It doesn’t matter that George Thorogood and the Destroyers have never cracked the Top 10. Their rock-blues-boogie is instantly recognizable, whether the first sound you hear is the purposely distorted buzz of Thorogood’s big Gibson guitar or the nasty, raspy growl of his voice. Even without hit status, a handful of the band’s songs – “Bad to the Bone”; “Move It on Over”; “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”. Thorogood, 66, called in from the road to talk about what he does for a living, his early days in the business, and how he keeps doing it.
“I was just like every other kid,” he said of thinking about playing music. “Once the Beatles were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and then the Rolling Stones hit town, the next Christmas practically every kid asked for a guitar. Now, my older brothers were a handful for my parents. They were kind of on the juvenile delinquent side of the fence, and both of them rode motorcycles. This was before ‘Easy Rider,’ so anybody who rode a motorcycle was considered a hood. So when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I said a guitar, man, they almost started weeping, they were so happy (laughs).”
But that was an acoustic guitar, and when Thorogood left Wilmington, Delaware, and headed for California to try to break in on the scene, he was a solo acoustic act, playing the music he loved, the blues and country of John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Hank Williams. When he left the West Coast and landed in New York City he scored a guest spot with Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat, then met legendary music promoter Dick Waterman who sent him to the Cambridge blues club Joe’s Place, where he opened for bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
“While I was on the bandstand, the owner came up and hired me to play there for a week,” said Thorogood. “So I lived in Boston and played in the New England area for a while. But when I ran into [blues guitarist] Robert Lockwood, he advised me to get an electric guitar and a bass player and a drummer. He said, ‘You’re only gonna go so far doing what you’re doing.’ Then when I saw Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers play, I said, ‘He was right. That’s what I have to do.’ ”
Thorogood ended up getting what became his trademark electric guitar, a Gibson ES-125. He loves telling the story of seeing it in a pawn shop. “That guitar had been there for a long time,” he said. “A lot of guitar player friends of mine wanted that guitar. I had been on the West Coast for two or three months, and I came back here and it was still there. I went all summer long and I went back, and it was still there. I went back in the fall and it was STILL there. So I thought, ‘OK, you were meant to have this guitar.’ And I still have it.”
And he’s still out doing gigs, about 100 of them a year, and still rockin’, just approaching the whole thing a little differently.
“No matter what line of work you’re in, as you get older you have to make alterations,” he said. “Every doctor tells you the same thing: You’ve gotta change your diet, you’ve gotta get some exercise, and get as much rest as you can. The doctor says I should take a nap in the afternoon? I just do what the doctor tells me. I’m a rock performer. And I have to be at the top of my game. Nobody wants to see an overweight, out-of-shape, can’t-move-a-muscle Mick Jagger, right? In blues, country, jazz, and classical, you can kind of let it go. But not in rock.”