George Thorogood brings blues and rock to MotorCity Casino HotelWritten by Alan Sculley | | ASculley@toledofreepress.com
George Thorogood’s new CD, “2120 South Michigan Ave.,” is the veteran blues rocker’s tribute to the early rock and roll artists who recorded for the legendary Chess Records label in the 1950s and ’60s.
It’s a logical album for Thorogood to do, considering his amped-up brand of blues is strongly influenced by classic Chicago blues.
“If you look back at our catalog, scattered here and there, there’s over 20 cuts from Chess to begin with,” Thorogood said in a recent phone interview.
But he wasn’t the one who had the idea. It was his label, Capitol Records. In fact, Thorogood said his immediate reaction to the idea was to be a bit puzzled.
“I said, ‘Why did you come to me?’” Thorogood recalled.
That answer prompted some eye-rolling from the folks at Capitol, who couldn’t believe an idea so obvious hadn’t quite registered with Thorogood. Of course, Thorogood quickly made sense of the idea.
“I started thinking, well, if you want to make a Western, you go get John Wayne, right? If you want to do Hamlet, you go ask Orson Welles?” Thorogood said. “That’s why they looked at me, ‘Who are you kidding? This is what you’ve been doing your whole life. You’re the man for the job.’”
Indeed, the idea behind “2120 South Michigan Ave.” (the Chicago address of Chess Records) was right in Thorogood’s wheelhouse — and not just because of his affinity for Chicago blues.
Thorogood, who will play at MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit on July 29, has made it a career-long mission to record overlooked songs by blues and early rock ’n’ roll artists. Look at the credits on any of the 14 albums he has recorded since 1977 and you’ll see plenty of outside material mixed in with Thorogood originals.
In fact, his 1977 self-titled debut CD includes “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” which became a signature song for Thorogood, even though it was originally written and recorded by blues great John Lee Hooker.
In 1978, another cover — this time a rocking version of country icon Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” — became the hit single that set the stage for Thorogood’s breakthrough into the mainstream.
That came with the title song of his 1982 CD, “Bad To The Bone,” which Thorogood wrote. But even that album featured covers of tunes by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Hooker, Nick Gravenites and one of his go-to sources, Chuck Berry.
Berry, of course, was one of Chess Records’ most important and popular artists. And yes, he’s represented on “2120 South Michigan Ave.” with a hard-hitting version of “Let It Rock.”
That song wasn’t necessarily Thorogood’s first choice, he said.
“Capitol was adamant about it,” Thorogood said. “They said, ‘You’re going to do a better version.’ They were really encouraging. And Tommy Hambridge was just over the top, the producer. He didn’t want to hear me say anything about someone’s already done it or did it better. His idea was ‘Look, this is the World Series. You’re batting cleanup and you’re better than any player in the league. Get in there and hit.’ It’s nice to have a producer like that.”
Thorogood, for the most part, followed his pattern of choosing less-than-obvious songs to cover. He does a kicking version of Buddy Guy’s “High Heel Sneakers” (featuring contributions on guitar from Guy himself), gets down and dirty for a chugging take on Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” kicks into overdrive on J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk To Your Daughter” and gets a helping hand from harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite in a dead-on version of Little Walter’s “My Babe.”
Two of the more famous covers come from a pair of other Chess stars who were cornerstone artists for Thorogood coming up in the early 1970s — Howlin’ Wolf (“Spoonful”) and Bo Diddley (“Bo Diddley”).
“I dug the other ones (on Chess Records),” he said. “I listened to Muddy Waters a lot. I listened to Little Walter a lot … But it was Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley that really fascinated me.”
“And I’m not much of singer. When I broke in, the big thing was Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart,” Thorogood said. “There was no way I could sing like that. There’s no way anybody can sing like those three guys. John Fogerty was just coming out when I was picking up the guitar for the first time. I listened to their vocals and said, ‘Oh my God, George, it’s not going to happen for you.’ But I started paying attention to Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed, and then Louis Armstrong, and I said, ‘Look how far these guys have gone with their type of vocal.’ So I really dug into Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley very heavy. I said look what John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley can do with one chord. Look at what Wolf can do with his voice.”
While Thorogood didn’t live anywhere near Chicago, he at least met a few of his Chess Records heroes early on and got some much appreciated encouragement.
“We opened for Wolf,” Thorogood said. “He was kind of on his last lap. He had lost a lot of weight. He had had a heart attack and had been in a bad car crash and he had to get on a dialysis machine every three days, the kidney machine they plug you into for World War II veterans. He was very nice when we did speak to him. But his band was very encouraging, and very enthusiastic about what we were doing. It was a great experience working with them.”
Tags: Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Capitol Records, Charlie Musselwhite, Chess Records, Chuck Berry, George Thorogood, Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash, Little Walter, Louis Armstrong, MotorCity Casino Hotel, Muddy Waters