August 16, 1977, on the day Elvis Presley lay dying in his bathroom, the American music label Rounder Records –– known at the time for distributing obscure American roots acts –– released the self–titled debut album from a then unknown three–piece band of misfits from Delaware called The Destroyers. With the death of The King, a legend who had grown bloated feasting on the music and culture of Black America, came the career birth of The Icon, a guitarist who would grow strong feasting on nuggets from Black American bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and their bastard rock n roll sons Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. His name: George Thorogood.
The fact the 40th anniversary tour of George Thorogood and his long time band The Destroyers – Jeff Simon (drums, percussion), Bill Blough (bass guitar), Jim Suhler (rhythm guitar) and Buddy Leach (saxophone) — is coming to Hamilton May 14th is indestructible proof that staying true to yourself and the music can pay everlasting dividends. Not that George has to prove anything to anyone — after over 8,000 live shows, 16 studio albums, 15 million albums sold worldwide and fans no–less revered than Slash and Steve Miller singing his praises, George Thorogood remains one of the baddest–to–the–bone performers in rock. It’s been a pretty good run for this former semi–pro baseball player and Robert Clemente League Rookie of the Year who had set his site low when first taking aim at a career as a musician.
“I grew up on rock but listening to the blues,” explains a thoroughly animated Thorogood. “I was crazy about the Stones, Hendrix — rock stuff. But I thought I wouldn’t be able to do what Zeppelin or The Doors or The Stones were doing, not at that level. I started looking at people like Elvin Bishop, The Allman Brothers, Canned Heat, Savoy Brown and thought, ‘if I can just get an opening slot with them I could make a living.’ I knew I could play, but I thought putting a three–piece together, getting on a small label so people would know who I am, I’d be happy. If you can’t hit the ball over the fence, you bunt. So I bunted.”
Thorogood’s baseball analogy for the launch of his career is understated given the impact of the band’s debut George Thorogood and The Destroyers. The album consisted mostly of covers from blues legends like Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Earl Hooker; however, it was his version of “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” — a mash–up of John Lee Hooker’s “House Rent Boogie” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” by Rudy Toombs — that caught the ear of an FM rock radio industry still in its infancy and looking for heroes. The song was no bunt — it was a grand slam hit by the band in their first trip to the plate. The sudden popularity took them all by complete surprise.
“We didn’t expect to ever get played on the radio,” he remembers. “Jeff and Billy and I were not prepared for anything like what hit us. We got adopted by rock radio — AOR back then, what would be your classic rock station now — and the rock fans embraced us.”
That meteoric rise continued with the release of their second and third albums, 1978s Move It on Over and More in 1980. Their reputation for delivering scorching sets of powerhouse rock combined with an obvious reverence for Chicago blues earned them their ticket to the big leagues: supporting the Rolling Stones on 16 U.S. and nine European dates during the band’s historic 1981 “Start Me Up” Tour. What are George’s fondest memories of the tour?
“Every single second on the stage, and every single second off the stage,” he laughed, suggesting there are stories yet untold of his time spent alongside the Glimmer Twins. It was keyboardist Ian Stewart, however, who wound up playing on The Destroyers classic “Bad to the Bone”. I shared my Jack Daniel’s infused memories of the September 27th show at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, a show George says provided one of his fondest memories of the ’81 tour.
“You know what did it for me that day? First of all, it was raining really really hard. We started playing “The Sky is Crying”, and suddenly the sun came out. But it was during “No Particular Place to Go” that I realized how close we were to Canada. In one verse I changed the (song lyric) to “parked out in Buffalo” and the locals cheered. But when I changed the next verse to “parked out in Toronto,” about 70 percent of the crowd went crazy. It never dawned on me how many Canadian fans would be there, how many would make the drive to see us.”
The fans remain the force that drives the Destroyers to tour and release new albums, including their latest Universal Music offering, ICON; the band has always flown just under the radar of critical acceptance, the usual knock being the limited number of chords in their musical catalogue. Thorogood laughs when it’s suggested the Destroyers are the New York Mets of the rock world — loved by the faithful, loathed by the elitists.
‘“Whole Lotta Love is one chord’. “Foxy Lady” is one chord. You can do a lot with one chord. And look at Denis Leary. Denis Leary is not Paul Newman, he’s Denis Leary. He’s a self–made man. That’s kind of where we fit in: we fit in because we don’t fit in. The people that matter to us are the people that buy the tickets.”
Besides, acknowledges Thorogood, with the successful formula in place, the band isn’t about to branch out into unexplored musical territory.
“It would be a mistake in my situation. You don’t tell John Wayne to do Shakespeare. You don’t tell Woody Allen to do action. It’s never a mistake if it works –– Neil Young did a great rockabilly album a few years ago. But I’m like Lee Marvin. I know where my bread is buttered.”
Thorogood earned large amounts of that bread by writing one of rock’s most enduring anthems, “Bad To the Bone”. It was a song he was inspired to write after watching crowd reaction to the big hits of the headliners he was opening for on tour.
“When that first lick of “Honkey Tonk Woman” came on, or J. Geils “Love Stinks,” the crowds would go crazy. I would say ‘you know George, you’re going to have to come up with a tune that does that or you’ll be forgotten.’ I knew I had to.”
Even after writing the song, Thorogood wasn’t sure he was going to record it. “I originally wanted Muddy Waters to record it. I thought it was great for him, but his management shut me down. Bo Diddley liked it, but he didn’t have a record deal. I was only playing it in sound checks on our 50/50 tour.”
It took a chance encounter with one of the music industry’s true power brokers to save Thorogood from making one of the biggest mistakes of his life — giving up rights to the song that would become his signature hit — and one the fans at Hamilton Place will no doubt be expecting to hear.
“At one show this little man comes up to me, and asked me if I was writing songs. I said yes. He asked if any of them were like ‘Bone.’ I said ‘you mean Bad to the Bone?’ He said if my songs were like that they would go a long way. I asked him why he thought that. He said it was his business to know. That man was David Geffen. That’s when it got in my head I needed to record it.” V
George Thorogood and The Destroyers play Wednesday May 14, 8pm at Hamilton Place with Trampled Under Foot. For more information click on hecfi.ca