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Featured Interview – George Thorogood

There’s the X-factor, there’s the risk-factor and then there’s the king of them all – ‘the Thorogood-factor.’

That is, as in, George Thorogood.

Stretching for four decades now, that ‘Thorogood-factor’ has largely resembled the Midas touch, and has been the backbone of six gold and two platinum albums … and oh, yeah, there’s that little song called “Bad to the Bone.”

Thorogood has managed to battle through, persevere and even thrive the past 40 years as an artist, despite such adversity as disco music, tough economic times for his fans and the advent of today’s technology that has wrecked or altered the career paths of many of his peers.

And then there’s this; the little fact that his debut album (George Thorogood and the Destroyers) hit the streets just hours removed from the death of the King of Rock-N-Roll himself – Elvis Presley.

That folks, has got to be some kind of weird cosmic karma.

“Man, that’s called the ‘Thorogood-factor.’ It was August, 1977 and I got a call from Rounder (Records) and they said, ‘We just got your record’ and then I got a call from someone else (that said Elvis had passed),” said Thorogood. “So I said, ‘Well, that’s typical.’ My album comes out, but Elvis passes … who do you think got all the headlines? Oh, well. Some people are destined to stand in the shadows.”

Maybe some people; but not George Thorogood.

Some 37 years and 15 albums after his first platter found its way onto the turntables of boogie lovers across the globe, Thorogood and his Destroyers are still going strong and are celebrating their 40th year of bringing the party to wherever they may land in 2014. Four decades of rockin’-and-rollin’ may have seemed like a far-fetched idea when Thorogood was a wee lad back in Wilmington, Delaware, but when you focus on daily activities and don’t put the cart before the horse, one day leads to the next and to the next and the next …

“It’s a day-to-day thing. You can’t think about things like that (40 years into the future). I mean, I’m sure at game number 18, DiMaggio wasn’t thinking about game 56, you know what I’m saying? It’s just everyday life,” he said. “We just do what we do and we just plug, plug, plug. If I’d made the kind of money that people like Michael Jackson made, I’d have stopped a long time ago. But, you just keep going. They keep raising the taxes, so I gotta keep doing this thing. It’s certainly not some kind of blues crusade like some people might think. It’s more like, this is who I am, this is what I do and I can’t afford to quit.”

It may seem like Thorogood sprang onto the radio charts like a bolt out of the blue, but the truth is, he more than paid his dues along the road to the rock star success he now enjoys. There were plenty of cold days and even colder nights spent slogging all over New England, playing on street corners, in non-descript basement bars and even acting as de facto roadie and driver for Hound Dog Taylor during one stretch. But when he did hit, boy did he hit. In the early part of the 1980s, Thorogood and his band of Destroyers played Live Aid ( doing a scorching version of “Madison Blues” with special guest Albert Collins), were featured as musical guests on an episode of Saturday Night Live and even opened some shows on the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You tour. It was at his first show with the Stones that Thorogood may have began to realize he was on his way to leaving a mark.

“It took me 16 years to get that gig opening for the Rolling Stones; that’s a long time. I got to meet the Rolling Stones before they ever played. How many people can say that? The first thing any of the Rolling Stones ever said to me was, ‘George, can I have your autograph?’ Charlie Fucking Watts. He had my first album and tapped me on the shoulder and asked me for my autograph. How are you supposed to act when something like that happens? Like it happens all the time?”

Thorogood has managed to perfect a brand of music that combines many elements; most notably 50’s-era rock-n-roll with a large dose of Chess-styled blues. And even though his music is not strictly blues, and even though he may originally hail from Delaware, it seems like he pulls his power from the same place that his heroes like Elmore James, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf got a large dose of their mythical properties from – the Ole Man – the mighty Mississippi River.

“Just think; right down that (Mississippi) river is where Johnny Cash wrote:

‘Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry;

And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you big river;

Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die.’

(from the song “Big River”)

The main money-making commerce in the world – next to drugs – is music. And the biggest music is rock music,” he said. “And rock came from the blues. So you could say that the blues jumped in the Mississippi River and swam up to New York City to Allan Freed’s Rock-And-Roll Show.”

Just as a young Thorogood was, scores of musicians across the big pond from the United States also became enthralled with the type of sounds that were emanating from the banks of the muddy Mississippi.

“You’ve really got to tip your hat to all those people that grew up in England and places like that who were playing the American stuff and playing it that good,” he said. “Unbelievable. They weren’t from here or weren’t part of this culture, but they could still play that music and play it good.”

