The Pittsburgh Press | “Tommy Conwell’s Rumbling Pays Off”
November 20, 1990
By Peter B. King
Philadelphia’s Tommy Conwell likes to strut across tabletops when he performs in clubs. Occasionally, he’ll even end up outside on the sidewalk, still coaxing wicked licks from his guitar.
You don’t go to a university of rock ‘n’ roll performance to learn those moves. Where did Conwell pick up the tricks of his trade? From Dr. Harmonica, for one, the man to whom Conwell dedicated his new album, “Guitar Trouble.” And just who is Dr. Harmonica?
“I was in his band for about two years, and he taught me a lot,” Conwell says over the phone from Philadelphia. “He was a heavy guy and played harmonica and told dirty jokes. He’d call himself ‘235 pounds of shakin’ bacon’ or…whatever he felt like saying on a particular night. He was funny.”
Conwell, who performs tomorrow night at Graffiti, Oakland, says he has also learned from other blues and R and B performers like Albert Collins, James Brown, George Thorogood and Junior Wells.
“In a blues show, a lot of the time a guy will do a crowd walk, and a lot of times there will be some funny stuff. So that’s what I try to do. The blues guys would always hold the guitar between the legs or behind their back – just crazy, that’s what I’m into.”
Although he was raised in suburban Philadelphia, Conwell, now 28, came up through the same Newark, Del., college nightclub blues scene that spawned Thorogood and Dr. Harmonica. As a freshman at the University of Delaware, Conwell was an overzealous fan of Thorogood. “I’d see him at the bar in town, and from across the room I’d yell ‘Hey George!’ And he’d like totally ignore me. I hope that he doesn’t remember me from those days.”
A few years after he pestered Thorogood, Conwell is as famous in his own right – at least locally. He formed the Young Rumblers and hooked up with Cornerstone Management, the same outfit that manages The Hooters. Rob Miller, the Rumblers’ keyboard player, was formerly a Hooter. Cornerstone also managed Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band until their breakup (Glen Pavone, former KRB guitarist, auditioned for the Young Rumblers but wasn’t hired).
In 1986, Conwell released an independent LP that sold 70,000 copies – more than enough to pique major label interest. Columbia Records signed him, although Conwell denies published reports that they paid about $300,000. Conwell’s first Columbia album, 1988’s “Rumble” sold respectably, with “I’m Not Your Man” getting a lot of airplay. The album was a mix of pop, arena rock and more R&B-based material. On the just-released “Guitar Trouble,” Conwell says he tried to get a little more rootsy.
“I think on this one I told myself that I’m just gonna do what I enjoy doing the most, and what our audience over the years has always enjoyed the most.”
As he seeks stardom, Conwell also has been seeking autographs for his guitar. He’s collected signatures from John Lee Hooker, Keith Richards, Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Ramone and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others. Many of the autographs have been carved into the surface of his ax; Conwell keeps a knife in his guitar case for that very purpose.
Conwell admits the high stakes in the music big leagues can make it tougher to have a good time with good-time rock ‘n’ roll.
“Yeah, there’s all this money involved, and all these New York people. And boy, it can really take the fun out of it quick. I’ve kind of learned to just relax about that. Just because people are investing money in you, and they’re in New York, doesn’t mean you should kowtow to them in any way. Because then you might be ruining something that was special because it was innocent.”