“I could have been playing in front of the Washington Monument for a handful of Republicans, and I would have been in heaven ’cause I’m with Eddie Shaw,” says million-selling artist George Thorogood, now on his 40th anniversary tour.
The massive tour of the United States and Canada started in the west in February, went through Canada in April and May and runs through the end of July in the northeast and west. Not one of the stops is a blues festival. His latest LP, ICON contains several of his rock anthems including “Bad to The Bone,” “I Drink Alone” and “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer.” That said, 2014 Blues Hall of Famer and this year’s Blues Music Award-winning “Sax Man of The Year” Eddie Shaw’s “Greedy Man” is the opening number on Thorogood’s 2003 album, Ride Til I Die. Both Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite guest on his 2011 album, 2120 South Michigan Ave.
Thorogood calls himself a rocker because, frankly, it gets him more gigs and sells more records. One of his most famous songs, “Move It On Over,” is actually a blues rave up of a country classic by Hank Williams that Thorogood recorded as the title song of his second album for Rounder, a “bluegrass label” (his words) in 1978. But you can hear the influence of both Eddie Shaw and John Hammond in his playing throughout his career. In fact, it was hearing Hammond that got Thorogood obsessed with getting into this business in the first place, and Shaw who taught him how to make the blues work for him in rock.
“Hammond’s a dynamo, man,” George proclaimed to me in 2005. “The Stones got me to want to do this. Then, I kind lost myself for a few years. I went to see John Hammond, and he woke me up. I said it’s now or never. What he instilled in me was I said, ‘All I want to do with my life is make people feel as good as he’s making me feel right now. That’s all I want to do.'”
Hammond may have turned Thorogood’s head around, but he’s always been eclectic in his taste. “I said, all I’m here to do is make people feel as good as I did that night, or the time I would listen in my bedroom alone over and over and over to ‘Mona’ by the Stones, or I would listen to ‘Positively 4th Street’ by Dylan and dream and scheme and think if I could make people feel like they’re making me feel right now by listening to our records, that’s what I want.
“It doesn’t matter whether you write it. It doesn’t matter if somebody else wrote it. Doesn’t matter whether you’re playing slide, piano or whatever. It’s the reaction the person listening gets. That’s what you’re after. It could be a salad. It could be a T-bone steak. See what I mean? As long as they get that thing filled inside of them, it’ll never go away. It’ll never go away their entire life. I believe that. You got that one emotional rush from hearing or seeing.”
It was seeing Howlin’ Wolf with Eddie Shaw at Joe’s Place in Boston in 1973 at twenty three that sealed the deal between Thorogood and the devil’s music. Shaw was Howlin’ Wolf’s band leader at the time. Wolf was dying of liver cancer and had to go for dialysis treatments three times a week. It was Eddie’s job to keep Wolf functioning well enough to stay on the road and hold an audience at clubs around the country.
“I was waiting out on the street corner with a friend of mine and they came up,” Thorogood told me in 2010. “Wolf walked up out of nowhere, man. We were all into Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. It wasn’t anything about Eddie, Detroit Jr., and any of those people. It was all about Wolf.
“They kicked some ass at Joe’s Place. I went to every show every night because I’d been playing there a little bit. I’d get in for free every night. It was the first time they put a $3 cover charge on the place. I never spoke to Eddie Shaw at all. He didn’t speak to anybody, and I said, ‘Well, this guy has really got a stick up his ass.’
“Then a year later in ’74 we picked up a booking agent from Chicago called All American Talent, and they booked us opening for Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Tayloemor in the summer of ’74. Then in the fall, they got us a gig opening for John Hammond and opening for Howlin’ Wolf. That’s when we got to know the band really good. And again Eddie didn’t talk much to any of us. Then I found out years later because he was the band leader, he had so much on his plate. He had to collect the money. He had to make sure Wolf got to the Veteran’s Hospital to get the dialysis machine. Plus, Wolf had had a bad car accident where he was actually thrown through the windshield. He also had a bad heart. He had to take nitroglycerin pills almost on an hourly basis. He was taking them on the stage.
“He did about a 35-minute, 40-minute set, but it was a great set. The thing was it wasn’t that Wolf was grumpy or unfriendly. He was in pain. He wasn’t in good health when I met him and hung around. He was pleasant to us. We kept our distance from Howlin’ Wolf just out of respect. A little bit out of fear, too,” he laughs. “But Eddie I never communicated with at all.
“I just thought, ‘Well, this guy is just not like the rest of the people.’ Then, in talking to him years later, he had to ‘keep’ S. P. Leary. S. P. Leary was the greatest blues drummer I ever heard, but he was an alcoholic. He had a terrible drinking problem. So Eddie had to watch over him. The only way to keep S. P. sober was the fact that he played with Howlin’ Wolf. He adored Howlin’ Wolf, adored him. He said, ‘Wolf raised me. Wolf raised all of us.’ Those guys looked at Howlin’ Wolf the way Al Pacino and Robert De Nero look at Marlon Brando. I’m serious. I mean they were just like in love with him, do anything for him, and they played great behind him.
“Now we’ve got S. P. Leary with a drinking problem and Detroit Jr. had a horrible gambling problem, ok? And then there was Hubert Sumlin who was almost borderline neurotic about his relationship with Wolf. I mean those times they got in a fist fight, you know what I mean? Like real fathers and sons. It wasn’t uncommon for Wolf to fire him on a monthly basis. Then, he’d rehire him on a monthly basis. It was a very, very intense relationship, the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of the blues.
