George Thorogood on “American Music”
Singer and guitarist George Thorogood, along with the band The Destroyers has been one of our great American blues rock and roll performers for four decades. They’ve put out sixteen studio albums and have become known for their great live performances and bar band sound. Massive iconic hits like “Bad to the Bone”, “Who Do You Love” and “Move it On Over” have become rock anthems and rock station staples. Last week, George stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his upcoming tour. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Alright, the Keeper of the Flame is in the studio with us. George Thorogood. Good to see you, George. How are you, man?
George Thorogood: Bad.
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George Thorogood Talks About Playing Chadds Ford Tavern in the 70s.
Ron Bennington: You and I were just talking a little bit about the area where we both grew up in. I would say this, being a big fan of yours, you are still legendary at the Chadds Ford Tavern. After many many years, people will say – you know, Thorogood used to play here.
George Thorogood: Yeah, we did. I played there on…actually, the Chadds Ford Tavern used to pay my rent.
Ron Bennington: Really?
George Thorogood: I’ll tell you how. I would go there and play like on a Monday night. And they only paid you like $20 to play there whether you were a band or whether…but you’d pass the hat. You could make sometimes $200, even more. So that’s how – they paid you 20, but you were allowed to pass the hat out – how many people paid the bucks. And once a month, they let me come in and play a Monday as a solo act. And I’d get the 20, pass the hat, they’d give me 50 and my rent was 60 bucks a month. So, the Chadds Ford Tavern literally paid my rent.
Ron Bennington: How long did you do that for?
George Thorogood: A long time. Yeah, awhile. That was a great artist colony.
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George Thorogood Talks About a Possible Acoustic Album
Ron Bennington: There’s been a long rumor that you were going to do [some] kind of acoustic album.
George Thorogood: You know, anything’s possible. Mike [Donahue] and I have talked about that many times. Maybe somewhere down the road, I would like to get involved with something like that.
Ron Bennington: But maybe do it, instead of straight rock and roll or blues, even maybe a little bit of an outlaw country thing.
George Thorogood: What I would do is, I would get a producer to listen to all my material, who specializes in producing acoustic acts. And say – I want to do this. And maybe have one or two things that are little off the beaten trail. Maybe record a couple of our standards with an acoustic guitar and some other things. I mean everybody’s done it. One of the biggest things Eric Clapton’s ever done is his unplugged thing. So yeah, I would go about it the right way. I just wouldn’t go in there and wing it - and make it a real project.
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George Thorogood Talks About His Country Western Influences
Ron Bennington: Well, I always thought that you had that kind of…because people bring up the blues or rock and roll with you, but there was also a Country and Western feel to what you were doing. Probably Western, more than country.
George Thorogood: Yeah. I was a huge Marty Robbins fan. Still am – a huge Marty Robbins fan.
Ron Bennington: But it’s funny how we will…certainly Nashville has forgotten about the Western arm of Country and Western.
George Thorogood: I believe that. I think the originators of the country thing. Hank Williams and Marty Robbins, Hank Snow and Johnny Cash and those people – they just moved to Nashville. That’s where they went. They moved there. So, they built the industry up around that. But they were the first of that time, to put quote-unquote Country music on the map. And now, Nashville’s a huge industry. Of course, it’s about that. But it was those artists that really kind of…they were all there, but they didn’t change their sound at all. Hank Snow still sounded the same. So did Johnny Cash and all those people and they made that the country capital of the world, so to speak. Well, they just figured there’s a lot of tourists coming through here, so they made the industry there.
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George Thorogood Talks About Getting Started and Music Genres
Ron Bennington: Well, for you too, always being a rock and roll guy – there’s still a thing where no one knows where to put you. Don’t you think? It’s like you never were part of like that one scene. Like where a lot of bands come out of one area or a genre of music – you’ve always seemed like pretty much “Lonesome George” after all these years.
George Thorogood: (laughs) Well, that’s just a moniker I picked up along the way or whatever you call it. But the music of the Destroyers is rooted in American music. Whether it be Hank Williams or whether it be Marty Robbins or John Lee Hooker. I look at all those people the same. I sit and listen to Hank Williams and enjoy him as much as I like Robert Johnson. So, it’s kind of an Americana thing that our band has been about.
Ron Bennington: Who did you get into first? Where did it all start for you?
