Rock and roll veteran discusses his first-ever solo album
George Thorogood has seemingly done it all. Over his 40 year career, he and The Destroyers brought their brand of blues rock and roll to the masses, turning a generation on to America’s most celebrated musical form. But, until now, Thorogood had never set on his own.
Party of One sees Thorogood going back to his roots and digging up the blues tracks that influenced the musician he has become. From Robert Johnson to The Rolling Stone, it was blues that first captured the rocker’s attention and captured his imagination.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with George Thorogood to discuss his first-ever solo album, find out why now was the right time, and learn about the music that influenced his career.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Party of One. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
George Thorogood: It’s nice to have a new project out. It’s great to just be back with Rounder Records where we started out and are a much bigger label now than they were when I started with them, dare I say we’ve become a reasonable success, so that part of it is very exciting that we’re still here and functioning on a higher level than we did 40 years ago. My mood is good about it.
CF: This is your first-ever solo album. Why at this point did you decide to strike it out solely on your own?
GT: Because I’d never done it before. Previously we’d talked of this with several people and kept in touch with Rounder over the years, and they still had that on the back burner, and it was just the right time… I remember Eric Clapton had his great catalogue and he decided to do Unplugged and that was successful for him, kept his profile going, and it was very good.
Other people have done this before, not just me, have done “unplugged” records. I said, “This is how I started before we put The Destroyers together, so let’s see if we can pull it off now.”
CF: On Party of One you recorded a number of traditional blues cuts. What is it about the blues that speaks to you and why do you think it continues to be the center of the American music ethos?
GT: Well wouldn’t you say Christopher that probably the highest profile music form is rock and roll or rock? Every movie has rock in it. Every commercial has rock in it. There are shoe stores called rock. There are restaurants called rock. I could go on and on, and the basis of that, when rock and roll first hit… Rock and roll wasn’t even a musical phenomenon, it was a social phenomenon. Bill Clinton used the phrase rock to get into the white house, Rock the Vote. The basis of that, the roots of that, is the blues, so indirectly blues is probably the most important form of music ever because if it wasn’t for the blues, there would be no rock and roll, and if there was no rock and roll there would be no rock as we know it. There would be no Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or The Rolling Stone..
Having said that, those are the highest profile rock acts on the planet and that’s what everything is based on. That’s why I went into the blues a long time ago. I said, “I have to learn to do this,” if you want to be bad like Keith Richards, and you want to be bad like Jimi Hendrix, you are going to have to learn this stuff first, and that’s what I did. I happened to fall in love with it, too. I was fortunate when I did discover, for lack of a better word, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, people like that, I like that music just as much as I like The Rolling Stones or Steppenwolf or The Butterfield Band. It was a passion as well as a learning process.
CF: I’ve always had personal affection for Son House and Junior Kimbrough as well. It’s the songs, they’re so personal and universal at the same time…
GT: Well blues is personal. What’s the one emotion everybody in the world can say they can share? It’s the blues. I asked an interviewer that, and I said, “What’s the one thing everybody has experienced in the world?” And he said, “Love.” And I said, “You’re wrong. Not everybody just has love. Very few people have it.” But the blues everybody has experience with that because it is a sad emotion.
I’m not trying to be negative here, Christopher. But I think you follow what I’m saying. You’re in the sixth grade, you come home with a couple F’s on your report card. Do you feel good about it? No, so indirectly it makes you sad, which is the blues. That’s my point. You might pick up the newspaper and see stuff in the paper today that makes you say, “Oh man that’s got me down.”
That’s where blues comes from. I believe, like I say, the most popular song in the world is “Yesterday” by The Beatles. It’s the most well-known song, and it’s the saddest song. The man is singing about the death of his mother. What could be sadder than that? So indirectly, “Yesterday”, to me, is the ultimate blues song. I think that’s why many people are attracted to it or why people don’t want to be involved in it because they don’t want to feel sadder than they already do, and that’s where rock and roll steps in.
CF: To go further into the blues, audiences tend to have very particular relationships with certain songs. Can you speak about your relationship with one of the songs from the album – a song that you feel captures the tone of everything you’re trying to achieve with the collection?
GT: My relationship with every song is more or less the connection with the artist who did it because without any of those artists I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I just happened to be able to find a handful of songs by these different artists that I was able to get a grasp on and was able to record them, and hopefully do them justice, but it was the artist themselves. If it wasn’t for Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and Bob Dylan and Brian Jones and the Stones, John Hammond, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now, so there you have it as far as a personal connection. That’s the best I can do for you, Christopher.
CF: Can you take us through your song selection process and tell us why these particular songs spoke to you?
GT: First of all you’ve got to dig the song that’s number one. If you’re not behind the song then it’s an exercise in futility. Another thing is, you have to be able to play it. There are hundreds of Hank Williams songs and many, many Dylan songs, or Johnny Cash, but can I play it? Can I sing it? It’s not an easy process as you may think. That whittles it down to a handful of songs, and you say, “Well how many times has ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ been done by other people?” Certainly the world didn’t need another version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. That was a process in itself, so that takes time, a lot of time, a lifetime of time.
CF: This seems to be very much a ‘back to your roots’ project. Why now did you feel it was right to dig back to the beginning?
GT: For one thing, there was nothing left for me to do. We’ve done three or four live records. We’ve done records when we’ve done our songs. Hopefully people know that we can work on the strength of our catalogue, and this is one project that had been long overdue. It should have been done years ago. Maybe I should have started doing it, and then moved on to a band.
The time was right, and Rounder Records is still going. Matter of fact, they’re going strong, stronger than they ever were, which pleases me, and so are The Destroyers. To hook up with them again, the timing was right.
CF: As you said, you are back on the label where it all began. Why did you decide to record this with them?
GT: Various reason for this project, I wouldn’t have done it without Rounder Records because they do that sort of thing. They did a solo record with Steve Martin, he played the banjo. That’s their thing. They are a roots label. They are like a documentary label. They document bluegrass, blues, old timey music, roots music, that’s their trip, so they were the obvious choice.
CF: It seems like there is a lot of talk about this record being a ‘summation of your career’ or ‘a completing of the circle’. So we have to ask, what’s next?
GT: What’s next? [laughs] I got a show to do in Wisconsin next week with The Destroyers. That’s what’s next.
CF: Throughout your career, I can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. Is there a moment that stands out; a grounding moment that brings perspective and reminds you why you do all this?
GT: There are so many that stick out. It goes way, way back to me as a teenager. I think generally along the lines somewhere, just like everybody else, when I saw The Rolling Stone on television that’s when I heard their first three records, before they had “Satisfaction”, I said, “This is what I want to do with my life.” It took a live show when I went to see John Hammond years later. When I saw him perform I said, “The time is now, you gotta do it. You gotta start doing it.” When I saw him perform that was a defining moment for me saying, “George Thorogood, you know you can do it.” When I saw John, I said, “I know I can do this.” When I saw The Stones I said, “This is something I want to do.” When I saw John I said, “This is something I know I can do.”