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Wilmington Native George Thorogood Looks Back on a 45-Year Music Career

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Photography by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography

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What becomes a local legend most? If you’re Wilmington native George Thorogood, it’s a no-brainer—you just keep on going.

The explosively unapologetic guitarist and vocalist spent much of 2019 marking his 45th anniversary in the music business on the road by headlining the extensive Good to Be Bad: 45 Years of Rock tour.

Like fine wine, Thorogood keeps getting better with age. “What is it they say—the cream rises to the top?” he muses during a brief tour break. “Anything that’s good is going to stick around once people get a taste of it.”

The man’s no-nonsense, blues-based, good-time rock music is a flavor people love all over the world. Best known for perennial hard-rocking hits like “Bad to the Bone,” “I Drink Alone,” “Move It on Over,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” and “Born to Be Bad,” George Thorogood and the Destroyers have sold more than 15 million albums worldwide and have performed more than 8,000 live shows to date—and counting.

In fact, the Good to Be Bad tour continues onward into January 2020, with dates already scheduled in Australia and New Zealand.

Born in Wilmington on Feb. 24, 1950, Thorogood grew up listening to pop radio during his teenage years while attending Brandywine High School, from 1964–68, until he found a more profound connection with the blues.

“Let’s face it. When you first listen to the radio, you’re listening to the Beach Boys and Leslie Gore, and that’s all you know,” he says. “Eventually, I discovered blues guys like Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. And then I had a lot of catching up to do. To go forward in this business, you’ve kinda got to go backward first.”

“George Thorogood and the Destroyers” (1977)

“Move it on Over” (1978)

All that deep blues listening and appreciation led young Thorogood to the guitar. “I had a Harmony like every other kid in America,” he admits. “And I knew the guitar was going to catch an audience’s ear more than my voice would.”

And while he has long since come into his own as a gruff and guttural rock singer in all the right ways, Thorogood says what made him ultimately gravitate toward playing a specific guitar brand was simple: “Robert Johnson played one of those guitars,” he says, referring to the 1930s blues legend who played an acoustic Epiphone model and penned such indelibly influential songs like “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues”—songs that have been reinterpreted and made popular over the past half-century-plus by contemporary blues masters and rock artists alike.

These days, Thorogood proudly sports his own limited-edition signature Epiphone model, the kind of big-bodied electric guitar that’s been identified with him for many decades. He concedes there’s added responsibility attached to playing a guitar with one’s own name on it: “I better make that guitar sound fantastic,” he says, “since I’m playing it in fantastic rooms like The Grand.”

“The Grand,” of course, is The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, the historic venue where Thorogood played to a sellout crowd for the fourth time this past October; the other three times were in 2009, 2011 and 2015.

Thorogood’s local roots run deep. He recalls that he and the Delaware Destroyers (as they were then known) played their first show together at the Rathskellar at the University of Delaware in 1973—mainly thanks to a push from drummer Jeff Simon, a friend from his high school days. “I remember it vividly,” he says. “Basically, we were just toying with the idea of starting a band, but when we played that night, we saw the reaction we got.”

George Thorogood performs at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington in October, the fourth time he sold out the hometown venue./Photography by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography

From that day forward, Thorogood and Simon were joined at the hip—and they continue to play together along with original Destroyers bassist Bill Blough, as well as with two latter-day Destroyers: guitarist Jim Suhler (who joined the fold in 1999) and saxophonist Buddy Leach (who came aboard in 2003).

Early on, Thorogood and the original Delaware Destroyers realized they’d have to cast their touring net well beyond the confines of the Delaware Valley if they wanted to make any impact outside the region.

“For what I was trying to do, the Delaware location was very conservative, and it wasn’t the easiest thing to do there,” he says. “To tell the truth, we worked more in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania than we did in Delaware. Yeah, there were a couple of Delaware places we played regularly, but when I lived in Newark, we also played a lot in Baltimore and Philadelphia.”

New Hope, Pennsylvania, was one such frequent tour stop in the band’s youth. “And that was a very hip place. It was an artist’s colony,” he says. “We worked at John and Peter’s [Place] a lot, as well as at No Fish Today in Baltimore. They were always very hip to the blues and they were very hip to the kind of blues I played—the Hound Dog Taylor and John Lee Hooker kind of stuff.”

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One World Series

“Bad to the Bone” (1982)

Thorogood came across one special live elixir in October 1974 while playing a gig in a club that was showing a televised World Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics.

He began strumming and singing John Lee Hooker’s “House Rent Boogie” by himself before his other two Destroyers joined him onstage as he transitioned into Hooker’s seminal 1966 classic “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Once Thorogood began putting his own spin on the song’s spoken-word sections, he could see a sea change in the audience.

“When we went into ‘Bourbon, Scotch, Beer,’ heads started to turn away from the TV, and the bar emptied when they left their barstools to pile around the bandstand,” Thorogood says. “Now, to get people to turn away from the World Series, you must have something.” Even better, he adds, the club’s management “hired us back the next day.”

