True Grit: The Tenacity of George Thorogood

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Ask George Thorogood how his love of baseball relates to his love of the blues and you get a life lesson that is applicable across vocations.

But first, a little backstory on the blues singer and guitarist, who opens for Brian Setzer at Detroit’s DTE Energy Theatre on Friday, June 5.

The Wilmington, Delaware, native said he knew at age 15 that music was going to be put to greater use in his life than filling the cracks between desk job stints.

“I never looked at it as a hobby,” he said in a phone interview. “I thought of it as a business. From the very first time I did a gig right to this very moment we’re speaking. I just had the right mindset for it. I was very relaxed about the whole thing.”

Like every 15-year-old guitar player, Thorogood had delusions of grandeur.

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Thorogood, 65, likens his early journey as a musician to a story Samuel L. Jackson told about the beginnings of his acting career.

“(Jackson) said, ‘When I started out – when I was 17 – I used to stand in front of the mirror doing my acceptance speech for my Academy Award. A year later, I thought, ‘If only I could get into a Marlon Brando movie.’ A year after that, I thought, ‘If only I could get into any movie.’ The next year, I thought, ‘If I could just do a television commercial.’”

Thorogood’s point is that all artists arrive at a place, or should, where they must weigh an honest assessment of their talents against the competition and the marketplace.

And that’s where baseball comes in.

“You start at 13 and by the time you’re 21, you figure, ‘There’s only one Babe Ruth. There’s only one Willie Mays.’ I looked at music like a young ball player looks at the Big Leagues. I figured, ‘I am never going to be Willie Mays. So I’m going to learn to bunt. I’m going to learn to be a really good double play man. Someone has to bat eighth in the line-up and that’s going to be me.’”

Here’s how that atypically realistic mindset translated into a musical strategy: Thorogood put together a band, got “a couple of tunes,” went to promoter Bill Graham and said, “You need an opening band for the Allman Brothers. You need an opening band for the J. Geils Band.”

“And that’s what this thing is built for,” Thorogood said.

Pragmatism certainly didn’t stop him from earning six gold records and two platinum records or from selling 15 million albums to date.

Thorogood singles such as “Bad to the Bone,” “I Drink Alone” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer” have become party anthems and movie soundtrack staples.

The irony of Thorogood’s close association with overindulgence in alcohol is that he’s never been what you’d call a heavy partier.

“The radio picked those songs,” he said. “I didn’t pick those songs. I just made up a whole bunch of songs and hoped people would like them.”

In truth, Thorogood is mildly annoyed by drunken fans at his shows.

“I explain to people, ‘When you’re watching a movie, when you’re reading a book, when you’re having a conversation, you miss an awful lot when you’re drunk.’”

He balked at the suggestion that an established musician might get tired of playing his hits night after night or would have any justification for feeling tired.

“I created these songs for people,” he said. “I didn’t create them for me. So I’m thrilled to play them night after night because that’s what I created them for in the beginning.”

“Let me ask you something,” he added. “Did Don Mattingly ever get tired of hitting home runs?”

Thorogood is a family man these days and he said he cut back to between 60 and 80 concerts a year from 200 when he realized he was making good money playing less and he didn’t have anything left to prove by playing more.

It is de rigueur for feature writers to ask musicians about their retirement plans, even 18-year-old musicians.

And it is de rigueur for musicians to claim that they have no plans to retire.

But Thorogood is a little different.

Asked if he ever wonders what set of conditions would make him want to hang up his guitar, he responded, “About every other day, Steve.”

“Then,” he said, “the phone rings and I go, ‘How much? Hold on a second. Let me check my calendar.’”

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