George Thorogood: Probably all at the same time. Pretty much it all…like anybody else, I’m a kid – and you’re watching the Beatles and you’re watching the Stones and all those people come along. As I started getting older, I sort of listened to every thing. Because every thing turned me on. I’d be listening to a Ray Charles record one day and Hank Williams the next and John Lee Hooker the next. And people come up to me and say – well, that’s great that you have…that you’re tastes are that broad, but if you’re going to get somewhere, you’ve got to narrow down to one thing. Find us something you can do. Something you’re about. It’s nice to appreciate it all or want to do it all, but very few people can. Ray Charles can. He could play just everything. He’s proved that. So I said – well, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, slide guitar…you know, people like Donahue (George’s manager in the studio) here, who I met when I was just getting started said – if you’ve got a ticket to wherever it is you’re going, that’s it. You can appreciate Hank Williams all you want and Marty Robbins all you want, but for George Thorogood to get wherever it is you need to be, this is the sound you’ve got to go for. This is the stuff that comes a little bit more natural to me playing. Who wouldn’t want to sing like Marty Robbins? Who wouldn’t want to write like Hank Williams? But how many people can? So, I became a realist along the way and said – Well, I can play John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley like nobody’s business – as good as they do. So that’s what we went for.
Ron Bennington: Did you feel that early on too? Did you feel that connection with the guitar?
George Thorogood: Yes. Almost immediately. All that stuff – the Elmore James slide, the Robert Johnson stuff, the Hooker stuff. I took to that stuff like a duck to water. It happened so fast, it scared me. I said – it’s been in me all of this time and I didn’t know it.
Ron Bennington: Isn’t that the strangest thing? Because you just didn’t have the instrument. You even started to play a little bit late, right?
George Thorogood: Exactly. I didn’t play the guitar at all. I mean I just fiddled with it. I think I knew how to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on it or something. And then, I picked it up one day and I was really doing it. And people and friends came around and said – hey man, you can really do that. And I’d go – I can? And they’d go – yeah, you should stay with it. Stay it because you’ve got something going with that thing.
Ron Bennington: How long man, before you started to fool with it till you thought to yourself – I can really end up doing this? This could be my profession.
George Thorogood: Pretty much when I was about 15 or 16. I said – this is how I’m going to make my mark. And when I was about 18, 19, I took some time off and was viewing what was happening in the world. And what was happening was the most monster rock of all time – “Tommy” was happening, “Pinball Wizard” was happening, “Electric Ladyland” was happening, the thing that the Beatles did – “Sgt. Pepper’s” was huge…”Beggars Banquet”. I said – rock is just evolving like you just wouldn’t believe. I mean that was the time. And Zeppelin hit and Hendrix was on top of it. I said – ooh, ooh, slow down a little bit. That’s when I backed off and said – well, what are you going to do? And I go – well, I’ll do John Lee Hooker. I’ll do Bo Diddley. I’ll do the slide thing and see where that takes me. Then, I’ll open for Eric Clapton. I’ll open for Jeff Beck. You see what I’m saying? I’ll be that guy. If you can’t be Willie Mays – it’s still okay to be Bobby Richardson.
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George Thorogood Talks About The People Who Influenced Him Musically
Ron Bennington: But see the interesting thing is – those guys have the same influences as you. Rather than you, and go – okay, I’m going to start with Hendrix – you went backwards and said – where did Hendrix start?
George Thorogood: But you’ve got to understand…because that’s all there was. There were no other references. It’s like someone saying – well, my references, like a comic will say – well, mine was Jack Benny and Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters and people like that. Well, yeah. Because Seinfeld wasn’t here yet. And Robin Williams wasn’t here yet. And neither was Sinbad. So of course, everybody had the same references. Because that’s all there was.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. You’ve always been good, and actually the English guys are good about this too – about saying what their influences are. I’ve always noticed that. That even from the stage, you would say – check out this guy, check out that guy. Because a lot of guys that come in, when you’re kids and you’re hearing that song – you’re hearing for the first time ever. They had no idea because radio would stop playing some of those guys. So, it’s always interesting to me to how many of those people got turned on by you and Keith Richards and people that are willing to spread the word.
George Thorogood: Well, they all did that. That’s a misconception that I was the only that did that. That’s not true. I read interviews by George Harrison and the way he talked about Carl Perkins. The way John Lennon talked about Chuck Berry and certainly how the Stones talked about American Blues. They were fanatics about it. Eric Clapton, Robert Johnson – I mean they all made reference to the people that they drew from. And I was no different than that.
