Interview by: Robert Cavuoto
Legendary blues man, rocker, and bad boy; George Thorogood is re-exploring his roots and paying tribute to the iconic artists that inspired his career by releasing his first ever solo CD – Party of One on August 4th. A long awaited and personal project that kept getting sidelined for several reasons like selling 15 million records worldwide and performing 8,000 live shows. Though it didn’t start out as a tribute or being personal, it certainly took a turn midway through. The CD offers fans a retrospective look at the music that helped form George’s talents as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter. With smoldering versions of songs by Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams how can the CD go wrong! It’s a diverse array of musical influences with superb guitar playing.
I had the pleasure of speaking with George to discuss this long-awaited musical endeavor and what it meant to him to finally get it done!
Robert Cavuoto: Your new CD, Party of One, has a very intimate and atmospheric feel to it; like I’m sitting in a smoky bar watching a new artist showcase their skills. What was the impetus for re-exploring your musical roots?
George Thorogood: Actually, it was a project long overdue. When I first started out I wanted to make an acoustic solo record before moving to play with a band. That didn’t happen and my patience got thin so I put together a band and we got a lot of attention with the song “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” then we went into the studio to record it. With every album we did, it seemed like we had a few more good rock songs or songs that could really boogie. I kept putting that solo project on hold and almost forgot about it until I bumped into Rounder Records a couple of years ago. They asked if I had anything hot on the table. I didn’t so they said, “Don’t you think it’s time to finally do that solo record?” It was perfect because we went back to Rounder to do it. I don’t think we would have done it if it wasn’t on Rounder. We also had interest from our fans too, so putting all that together we said let’s see if we can make it work.
Robert Cavuoto: It really seems like a personal CD as it’s just you with a guitar playing the songs that influenced your career. Was that the case?
George Thorogood: Not at first it wasn’t. I figured I would do tunes that I’ve done with the band as an acoustic version. As time went on I had about six or seven songs and started to realize that we covered a lot of different artists. That’s when it became apparent that it was going to be a homage to the people who have influenced me like The Rolling Stones. Brian Jones was the first slide guitar player that I saw on television. The Bob Dylan song I covered “Down the Highway” was off his record when he was playing blues and opened for John Lee Hooker. That song sounds like Bob Dylan trying to play like John Lee Hooker. With me recording it, it was going to sound like George Thorogood trying to play like Bob Dylan trying to play like John Lee Hooker [laughing]. So that made sense to me! Then I thought we have to have a song by John Hammond Jr. and found one I could handle. One by one with the Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs, we began hitting all the bases. That’s how the record ended up coming together. It wasn’t intentional but the result was that I got to talk with you and that makes it worth it!
Robert Cavuoto: The Johnny Cash song was my favorite on the CD.
George Thorogood: He was more than just an influence on me as an artist. I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash and Howlin’ Wolf when I was starting out. I noticed how far they went with their voices. During that time the singers who were really blowing people away were The Beatles, Roger Daltrey, and Rod Stewart. I can’t sing like those people, nobody can. Johnny Cash’s biggest hit was “A Boy Named Sue,” how good of a singer do you have to be to sing that? When Johnny Cash is singing a song with the word “bad,” it sounds tailor made for George Thorogood. He is an outlaw, wise guy, and bad guy, all the elements are there. [Laughing] Later I experienced Elvin Bishop and Tom Waits, I heard what they were doing with their voices, so I figured if I picked the right song for my voice I would be safe. It would be ludicrous for me to go into the studio and try to cut “Pinball Wizard.” [Laughing]
Robert Cavuoto: What do you think these legendary artists would say about this tribute? Do you think they would say you’re on the money?
George Thorogood: They would think it’s on the money if they were getting some money for it! [laughing] They would appreciate it then.
Robert Cavuoto: Have you met any of the artists you are covering and what was your impression of them?
George Thorogood: I met all of them except Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. It was Brownie McGhee who I learned “Born with the Blues.” I opened for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and they were very encouraging; they helped me with my confidence. I opened for them for about two weeks and my confidence skyrocketed just being around them. I met all of these guys like Bad Bob Dylan who is the best! I never met Brian Jones but I met the other Stones and they were the same; just great guys. Of course, John Hammond was the guy for me when I was starting. When I saw him perform for the first time, I had just started playing guitar; I didn’t even know how to put strings it. At that moment I knew I was going to be successful in this business after watching him perform. That’s what he did for me. He didn’t know me but that is what he put in my mind.
Robert Cavuoto: Did you find it liberating to have the main focus of the songs to be on the guitar and not the expensive production of all the other instruments in a band?
George Thorogood: No not really. When I’m on a stage I have a great drummer, a great guitar player, great songs, and a great audience; then I feel free. There is only one Taj Mahal [laughing]. When you sit down with that acoustic guitar, you’re all alone! You have to deliver and it’s scary. You’re up there without a net. That was more than a challenge and it was hard work. I don’t mind working hard; I just don’t like hard work. [Laughing]. It took a while to piece this together and play all the songs well. You can’t just do it and then say “Take it or leave it!” Then “No, I’m going to leave it, it stinks” [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: How long did it take to record Party of One?
George Thorogood: Couple of years. I would do it for a week or two then have to go on tour with the band for six months. I couldn’t have done it all in one week or one sitting. I would play one song and my hands were exhausted for two days! When you are up there with a band you have the instrumentation behind you. It’s a little tough to cover the outfield when you are the only outfielder. [Laughing]
Robert Cavuoto: What do you think your fans will think of this CD?
George Thorogood: There is a lot of stuff on there that they have already heard. I used to open for myself and play three or four songs to warm the audience up.
Robert Cavuoto: What guitars did you use to record and did you use your Gibson ES-125?
George Thorogood: Only on one or two songs. I used so many guitars I can’t remember now. I used a couple of different slide guitars, a few acoustics; I even used one of my daughter’s guitars as it had such a sweet tone to it and it was easier for me to play. There was one guitar that sounded fantastic but was really hard to play. There was another guitar that was easier to play but didn’t sound as good, so you have those issues to deal with. There is only so much technology can do. If you’re a musician and the instrument sounds great you are going to stay with it and play the song better. If the tone isn’t good, you’re going to say “it doesn’t sound good, I don’t like it.” You have to experiment a lot.
Robert Cavuoto: While touring with your band will you be intermixing any solo acoustic shows?
George Thorogood: No [laughing] I’m not going to do that. The solo CD was side project; a personal project.
Robert Cavuoto: You have some pretty iconic drinking songs, did you ever think they would become an iconic staple when you were recording them.
George Thorogood: One was already iconic “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” That was an icon song laying in waiting; if I didn’t do it somebody else would have grabbed it like Tom Waits or The J. Geils Band. Spencer Davis once told me “I didn’t make the songs famous, the songs made me famous!”