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George Thorogood marks four decades of down-and-dirty blues rock

Who do you love? Well, if his lengthy career as one of America’s favorite blues rockers is any indicator, the answer is George Thorogood. We’re pretty sure he’s glad to hear it, as it means he does not need to get a haircut. Or a ‘real’ job.

By Jeb Wright

On a tour bus parked in northern Oklahoma, George Thorogood sits and waits. It’s crappy weather. There is no party. No show girls. No bourbon. No scotch. No beer. Just Lonesome George, passing the time on his bus until his VIP meet and greet. But when Goldmine comes a-knockin’, he smiles that famous big-toothed grin.

And why shouldn’t he smile? He's marking 40 years as a blues-rock star. Thorogood and the Destroyers are popular as ever.

George Thorogood and The Destroyers

The current lineup of George Thorogood and The Destroyers features (from left) guitarist Jim Suhler, bassist Bill Blough, Thorogood, drummer Jeff Simon and saxophonist Buddy Leach. Publicity photo.

And while his notable anniversary does come up in conversation, Thorogood is far more interested in talking about attitudes, stolen guitars, baseball players and Clint Eastwood movies. He offers one last grin and a parting shot: “One more thing: Most — and I mean most — of what I’ve told you tonight is true.”

We’ll let you sort out the fact and fiction for yourself, as we present it all in the interview that follows, which starts with Thorogood sharing a story about his first trip to Oklahoma.

GEORGE THOROGOOD: The very first time I came through Oklahoma City was in early February of 1969. We left the East Coast and drove all the way through Pennsylvania, and then we drove through Ohio. We got to Route 66 in St. Louis, and we went down through Oklahoma City.

We pulled into a McDonald’s-type place, which was very new in those days. It was kind of a hangout. It was happening all over the country where guys with these souped-up cars would hang out at these places.

We pulled in, and we were sitting in the car. It was a Friday or Saturday night, and it was really busy, and there were a lot of cars there. All of a sudden, one of the guys that went in to get the food comes tearing out without the food and jumps in the car and floors it. He is getting the hell out of here. I was like, “This is scripted for ‘Easy Rider.’” We were really terrified for our lives.

GOLDMINE: (Laughter.)
GT: You think it’s funny? It wasn’t funny. What were we going to do? Go to the police station? It was very frightening. That’s how things were in those days. You were on one side, or the other.

GM: I laughed because I am a Midwestern guy, and I know exactly what you went through! Now, first off: Congratulations on 40 years in the business. You come from Delaware. You had the British Invasion and those bands, but you came after that period, and you were different. You had some country influences, and you had the saxophones, which were more like the ’50s. Was this the music you had passion for, or did it develop into this?
GT: It was the combination of a couple of things. First of all, there was a passion there. No. 2, I was good at it. It is like saying, “Why would you want to be a catcher when you’re a really good shortstop?”

One time I heard one of our managers say, “This phase came and then this phase came, and George always stuck to his guns.” I said, “That’s crazy. That’s a stupid thing to say.” First of all, if I could have written “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” then I would have done it. I wouldn’t have just done old John Lee Hooker songs forever.

You would not say, “This guy stuck to his guns and never won a batting title.” If I could have been Stan Musial, I would have been Stan Musial. I was good at this music, and I had a passion for it. There was a market for it as well, and I knew there was a living to be made in it. Look at Savoy Brown. Look at Canned Heat. Look at the Allman Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winter and others. I could do that. I knew I could be an opening act for the Allman Brothers, or I could be the opening act for Ten Years After. That is how it worked in those days.

I put a band together, and we opened for Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf and others, and then I knew we could do it. You could do it as long as you were not greedy. You go as far as your talent goes, and that is really where it’s at.

George Thorogood EMI publicity photo

Blues rocker George Thorogood has made it his business to entertain audiences for four decades. Publicity photo.

GM: You have the Thorogood sound. You borrow from others, but you have that voice ...
GT: I have no voice. I learned at an early age how far someone like Mick Jagger could go with his voice. I looked at Jerry Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash. The range wasn’t there, but the tone was there. I found songs that I could do.

