George Thorogood has a theory. “In any field, especially the arts, there are always two things – ‘genius’ and ‘very clever.’ There’s no in-between. You’re either a genius or very clever. I’m going to throw out two names at you. John Lennon - genius, right? And Mick Jagger? Very clever. See what I’m saying? I’ll give you another example. Einstein - genius. And George Thorogood - very clever.”
Yet what about the people who think Thorogood is a genius in his own way? “OK, I’m a genius at being very clever,’’ he says with a hearty laugh. Thorogood loves quips almost as much as he loves the blues, so here’s another: “Let’s put it this way. Dylan has a Rolls-Royce dealership. I have a used Chevy dealership. But I’m in the business. You got it? That’s all I wanted from this thing. A gig, man. And I got a gig.’’
Thorogood and his band the Destroyers have held that gig for more than 30 years. And he’s not about to let go now. “It’s like a championship fight,” he says. “You’ve got two guys in the ring - one guy who’s the contender and wants to get the title and you’ve got the guy who’s got the title and it took him fifteen years to get the title and he’s held onto it for five years. Who’s going to be the tougher opponent? It’s going to be the guy with the title who worked hard to get it. You’re going to have to kill him to get it away from him. And that’s all that I’m doing up there. I’m trying to hold my gig. I just want to make sure that at the end of the night the promoter comes up and says, ‘I want to hire you again.’”
The Destroyers fought their way to the top. They came out of Delaware in the ‘70s as a jarringly high-energy bunch (also featuring drummer Jeff Simon and bassist Billy Blough) whose raucous, slide guitar-stoked, blues-rock takes on tunes by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and others helped land them a contract with Cambridge’s Rounder Records.
They had moved to Boston and cut their teeth in the city’s blues circuit before their second album for Rounder, Move It On Over, struck big with the title track, an amped-up cover of a Hank Williams tune. They added a saxophonist (Hank Carter) and further fame came in the ‘80s through a signing to EMI Records, which released a series of gold records by the band.
These included 1982’s Bad to the Bone (the title track is Thorogood’s best-known composition and its video became a staple on MTV) and 1988’s Born to Be Bad, with the swaggering hit, “You Talk Too Much.’’ The ‘90s saw more hit-making with 1993’s “Get a Haircut,’’ from the album Haircut. And albums followed into the new millennium with 2003’s Ride ‘Til I Die - and 2006’s Hard Stuff - on Eagle Records, and a 2004 Capitol compilation, Greatest Hits: 30 Years of Rock, which went gold and was Number One on Billboard’s blues chart for a noteworthy 60 weeks, while winning the magazine’s award for blues record of the year.
And still, Thorogood good-naturedly downplays his accomplishments. “In 1970 I said, ‘You ain’t no genius, George.’ You’ve got to figure out a way to do this with barely a high school education and no voice to speak of and some interesting chops on the guitar. But you’ve got to b.s. your way in there, man. I say this to the world - The Beatles did what they did, the rest of us played the blues.”
The Destroyers have expanded through the years - they now include not only Simon and Blough, but guitarist Jim Suhler (a Texan who was brought aboard in 1999) and saxophonist Buddy Leach, who joined in 2003.
The band recently re-joined forces with Capitol/EMI for the July 2009 release of The Dirty Dozen, a scorching new blues-rock album pairing six new studio recordings with six classic fan favorites, including three popular tracks that were previously out-of-print in the U.S. The album is widely available on CD and digitally, and it will also be exclusively available for purchase on vinyl LP fromwww.georgethorogood.com and at the band’s concerts on tour. The Dirty Dozen features Thorogood’s signature blues-rock vocals and guitar playing on twelve songs, many of which were written by a who’s-who of American blues legends, including Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, “Sleepy” John Estes, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon. The album’s new recordings and fan favorites are grouped as LP-inspired “sides.”
Through it all, Thorogood maintains his cleverness. “How far can you stretch three chords? Or in my case, one chord?’’ he says, laughing again. “How many different paint jobs can I put on ‘Johnny B. Goode’? You got it? My biggest thrill is when somebody says to a friend, ‘I’ve got George’s new CD and it’s just like the last one.’ You know what I mean? “Not all of us are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They started off playing Chuck Berry, then they developed it into ‘Strawberry Fields.’ I am not like that, nor do I ever proclaim to be like that.’’
Thorogood prefers to think of himself as a role-player, but that role has been pleasing a couple of generations of rock fans by this point. He retains his innocence and also his self-deprecating humor.
“I once talked to Randy Newman and I was freaked out because he told me what a big fan of mine he was,’’ says Thorogood. “I said, ‘Hey, you’re Randy Newman. You’re a genius. And after a while, he got a little miffed. He said, ‘George, can’t I like ‘Bad to the Bone’? What’s the matter with you?’ He was singing the National Anthem at a ballgame and I couldn’t even concentrate on the game because I was so freaked out that Randy Newman not only knew who I was, but that he dug what I do. When I was going home, my father-in-law said, ‘Look at it this way, I heard that Laurence Olivier was a big Three Stooges fan.’ You got it? That’s all Jeff and Billy and I were: Larry, Moe and Curley. But Larry, Moe and Curley are still on TV, OK? “I’m still on the scoreboard.’’
2120 South Michigan Avenue, home of Chicago’s Chess Records, may be the most important address in the bloodline of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
That address - immortalized in the Rolling Stones’ like-named instrumental, recorded at an epochal session at Chess in June 1964 and included on the band’s album 12 X 5 - serves as the title to George Thorogood’s electrifying Capitol/EMI salute to the Chess label and its immortal artists.
