By Alex Robinson
Growing up in Forest Hills, Thomas Erdelyi was always really into music.
The last surviving original member of The Ramones died last week at the age of 65 and was remembered by one of his oldest friends as the driving force behind Queens’ seminal punk band.
“He got them all together and developed the sound, the look and feel of the group,” said Monte A. Melnick, who grew up with Erdelyi and served as The Ramones’ tour manager for 22 years. “He was a great character and was an amazing musician.”
Erdelyi, commonly known by his stage name “Tommy Ramone,” was born in Hungary and moved to Queens with his family in 1957. He attended Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School in Rego Park and then Forest Hills High School, where he met his bandmates, Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey.
Melnick, who many consider to be the “fifth Ramone,” recalled his early days with Erdelyi, singing in the school chorus and going to countless concerts at the now-defunct Fillmore East rock venue in Manhattan.
It was Erdelyi who convinced Melnick to start playing bass and together they started the rock bands Triad and Butch.
The Ramones eventually spawned out of a rehearsal and recording studio Melnick and Erdelyi helped start together in Manhattan.
Erdelyi started as the manager of the band, with Joey playing the drums and Dee Dee singing. His intention was to just produce their albums, as he had been working as a sound engineer at the Record Plant recording studio at the time, but Dee Dee had trouble singing and playing the bass at the same time, so Joey had to relinquish his drumming duties and took over lead vocals.
After a short search for a new drummer, the band failed to find someone who understood the sound the Ramones were looking for and Tommy hopped on the drum set.
“No one could really get what they were doing in the beginning,” Melnick said.
The band played some of their first shows in Manhattan’s shuttered CBGB’s club in the mid-1970s before signing with Sire Records and releasing their debut album in 1976.
Erdelyi played drums on the band’s first three albums before deciding the constant touring was taking a toll on him. He was then replaced by Marky Ramone, but continued to produce the band’s albums afterward.
“He was burning out on the road,” Melnick said. “He wanted to produce. He couldn’t take the touring. He didn’t like it. It was grinding him down.”
Erdelyi wrote a number of songs in the bands’ repertoire of short, blistering anthems, including “I Want to Be Your Boyfriend” and “Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue.”
After 14 studio albums and 2,263 live shows across the world, the band eventually broke up in 1996.
In his later years, Erdelyi formed Uncle Monk, a bluegrass duo, with his partner of 40 years, Claudia Tienan.
The three other original members of the band died between 2001 and 2004: Joey of lymphoma, Dee Dee of a drug overdose and Johnny of prostate cancer.
Erdelyi was diagnosed with bile duct cancer a couple of years ago and underwent chemotherapy before he succumbed to the illness in his Ridgewood home last weekend.
A small funeral was held for the punk rock legend, with only close friends and family in attendance. He is survived by Tienan and his brother, Peter.
“Tommy was my dearest and oldest friend,” Melnick said. “He got me to pick up the bass guitar and enter the crazy world of rock-‘n’-roll.”
Widely regarded as punk rock pioneers, The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
“It wasn’t just music in The Ramones — it was an idea,” Erdelyi said in 1978. “It was bringing back a whole feel that was missing in rock music — it was a whole push outwards to say something new and different. Originally it was just an artistic type of thing, finally I felt it was something that was good enough for everybody.”
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.