Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers
Anyone who’s kept an eye and ear open on the career of Tommy Conwell knows that no matter how the chips fall, you can always count on one thing from this intense, Philadelphia-bred young rocker – he’s never going to stray very far from the country and city blues roots of his music.
Whether it’s the tear-ass opening assault of “Guitar Trouble,” title track of the new album on Columbia Records, or the stripped-down harmonica-soaked confession of “Didn’t Want To Sing the Blues” (with guest Rod Piazza of the Mighty Fliers on harp) to name two obvious examples, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to realize that Tommy Conwell is a bluesman, first, last and always.
“I love the blues, you know what I mean? The early version of the Young Rumblers started out as a blues band, a 3-piece called the Boogie Boys. We would play whole albums, like Chuck Berry’s Great Twenty-Eight; his London Sessions is my favorite album. Then we’d do a John Lee Hooker song or Muddy Waters, or we’d work in Slim Harpo, serious stuff!”
Guitar Trouble, produced by Pete Anderson (conspicuous credits: Dwight Yoakum, Michelle Shocked) is one of those rare moments when a band is able to grab hold of its influences, deliver them with resonance and authority, then move beyond those sources to show understanding on a broader plane. More than its predecessor, 1988’s Rumble, the new album is even truer to the sound of Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers.
After the opening “Guitar Trouble” (“I’ve always been comfortable starting the show with a fast song, like a whirlwind, I don’t know why”), the set moves to “She’s Got It All,” one of two songs that Anderson brought in from Milwaukee songwriter John Sieger (Semi-Twang), the other being “Do Right.” “Let Me Love You Too” is one of three tunes that Tommy penned for the new album, a conscious attempt at writing an “up” road song that happens to have a funny lyric besides, “…like, I know you’ve got a boyfriend,” says Tommy, “but let me love you too.”
“I’m Seventeen,” the first single (and another Conwell original) is, if not the greatest rock dedication in modern teen history, then a surefire top 10 contender: “I’m 17 and I don’t know / I guess I’m just a UFO…” Who’s the adult here, anyway? The possibilities are endless. Tommy thought enough of the song to reprise it in stripped-down, acoustic “demo” fashion to close out the album. (And check out guest Bruce Hornsby’s Garth Hudson/Bandstyle licks on the organ.) The video was directed by Gus Van Sant, of Drugstore Cowboy renown.
“Nice ‘n Naughty,” co-written with Robert Cray’s producer Dennis Walker (who wrote “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” for Cray), features some readily identifiable piano riffs by guest Johnnie Johnson, known for his years with Chuck Berry. Next, the aforementioned “Didn’t Want to Sing the Blues” is one of three new cuts co-written with Marci Rauer (the others being “Rock With You” and “Good Love Bad”); the Philadelphia-based songwriter collaborated earlier with Tommy on “I’m Not Your Man,” his first Columbia single from Rumble, and that LP’s gospel-soaked “Gonna Breakdown.”
Before the album ends with part two of “I’m Seventeen,” the Rumblers deliver a real gem, a ballad entitled “What Once Was” by near-forgotten Nashville Underground songwriter Tim Kreckel (from his Sluggers collection). “As soon as I heard it,” says Tommy, “I knew I wanted to do it.” Just like that, complete with George Benson-flavored guitar solo.
As a stubborn and meticulous as Tommy Conwell is about his music, his desires are simple and straightforward: “First I wanted to be Charlie Parker on guitar,” he muses of his early jazz and bebop years, “and then all I ever wanted to be was Jimmie Vaughan,” reflecting on the former lead of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (a band Tommy can never praise enough.)
What does Tommy want now? In true, understated blues style he begins to think out loud, “Right now is a very hard time for musicians who want to play music and play their instruments live – so I’d really like to contribute something, to contribute in the biggest way that I can, to keeping it all alive.
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.”
Tommy got his first guitar in 9th or 10th grade and taught himself to play; soon after, he picked up an electric. His first group, the Elastic Band, had the distinction of playing an outdoor concert at Tommy’s high school.
“I was real ambitious when I first started playing,” recalls Conwell, a bonafide guitar junkie. “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 Rockett 88, an established grind-it-out-six-shows-a-night blues bar band, as a sideman guitarist. 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. The Young Rumblers quickly became regulars 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 shows were eventually broadcast live, including a TV simulcast from Veterans Stadium on Labor Day, 1986.
That same fall, the Rumblers’ lineup expanded with the addition of a rhythm guitarist and keyboardist. Soon afterwards, the new group went into the studio with former Hooter Andy King, who co-produced the first album by Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, Walkin on the Water. An independent regional release, the LP 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 album attracted the attention of record companies and national media, ultimately resulting in deal with Columbia Records in May ’87.
The summer of ’87 found the Rumblers opening for Squeeze, Robert Palmer, Pretenders, Bryan Adams and David Bowie. By October, 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 and Jimmie Vaughan as major influences, then goes on to name 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. Billy Kemp is a guitarist from Baltimore who paid his dues in Nashville. 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 other 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 July ’88 release of Rumble got off to a fast start when “I’m Not Your Man,” the debut single, hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Report’s “Hard 100” the same week the band opened its first headlining tour of the U.S. The first 7-week leg featured a number of special radio events, including a 98-Rock lunchtime concert live from Baltimore’s inner harbor; a WBCN/Boston live broadcast following the station’s annual fireworks display; a big outdoor show at the infamous Dallas Alley hosted by KTXQ’s Redbeard; and a night at the Seattle Paramount as part of KISW’s “Rising Star” series.
The rock press caught the fever: “Subscribers to the ‘sweat first, message later’ school,” wrote Tom Moon in the hometown Philadelphia Inquirer, “this band had made a record like few in recent memory…” The single also benefited from a hot promo video directed by David Hogan. It was filmed at the 23 East Cabaret in Philadelphia, and documented the Rumblers’ grass roots popularity at the site of many an early gig.
The touring turned into a 6-month trip that included a European itinerary in the bargain, shows in Sweden, Norway, Holland, Italy, Germany and England. Meanwhile, a second single and video (“If We Never Meet Again”) took the band through the beginning of 1989. They got one of their biggest breaks in January when they played live on the 16th annual “American Music Awards”; that same month they were seen on “Late Night with David Letterman.” And who can forget their appearance in February with Arsenio Hall, on the show that included Don King and Mike Tyson?
Perhaps their most curious trip was to Japan, where Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers got to experience first hand the phenomenon of ‘ajuku’, where thirty to forty bands line Yoyogi Street in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon and just rock the joint. “They all had little generators, and they’re playing right next to each other so you had to stand right in front to hear ‘em.”
All of which is to say that wherever Tommy Conwell is, guitar trouble can’t be far away. “When I started the Rumblers,” he reiterates, “I wanted it to be a punk blues band – like the way the Stray Cats were a punk rockabilly band, and the Specials were a punk reggae band, and James White and the Blacks were a punk James Brown band.
“I don’t know if I ever pulled it off,” he wonders. “But I’m still trying to mold blues and punk into something where they both stand up, and where they can embrace other things. But it’s been a long time, and things are different now. It’s evolved into whatever the hell the Rumblers are, you know?”