A small farmhouse off Kirkwood Highway served as the de facto rock ’n’ roll teenage hangout during the late 1960s. Instruments and two-track recording equipment were set up, plugged in and used by the who’s who of local musicians.
“All the Wilmington musicians used to gather there and record and hang out, and it was thought of as this harmonious, creative, positive force,” says one of the tribe, Mark Kenneally.
Scrawled across a handwritten sign on the front door was: The following people are not allowed in our house: Mark Kenneally, Billy Ficca and George Thorogood.
Thorogood, perhaps Delaware’s best-known musical export, has a checkered relationship with his home state. He was an outcast in his hometown. He was picked on, ostracized and beaten up, especially at Brandywine High School from 1964 through 1968. Friends say it fueled Thorogood’s devotion to music, relentless self-marketing, constant gigging and eventual rock stardom.
Thorogood will return to Wilmington for a concert at The Grand Opera House on March 23. It’s his first gig in the town where he grew up since August 2000, when he played the Big Kahuna. How the show will play out is anyone’s guess.
Delaware may claim Thorogood, the chainsaw-voiced rocker who gave the world “Bad to the Bone,” as its biggest star. The feelings might not be mutual, even though Thorogood claims he’s excited for the show.
“I’m really looking forward like you wouldn’t believe,” Thorogood says. “Especially since it’s The Grand Opera House. I used to think the only way I’d get into The Grand Opera House is if they asked me to sweep the floor.”
Thorogood’s unquestioned success in the music biz has led to some revisionist history, says Kenneally, a musician known today as Dr. Harmonica, front man for the legendary Rockett 88. He lived through teenage exile with Thorogood. “Getting out of Delaware was really good for him. George took the negativity really personally, and it fueled him to get out of Wilmington, to make a buck playing music so he didn’t have to work at DuPont like his father.”
Page 2: The Trials of Lonesome George, continues…
Thorogood, who lived on Naamans Road and graduated from Brandywine in 1968, didn’t seem to fit in anywhere as a teenager. Though he loved baseball, his long hair excluded him from hanging out with jocks. His love of the blues and aversion to pot and alcohol labeled him a square peg among local rock musicians.
“He always did what wasn’t in at the time. That’s kind of how he made a name for himself,” says Bert Ottaviano, who’s owned Bert’s Music and Videos on Concord Pike since 1972 and occasionally ran with Thorogood’s crowd in the ’70s. Thorogood performed an in-store show at Bert’s in 1978.
“I respected his mindset from the beginning,” Ottaviano says. “Like me, he wasn’t accepted in this society. I think that’s why I related to the guy. Even when he was getting successful, there was a lot of envy back in Delaware.”
Thorogood honed his Delta-style guitar skills in Philadelphia. Blues coffee houses like the Trauma, the Second Fret and the Main Point in Bryn Mawr were havens for young blues musicians, which gave Thorogood and friends a chance to get up close and personal with some of their idols, like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and John Hammond.
After high school, Thorogood became more serious about a career in music. On a friend’s recommendation, he fled to England to live with his aunt for a year. There, he practiced the guitar tirelessly for 12 hours a day in a distraction-free environment.
He returned to Delaware—Newark, this time—and began forging for gigs. They were tough to come by in Delaware, he says.
“It was kind of tough for any Delaware musicians to get their act off the ground,” Thorogood says. “Wilmington wasn’t the Austin, Texas, of its time. It wasn’t like the Bay Area, or any of these Meccas for bands getting started.
“We had three clubs in Northern Delaware, and all of them wanted Top 40. You had to have something really special or someone who was really good-looking. We were a three-piece boogie band with a guy that’s got a gutbucket for a voice at best.”
Page 3: The Trials of Lonesome George, continues…
So Thorogood and his Destroyers hitchhiked the country, playing bars and restaurants by night. He’d often storm the lunch crowd during the day, walk up to a table with his guitar and perform a guerilla advertisement for his show.
“That’s how hard he worked at building a following,” Kenneally says. “He had no problem forcing himself upon people.”
Thorogood did eventually catch on, enough to snag a deal with Rounder Records in Massachusetts, which released his first studio album, “George Thorogood & The Destroyers” in 1977. On it was a cover of Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” which caught on quickly as a fan favorite.
EMI America, a much larger label, came calling in 1981. Then “Bad to the Bone” happened—a perfect union of that unforgettable riff (a reworking of a Bo Diddly song) and those b-b-b-b-b-bad lyrics, which Thorogood cribbed from smack-talkin’ union laborers at the Port of Wilmington. The single dropped in 1982, the same year MTV launched. Stardom had been attained. “Bad to the Bone,” the album, went gold and stayed on Billboard’s chart for almost a year.
“He was actually a guy who became a rock star. How many people from Delaware can say that?” Ottaviano says. “I think he made all the right moves at the right times. Plus, it always seemed like he had a guardian angel. Just when it seemed like his run would end, something else came up.”
At Live Aid in 1985, the British band Tears for Fears (who had the No. 1 song in the country at the time) cancelled last minute. Thorogood and the Destroyers were plucked to fill in for a three-song set in Philadelphia. Across the globe, viewers saw George perform “Who Do You Love?” “The Sky Is Crying” and “Madison Blues” to rapturous applause.
The band continued to record and gig throughout the 1980s and ’90s and seemingly put Delaware in the rearview mirror. In ’81, they embarked on a historic “50 states in 50 days” tour. Delaware’s turn occurred at UD’s Carpenter Hall in November. It marked one of the few times since Thorogood moved away that he played in Delaware. According to Just Passin’ Thru, a website that tabulates Thorogood shows, the band did not perform in Delaware at all in the 1990s.
Page 4: The Trials of Lonesome George, continues…
Steve Bailey, executive director of The Grand Opera House, says he didn’t have any trouble booking Thorogood. In fact, the guest list for the band is huge, Bailey says.
“They must be planning a homecoming of pretty good proportions,” Bailey says. “And it appears he’ll be received well, because we’re headed for sell-out status.”
Drummer Jeff Simon and bassist Billy Blough of the Destroyers, Thorogood’s backing band, are also from the area.
“In the stretch, I hope the show gives that homecoming feel to him,” Bailey says. “They’re going to rock the crowd, and the crowd I’m sure will be very responsive. Wilmington tends to be very overly proud of our own.”
Kenneally is not sure the show will hold any special meaning to Thorogood.
“He thinks of Wilmington as a part of his past, and I think he’d like to keep it that way,” he says.
Thorogood dated Gerri Kenneally, Mark’s sister, in high school. For the Big Kahuna show in 2000, the Destroyers sent Gerri tickets, but George didn’t want to visit with the Kenneallys afterward. When Gerri succumbed to multiple sclerosis a few years later, George didn’t call or send a card. Other members of the band flew in to attend Gerri’s funeral. George did not.
Perhaps Lonesome George prefers his Delaware past remain buried. But perhaps he has something special planned after all. He says the band will record the homecoming concert for an upcoming live album.
So maybe his hometown will gladly welcome back its George—the kid who ice-skated on Twin Lakes, played the school dances at Brandywine and got beat up outside the Charcoal Pit—with open arms.