet with his music, he is stubborn and meticulous.
As Rumble hits the streets, he is very excited to say the least. “This LP really captures what we’ve come up to over the past four years, and I’m really proud of that.”
“I can’t wait to tour,” he adds. “That’s when I’ll know we’ve really made it, when we’re playing in California to a happening crowd. But right now I try not to have expectations. I’ll work hard today and take the results as they come.”
With its mix of musical prowess, raw energy and intensity, and a sound that transcends characteristic boundaries, Tommy Conwell’s new album packs a potent punch. No doubt, this band’s time has come, and there’s no telling how big they will become. Just put your ear to the ground and feel the rumble.