George Thorogood: The Songs Made Me Famous

By Jeb Wright

An edited version of the interview that follows appeared in Goldmine Magazine.  Please visit http://www.goldminemag.com/ for more great interviews with Rock Icons!


The nickname Lonesome George Thorogood was earned on nights like this.  Alone on a tour bus, in the northern part of Oklahoma, sat George Thorogood, Mr. Bad to the Bone himself.  It’s snowing outside. There is no party.  No show girls.  Not even a bottle of bourbon, scotch or beer in sight.  Just George… and me. Lucky George… some rock journalist sitting outside of a casino with a tape recorder… just what he needs to pass the time until his VIP meet and greet. 

I walk onto the bus, escorted by his tour manager, a no-nonsense guy that I met at the merchandise stand at our pre-determined meeting place.  He leads me onto the bus, a nice ride I must admit, where Thorogood is seated at a small table.  I am offered a drink.  I pass.  I set up my tape machine and George smiles…that wide-toothed famous grin, oblivious to the fact the last time he was in Oklahoma we did an in-person interview.  He comments that the last time he was in Oklahoma it was snowing.  He remembers the weather…not me.  I am used to that. 

We are meeting to do this piece to discuss Thorogood’s 40th anniversary as a rockin’ Blues star.  We touch on that, but end up talking more about attitudes, stolen guitars, baseball players and Clint Eastwood movies…and his mission to be a famous musician.  We share many laughs.  The very last thing he says to me as I am walking off the bus is,”Jeb, one more thing…most…and I mean most of what I’ve told you tonight is true.”  I chuckle and look up.  Our eyes meet as he stands there with that shit-eating grin on his face.  I hand him a CD.  He autographs it.  As he hands it back to me I reply, “That’s good… because most of what I write about you will be nice.”  We share one more laugh before parting ways. 

The interview begins with Thorogood sharing a story of his first trip to Oklahoma….

George: 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. 

[Editor’s Note: I laugh]

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. 

Jeb: 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?

George: It was the combination of a couple of things.  First of all, there was a passion there.  Number two, 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. .

Jeb: You have the Thorogood sound.  You borrow from others, but you have that voice…

George: 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 Louie 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 Red 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 rolls 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.

Jeb: Who was it?

George: 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 BJ Thomas become BJ Thomas?  “Raindrops,” that’s how. 

Jeb: People tend to pigeonhole you, but you say you are playing to your strengths, just the way a ballplayer would. 

George: 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. 

Jeb: 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?”

George: 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.” 

Jeb:  So you were on a mission…

George: 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. 

Jeb: Your choice of guitar was a cheap hollow body guitar.  How did you control it from feeding back? 

George: 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.  Number one, I started out as an acoustic guitarist.  I am a thumb/finger picker.  I don’t play Stratocasters and Les Paul’s.  I can’t play those instruments.  I am an acoustic player first. 

Number two 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 new about this guitar that had been in this hawk-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 Townsend 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.” 

Jeb:  You made it to stadiums, so you had to modify that thing. 

George: 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 feedback.  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 like the same way.  I still do that to this day, I am covering the pickups so it won’t feedback 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 Momma’s and the Papa’s 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 125’s anymore because they stopped making them in 1970. 

Jeb: I heard you had your guitar stolen a few times.

George: 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 125’s I will sell you…three thousand dollars.”  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.  

Jeb: 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.  Take right now, you are on a tour bus in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, and it is snowing.  You have to be up and ready for this crowd.  You have to be happy. 

George: 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 BB 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 shit.  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 five 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. 

Jeb: You have Live at Montreux, the new DVD.  Do some shows stick out more than others?  Do you remember that show for instance?

George: The one we just did for the DVD?  Yeah, I remember that one.  Did you enjoy that one?  Did you think the Destroyers were on the top of their game?

Jeb:  I did enjoy it. 

George:  Let me bring up something you brought up about thirty 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 shit 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 shitty day folks and you spent your money for this show, and you are going to see a shitty show, or no show at all.”  It’s not going to happen that way; I don’t do the Guns N’ Roses thing [laughter].  I can’t afford to do that. 

Jeb:  Last one:  You mentioned the acoustic guitar.  At this stage of the game, why not do an acoustic blues album? 

George: Money talks [laughter]. 

Jeb: Do you still play acoustic?

George: 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 okay with this.” 

When they were shooting the movie Superman, everybody was really on edge because it’s a Marlon Brando project and he’s going to play Superman’s father.  The first couple of days of shooting, Christopher Reeve and everyone else were kind of on edge.  Everybody was ill at ease wondering how it would all go down.  Everyone was ill at ease except for Gene Hackman.  He was very relaxed and he had a big smile on his face.  Christopher Reeve goes, “Gene, you’re the only one here that’s smiling, how come?”  He said, “Chris, I’ve got two million reasons why I’m smiling.”  [laughter].

http://www.georgethorogood.com/

 

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