George Thorogood’s latest studio album, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” is the veteran blues rocker’s tribute to the blues and early rock artists who recorded for the legendary Chess Records label in the ’50s and ’60s.
It’s a logical album for Thorogood to do, considering his amped-up brand of blues is strongly influenced by classic Chicago blues.
“If you look back at our catalog, scattered here and there, there’s over 20 cuts from Chess to begin with,” Thorogood observed in a phone interview.
But he wasn’t the one who had the idea. It was his label, Capitol Records. In fact, Thorogood said his immediate reaction was to be a bit puzzled.
“I said, ‘Why did you come to me?’ ” he recalled.
That answer prompted some rolling of the eyes from the folks at Capitol, who couldn’t believe an idea that obvious hadn’t quite registered with Thorogood. Of course, he quickly made sense of it.
“I started thinking, ‘Well, if you want to make a Western, you go get John Wayne, right? If you want to do Hamlet, you go ask Orson Welles,’ ” Thorogood said. “That’s why they looked at me, ‘Who are you kidding? This is what you’ve been doing your whole life. You’re the man for the job.’ “
Indeed, the idea behind “2120 South Michigan Avenue” (the street address of Chess Records) was right in Thorogood’s wheelhouse — and not just because of his affinity for Chicago blues.
Thorogood, who plays the State Theatre in Portland on Friday with his band The Destroyers, has made it a career-long mission to record overlooked songs by blues and early rock artists. Look at the credits on any of the 14 albums he has recorded since coming on the national scene in 1977, and you’ll see plenty of outside material mixed in with originals.
In fact, his 1977 self-titled debut includes “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” which became a signature song for Thorogood, even though it was originally written and recorded by blues great John Lee Hooker.
In 1978, another cover — this time a rocking version of country icon Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” — became the hit that set the stage for Thorogood’s breakthrough into the mainstream. That came with the title song of his 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone,” which happens to be a song Thorogood wrote. But even that album featured covers of tunes by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Hooker, Nick Gravenites and one of his go-to sources, Chuck Berry.
Berry, of course, was one of Chess’ most important and popular artists. And yes, he’s represented on “2120 South Michigan Avenue” with a hard-hitting version of the often-covered “Let It Rock.”
That song wasn’t necessarily Thorogood’s first choice.
“Capitol was adamant about it,” Thorogood said. “They said, ‘You’re going to do a better version.’ They were really encouraging. And Tommy (Hambridge) was just over the top, the producer. He didn’t want to hear me say anything about someone’s already done it or did it better. His idea was ‘Look, this is the World Series. You’re batting cleanup, and you’re better than any player in the league. Get in there and hit.’ It’s nice to have a producer like that.”
For the most part, though, Thorogood followed his usual pattern of choosing less-than-obvious songs to cover. He does a kicking version of Buddy Guy’s “High Heel Sneakers” (featuring contributions on guitar from Guy himself), gets down and dirty for a chugging take on Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” kicks into overdrive on J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk to Your Daughter” and gets a helping hand from harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite in a dead-on version of Little Walter’s “My Babe.”
While Thorogood didn’t live anywhere near Chicago, he at least met a few of his Chess Records heroes early on, and got some much appreciated encouragement.
“We opened for (Howlin’) Wolf,” Thorogood said. “He was kind of on his last lap. He had lost a lot of weight. He had had a heart attack and had been in a bad car crash, and he had to get on a dialysis machine every three days, the kidney machine they plug you into for World War II veterans.
“He was very nice when we did speak to him. But his band was very encouraging, and very enthusiastic about what we were doing. It was a great experience working with them.”
Alan Sculley is a freelance writer.