Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers' Rumble. [July 9 - August 9]
'Rumble' On The Streets Tommy Conwell Brings Back 'Heartland' Sound
By JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: August 09, 1988
When a band has been warming up in the bullpen as long as Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, you might suspect they'd go a little crazy, act a bit excessive, when they finally take the field with their major league album debut.
On the contrary, one marvel of "Rumble," the group's four-years-in-the- coming Columbia album hitting the streets (and stores) today, is how straightforward, how frill-free and nitty-gritty, their musical nuggets seem.
Another marvel - much more important - is how often these guys seem to be connecting with home runs, track after track. And they make it look so easy!
Close those eyes and hold the 'phones to your ears. You'll readily envision this blues-rocking quintet performing live - knocking out their 1950s- flavored Chuck Berry-ish tribute "Workout" or flying high on the giddy ''Walkin' on the Water," cutting to the quick with their rebel yell "I'm Not Your Man" or wailing their "Boss"-like "Love's on Fire."
Tommy's raspy/righteous vocals are just as warm and intimate on tape as in concert. I can almost see this consummate mugger rolling his eyes and licking his sweat. His spitfire guitar runs are a mite abbreviated compared to his showboating live renderings (playing one-handed or behind his back), yet recorded versions still maintain the sting and vigor.
Overall, the band (original drummer Jim Hannum and bassist Paul Slivka, late 1986 additions Chris Day on guitar and keyboardist/guitarist Rob Miller) sounds cohesive but never sterile or packaged in this Rick Chertoff-produced long player. And the good impression lingers even after hearing the album a half dozen times.
Don't take just my word for it. America's rock radio programmers have also responded well to Conwell's clarion call of back-to-the-basics "heartland" music, by making "I'm Not Your Man" the most-added track to their playlists for two weeks running. Other ear-catchers like "Half a Heart" and the touching ballad "If We Never Meet Again" (a Jules Shear original also found on his Restless Sleepers album in a less-accessible rendering) are already being talked about as strong follow-up singles.
"We want radio to tell us what the hits are," said Rumblers manager Steve Mountain. "We want them to spread the word, rather than us hype them."
Leading up to their radio coup, the Rumblers stomped a whole lotta rump at a recent Columbia-organized showcase performance at the Chestnut Cabaret (on the stormy night of July 21). Lured by a big advance buzz on this band - including a favorable Rolling Stone profile, the 70,000 sales of the group's indie record "Walkin' on the Water" and a bidding war involving 13 record labels for the Rumblers' services - the pilgrims came to Philly in droves. They included the nation's top 15 concert promoters, representatives of the 10 biggest record chains and 30 radio programmers from the United States and Europe. And when all was said and sung, these seasoned pros cheered as hard as the old-line hometown Conwell fans.
How is Tommy Conwell reacting to all this fuss? With the same sort of low- stress, forthright and good-humored attitude that makes his music seem so fresh. "Nobody can schmooze like industry people. They can make you feel like Beethoven," he related the other night before hitting the stage at 23 East. ''All that's nice. It's fun, if you don't take it too seriously. But what I do take seriously is that people seem genuinely enthused, ready to support us, and that's no jive."
Asked why he chose to tack a comical rap onto the beginning of "I'm Not Your Man," Conwell suggested (tongue-clearly-in-cheek) it's "because we're always controversial. Yeah, The Rumblers are such upsetters. Actually, we're giving radio two versions - with or without the talk - so they can play it as they want."
Quite a student of soul and blues music, Conwell, 26, concedes that his rap was inspired by a "soul humorist of the '60s, Rudy Ray Moore. He was the soul version of Lord Buckley, a really hysterical guy."
Yet in general, there isn't nearly as much straight-ahead blues to be heard in the Rumblers' sound today, at least not compared to four years ago, when the group first started as a trio. Conwell, a native of Bala Cynwyd, started out taking piano lessons in second grade and in high school started to play jazz guitar. Then, at the University of Delaware, he started making connnections between jazz and blues, and learned how to emote through his ax.
"I still love the blues, still go to the record store and buy blues records all the time. But I haven't written a song like 'A Million Pretty Girls' in a while. I guess it comes down to the realization that I'm not black and I don't live in the 1950s. I'm a white man in 1988. I do the blues because I love it, but I don't think I can do it justice as much as with rock and roll, which is music for young white guys who love the blues. That's how it was when Elvis Presley did it. And how I want to continue holding onto it, in my way."
"There are no blues songs on this album," said Conwell. "But in my guitar solos I flatter myself to think I can hear the influences of Chuck Berry and B.B. King, Albert King and Elmore James. There's also some Philly funk - on Kae Williams' collaboration 'I Wanna Make You Happy' - and Texas blues when I play my guitar through a Leslie organ amp on 'Everything They Say Is True.' So while it's basically rock and roll, there are blues nods all over the place."