Blues and rock had a history of mixing it up hard and heavy with each other in the 1960s and early 70s – spawning outfits like The Animals, Yardbirds, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and ZZ Top – but the way that Thorogood sees it, that’s not so much the case in these days and times.

“It stopped with me. Our band was the last one. Billy Gibbons is older than me, and so is Johnny Winter and John Hammond and Elvin Bishop and Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt (of the musicians that are still out there playing a hybrid mixture of Muddy Waters/Chuck Berry),” Thorogood said. “Jeff (Simon, drummer for the Destroyers since 1973) and I are the last ones to graduate from that school. It closed its doors after us. We got invited in at the 11th hour.”

Though he’s long been known for his impressive stage command and the way that he wields his Gibson 125 – down low and on the hip, gunslinger style – Thorogood didn’t burst from the womb as a fully-formed rock-n-roll star. Back before the Destroyers’ self-titled album breathed new life into ‘boogie rock’ Thorogood cut his teeth as a solo acoustic artist.

“I was fortunate enough that my first gig was opening for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. That was my first gig. You know what I was doing the week before that? I was playing on the street corner. I was a street musician,” he said. “Somebody found me out there and put me in that club to do one song and they hired me that night to open for Sonny and Brownie. They had me play for two weeks and they loved me. They (Sonny and Brownie) were the greatest cats ever and they were behind me 100-percent. They were just fantastic and said, ‘You’re going to go places.’”

His prowess on the guitar rapidly began to acquire cult status around the New England area, but it also did something more than that. It also caught the eyes and the ears of some of the legends of the blues.

“Two weeks after my first gig opening for Sonny and Brownie, Robert Lockwood Junior comes to town and put me right under his arm and had me play on all of his breaks,” Thorogood said. “And then a year later, we were opening for Muddy Waters. When we played “Can’t be Satisfied,” Muddy said, ‘You play that song better than I do.’ Robert Lockwood told me when I was sitting in a hotel room, ‘Every time I turn around, you’re playing that guitar, Lonesome George, and it reminds me of Robert.’ Now, you don’t have to say ‘Robert who?’”

The elder statesmen of the blues had kind of a unique relationship with some of the younger musicians in the 60s and 70s that were starting off on the path they had helped forge, before they would branch out and start to blaze their own trail. Some of the older bluesmen were resentful of this, while others acted almost as proud parents.

“Sonny and Brownie were really proud of the bands they inspired. Check this out, Sonny went, ‘We started Canned Heat.’ They were real proud of that,” Thorogood said. “They were so proud of having all these people like the Butterfield Blues Band open for them and then go on to great success. But of course, what do Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee or Robert Lockwood or Muddy Waters know about the blues? (laughs). But those were the cats that gave me the go-ahead.”

While those accolades from the founding fathers would come after he began to establish himself, in the early days, Thorogood tried to soak up as much of the music that he loved as he could, all from a number of different sources, picking and choosing which songs he would add to his developing repertoire. As it turns out, he was somewhat shocked that some of his favorite tunes were largely being ignored by much of the masses.

“When I first got going with this thing, I looked at every album The Yardbirds made and the Butterfield Band and John Hammond and those guys before me,” he said. “And the pickings were slim; it was all picked over by then. I mean, John Hammond did them (songs) all. So I said, ‘There are certain songs, by certain people, that need to be exposed.’- some really good material. The original recordings on some of them may have not been so great, but the songs were. I said, ‘Someone has to do “Bottom of the Sea,” someone has to do “Tail Dragger”’ I mean someone like a big rock act, like Led Zeppelin. Someone that can get these songs exposure … get them out there. Another one is “Ride on Josephine” by Bo Diddley.”

It quickly became apparent that Thorogood was the precise man for that particular job.

“I found about 15 or 20 of those songs that people needed to be aware of. Of course, when I went to all the record labels, they said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. “Bourbon, Scotch and Beer? That’ll never catch on,’” Thorogood laughed. “I said, ‘Oh, really? Well in about two weeks Dean Martin is going to cut it and its going to be a monster hit. Or Tom Waits is going to do it, or J. Geils, and then where am I gonna be?’ So that was the struggle with those songs back in those days. But to their credit back in the 70s, everybody wanted original songs, because that’s where the money was – in the copyrights.”

So, as often is the case, necessity is the mother of all invention.