Thorogood has been essaying the Chess repertoire since his 1977 debut album, which included songs by Elmore James and Bo Diddley that originated on the label. He has cut 18 Chess covers over the years; three appeared on his last studio release, 2009’s The Dirty Dozen. On 2120 South Michigan Avenue, he offers a full-length homage to the label that bred his style with interpretations of ten Chess classics.
The album also includes original tributes to the Windy City and Chess’ crucial songwriter-producer-bassist Willie Dixon, penned by Thorogood, producer Tom Hambridge, and Richard Fleming, plus a cranked-up version of the Stones’ titular instrumental.
Chess Records had been making musical history for a decade before it moved into its offices on Michigan Avenue, in the heart of the Windy City’s record business district, in 1957. Leonard and Phil Chess, sons of a Polish immigrant family and South Side nightclub operators, bought into a new independent label called Aristocrat Records in 1947. The brothers bought out their partners in 1950 and gave the label the family name; by that time, they had racked up blues hits by Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Nighthawk, and St. Louis Jimmy.
Chess’ studio spawned timeless ‘50s and ‘60s recordings by Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf, which served as inspiration for the Stones and their blues-rocking brethren, and then lit a fire under their successors George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
Thorogood recalls, “I remember as a teenager reading about Mick Jagger meeting Keith Richards on a train. Jagger had a Chuck Berry record, and he said he wrote to Chess Records and got a catalog sent to him. Just out of curiosity, I took out one of my Chess records, got the address, and I wrote to Chess Records. And they sent me a catalog of the complete Chess library, and I started buying up these Chess records. I bought every single one of them I could possibly get.
“And I remember reading the backs of those Chess records and seeing the address, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, and I said, ‘That’s the same address as the Rolling Stones’ instrumental!’ And I started putting one and one together and coming up with a big two.”
Over time, Chess’ catalog and artists became the sources of Thorogood’s higher education in music. “That was my school, the college that I had to learn my trade in,” he says. “I had to figure out how these people did these things.”
The new album also celebrates the performers who shared stages with Thorogood and the Destroyers and encouraged them when they were just coming up on the East Coast blues scene.
He says, “The people who helped me out were all the guys in Muddy Waters’ band, all the guys in Howlin’ Wolf’s band. They were wonderful to me, and they wanted to help me. They saw what I was trying to do.”
2120 South Michigan Avenue isn’t just Thorogood’s salute to a great record label - it also pays homage to the tough, larger-than-life men who made the music.
“It was a lifestyle as well as an art form, as far as music goes,” Thorogood notes. “They were singing about what their life was like on a daily basis. Sonny Boy Williamson and Wolf and Muddy Waters - they didn’t think they were the baddest cats in the world, they knew they were the baddest cats in the world. They had to be, or they wouldn’t have survived. There’s nothing glamorous in it - that’s just the facts. They had to fight their way through on a daily basis just to keep their heads above water. That’s very clear in a lot of their songs.”
Some of the songs from the Chess catalog heard on 2120 South Michigan Avenue were staples of the Destroyers’ live repertoire; Thorogood says, “A lot of the things I recorded I was doing 25 or 30 years ago, and I had stopped doing them.”
He adds that since many Chess recordings have become linchpins of the rock and blues repertoire, both on record and in concert, some careful winnowing had to be done for the album: “We did a lot of research and said, ‘Wait a minute, the Rolling Stones did that song, John Hammond did that song.’”
Producer Tom Hambridge is the ideal collaborator for 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A veteran of tours with Chuck Berry, Roy Buchanan, the Drifters, and other stars, Hambridge won a 2010 Grammy for his work on Buddy Guy’s Living Proof, and wrote the album’s Guy-B.B. King duet “Stay Around a Little Longer.” He received Grammy nominations for Guy’s Skin Deep (2008), Johnny Winter’s I’m a Bluesman (2004), and Susan Tedeschi’s Just Won’t Burn (1998). He also fronts his own band, Tom Hambridge & the Rattlesnakes.
The special guests on 2120 South Michigan Avenue sport direct connections to Chess and Chicago’s blues scene. Guitarist Buddy Guy made his Chess label debut 51 years ago.
Thorogood remembers, “I went to [the Austin blues club] Antone’s for the first time in 1977, and I saw Buddy Guy play. It was the first time I saw him, and I never forgot that he led off with [Chess artist Tommy Tucker’s] ‘High Heeled Sneakers.’ I thought that was just unbelievable. Buddy just tore it apart, like he does everything - that’s his style.”
Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite is heard on two of the album’s tracks, a cover of Little Walter’s hit “My Babe” and the Stones’ “2120.” “Memphis Charlie” haunted Chicago’s South Side clubs in the ‘60s, learning at the feet of Chess titans like Little Walter Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson and hanging out with such like-minded contemporaries as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop of the path-finding Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Thorogood says, “I don’t play harmonica. Little Walter plays harp, and Sonny Boy Williamson plays harp, and Howlin’ Wolf plays harp. So I said, ‘Well, what am I gonna do about this?’ It’s an easy choice. I said, ‘There’s only one cat we can get to play ‘My Babe’ by Little Walter, and that’s Charlie.’ He’s the last cat!”
Through the entire project, Thorogood and the Destroyers attempted to put their own distinctive spin on the Chess material while maintaining fidelity to the originals’ attack.
“When you do Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, when you play Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, there’s no experimenting,” Thorogood explains. “That’s a religion, and you’ve gotta do it right.”
The historic music heard on 2120 South Michigan Avenue didn’t merely change George Thorogood’s life, as he himself notes.
“It’s not a musical phenomenon, it’s a social phenomenon. The man who created rock ‘n’ roll was Chuck Berry, and he listened to Muddy Waters. Bo Diddley went to the same school and listened to the same people. Rock ‘n’ roll changed the whole world. That never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Chess Records. It’s the source of the whole thing.”