In Memoriam: Donn Adams (1944-2023)

When Johnny Rabb phoned Donn Adams in Louisville two months ago, he got a funny surprise. “I gave him ‘the business’ over the phone because we always goofed on each other,” said Rabb, thinking at first that he’d been talking with and playfully insulting Donn. “Then I realized it was Terry” on the phone, Donn’s brother and NRBQ founder, keyboardist and bandleader.

In that call, one of several they regularly made each month, Donn told Rabb he’d been listening to an album by Rabb’s band, the Neanderthals, who look like the Flintstones in animal print caveman garb and play primal, blunt-force rock. Donn said the album cracked him up.

Donn Adams, left, with Joey Spampinato (Photo by Michael Hochanadel)

Some weeks later, the call wasn’t so funny.

“A couple of weeks ago, I called and he told me he was in the hospital,” said Rabb. Donn’s stomach trouble turned out to be cancer. A week later, Rabb called to check on his longtime musician pal and sometime band-mate, but Donn was actually having a treatment. “I’ll call you back,” Donn promised. “That never happened,” Rabb mourned. “After he was diagnosed, it was only like three weeks and the (affectionate obscenity) died.”

Donn Adams’ death hit many musicians and fans hard. “I loved him like a brother,” said Rabb. 

“He was a guy who never had a bad day, at least not that I ever heard about,” said Rabb. “He was always in the best of spirits and had a great sense of humor.”

They met in the mid-90s, but not on an NRBQ gig, which is how most fans first met Donn. In the 70s and 80s, he was an every-show touring NRBQ member, playing trombone alongside saxophonist Keith Spring, then a succession of other horn players, and singing “Wooly Bully” or “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” in a happy bellow. Donn later became an intermittent guest player while teaching high school physics, first in Newburgh, then in Louisville.

Rabb met Donn when Donn came to Albany from Saugerties with saxophonist Gary Windo (another NRBQ perennial) to fill in for saxophonist Gene Oliveri with Rabb’s Jailhouse Rockers. They played LarkFEST in the afternoon, 288 Lark that night, then in roadhouses, including the Old Post Road Saloon in East Greenbush. When Windo left, saxophonist Luke McNamee joined the band alongside Donn, and sometimes Cliff Lyons, another Albany stalwart.

Donn Adams, second from left, with, from left Al Anderson, guitar_ Joey Spampinato, bass_ Gary Window, saxophone (singing_goofing here)_ Tom Ardolino (drums, but shown singing_goofing here)_ Terry Adams, piano (Photo by Michael Hochanadel)

“He knew the music,” said Rabb of Donn, emphasizing “knew” to suggest a comprehensive rock and roll knowledge and noting the Jailhouse Rockers were then branching out from their original rockabilly sound. 

This versatility led to a special star-time gig at an RPI party.

Rabb got a phone call asking, “Would you be interested in being the band for Bo Diddley?” He said, “I thought about it for about half a second! Wow! – wouldn’t that be cool!” He took the gig and told Donn about it; Donn told brother Terry Adams. “Terry said to Donn – he goes ‘I gotta, I gotta play piano on that gig for sure!’” The Adams brothers and Lyons then joined the Jailhouse rockers behind the rock pioneer: Rabb, vocals; Eddie Angel, guitar; Buck Malen, bass; and Danny McCarroll, drums.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Rabb, “playing with our hero. Terry was all over it, knew all the parts from the records.”

Rabb recalled, “We were supposed to play two 45-minute sets, and we ended up playing two almost hour-and-a-half sets. It was great; for some reason, Bo just wanted to play.” Of course, Bo did: he was playing with Albany’s top rockers.

Backstage with Bo Diddley_ Donn Adams, trombone_ Cliff Lyons, saxophone_ Buck Malen, bass_ Eddie Angel, guitar_ Bo Diddley_ Johnny Rabb, vocals_ Danny McCarroll, drums_ Terry Adams, piano

However, that edition of the Jailhouse Rockers went to new gigs. Angel moved to Nashville with Jeannie Smith and the Hurricanes and now leads wrestling-masked surf-guitar rockers Los Straitjackets, often backing British pub-rocker Nick Lowe, including a dozen dates this summer opening for Elvis Costello. McCarroll has been president of Warner Brothers Records and Capitol Records, also held top jobs at Amazon Music and EMI Music Publishing, and recently launched Litmus as a music publishing and licensing company. Lyons has played with Ed Palermo’s big band and now plays with the Average White Band. Terry Adams leads NRBQ, playing The Hangar in Troy at the end of September. Buck Malen died in 2016.

Rabb plays with the Neanderthals, periodic Jailhouse Rockers reunions, and other bands, recently playing a country-music cruise from Miami and festivals in Spain. In January, he played in The Hangar’s annual Elvis Presley birthday tribute. 

“I’ve also been playing a lot of peoples’ memorials,” Rabb said sadly, noting tribute shows for guitarist Frank Daley (a longtime Bo Diddley band member), Joe Mele’s suicide prevention benefit show honoring his late son Dustin, and some years earlier, saxophonist Tom D’Ambrose of the Sharks.

Rabb recalled his shock at hearing from a mutual friend and former Blotto drummer Paul “F. Lee Harvey Blotto” Rapp that Donn Adams had passed. Rabb’s wife and secretary Nancy had spotted Rapp’s Facebook post noting Adams’ passing.

Rabb and I go way back; I’ve seen him play many times in many bands. I told him about a conversation with my musician brother Jim Hoke (who guests with NRBQ some) and musician friends of his, all Nashville studio cats. They were talking about NRBQ, and one of them said, “Who’s that guy? That guy played trombone. He didn’t have great chops but he was such a great guy.” And I realized, Oh, they’re talking about Donn.

“It’s a sad thing to share this bad news,” I told Rabb. “But I’m glad to have a chance to share it with you because you knew him so well.”

Signing off, I said, “Okay, be well, don’t be sad, be well.”

Rabb replied, “It’s hard not to be, right now, but yeah.”

  1. Michael Murphy says

    Donn was actually born in 1944. Great article though. His girlfriend, Margaret, just wanted to set the record straight.

  2. Jim Gilbert says

    Fixed!! Thank you.

  3. Dude Campbell says

    Donn and Joey Spamp and several others aged basketball in the S.A.A. half court league. They rarely won and never cared. That was their attitude, to give it your all and and do it with a smile. I will miss lots. Great guy and good casual friend. Condolences to his huge family and most of all his brother and his better half, Margaret.

  4. Scott Birney says

    First met Donn in mid seventies when our band opened for NRBQ a bunch of times Really nice guy. Love to Terry and especially Phil Crandon, wherever he might be.
    Scott Birney

  5. Gunther Wilderman says

    A perfect tribute to one wild and crazy gentleman of great life, humor, expertise, professionalism and pure whacky fun. Donn, you gave me great joy in your music and outlook.

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