Look at Louis Armstrong. He’s no Tony Bennett, but he gets it done. I have a voice that is perfect for “Get a Haircut.” I have a voice that’s perfect for “One Bourbon, Once Scotch, and One Beer.” It can be done.

I said, “Forget about Rod Stewart, Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant. I can’t do that. They are the greatest rock singers in the world ... ever.” I said, “George, forget about that. Go in there and sing like Redd Foxx.”

How many people do you know that can actually sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” properly? Very few. How many people can sing “A Boy Named Sue” and get by? Everybody, because you don’t have to be a great singer to do it. It’s the song that everybody likes.

I want you to know that the only talent Thorogood has is picking the right material and presenting it in a show, like an actor. Who is a better actor? Strother Martin or Marlon Brando? It’s not Martin, but he picked roles that were right for Strother Martin. He looked good.

I had a guy who was a much better guitarist and a much better singer than me, and I used to open for his band. Many years later, I had a hit album, and he ended up opening for us.

GM: Who was it?
GT: It doesn’t matter. He wasn’t very pleased about the situation. He said, “Jesus, Thorogood, you know I’m a better singer than you and I can play better than you. How come you got to where you are and I am here?” I said, “Three reasons: ‘Bourbon, Scotch and Beer,’ ‘Bad to the Bone’ and ‘Move it On Over.’” How did B.J. Thomas become B.J. Thomas? “Raindrops,” that’s how.

GM: People tend to pigeonhole you. But you say you are playing to your strengths, just the way a ballplayer would.
GT: You don’t just wake up one day and go, “You know, I want to be Willie Mays.” Well, good for you. It’s not a choice you make. You are either that, or you’re not. You are either Joe Montana, or you are Joe Blow. The question is, can Joe Blow make a living being Joe Blow? Yes, he can. That is what I did.

GM: Have you ever looked back and been surprised by the success you’ve had? I am talking the success of “Bad to the Bone” and “I Drink Alone.’” Did you ever think, “I have taken this further than I ever thought?”
GT: No, I didn’t do that. Even before I learned how to play the guitar, I had a list of songs that I knew would work. I couldn’t find a guitarist that could do it the way I wanted, so I learned how to play the guitar. I learned how to play right on “Josephine,” and I learned to play “Bottom of the Sea” and I learned to play “Bourbon, Scotch and Beer.” I learned to play those songs.

I got a good reception on the strength of the songs, not the performer, and I knew that is how I wanted to continue. I decided to sit down and think, “‘I Drink Alone’ is perfect for George. Unless Steppenwolf does it; it is perfect for me.” It has been this way all along. I would not have gotten to the point of where I am today without being selective.

There are people who go in and they think they can do anything. My problem was that I would have three or four really good George songs and have to make a whole album. We ran out of space after about the fifth or sixth record. I was like, “Gee, I think we’ve covered it fellas.”

GM: So you were on a mission ...
GT: It was a mission from Day One. Spencer Davis agreed with me when I said, “Listen man, I didn’t make those songs famous. Those songs made me famous.” He said, “Without those songs we’re nothing.” If Spencer Davis walks down the street in Peru and he says, “Hi, I’m Spencer Davis.” They are going to go, “Who?” If he says, “Give Me Some Lovin’,” then they go, “I know who you are.” That’s the way of the world, my friend.

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GM: Your choice of guitar was a cheap hollow-body guitar. How did you control it from feeding back?
GT: I played small places and I used a Princeton amp, which was a small amp, but I could turn it up to eight or nine, and I’d get the volume level I needed and the sustain I needed. I learned that trick from Elvin Bishop, an Oklahoma person. He used a small amp, and he mic’d it and turned it up loud. I did the same thing.

Selecting the guitar itself was twofold. No. 1, I started out as an acoustic guitarist. I am a thumb/finger picker. I don’t play Stratocasters and Les Pauls. I can’t play those instruments. I am an acoustic player first.