“We just couldn’t get anybody interested in doing those songs, so Jeff and I said, ‘Fuck them.’ We’ll start our own band,” said Thorogood. “‘We’ll play those songs. We’re not going to play them that good, but so what, we’ll play them.’ And the guys in Howlin’ Wolf’s band kept coming up to us night after night after night, watching us play, and they’d say, ‘Look, you got the right idea; stay with it. Don’t give up.’ We said, ‘We don’t play that good.’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry about that. You got the passion. Keep playing. Nobody plays great the first day.’”

GT and the Destroyers also became hip to another secret that those old blues cats knew; the more women, the better the gig is going to be.

“As soon as we hit “Bourbon, Scotch and Beer” the whole dance-floor would be filled and it would be all women. I mean, what made Valentino? Women. How about Sinatra and Elvis Presley … and The Beatles? I’m just following a formula,” he said. “The first time I heard John Lee Hooker do “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer” no one was dancing to the blues at that time. They would sit there (at the shows) like there were in a temple … you could hear a pin drop. But when John Lee did “Bourbon” the dance-floor filled up with women. I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the one.’ Hooker knew what he was doing.”

Hooker also ended up with a new set of wheels courtesy of the Destroyers’ version of “Bourbon.”

“When we cut that record, he (Hooker) went to Bluesway (Records) and they never paid him any royalties. So he took them to court and got a $65,000 settlement,” Thorogood said. “He had this brand-new Cadillac with the license plate ‘Boogie 2’ on it. I called him up and asked him how it was going and he said, ‘G-G-G-George, th-th-thanks for ‘Boogie 2.’’ So much for white guys ripping off the black guys, OK? I mean, my man’s riding around in a new Cadillac and I’m riding in a second-hand Chevy.”

It would be safe to say that Thorogood hit it out of the park when it comes to raising awareness of those songs he thought needed to be heard; his version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” is now forever linked with Samuel Adams beer after being featured as a prominent part of the commercial campaign for the craft brewer, and “House Rent Party/One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” along with “Move it on Over” is in constant rotation on classic rock radio.

Thorogood’s love for the national pastime is legendary and at one time, he played semi-pro baseball in Delaware’s Roberto Clemente League. At one time it might have been a struggle to decide between the bandstand and the baseball diamond, but when he looks back on it today, Thorogood is confident he might the choice that benefitted both vocations the most.

“Picking up a guitar and deciding to do that for a career was the best thing I ever did for baseball,” he laughed.

So he may not have ever had icons like Pete Rose, Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams waxing poetic about his skills on the baseball field, but Thorogood’s name does come up often when the best of the best guitar players are discussing their peers; even though at times it must feel surreal to have his idols and influences mentioning him as being on their level.

“It’s really tough for me when someone like Stevie ‘Guitar’ Miller mentions me. I really don’t know how to handle that. It’s very strange to me, because I grew up wanting to be like those guys,” he said. “Jim Gaines and Steve Miller still call me ‘the kid.’ They say, ‘You’ll always be the kid when you’re around us.’ I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Clapton; it took me everything to go over to his table. I sat down and he gave me a big hug and we started talking and all of a sudden I was speechless. I said, ‘I don’t know what to say to you, you’re Eric Clapton.’ And he looks me in the eye and says, ‘But you’re George Thorogood and don’t ever forget that.’ How am I supposed to live with something like that, you know?”

Most of Thorogood’s heroes had a preference for Stratocasters or Les Pauls as their weapons of choice. But Lonesome George took a bit of a left turn when it came time for him to bear arms and his guitar of choice is the Gibson 125. Comfort, tone and feel may all be reasons that Thorogood favors the 125, but the crux of his choice is even more basic than that.

“When you play the blues, economy dictates everything,” he laughs. “And it was cheap. But on the technical side, I was an acoustic player that decided to go electric and when I found the 125 – in those days it was called semi-electric – with two F holes and two pickups and was a hollow-bodied arch-top, that was the one for me. So in a sense, you were playing an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar at the same time.”

And like they say, the rest is history.

“People ask me what kind of music I place and I say, ‘I play American music.’ And I don’t mean that in a patriotic way, I mean that in a technical way,” he said. “We’re a dirty band. We play loud and dirty rock. I mean, you are what you sound like. I’ve heard John Lee Hooker play a thousand different guitars and it still sounds like John Lee Hooker. I saw Freddie King pick up a Yamaha guitar with light strings and it sounded just like Freddie King. It’s all in-born and it’s going to come out eventually. If you’re clean, it’s going to come out clean and if you’re dirty, it’s going to come out dirty. And guess what? I’m dirty.”

Artist Interview by Terry Mullins

SEE MORE AT BLUES BLAST MAGAZINE