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George Thorogood and The Destroyers celebrate half a century, good fortune

David Dobson

George Thorogood and The Destroyers will perform at The Cotillion Ballroom on Sunday, May 12.

George Thorogood and The Destroyers, which formed in 1973, has been a mainstay on the live music circuit since the late 1970s, cultivating a fanbase that was eager to embrace blues-inflected rock and rock-inflected blues. Via a succession of albums, including the 1977 eponymous debut, 1982’s “Bad to the Bone” and 1985’s “Maverick,” the group became a staple on radio during the album-oriented format that preceded MTV and classic rock.

Later, songs such as “Bad to the Bone,” “I Drink Alone,” and “Move It on Over,” would become staples of the emergent classic rock format. And, of course, “Bad to the Bone” would become a perennial favorite in film and television.

Thorogood, now 74, recently spoke with KMUW about the band’s history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

The band, The Destroyers, has been together since 1973, and you and drummer Jeff Simon have been there from the start. How far back do you go with Jeff? 

I’ve known Jeff Simon since he was six years old. I saw his first Little League at bat. They lived right up the street from me. The Simons and I knew each other for a long time before Jeff and I decided to put a band together. It’s so deep that we used to have a picture of my father, rest in peace, with Jeff’s grandmother, rest in peace. My father was about 18 or 19 in that picture.

I’m sure you get this question a lot, but how have you kept the core of the band together all that time? 

A person came to me and asked that question, “How do you keep your band together?” I said, “I respect them.” The woman said, “I respect my [friends and family].” I said, “You’re not listening to me.” I took my finger and my thumb and rubbed them together like the symbol for cash? I said, “No, I respect them. That’s respect.” That’s how you keep a band together, my friend.

You seem to have had great timing with this band. You came onto the scene at a time when FM radio was taking risks, then there was the birth of MTV and then classic rock radio which embraced you. 

Fear is a great motivator. When I got started, Jedd, fear was my motivator. I was pushed upon the fear of failure as opposed to the thrill of success. But you put it right, we were fortunate that when our first record came out, underground radio was around, and our record got in there just before that ended. Two years later, we got in on the ground floor of MTV. When MTV ran its course, we said, “What do we do now?” We got in on the embryo of classic rock [radio]. Then there were the Native American casinos that were opening wide up and then the House of Blues venues. We were always at the right place at the right time. Very fortunate that new avenues came up that we could play our music in. And now, there’s Sirius radio and a lot of other things.

Every five or 10 years, some new avenue comes up that you can use your act to expose yourself. We were fortunate like that. We hit FM radio, then we hit MTV, then we hit classic rock. Other things came along. We happened to still have the kind of material that would fit into those shows, and we were healthy enough to keep touring. Like you said, timing was everything. If those things hadn’t happened, who knows what would have happened to us? But then the great thing is that we have great fan support. Fan support plus exposure plus radio and MTV is what helped keep our band alive.

I recently read David Menconi’s book, “Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music.” One of the things he writes about is your signing with that label. You were a bit of an anomaly for them. 

The label that they had, which I didn’t understand, was more of a documentary-type company. They would find things, unique things, unusual things, bluegrass, old-timey music, country music and blues, document it on record and then move on. But I did not know this until years later. I thought all record companies were the same. But they’re not.

Capitol Records or Columbia Records or Elektra/Asylum weren’t interested or didn’t know that we existed. Rounder was the only label that said, “Maybe.” They took pity on me. I was smoking with this act, and I had this song, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” that I knew would be an underground hit. I knew it was a song that would catch on. But I didn’t have it on a record, and I bugged em and bugged ’em and bugged ’em until finally they said, “OK, we’ll put out one album.” They weren’t reluctant, they were, like, “Well … OK… They seem like nice guys. We’ll record this ‘Bourbon, Scotch and Beer.’” Then the album took off, and when we came to a second album, you know what they all said? “Got any more tunes?”

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.