Ron Bennington: But there’s a love with those English boys. They love that American music. Those English kids that came over in the 1960′s.
George Thorogood: Well, it was probably the only thing about America that was appealing to them. (laughs)
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George Thorogood Talks About Robert Johnson
Ron Bennington: I’ve got college kids now that come in here and intern and it’s still about the Doors for them. There’s almost certain bands that there’s a certain age that they kind of grip on to them. Like there’s something about it. I guess in the same way that you read Hemingway at a certain age – there are certain rock and roll bands. But look at the strangeness of Robert Johnson’s story. Here’s a guy that should have been, in many ways, forgotten about.
George Thorogood: Yeah, he laid dormant for a long time. And then, John Hammond had an acetate of Robert Johnson music and he played it for Bob Dylan. Essentially, Bob Dylan was the first guy to hear to it since the 30′s. And he flipped out. And said – my God. Anybody who’s heard Robert Johnson for the first time, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. And it just snowballed from there. And it wasn’t just great rock guitarists who said – I want to play like that or do that. Everybody was into it. To this day, we still listen and go – those 2 albums. It’s almost like he didn’t even need to make anymore music after that. That’s how complete it is.
Ron Bennington: And there isn’t that many songs, right? I mean every song has been covered now, I guess.
George Thorogood: I would think so by now. Just about everything that Robert Johnson’s ever touched, has been touched by somebody.
Ron Bennington: And what is it about some people that can just…I mean Dylan had a period like that as well. Of course, if you look back at the time that the Beatles – the short time that they were together, the amount of stuff that they wrote. It almost gets outside of what you can actually explain anymore.
George Thorogood: I think the most mind-boggling phenomenon of all music is Hank Williams. Hank Williams didn’t really get into a studio until he was about 22 or 23. He was always hustling his songs to other artists. And when they said – well, you’re going to start doing your own stuff. Now this man passed away at the age of 29. And he started at 22, 23 – so, he only had 7 years. He recorded about 300 songs. All originals. All of them, brilliant. Perfectly played. And he was touring constantly. The amount of time he put into those 7 years was like 40 years that the rest of the world did. The work that guy did – he must have had a guitar in his hands 24 hours a day.
Ron Bennington: And how the hell does that happen though? How does so much come to one person?
George Thorogood: There are people who are clever like I am. There are people that are very clever and then there’s people like Mick Jagger who’s a genius at being very clever. And then, you’ve got someone like Beethoven or Hank Williams who is a genius. That’s all you can sum it up to. Only a genius, could do what Hank Williams did. Whether he knew he was one or not. Because that music is flawless. I mean even the recordings, the songs, no two of them are alike. The fiddle solo is in the perfect spot. The guitar solo is in the perfect spot. The songs are always in the right key. The arrangements are always perfectly played. Just like Robert Johnson. And the Beatles. There’s only like 3 acts that I can name. Sometimes you listen to something and you go – well, I don’t really like that. That doesn’t sound too good or they didn’t record that so hot. But Hank Williams isn’t one of those people. I mean he must have been some kind of perfectionist.
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George Thorogood Talks About Playing at Chess Records.
Ron Bennington: You’ve always had a sense of history . You’ve always got that type of thing and it’s why you can find the right song to bring back.
George Thorogood: Well, we went to Chess studios – we recently put out a project called “2120 South Michigan Ave.” on Capitol. It was a tribute to Chess (Records) and they wanted us to go down there and do an in store…like an in store thing, to go down there and sign autographs, sign the thing and Willie Dixon’s widow was there. And we went and I was really tired. I’m not much of a daytime person, but I have to get up and do my promos and things like that. So, we went down there and the producer of our record, Tom Hambridge was there. And I went and I was there and I was saying – oh, I got to go. And Jim Hutt, who’s with us today, said – you should play a song here. I said – I can’t. I’m just too tired. And he goes – George, this could be it. Well, you could get hit by a truck tomorrow, whatever. You’ve got to play a song at Chess. And I went – you’re right. I mean if you were thrown out to Wrigley Field, you would run the bases. You would point to the stands like the Babe did. You got this moment. Seize it. And I did it. So, I played the song “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley. I was all I had in me to play one song and that’s the one we played. And I’m so glad I did it because I can say – I played at Chess. I gave them one song. So what? I played there. They can never take that from me.
