Minneapolis – In another three centuries, Rounder Records’ first act may have sold as many albums as the Bee Gees now do before lunch in Hackensack. Nevertheless, Rounder remains proud of banjoist George Pegram, the “Baron of Union Grove, North Carolina,” who passed on a few years ago at the age of seventy-six. Pegram sold about 4000 albums out of the chute and has been a steady seller ever since at the rate of about fifty albums a year.
“We’ve never lost money on a record,” says Ken Irwin, one-third of Rounder’s ruling triumvirate, while driving downtown from the Minneapolis airport. “How many of the conglomerates can say that? Of course, we only spent $125 recording George.”
Those were the days (1970) when a friendly lawyer drew up Rounder’s papers of incorporation for a legal fee of two albums (Pegram’s and one by the equally popular Spark Gap Wonder Boys) and when financing came from Irwin’s medical disability for a bad skin condition. Enamored of radical politics in college, Irwin, Marian Leighton and Bill Nowlin (the other two-thirds of the triumvirate) discovered the joys of private enterprise and gradually built their “production collective” into an organization with twenty mostly overeducated employees and a catalog of about 200 LPs by acoustic acts too traditional to attract major labels.
Then the impossible happened: in 1977 and 1978, Rounder had two hit albums by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the first a namesake, the second Move It on Over. Still more unlikely, Thorogood played rock & roll hot enough to melt the polar icecaps and flood the world’s major population centers. The marriage proved compatible because of Rounder’s tolerance for eccentricity. Thorogood’s intelligence was powerful and engaging, but he was interested in just three things (baseball, movies and the blues) and anything that wasn’t those three things (like money, drugs, fame, politics, current music) put him to sleep. Today, here in the restaurant of the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, he wants to talk about baseball, and I’m not going to argue.
“I got a phone call from our manager today, and we got ourselves some bad uniforms: black on black, the Delaware Destroyers,” says Thorogood without waiting for a question. During the summer, he plays hardball in the mostly Hispanic Roberto Clemente League in his hometown, Wilmington. “There’s a lot of hot dogs on our team.”
“What’s a hot dog?” asks Marian Leighton, obviously not a sports fan.
“A hot dog is like I play onstage,” says Thorogood. “A showboat is a hot dog who hits .220.”
I try to tell him the story of the Eagles-versus-Rolling Stone grudge match last summer, but it is soon clear I have fallen outside his realm of interest.
“Why do you play softball?” he asks as if I’d just offered him a handful of cowflop. “I’m too young to play softball.” Exactly how young is a question he answers interviewers with a plus/ minus factor of a decade. Best guess is about twenty-seven, though he could pass for eighteen. “They don’t allow bunting or slashing or stealing. That’s all I can do, man.”
“I heard your arm was causing you some pain during your act,” I say. “Did you throw it out?”
“No, I stumbled rounding sec … look, you don’t have to print that, do you?” Horrified at his revelation of weakness, Thorogood changes the subject by running off a string of hilarious anecdotes about the 1962 Mets.
Like an athlete in training, Thorogood tries not to abuse his body. His disdain for drugs has caused wonderment among the music-business types he has encountered on the road. Once, in a small club in Nashville, some guy came back to the dressing room and snorted some cocaine. Thorogood walked over and the guy asked, “You want a hit?” Thorogood replied, “No, I was just thinking that’s the smallest spoon I ever saw.”
“I’m not trying to come off with some Ricky Nelson image,” he says, slightly irritated, when I ask him about his temperance. He doesn’t even drink much, highly unusual in his profession and incongruous given the get-loose-and-get-down nature of his music. “A lot of people don’t like liver and peas. It’s the same with me and drugs. It’s just something I don’t get involved with. Some people have been trying to say I’m the upstanding young man of rock & roll on some moral crusade-that’s a load of crap. I’ve taken out many a shortstop in my time, argued with umpires, kicked the ball out of catchers’ gloves, all of it.”
Consistent with his age, Thorogood’s birthplace has a plus/minus factor of several hundred miles and whatever state happens to be on his mind when he’s interviewed. He appears to have done most of his growing up in Wilmington, where his life was forever changed by the Shindig that featured both the Rolling Stones and Howlin’ Wolf. Any doubts about his own destiny were put to rest one day after batting practice, when he asked the coach how much playing time he could expect in the big double-header coming up. The coach changed rock & roll history by saying maybe Thorogood would get in the seventh inning of the second game in the outfield. George went home to play his guitar and hasn’t stopped since, with an occasional timeout for a Clint Eastwood movie.
“In high school, I was unanimously voted least likely to succeed, ” says Thorogood. “Unanimous-that’s pretty heavy, huh? It took a lot of pressure off me to do anything.”
