George Thorogood talks great voices and getting banned from Madison
With worldwide sales of more than 15 million albums and upwards of 8,000 live performances under his belt, George Thorogood still arrives on stage every night ready to deliver two hours of full-throttle, bone-crunching rock and roll.
"Milwaukee's a white-hot town for us," Thorogood said in a recent interview with OnMilwaukee prior to his June 28 appearance at Summerfest. "They expect the best, and that's what we're gonna give 'em."
In the early 1970s, Thorogood broke into the music business performing a solo acoustic set of classic blues songs by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and other legendary players.
He then formed a band with some high school friends and began playing electric versions of Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" and Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" in the bars and clubs of Delaware. By 1979, George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers (they later dropped the 'Delaware') had released three moderately successful albums.
Their big break, however, came when the Rolling Stones hired Thorogood's band to play on their 1981 American tour. The following year, Thorogood appeared on "Saturday Night Live" playing "Bad to the Bone," which went on to become the band's first Top 40 hit.
Thorogood's first solo album, "Party of One," released in 2017, is his fastest-selling album in nearly 20 years. The album features classic and modern blues songs, from John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" to Hank Williams' "Pictures From Life's Other Side."
During the interview, Thorogood touched on some career highlights and his upcoming Summerfest show.
OnMilwaukee: Did your parents ever try to talk you out of trying to make a living as a musician?
George Thorogood: Never. In fact, it was the other way around. They saw I was already messing around trying to play a guitar when I was 10 or 11 years old. My folks were very smart. They knew that other kids like Mozart, Jerry Lee Lewis, Michael Jackson, people like that, showed aptitude for music at a young age. They told me two things. The first was, "Whatever you decide to do, be the best you can be." And the second thing they said was, "Practice, practice, practice."
Because your detractors often dismiss you as nothing but a recycler of old rock and blues songs, they fail to note that George Thorogood has one of rock's signature vocal styles. Your voice is unmistakable.
I would agree that I have a recognizable voice, but there are more of those than you think. Louis Armstrong – no question who that voice belongs to, right? Beverly Sills is a great singer, but is she immediately recognizable? Could Pavarotti sing "A Boy Named Sue," and could Johnny Cash sing one of Pavarotti's songs? Howling Wolf, Mick Jagger – those are not "great" singers, but they're among the greatest vocal performers of all time. Ultimately, I don't think audiences care as long as they enjoy what they're hearing.
How many times have you walked off stage thinking, "Wow, I don't think we could have played any better than that"?
Rarely. Very rarely. There was a great Orioles first baseman, Boog Powell, and he'd hit these moon shot home runs, sometimes scaring the pigeons out of the light fixtures. When he came back to the dugout, the guys would ask him if he got everything out of that hit. Powell would say, "Almost."
Name a guitar player you admire.
Jeff Beck. He's the man.
When you're not on the road, what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
My wife. She makes me go to bed early so I CAN get out of bed in the morning.
How much time do you spend getting the band in shape for a tour?
Not much. Maybe a week. We're not big believers in rehearsing. We like to get on stage and flip the switch!
Beethoven once said that it's OK to play some wrong notes on stage, but it isn't OK to play without passion.
I agree with that 100 percent. Audiences don't want robots playing up there. Spontaneity keeps it fun for us and them.
The Summerfest show has a fan "meet-and-greet" component. Is that a chance to take photos, get an autograph and maybe ask you a question?
Yeah, it's all of the above. I can't spend a lot of time with people but I try to make it count. I love Summerfest and the whole atmosphere. Especially since we're officially banned from playing in Madison.
Oh, yeah. You know they call it Mad City, right? Well, we used to play for the big Halloween parties and the audiences got pretty enthusiastic. So the city fathers or the aldermen of whatever they have there said, "That's it. George Thorogood and the Destroyers cannot play in this city anymore." The crowds at Summerfest don't get any more pumped up than the people at the Madison shows. I think it's kinda silly, but there it is.
What do you think people say about you behind your back?
There he goes. There goes the best that ever was.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers will perform at 9:30 p.m. at the Uline Warehouse on Thursday, June 28.
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