by Len Lear
Tommy Conwell, 50, a resident of Oreland who previously lived on Ardleigh Street and Benezet Street in Chestnut Hill, is a guitarist, songwriter and performer best known as the frontman for the local band Tommy Conwell & The Young Rumblers. The band had a mainstream rock hit in 1988 with “I’m Not Your Man.”
The original band, consisting of Conwell (guitar, vocals), Paul Slivka (stand-up bass) and Jimmy Hannum (drums), was known for its raw, high-energy live performances which included many classic blues and rock standards. such as “Hideaway” by Freddie King, “Rumble” by Link Wray, “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, together with several original songs, some of which appeared on their debut album, “Walkin’ on the Water.”
They later added keyboard player Rob Miller and Chris Day on guitar. The band’s national major-label debut came when Columbia Records released “Rumble” in 1988, followed by “Guitar Trouble” in 1990. A third album was recorded, but the label chose not to release it. Conwell has made that available on his website, tommyconwellstore.com. This Friday, Nov. 23, 8:30 p.m., Tommy will reunite with the Young Rumblers for a performance at the Electric Factory, 421 N. 7th St. Last week Local Life editor Len Lear interviewed Conwell, who will no doubt be remembered by his many area fans:
•Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Bala Cynwyd and graduated from Lower Merion High School, then went to the University of Delaware, where I majored in rock ‘n’ roll and drinking. I quit school when I was working too many nights of the week playing music to keep up with school.
•When did you decide you wanted to be a musician? Was anyone in your family a musician?
I always played anything I could figure out how to work. That means you have talent, by the way, which no one ever told me; I figured that out on my own. There were no professional musicians in my entire extended family ever, and there was only one artist of any kind; my mom’s uncle by marriage was a pretty well known painter named Richard Wedderspoon. But music was not a career choice that anybody wanted to hear about in my family, especially my mom and dad. It was sort of like saying, “I want to be a movie star.” If you said it, which I almost never did until it was a done deal, everyone would really think you were nuts.
•Are you self-taught, or did you have private lessons, lessons in school, etc.?
I had a few good lessons, then learned by listening to records. My first guitar lesson was the best one I ever had. I could already play a little bit. My teacher, David Rowan, asked me who I wanted to play like. I said Frank Zappa! Ha ha! I guess he thought I was pretty ambitious, and he was coming from a jazz perspective himself, so he showed me how to play virtually every chord there is in four positions — I’m serious — in that first lesson. Four note chords, too, not triads. And I’m so nuts I went home and learned it.
•How did you put the band together, and how did you get work and a record contract?
In college I was beginning to realize that I had some talent that not everyone had — musical talent to some extent but also the ability to perform enthusiastically, which seems completely natural to me but apparently not to everyone. Also, I seemed to be able to win audiences over with some consistency. I learned a whole lot about the bar band business when I was in Rockett 88, the band I quit school to play with, so I knew what the bars wanted, and I had some contacts. When I decided to be the singer, only because it’s easier than trying to find one, I booked a few gigs and got guys to back me up. It’s a lot easier to get people on board when you offer them money.
•After “I’m Not Your Man” became a big hit, where were you expecting your career to go?
Expecting is definitely a strong word. I guess I’ve always tried to avoid that. But I hoped we would keep making solid rock ‘n’ roll records and eventually have a few big hits. A big time rock ‘n’ roll career would have been nice!
•What are the pros and cons of the music business? What, if anything, surprised you about how your career developed?
The biggest pro for me was meeting my heroes and getting to know a few of them. I met Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, David Bowie, Keith Richards and a lot more. We toured with George Thorogood and with Chicago. That was just where it felt magical. The downside? I felt pressure to look cool. I’m sure it was self-imposed, but I felt it. Also, try talking about yourself all day every day to promote your latest album: that can be pretty excruciating!
•Is “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” just a myth, or is that the lifestyle that reflects the life of most rock and rollers?
It sure wasn’t us. I got sober right before we started recording our first album, and I was a one-woman guy — until I got divorced! People who can be high in the radio rock business are rare.
•Many people think that bands that have hit songs must be rolling in money. What is the reality?
The writer (of the songs) makes the money, first of all. Also, most people don’t really know what a hit is. In the industry, a hit is (or used to be) a song that hit the top 10 on the “Hot 100” chart in Billboard. Top 5 is a big hit. Number 2 is fantastic. Number 1 is exponentially more fantastic. My highest charting record was number 48 on the hot 100, and it was a song I didn’t write, “If We Never Meet Again,” by Jules Shear. That’s why I’m in the fence business today!
•What have you been doing in recent years? I know some of your music has appeared on movie soundtracks.
After the Rumblers I had a band called Tommy Conwell and the Little Kings that were pretty amazing in our best moments. You get on movie soundtracks when the publishing company who paid you a lot of money for the rights to your songs says, “Damn, we gotta figure out some way to recoup our losses on this turkey. Call Miramax!” … I also did radio announcing on WYSP for about 12 years, but I never felt like a radio person. I was basically just stealing money and having fun, which is pretty much what rock ‘n’ roll people are supposed to do.
•Overall, how do you feel about your career? And do you have a non-musical “day job?”
I’m grateful. I’ve been so lucky. I am shocked that I am headlining the Electric Factory at 50 years of age with my old friends the Young Rumblers … I work with my brother-in-law, Dave Giorno, in a fence business called The Fence Authority. We provide fences all over the Delaware Valley.
•How long have you lived in Oreland? Why did you decide to live there?
I lived in Chestnut Hill on the 200 block of Benezet Street for about two years and then the 7700 of Ardleigh Street for about two years until Chris, my son, turned 5, then I made the move to Glenside for five years for the schools and then to Oreland in 2004. My wife is Meg, and we have two 18-year-old boys, Chris and Anthony; Tommy is 4, and Chloe (we call her Coco) is 3.
For more information about the concert Friday night, call 215-627-1332 or visit www.electricfactory.com