No. 2 is that the guitar was inexpensive. I didn’t even own an electric guitar, and I had gigs booked, and I was borrowing people’s guitars. I didn’t have an amp, or a guitar, but I had to do it. Another guy in town knew about this guitar that had been in this hock shop for two years, and everybody wanted it. They kept it way, way up at the top, so no one would steal it. I had just enough money to buy it. It had P90 single coil pickups in it.
When I played it, I knew I wanted to use this guitar for three reasons. First of all, I could play it. I had tried every other guitar and I couldn’t play it. Secondly, it’s inexpensive. I could move with it, as it was light as a feather. I don’t know how Pete Townshend did what he did with a Les Paul, because that thing weights a ton.

The third reason I wanted it was because it had a unique sound, and when people heard it on the radio — I knew eventually I would get on the radio — people would hear it and know it was me. They would hear that tone and they would go, “That’s George.”

I was with Johnny Rivers once, and we were walking by this club and there was this guy in the club with the same type of guitar. They used to use this guitar for jazz guys who played at low volume and played a lot of chords. Johnny knows me pretty good. I say, “That guy’s got the same type of guitar that I’ve got, and it sounds so nice. The ones I get come out sounding so dirty and rough. The ones I get must have something wrong with them.” He goes, “George, it’s not the guitar.”

GM: You made it to stadiums, so you had to modify that thing.
GT: I had problems. I had a lot of problems with that instrument, even before stadiums. When we played places bigger than this bus I had problems. We had problems feeding back, especially if I had to put a clamp on it.

You see, I only had the one guitar; I didn’t have two or three. I had to put a clamp on it to change keys and it would really feed back. When you watch the performance tonight, we have modified my instruments now so we don’t have any of those problems. If you notice, my hand is always over the strings because for so many years I had to use my hand to control the guitar. It’s like a guy who had a limp for years and then had an operation and then he was cured, but he still walks the same way. I still do that to this day. I am covering the pickups so it won’t feed back even though I don’t have to do that anymore.

That is why I stayed out of television for so long. Nobody wanted to do TV, because you had to turn up to get your sound, and because you’re in a TV studio, and it’s too loud, and they want you to turn down. I was like, “Go hire The Mamas and The Papas then, or the Smothers Brothers.” Electric rock does not go over well on TV.

The lights caused a buzz in single-coil pickups, too. I would have to literally take my guitar and stand in different places to try to get a place where I would not buzz. They would go, “George, they can’t see you because you’re too far out of the light.” I would go stand where they wanted me to stand and then it would start to buzz. They would go, “Go get another guitar” and I would go, “But I can’t play another guitar.” I just love problems.

We had to get some very special people to run down these issues with me and eliminate them. You can’t get these those 125s any more because they stopped making them in 1970.

George Thorogood guitar

George Thorogood's guitar of choice when he got started in the music business was the affordable Gibson 125 hollow-body electric guitar. He's picked up a few over the years, which is a good thing, as his guitars has been stolen more than once in his career. Publicity photo courtesy Rochester Jazz Festival.

GM: I heard you had your guitar stolen a few times.
GT: I had a problem with people stealing them. We had that happen two or three times. People would steal them, and we would actually put out a thing on the radio that said, “Don’t steal George’s guitar as there are no more.” One time, I had to tell them, “There is no show tonight as someone stole my guitar.” They said, “Don’t you have a backup?” I told them, “They are very hard to find.” The instrument, at its best, was worth two or three hundred dollars, at its peak. People would say, “Hey George, I’ve got one of those 125s I will sell you — $3,000.” If I was in town and I needed a guitar, they would say, “That’s what you are going to have to pay.” Now we don’t say it’s for George. We have somebody else go, and he gets them cheap.

George Thorogood live at Montreux

George Thorogood is known for putting on a great show for his audience, as evidenced by his performance in his "Live At Montreux" concert DVD. "I can’t go out there and say, 'I had a sh**ty day, folks, and you spent your money for this show, and you are going to see a sh**ty show, or no show at all.' It’s not going to happen that way; I don’t do the Guns N’ Roses thing [laughs]. I can’t afford to do that," he said. Publicity photo courtesy Kayos Productions.