“So Eddie had all that to deal with, but one night he finally said something. We weren’t really very good at the time, but he said something very nice in the mike about us. ‘Here’s the band that opened for us, The Delaware Destroyers,’ which was very common in those days. I mean Freddie King would always acknowledge the band that opened for him, or if Muddy Waters had a band, he would always pull the guitar player up there to jam with him. That was common in the blues because we weren’t playing for 5000 people who paid 55 bucks to get in, you know?
“He had to be the band (leader). He had to collect the money. Each guy in the band had one song to do before Wolf came out except for Hubert. And sometimes they wanted him to do more than one. So he had to keep their ego in check. He had to keep the volume right. He had to do everything. So, his plate was more than loaded.
“I don’t know how the guy made it. I don’t know how he – some kind of testament to the man’s fortitude and dedication, and above all he taught me many, many things. I knew I could play. There was no doubt about that, and I knew with enough experience I could hold an audience as good as anybody, Jagger, any of those guys, on my own level, you know what I’m saying.
“Blues is a harder sell if you’re white. Eddie taught me how to sell it. See, John [Hammond] doesn’t talk. He has a bad stammer. He doesn’t talk on stage. He doesn’t bullshit his audience. Eddie taught me the value of selling what it is you’re doing and sellin’ it up like it’s the greatest thing in the world people are going to hear.
“It was like I went to school. I went there thinking I was there for entertainment purposes, but I would walk in and I would always back off into a corner. Everyone else was getting high or getting laid, and it wasn’t a conscious thing, and Eddie did the same thing to me. When I sat there and watched him and Hound Dog, I was learning.”
“(Eddie) set up Howlin’ Wolf and by the time Howlin’ Wolf hit the stage, everybody thought they were gonna see Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger all rolled into one. That’s how Eddie set it up, and he didn’t set it up in a condescending way. He didn’t patronize the Wolf. He set it up just right in respect and that he’s the greatest bluesman living which Eddie believed. He handled it well.
“Eddie said to me, ‘Well, one thing you are good at, George, is bullshitting and you’re funny. You gotta bring that into the act,’ and remember I was only playing solo then, and didn’t have a band or anything. That’s why Joe’s Place was packed — because Eddie was funny. They did a version of “Stoop Down” for about 10 minutes that was just unbelievable. Wolf came out and made ’em do it. He sat there in a chair and said, ‘Hey, man, let’s talk about “Stoop Down,'” and that was the only one Eddie took a vocal on, and every vocal got even dirtier every time he did a dirty lyric.
“Wolf would look at him, nod his head in approval, and I swear to God, this is where Red Fox and Demond Wilson got their Sanford and Son act from Wolf and Eddie, the same exact act. You know how grumpy Red is. ‘I’m having a heart attack. It’s the big one.’ You know how his son would be. He even looked like the two of ’em, and I said, ‘Eddie and Wolf are geniuses.’ They’re Goddamn geniuses because at that time Sanford and Son was the number one show on television. So, everybody was used to that kind of thing, and they pulled it off. I mean, if you could pull it off as good as Red Fox, you are a genius, right?
“Dylan can stand there all night and never say a word, right? So can Miles Davis. George Thorogood can’t. So, I got that from Eddie. Then, I started writing that when I started writing a song. I said, ‘Now, not just to be funny on stage. Write funny into your originals. Be funny and be bad, and you’ll have a career just like Jerry Reed’, and Eddie gave me 90% of that, and Hound Dog gave me the rest.
“So there you have it. So I’m indebted to him whether he knew it or not. He didn’t realize it. He barely spoke to me. It was just like a nodding acquaintance. (Here was) this little kid who’s always in their face and always looking at them like with this huge expectancy on his face. Well, I was learning from these guys: how to dress, how to be on time. Don’t get drunk before the show. I mean, Jesus Christ, Eddie and Wolf even taught me how to talk to women properly.”
Periodically during his career, Thorogood has flown Eddy Shaw in to do shows with the band. It pumps him up. “When I get on stage with somebody that turns me on, I play better than I’ve ever played in my life,” he told me in 2007. “I don’t turn the guitars down and run for cover. I don’t do that. Eddie’s playing with us was nice, and it filled a gap, and it got my confidence back. I was very down at one time. I even wanted to retire at one minute. I couldn’t take this shit anymore. You don’t know what I went through with the personnel. Eddie started telling me about the problems he had being a band leader, and I said, ‘Oh, I got off lucky.'”
Thorogood is resigned to being labelled a rocker. The hard rocking fans have given him a career. “I’m not a blues act,” he says now. “That’s why they didn’t ask me to play B.B. King’s Blues Club as a blues act. So is Buddy Guy, John Hammond, and Charlie Musselwhite, and they want blues acts, and there’s not too many left. After ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer’ hit FM radio and then we went to MTV, we got played on rock classic radio. We don’t get played on blues stations. We’ve been rock classic since 1990. How long ago was that? So that’s where it’s at. That’s the kind of band we have. I mean I just heard ‘Two on Tuesday’ here in L.A. They played ‘Bad to the Bone’ and ‘I Drink Alone.’ Then they played the Stones and then they played Fleetwood Mac. What does that tell ya?”
But the blues is where Thorogood got his training wheels. And it’s Eddie Shaw that gives him that adrenalin shot when fronting a rock band gets George down. “Eddie played in our band for a while. We did ‘Madison Blues,’ and he played it really well. I said, ‘Oh, that’s really good. You know how to play “The Sky is Crying?”‘ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I used to do that song with Elmore James.’ And all of a sudden my dick turned into a vagina.”