George Thorogood Talks About Writing His Hit “Bad To The Bone” And Other Songs, And His Icon Album

George Thorogood performing live.
George Thorogood performing live.

Gearing up for the launch of his 60-date, five-month North American tour celebrating the 40th Anniversary of his band George Thorogood & The Destroyers, the iconic blues/rock singer and guitarist has an amazing confession to make about his most famous and enduring song “Bad To The Bone.” When he wrote it, he wanted Muddy Waters to sing it. When the late blues legend’s reps rejected it, Thorogood thought Bo Diddley might do it justice—but Diddley, whose early rock and roll classic “Who Do You Love?” has been an integral part of Thorogood’s repertoire for 35 years, didn’t have a deal at the time and turned it down as well.

Thorogood, whose upcoming U.S. and Canadian dates coincide with the release of the George Thorogood & The Destroyers Icon compilation CD and Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Live at Montreux DVD, adds that the same is true of many other original tunes that have become a core part of his legacy. “I wanted George Jones and Dean Martin to sing ‘I Drink Alone,’ I wrote ‘I Really Like Girls’ with the Stray Cats in mind, and Merle Haggard, my first choice for “Oklahoma Sweetheart’, didn’t record it. I was especially upset about the Muddy Waters thing, but I couldn’t get to first base with management, and then he died so it was too late.

“For all the resulting success I have had by recording these songs myself,” he adds, “my biggest thrill has always been taking an unknown or little known blues song that I loved and exposing it to the world. These were the songs, after all, that inspired me to write my own compositions and once I started playing them I turned them into my own signature tunes. I enjoyed interchanging my originals and the others so much that sometimes people thought my own songs were old obscure blues tunes I had uncovered. People often thought ‘I Drink Alone,” which was a mainstream rock hit in 1985, was actually an old song.”

Thorogood & The Destroyers’ classic albums included powerhouse interpretations of great tunes that might otherwise have been lost to blues, rock and country music history. Better Than The Rest, which the band recorded in 1974 but was not officially released until 1979, included classics by John Lee Hooker (“Huckle Up Baby”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Howlin For My Darling”) and Willie Dixon (“I’m Ready”). Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” (first released on the band’s self titled debut) became a Destroyers’ standard, as did Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” (the title track from their 1978 set).

Other artists and composers Thorogood covered include Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Brownie McGhee, The Isley Brothers, Bob Dylan, Johnny Otis, Carl Perkins and Fats Domino. When asked what makes a great blues song, the singer says, “I wouldn’t know because there are very few of them,” before adding, “Ask Robert Johnson.” Thorogood included Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman” (originally recorded in 1936) on his band’s debut album as well. He adds, “There are a lot of great songs in rock and country, but most that are considered ‘great’ blues songs are just 12 bar jams with clever words in them. Beyond those limitations, a great song is a combination of a lot of things, strong lyrics, a memorable title, a catchy hook. It’s sort of like a good car, it’s not about any single component but a combination of things working in synch together.”

Standard in most biographies written about Thorogood is the fact that he was a minor league baseball player who decided to become a musician in 1970 after seeing blues singer/guitarist John P. Hammond in concert. Thorogood, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, insists that the story starts long before that: “I was hooked on Beatlemania immediately and in the ’60s, the whole world, not just musically but every other way too was Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones. Then there was the second string after them that influenced me—Hendrix, the Who, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds—and later Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steve Miller.

“By 1970 when I got into doing my own music, to use a baseball analogy, it was like the whole team was stocked full of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantles,” he adds. “I knew nobody would ever sing like Roger Daltrey or Rod Stewart, but making music was all I was interested in. Then in rapid succession, I saw Hammond, J. Geils and Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. All of them were making a living doing a revved up version of Canned Heat songs, and I thought to myself, now this is something I could do. Blues/rock was fast emerging with Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt and I thought, okay forget trying to be like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, this is where my heart was.

“I had the slide guitar thing going,” he continues, “so I could be like Hammond, Elvin Bishop and Duane Allman if I picked the right tunes. Home run or bunt, you do what you have to so you can stay in the lineup. To use another analogy or two, even if I’m not pouring Dom Perignon and serving filet mignon, there will always be a market for making the best cheeseburgers in town. There’s only one Marlon Brando but Robert Duvall has made a great living as an actor, hasn’t he?”

From their first show at Lane Hall at the University of Delaware through legendary career elevating appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and at Live Aid, the opening slot on the Stones’ historic 1981 tour and their own record breaking 50/50 tour, George Thorogood & The Destroyers is a time tested road band still out there doing over 100 dates per year. Their upcoming 40 Years Strong Tour is billed as “50% celebration, 50% declaration and 100% Thorogood throwdown.” Because of this notoriety, it often surprises even longtime fans that the singer/guitarist actually launched his career as a solo acoustic act.

“I was more of a Robert Johnson/Elmore James country-blues player,” he says.  “That soon petered out, but I’d gotten enough feedback from artists like Brownie McGhee and Willie Dixon who thought I had something going. I knew I needed more.” Thorogood called high-school friend and drummer Jeff Simon, and with the later addition of their original bassist, who was later replaced by Billy Blough—as well as Jeff’s van—the electric trio soon graduated from basement rehearsals to local gigs. “We knew there was still time for one hardcore high-energy boogie-blues band to make it. We relocated to Boston and toured the Delaware Valley, Philly and New England non-stop.  Crowds loved us. The acts we were opening for, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, loved us. We were playing great, but still couldn’t get a record deal and didn’t earn more than $200 a night.”

Released on the day Elvis died, their debut album on Rounder Records went gold. “Bad To The Bone,” released five years later, became a hit video on MTV and was licensed for a wide variety of TV shows and films on its way to becoming Thorogood’s signature hit. “I can’t say that I ever made peace with the fact that I couldn’t get Muddy to record it,” he says, “but I will be performing it live for the rest of my life. It’s the ultimate fantasy of the cool tough guy.”

Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]