GM: George Thorogood has to be up and ready all the time. Your personality made you as famous as the songs. It came out on your videos, and it comes out in your live performance ... You have to be up and ready for this crowd. You have to be happy.
GT: That is what an entertainer does. That is the pressure of being an entertainer, especially if you’re the type of entertainer that I am. You have to work on it like a comic. Sometimes a comic goes out there in a bad mood — he had an argument with his wife, or he owes the IRS four hundred grand, or whatever. He has to switch it on when it’s Show Time.

There are certain musicians that always deliver. You don’t know what’s going on inside their head, or what kind of day they had, but that is why a professional gets paid. The manager doesn’t want to hear that Tom Seaver is not in a good mood and won’t pitch. You do the job; that’s what you do.

What you do, if you are wise, is get a manager and a road manager. We have a saying in rock and roll, and it boils down to this: Any band is one person. Who is the one person you have you make sure does not get pissed off or sick? McCartney, or Streisand, or B.B. King. It always boils down to usually one person. I keep saying it to the band members, and they are slowly getting it. Management gets it. The bottom line in professional football is to protect your quarterback at all times. If something nasty is happening, I am not to know of it. They buffer you from the s**t. Two years later, they go, “Let me tell you what really happened that one day.” I say, “I didn’t know about that.” They are like, “God damn right you didn’t know about it, because you’re not supposed to know about it.”

They are like, “We’ve got to keep George in a good mood. We’ve got to keep him sleeping till 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and when he gets on that stage, he’s got to be on the top of his game. We can’t let anything interfere with that.” I can’t rely on being there and being like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and just turn my back on the audience, or just sit there. I can’t afford that. I can’t afford not to be on top of it. Most entertainers are like that. Who wants to see a grumpy Dean Martin? That is not why you go see him.

GM: You have the “Live at Montreux” DVD. Do some shows stick out more than others? Do you remember that show, for instance?
GT: Yeah, I remember that one. Did you enjoy that one? Did you think The Destroyers were on the top of their game?

GM: I did enjoy it.
GT: Let me bring up something you brought up about 30 seconds ago. That could have been one of the worst days of my life, as far as “Things you don’t need to know about” that led to that moment, that I had to just put on the back burner, put it in my hip pocket and suck it in and do the show. That is what that was about. I had this one guy tell me that he when he won the World Series it sucked, because he was in a bad mood and a bunch of s**t was going on. That is what the fans don’t see. I had an instance that day that I had to rise to, with about an hour of sleep and untold other aggravations that you don’t need to know about. I just did my job. I can’t go out there and say, “I had a sh**ty day, folks, and you spent your money for this show, and you are going to see a sh**ty show, or no show at all.” It’s not going to happen that way; I don’t do the Guns N’ Roses thing [laughs]. I can’t afford to do that.

GM: You mentioned the acoustic guitar. At this stage of the game, why not do an acoustic blues album?
GT: Money talks. [Laughter.]

GM: Do you still play acoustic?
GT: I fool around with it. I could do that with the proper producer and a proper label that wanted to do just that, and make it like a project. I would be more than happy to entertain that idea. I would have to get serious about it. I would not want to just go in and wing it. If I were approached about that, then I would have to say, “I am serious about it. How serious are you?”

Here is reality: I was reading an interview about the movie “Dirty Harry” when Frank Sinatra broke his wrist, and he could not do the movie “Dirty Harry.” He turned the project over to Paul Newman. Newman read the script for Dirty Harry and he said, “My politics won’t allow me to do this movie, but I know an actor who is perfect for this.” He suggested Clint Eastwood. Clint read the script and they told him that he was not the first choice. They told him about Sinatra and Newman. He said, “Why did Paul Newman turn it down?” They told him that his politics would not allow him to make this kind of movie. Clint said, “Well, how much are you going to pay me?” They told him how much they were going to pay him and he said, “I think my politics are OK with this.” GM