Ron Bennington: No, and that would have been the thing of… imagine if you were a kid and someone said – you’re going to go through all kinds of shit, but one day, you’ll get to play at Chess. You would have said – sign me up. I don’t care what else happens.
George Thorogood: A hurricane could come along and blow it off the map tomorrow. And I had my chance and I didn’t take it.
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George Thorogood On Importance of Music History
Ron Bennington: It’s amazing how spaces are forgotten. There are places in this city where…you know Ray Charles was up on 56th Street and doing Atlantic Records there and stuff – not even a plaque. People walk by it every day and don’t know that that room is where it all happened at. And these things are oddly important, I think.
George Thorogood: I was shocked at the amount of people in Chicago who weren’t aware of 2120 South Michigan Ave. What it meant. Chess Records. I was there for the first time in ’81 and it was all boarded up. It was all pawn shops and things like that. The area was kind of down at it’s heels at the time. And they had those gates that you have in New York where they have all the jewelry stores and they lock them up. Well, it had been gated off like that and I was talking to as many people as I could and said – do you know what this is? This is Chess Records. And nobody did. And I said – wait a minute. Have you ever heard of the Beatles? Without Chuck Berry where would the Rolling Stones be? Would there have been a Rolling Stones? And I said – this lick got recorded there. (hums) “Johnny B. Goode” lick. It’s hard to imagine a time in our life when that lick did not exist. Think about it? It’s like saying – there was a time when TV didn’t exist. We can’t even think of it. I said – it was recorded here. This was the link. The blues came up from the Mississippi delta. Sonny Boy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – they all played there. And Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry stepped in and they turned the whole world on to it, with that lick. And it was recorded right here. Now you’ve got to do something about this. This is not just a music phenomenon. This is world history. Because rock and roll changed the world. It changed the world. And Chuck Berry was probably the most instrumental guy for changing that. He took the blues and revved it up and got it on (American) “Bandstand”. He got it in there. And then, the John Lennons and the Mick Jaggers and the people like that who were our idols, were saying – have you heard that music, man? There’s this man from Chicago. His name’s Chuck Berry. You’ve got to hear this stuff. And I said – well yeah, Chuck Berry conquered the world. The Beatles conquered the universe. But that had to start somewhere. Something must have sparked him from day one. And that was it.
Ron Bennington: So, what do you think? Americans just don’t pay attention or we forget? We’ve got a lot on our mind. I mean why don’t we cherish some of this stuff better? It’s weird.
George Thorogood: Well, it’s hard to tell people there’s more to it than having long hair and playing loud and getting a lot of women or a lot of men crazy about you. There’s something more to it than that. And music started to come out and it changed in the mid-70′s and all and people wanted to play like Led Zeppelin and I said – but you don’t know who Robert Johnson is. How in the world can you…? And they said – well, I want to be just like the Rolling Stones. I go – but you don’t know anything about Bo Diddley. You don’t know anything about Howlin’ Wolf. How can you make that connection? So they weren’t making that connection. They were just making the image of the rock bands of that time. And I said – well, that’s just too bad. Because to me, it kind of ended with J. Geils. Them and ZZ Top – they were connected to those times and that music. And that’s why Peter Wolf and Billy F. Gibbons and I, the three of us get along pretty good. Same school.
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George Talks About the J. Geils Band
Ron Bennington: The 1970′s especially, J. Geils live shows were about as close to church as you could get. I mean people would leave there feeling transformed.
George Thorogood: J. Geils played…I came out of the ball park, Veterans Stadium. There was a ball game there, I came out and there was a show across the street at JFK. Closing the show was Peter Frampton, playing before that was Fleetwood Mac, before that was Ted Nugent, before that was Lynyrd Skynyrd. The opening band was J. Geils – of all those 5 acts. This was when Peter Frampton was the world. He was a big time act. We come out and a 100,000 people are leaving JFK and they’re all going – J. Geils! J. Geils! They played 5 hours earlier. I finally got a chance to meet Bruce Hornsby, wonderful man. We’re at a restaurant and we’re sitting there talking. And Bruce is a great talker, great conversationalist. And we’re sitting there talking about music, this, that and the other. Out of nowhere, I just go – hey Bruce, are you hip to the J. Geils Band? He puts down his fork and he goes, his voice drops and he goes – oh man, they were the business. (laughs) When the J. Geils Band played, everybody backed up. They all backed up. Forget it.
