When George Thorogood’s worn shoe leather voice and snarling rottweiler six-string first busted out of FM radios in 1977, it was like nothing else on the airwaves. Disco, new wave and corporate rock were in a bloody fistfight for the hearts of listeners — or, in disco’s case, dancers — and blues was at a low ebb of popularity. Players like Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker were without record deals. Yet there was something about the ragged and thoroughly right approach that Thorogood brought to the genre, with a generous helping of rock ‘n’ roll volume and attitude — that made his version of Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” from the debut album George Thorogood & the Destroyers a radio hit at a time when shinier artists like Rod Stewart, Barbara Streisand and the Electric Light Orchestra were burning up the charts.
Thorogood’s follow-up, Move It On Over, propelled it’s stomped-up Hank Williams title track, Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying” into the public ear and created a foundation for Thorogood’s career — and further hits like the originals “I Drink Alone” and “Bad To the Bone” — that he still enjoys today, 40 years after he and his band played their first note.
This year Thorogood is celebrating that anniversary with a tour that’ll run through the fall and by maintaining his reputation for high energy performances full of swaggering raw-boned chord-‘n’-slide based guitar, mad dog vocals and duck walking. And by his side are his two vintage ES-125s with P-90 pickups, dubbed “White Fang” and “Blacktooth.” Both axes are named after canine characters created by the comedian Soupy Sales, who had a half-century career that began during the advent of television.
“That’s all I’ve ever used,” Thorogood explains by phone during a West Coast tour stop. “I only have those two. I also have the same ES-125 that was on the George Thorogood & the Destroyers record. That one is in mothballs. I don’t take that on the road with me. These days I use it for one song when I’m in the studio doing an album, just for sentimental reasons.”
We started talking about the current tour, but quickly got into the genesis of his career and how he defined his radically different voice as both a singer and guitarist.
Few blues artists who play classic material ever establish an original sound. How did you achieve that?
When I first started getting interested in doing vocals, the first singer I related to was Mick Jagger — when he was doing blues covers with Brian Jones on the first couple Rolling Stones records. As rock evolved I started hearing guitar going in the direction of Jimi Hendrix and voice going in the direction of Robert Plant. I said, “Oh my God, I can never do anything like that!” To me Hendrix and Zeppelin were the last word in rock. That’s where it hit its peak. But their roots were blues, so I started to backtrack and listen to Jimmy Reed’s, Elvin Bishop’s, Howlin’ Wolf’s and Johnny Cash’s voices. They just sing like themselves. That all you need to do as long as you have a really good song, such as [Jerry Reed’s] “She Got the Goldmine and I Got the Shaft.” That’s a very funny song. You don’t need a great voice to sing “I Walk the Line.”
The blues was a natural fit for me. I loved Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, who sing in a lower register. I was also encouraged listening to Tom Waits, who kind of talk-sings. He’s a storyteller. He’s not hitting the notes that Beverly Sills or Pavarotti hit. People will listen to “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and say, “That guy cant even sing!” But listen to what he is singing. That’s key.
So I played and sang naturally. I decided to sing something that’s funny and play something that’s bad on the guitar. Like my “Get a Haircut and Get a Real Job” — that’s natural for me. There was no point in trying to be like Jeff Beck or Carlos Santana. And I realized I was never going to write like Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. I decided, “Do what George can do.” And I found there were a few cool things George could do… if I picked the right tunes.
You also had a distinctive low-down guitar tone, right out of the box.
Nobody else wanted to play that cheap guitar. It’s not like a Les Paul. I didn’t have any money when we started the band. I had to buy an ES-125. Plus I was a thumb and finger picker who played acoustic guitar first, and the arched top made the ES-125 feel like an acoustic. It was what they called a semi-electric in those days — almost like an acoustic guitar with pickups. And I had my pick of them because nobody else wanted them. It was a dirty, gruff sound. I figured when people listened to it they would know it was me, at least by the tone if not the phrasing of the guitar.
What was it like being based in Boston, which had one of the country’s most active blues scenes, in the ’70s?
We got thrown out. They didn’t like us there. I saw the Nighthawks and John Lee Hooker there, and we did one gig and they invited us never to come back. I was more of a Hound Dog Taylor type of guitar player. I played very loud, very obnoxious. I was not traditionally together enough to be a blues guy like Duke Robillard, and I wasn’t as heavy on guitar as Jay Geils. So I didn’t fit in.
Hound Dog’s band was called Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. You know how people have a business card? Hound Dog had a pack of matches and it said, “Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers” on one side, and on the other it said, “Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In his heyday he outdrew Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters because the kids loved him, ’cause he rocked. They were not a traditional blues act. [Hound Dog’s second guitarist] Brewer Phillips could do all the things on guitar that Buddy Guy could do, and Hound Dog… he was Hound Dog! I saw those guys and knew we were just a white version of what he was doing — just blasting the place. And yet clubs around Boston that liked Hound Dog did not care for me. They were very snobby up there.
Your most recent studio album is a tribute to the Chicago blues artists on Chess Records called 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which was the address of Chess and is today the site of Wilie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. What was it like returning to those roots?
Well, that was the first blues music I was exposed to through the Rolling Stones and their versions of it. And in 1965 they brought Howlin’ Wolf on television on the show Shindig! and I witnessed that. Before we recorded that album I took an idea for a record of all new material to Capitol, and they were not keen on it. They really wanted a collection of old tunes like “Tail Dragger," that we did in kind of a Led Zeppelin style. I said, “We don’t have a lot of songs like ‘Tail Dragger’,” so they said, “Why don’t you do a tribute to Chess?”
Well, everything at Chess has been done, but I wanted to keep my connection strong with Capitol, because they are a major label. I did “Let It Rock.” The Stones did “Let It Rock.” Dave Edmunds did “Let It Rock.” “Seventh Son” has been done by Johnny Rivers. It had all been done to death! And by people better than me. But they said, “Well, there’s a whole generation of people who haven’t heard those songs.” So I started figuring out how I was going to do this.
Hey, nobody can do “I Drink Alone” better than me. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. So when I was in the studio I was kind of uncomfortable. But there were some songs I really loved doing, like “Bo Diddley” and “Do the Do” by Howlin’ Wolf. I love Howlin’ Wolf. If anybody can cover the Wolf’s voice, it’s yours truly. And then playing “2120,” the Stones instrumental, took me back to high school. That was fun. The rest of it was a struggle, but sometimes you’ve got to play ball with the company.
So what’s next?
We’ve got a whole year of touring booked up, and that’ll keep us busy. We’re also trying to release a new collection of my originals, with a few new ones. A lot of things have been said about this band, including “Thorogood never writes any songs,” or “all his song are the same.” We want to set the record straight about that once and for all.