Another infamous late-1970s gig found Thorogood swapping guitar cords (and guitar chords) with “arch rival” Jimmy Thackery of the Nighthawks while the two axe slingers were playing Elmore James’ “Madison Blues” at the exact same time at two popular Georgetown nightclubs in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 1978.

This moment became known as both “The M Street Shuffle” and “The Duel on M Street,” since the two clubs in question, Cellar Door and Desperado’s, were across the street from each other. Though both Thorogood’s Destroyers and Thackery’s Nighthawks were well-known for putting their own respective spins on “Madison Blues,” one key difference favored Thorogood’s side that night: the studio version of the song from his band’s self-titled 1977 debut album had already garnered a good bit of national airplay.

“This is something the Nighthawks thought up,” Thorogood recalls of that fateful evening. “It took me years to get to the Cellar Door, which was one of the higher showcase rooms on the East Coast. Thackery decided we were going to play ‘Madison Blues’ at the same time and walk across the street and switch guitar plugs. He was going to walk from Desperado’s into our club and I was going to walk into his club and surprise everybody.” Fact is, it wasn’t that much of a surprise at all. “The entire town knew the Nighthawks were playing across the street from me, and everybody in town knew I was playing across the street from them,” Thorogood says.

Having started out playing guitar on a Harmony in the 1960s, Thorogood now plays his own brand of Epiphone guitar./Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography

So how did it go? “I almost got killed!” the guitarist exclaims. “I paid my dues! I’m finally playing the Cellar Door, and I had the place packed with women—and most of them were the Nighthawks’ girlfriends and wives. They were in my club watching me, not them! We did do a great show that night, but no, it did not work out for me.”

Why not? Did Thackery and the Nighthawks somehow make him pay for it later? “Yeah, because you’re still talking about it!” Thorogood says with a snort. “But I got better-looking.”

By the time the calendar turned to the 1980s, Thorogood and the Destroyers were on the rise with three well-received albums on the independent Rounder Records label fueling their mounting national profile. One of the band’s biggest breaks came when the Rolling Stones chose them to be one of the artists who opened for the band’s historic fall 1981 American tour. “That still resonates with a lot of people,” Thorogood says, “and it always will.”

“Maverick” (1985)

“Born to Be Bad” (1988)

Thorogood also considers the Stones to be part of what he dubs rock’s “holy triumvirate,” right alongside the Beatles and Bob Dylan. In his opinion, only one other modern-era rocker ever ascended to that storied upper echelon: the late Tom Petty.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to Tom Petty,” he says of the Florida rocker who passed away in October 2017. “He’s the only one from the third generation of rock people who broke through the golden veil to get to the top level of rock royalty. Nobody else did that but Tom.”

Bad to the Bone

Thorogood broke through to the MTV generation with a bang, thanks to the popular 1982 video for the career-defining “Bad to the Bone,” the title track to his major-label debut on EMI-Manhattan Records.

In an instant-classic clip that also includes some incendiary live performance footage, Thorogood, as “The Kid,” challenges 1950s guitar-slinging pioneer Bo Diddley to a game of pool, with pool legend Willie Mosconi wagering a large sum of money on Diddley halfway through the match. Spoiler alert: Thorogood wins the game in a most dramatic fashion, with the last ball sinking in the corner pocket following The Kid’s forceful flick of cigar ash onto the grimy pool hall floor.

Eagle-eyed film fans will pick up on the video’s clear homage to Eli Wallach in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Italian director Sergio Leone’s legendary 1966 spaghetti western that also starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. “If you think it was a good idea to do that, then yeah, you’re right—it was my idea!” Thorogood says with a hearty chuckle.

If someone were to remake the “Bone” video today with Thorogood taking over the Bo Diddley role, he has a clear suggestion for who should portray The Kid in his stead—namely, his daughter Rio Thorogood, who’s now in her early 20s. Her proud papa observes that his guitar-phenom offspring plays “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the Rolling Stones’ 1968 classic, “just like [late co-founding Stones guitarist] Brian Jones played it.”

While Thorogood demurs from characterizing the continuing impact of his music outright, he does reiterate that “something that’s good is going to last. I turned on the television the other night, and they’re still showing the Marx Brothers movies, which were made back in the ’30s.”

Thorogood continues with the thought: “If the exposure’s there, people are going to pick up on what you do. If it’s good, it’s not gonna matter what age you are, because you’re gonna dig it, you know? My daughter was into [Bob] Dylan when she was 13 years old and she flipped out over the Stones when she was 14, which is really fantastic.”

Even after 45 years of making music and playing on stages the world over, Thorogood shows no signs of slowing the Destroyers train anytime soon.

When asked what he considers his legacy to be, Thorogood takes a slight pause before delivering the following three prophetic words: “To be continued.”

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