Ron Bennington: It’s true. And I think they were the best live albums ever. I mean probably the only way to experience them is going through the live albums. More than the studio albums.
George Thorogood: When I went to see them at the Philadelphia air conditioned Spectrum in ’75 and ’78, the people that went to see the J. Geils Band, only had J. Geils records.
Ron Bennington: Right.
George Thorogood: (laughs) Talk about a cult following.
Ron Bennington: I know. I thought they were local for awhile because any party I’d ever been to in my life, they were playing J. Geils records, anywhere, when I was growing up.
George Thorogood: House party.
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George Talks About Touring with J. Geils.
Ron Bennington: House party was…if you didn’t have it, we were probably going to end up leaving. It’s going to be done. And then, you got to tour with those guys and the Stones which…phenomenal for you, I’m guessing at that point.
George Thorogood: I was at that point when I said – you’re working with Peter Wolf and Mick Jagger, who one reviewer wrote about our live show – and they knew how much I was into Howlin’ Wolf and how I was into Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and roots music so to speak. And this person that did it said – George Thorogood is on the stage and he’s got that live act, that thing like Peter Wolf or Mick Jagger. And in parentheses they wrote – who are really his heroes. She was right. She was right. So when I got touring with Wolf and the Stones doing that…when that thing was going to wind down to an end, I was going to walk away from it.
Ron Bennington: You were going to be done?
George Thorogood: I said – there’s no place for me to go. I have been in the lineup with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. I’ve done it. I’m with Wolf and Jagger, there’s no place for me to go. But then, I got offered a contract with a big record label. So, I said – George, you know, you get the brass ring once in a lifetime. Very few people get it twice. And plus, Geils was with EMI. So, I said – yay, great. (laughs) But that spot in my life, I was that content to say no. There was no reason for me to do it anymore. Not even money, not anything. I got more out of it than I could ever dream of.
Ron Bennington: Well, that was the beauty of that tour for you, I thought too – is that no one said – hey, he doesn’t belong there. I mean you had only been a couple of years out at the time.
George Thorogood: I had been pushing for that gig for years.
Ron Bennington: Is that right?
George Thorogood: Yes. I had and it just fell on deaf ears. And I said – you’ve got to be kidding me. You don’t have us open for Peter Wolf? What are you thinking about? We’re from the same…I said – Mick Jagger and George Thorogood and the Rolling Stones, I mean “Ride on Josephine”, “Hey Mona”, come on, What’s the matter with you people? I didn’t realize they hire you because what your draw would be or how many people you could bring there. I was looking at it from a whole different angle. It was a harmonious connection of all 3 bands. And I finally went to our booking agent and I said – you’re not going to book another date until you hound Bill Graham to bowels of the other side of the Earth to get me one gig with those guys. Just one. Because I’m tired of the disco bands opening for them. I’m tired of these acts going who don’t even know who Slim Harpo is, who never played a Jimmy Reed lick in their life. I’ll do it for nothing. One gig is all I’m asking. And from that one, many more came. Because Graham picked up that that was my attitude. I mean here’s a kid that wants to work with the Stones. We got this movie, it’s a really great book and it’s a best seller. And there’s a bunch of these guys and Marlon Brando wants to play the lead and all of sudden – Hi, I’m Robert Duvall. I’ll be in the movie. Hi, I’m Al Pacino. I’ll be in the movie. Hi, I’m James Caan…see what I’m saying? Because that’s the thing.
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Ron Bennington: Dude, it’s so good to have you in here. Georgethorogood.com to keep up. We’re sitting around and talking about the Geils Band and how that’s real rock and roll, but I feel the exact same way about you. And I tell any young people out there, that if you really want to be at a rock and roll show and know what it’s like – it’s got to be Thorogood.
George Thorogood: Thank you.
Ron Bennington: That stuff where people, don’t even know it, but they’re dancing on the tables. (George laughs) That’s the feeling that you’re looking for. Thanks so much for stopping in.
George Thorogood: You’re welcome. Rock and roll never sleeps. It just passes out.
Ron Bennington: I’ll see you next time coming through.
George Thorogood: Okay, baby.
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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.