In 1974, Thomas Erdelyi became Tommy Ramone. The last surviving original member of the band is remembered as the odd man out who helped shaped the sound and look of punk rock's founding fathers.
This feature first appeared in the July 26th issue of Billboard Magazine.
Tommy was the first one I knew. At the time, my day job was at 16 Magazine and at night I was covering CBGB and the downtown music scene for the SoHo News. Tommy, who was nominally the band's manager at the time, would constantly call me to say, "You write about the other bands at CBs, why don't you write about us? We're better than them." The name The Ramones sounded like a cha-cha band to me, but I saw them, and out on the sidewalk in front of the club, Tommy said, "Did you like us? Will you write about us?" I said, "I want to manage you." Tommy was a visionary about the music and the way it should sound, how the band should look and how they should be marketed. I was very distressed when he left the band in 1978, but I understood. He didn't want to be on the road. To him, it was a prison sentence. And they picked on him. Tommy was the shortest. He wasn't sexy. His hair was different. His skin was different. Born in Budapest, Hungary, he spoke with an Eastern European accent. But he was so smart and he saw the band on a macro level, on the larger public level.
The Patti Smith Group
He was the odd man out. Even before they ascended the stage of CBGB, Tommy saw the potential in the blunt-force trio of pseudonymous brothers from Queens. He framed them, gave them encouragement and a place to rehearse, and became their drummer. His was the beat that anchored the brat, the pummel that unleashed the hey-ho-let's-go on the world: no frills or fills, snare and kick alternating, only cymbal crashes punctuating the headlong lunge. One, two, three, four counted off each Ramones song. One for each Ramone, and now they're together again.
I met Tommy early on. He had a band called Butch that played at Mercer Arts Center, maybe in 1972. Later, after the Mercer literally collapsed and I had started working with Debbie [Harry], I ran into him and he told me he had a new band called The Ramones. I probably was at their first show at CBs and remember how awesome they were in spite of their rawness. Tommy was an amazing asset to the group, and I was always taken by his light drumming technique that somehow drove their very powerful, ferocious sound. He was a gentle and supersmart guy and a mover and shaper of the New York underground music scene, and we all will remember him fondly.
Lead singer, Blondie
Tommy seemed to me so understated compared to the rest of The Ramones. But I loved the way he played, and this light, very accessible style made those early songs loved by everyone. He added so much to their recording style and origination that I will mourn them even more now that he's gone, too.
Tommy was brought on for Tim after we did sessions with Alex Chilton. I think the record company wanted someone that they could bank on. He was the first producer we ever worked with that was like, "Move this over there, this amp over here." But he was never like I would have thought. He was really quiet, very soft-spoken, almost meek in a way - definitely meek compared to our silly asses at that point. He was very health conscious - he might have been the first one that I ever knew that was eating healthy foods and was regimented about it.
Host, MTV2's 120 Minutes
It was my 10th birthday in 1976 when I took my paper route and lawn-mowing money to Korvettes department store in North Brunswick, N.J. My sister-in-law managed the record department, and that day she pulled out from under the counter The Ramones' debut album. Nothing has ever been the same since. That album was ground zero for punk rock. Tommy was responsible not only for the rapid-fire drumming of the original Ramones but also for co-producing those early albums and capturing their signature sound. Tommy and I met and became friends after Joey Ramone passed away, in 2001. He was a friendly and warm man who never wavered when it came to helping out a friend and would always tell you anything you wanted to know about The Ramones.
Reporting by Frank DiGiacomo, Andrew Flanagan and Shirley Halperin.