George Thorogood's parents encouraged him to pursue a music career, but to hear the guitarist/singer/songwriter tell it, they didn't have much choice. They didn't see any more-conventional options to point him toward - and they were just glad he wasn't following in the tracks of his brothers.
"My older brothers, they were real terrors," Thorogood said in a recent phone interview. "They were like the Dennis Hoppers and the James Deans of the Delaware area on their motorcycles. ... My parents almost wept when I told them I wanted a guitar for a Christmas present. They were so pleased they couldn't see straight. And once they saw me perform once or twice, they said, 'This is what he's destined to do. All he has to do is stay with it long enough to get good at it.' And they also said this to me: 'George, you can't work.' That's true. I can't. I'm not good at it. Could you imagine Tom Petty working in an accountant firm? ... Some people are cut out to do what it is they do."
And, Thorogood added, it wasn't merely a hunch his parents had about him being a natural performer: "They didn't think it. They knew it. ... You know your own children."
Of course, 40 years into the career of George Thorogood & The Destroyers, it's more than clear Thorogood's parents were right about their son.
The band's first two records went gold on the strength of some blues covers: "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" (drawn from songs by John Lee Hooker and Rudy Toombs), Hank Williams' "Move It on Over," and Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?"
That George Thorogood & The Destroyers has thrived less with original material than the songs of others makes its longevity, mainstream commercial success, and household-name status nearly singular in the rock world. But that hints at what's special about the band and its leader: They inhabit and devour the songs rather than interpret them. As the All Music Guide wrote about the band's debut, The Destroyers play "so hard the group seemed like a gang of primitives," and "as he hammers away at his guitar, Thorogood plays with personality, his enthusiasm for making noise readily apparent."
(There's also something to be said for comfortable stability, as The Destroyers have been anchored by drummer Jeff Simon and Bill Blough since the '70s. And they've never taken themselves at all seriously, boasting of being "The World's Greatest Bar Band.")
Of course, George Thorogood & The Destroyers with their 1982 major-label debut added a signature original to the repertoire: "Bad to the Bone."
Writing that song, Thorogood said, was a naked bid for immortality. "Start building a catalog," he said. "Start building a repertoire. Get one song, two songs, three songs. ... I need songs. Nobody's going to remember me."
Thorogood wrote "Bad to the Bone" with the idea of Muddy Waters performing it (not interested, his representatives said), and then he thought of Bo Diddley (but he didn't have a record deal at the time). Ultimately, EMI insisted that Thoroogood record it. He recalled that the label told him: "We signed you because of the song 'Bad to the Bone.' ... That's what got us interested in you."
Despite the song's immediate success and cultural ubiquity over the past 30 years, however, Thorogood said he wasn't sure it would represent a lasting legacy. "I didn't know I nailed it until four or five years ago. ... That's the test of time."
Thorogood said he knew in the early '70s what he wanted to do; it was just a matter of will and practice. "I didn't play" guitar, he said. "I got started late. I started playing shortly before my 21st birthday. I just fooled around with the guitar before that. I'd been singing in bands, just basically in high school imitating Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon like every other lead singer. I never thought much of guitar. Then once I got out of school, I started thinking, 'You can do this.' I heard Johnny Winter, I heard John Hammond, I heard Bonnie Raitt, I heard the Allman Brothers, and I said, 'You can do what those people do. All you've got to do is start doing it.' ...
"I absolutely had a vision of what exactly it was I wanted to do when I picked the thing up. I wanted to get that blues-funk thing going. I had that same idea that [ZZ Top's] Billy Gibbons had - revved-up blues-rock-type stuff. ... I knew I could do it from the moment I picked up the guitar."
George Thorogood & The Destroyers formed in 1974, and its self-titled debut sat on the shelves of the Rounder label for 18 months before its 1977 release.
"It's always rough before your first record comes out," Thorogood said. "And for me, it wasn't rough; it was hell. ...
"There was a man who wanted to record us. He was a bus driver, if you can believe that, and he wanted to start his own label. He had no idea about the record industry. That's how desperate I was. And then Rounder pretty much took pity on me and said, 'Let's put out one record to shut this guy up. It's a pity that a band that could play like this is recording a record for a guy who makes 200 bucks a week. He's not even a record executive; he's a bus driver.' And Rounder was going to distribute the record. And I was like, 'This is ridiculous. "Bourbon, Scotch, & Beer" is a hit. I don't know why people can't see that.' I had other material to back it up - 'Madison Blues,' 'Ride on Josephine,' 'Move It on Over.' People couldn't see the forest for the trees."
Although George Thorogood & The Destroyers draw heavily from the blues and early rock-and-roll, its set headlining this year's Mississippi Valley Blues Festival will likely remain true to what the band has been doing for the past four decades, distinguished by its frontman's trademark slide guitar.
"The irony is we don't do any blues," Thorogood said. "We haven't been a blues act in 35 years, really. We might have to dig up a blues song, but don't get your hopes up. We play pretty much straightforward rock at this point. ...
"B.B. King plays blues. I don't know how to play blues. Buddy Guy plays blues. 'Gear Jammer' is a rock song. 'Who Do You Love?' is a rock song. That's basically what we do at this point."