He went on to found the Destroyers about five years ago, originally with him and roommate Ron Smith on guitars and Jeff Simon on drums (the same lineup used by one of his heroes, Hound Dog Taylor). If Thorogood was uninterested in money, Smith had a regular phobia about it. He just wouldn’t accept pay for his play and quit the band, though he remains George’s roommate and contributed some licks on their first album. Bassist Billy Blough joined Thorogood and Simon two and a half years ago and the Destroyers gigged around Philadelphia and New England, taking the door receipts while the club owner got the revenue from the bar.
After recording their debut album in the summer of 1977, they took off on their first extended tour, playing a series of benefits for the California Homemakers Association on the West Coast to get their name around. To everyone’s surprise, their record broke in San Francisco, thanks to heavy airplay on KSAN-FM, and they stayed an extra month. The album went on to sell well over 100,000 copies-a huge amount in light of Rounder’s independent distribution and the dearth of airplay else-where. The major labels began to salivate and offered to buy the Destroyers and Rounder, but neither was interested. Mostly on the strength of a tireless promotion campaign and word-of-mouth about Thorogood’s stunning show, the second album, Move it on Over , is now ensconced at Fifty-two with a bullet in Record World and has sold more than 150,000 copies. Both records have received rave notices for their killer renditions of such tunes as John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” Rocking out on blues classics is not exactly an original idea, but Thorogood does it better than anybody else these days, and he’s come along just when the audience for traditional rock & roll is drowning in a sea of disco. The one criticism seems to be that he plays only two original songs on his first album and none on the second, preferring to flog some life into rock and blues war horses.
“Why should I write songs when Chuck Berry already wrote them all?” he asks. “I’d rather learn to hit a curve ball to the opposite field.”
“We’re having a lot of trouble figuring out why people think we’re so good,” says Jeff Simon, folding his underwear in a Sleaze District laundromat. “It’s not like we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before.”
“We just bang hell out of three chords,” adds Billy Blough, also folding his underwear.
“Couldn’t you hire someone to do your laundry and set up your amplifiers and stuff?” I ask.
“There’s only room for three guys and our equipment in the van,” says Simon.
“We didn’t work all this time just to pay someone to carry our amps,” says Blough.
But if they went to a bigger label, I suggest, they could pay most of Delaware to set up their equipment.
“We like Rounder,” says Blough. “The money’s there. It’s just whether you get it in a big advance or more gradually. It all evens out.”
“We didn’t dislike the people we talked to at the big companies,” says Simon. “Jerry Wexler [head of East Coast A&R at Warner Bros.] was right on. He drove down to see us at the University of Delaware in his limousine. He even paid the fifty-cents admission to see us.”
I asked what George did in high school to get’ voted least likely to succeed.
“I think he was just misunderstood,” says Simon. “He works real hard at everything he does. The thing in high school was to have a car and soup it up and run with a gang. Then you got married Thorogood and worked for Du Pont. George didn’t do any of that. He was just being himself.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s a good question,” says Simon. “Lemme think about it.”
At the Cabooze, a large Minneapolis club, Thursday is R.I.P. Night-two drinks for the price of one. Thorogood rises to the occasion during two ninety-minute sets, working the at-first-skeptical audience into a frenzy. No religious preconceptions to cloud the issue, as with superstar bands. The crowd can find out for itself. Just one guy with more moves than a burlap bag full of wolverines; a snarling vintage Gibson; a Fender Princeton with one twelve-inch speaker on a folding chair; and a rhythm section in pursuit of the 1979 Watts-Wyman Perfect Metronome Award. If Thorogood gave off any more energy, the government would lock him in a lead barrel and dump him off the coast of New Jersey. As it is, anyone who gets closer than ten feet to the stage when he plays “Ride on Josephine” will probably die of leukemia by the age of thirty-five.
Back in the dressing room, I tell Rounder’s Irwin he must be inspiring some big fear in the major labels. “Go capitalism!” he says with a laugh, waving his fist in the air. “If we can do it, anybody can.”
Profusely sweating, Thorogood has a mystified look on his face. “Can you explain a reaction like that?” he asks me. As I fumble for words, Thorogood comes up with his own answer. “I think that when they buy the record and they like it and then come to see you, it’s like going out with a girl you’ve loved from afar for a long time. She gets in the car and throws her arms around you and you go, ‘Woooh, I’m happy just to be here.’ It’s an unexpected bonus.”
I tell Thorogood how much I enjoyed the show, and ask if he’s thought about how success might change his life.
“You know, when Elvis started, he would never go into a place where they swore or drank, because it might offend his mother,” he says. “He could never even look an older person in the eye. Maybe that’s what killed him.”
“You better face it though,” I say. “Your potential is limitless.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m a rookie in spring training right now,” he says. “But I’ll have a lot of time to think about it on the bench. All this stops on May 13th. That’s when our baseball season starts.”