Backstage with Ron Onesti:
George Thorogood, really ‘good’ to the bone
This was to be my first time meeting the artist who is forever “Bad to the Bone,” George Thorogood. His legendary persona is almost Schwarzenegger-esque, a rock ‘n’ roll “Terminator.” I extended my hand in welcome to him in the dressing rooms. His face did not change expression. He looked at my hand, then at my face. He said: “How ya doin’?” Thorogood’s tour manager introduced us and from that moment on, he became one of the coolest guys I’ve met in the biz.
Our first exchange began as I thanked him for his generosity as he was greeting some of our guests at The Arcada, and signing a few autographs. “Generosity?” He glared at me. “This is why we are here! The fans! I gotta do this stuff. This isn’t being generous!”
I was forced to respectfully remind him that his show of appreciation to his fans was relatively uncommon. So many of the acts who perform for us at The Arcada these days have severely reduced the amount of time and number of fans they will meet prior to or after a show, IF they will even do it at all. And when they do, it comes as a HUGE favor to me, one that costs me in extra liquor or percentage points given up from our merchandise deal.
Actually, more prevalent are the paid “meet and greets” where fans pay anywhere from a $50 to $450 surcharge just to take a photograph and get a small T-shirt goody bag.
Thorogood seemed sincerely disappointed during our conversation about that topic. “It’s really just a business these days. I get it. We have expenses too, but ya gotta give SOMETHING back to the fans,” George said.
“You DO get it, George,” I responded.
So for the next 40 or so minutes, we swapped stories about the biz, and he was genuine, through and through.
“So were you a tough kid, like a ‘James Dean’ growing up?” I asked.
“James Dean?” he responded. “My heroes were Jack Benny and Bob Hope … I wanted to be a standup comedian just like them!”
“Really, a stand-up?” I asked. “Yep! I was always a smart a–, so I thought I would try and make a career out of being one,” he said. “But I always loved rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and guys like Chuck Berry. Chuck was probably the most important guitarist in music history. He did it all differently. He WAS the pioneer.”
George went on to say that it was the Beatles who actually set him on his musical path. “Then this guy with a great haircut and a guitar that looked like a violin, which he played left handed, came on TV and started to sing, ‘Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you’ … it was all over!”
George was, of course, referring to a young Paul McCartney and the debut of the Beatles here in the U.S. “Anybody who was playing rock ‘n’ roll at that time, I don’t care who it is, and doesn’t credit the Beatles for inspiring them, is a liar,” George said. “The Beatles should get 10 percent of every record made after 1964 in my book! And not just rock. I’m talking jazz, blues, country, pop … everything! After they came out, everybody wanted be a rock star. People started to buy guitars. They bought record players. It’s really what caused the musical revolution.”
He continued, sharing another interesting observation about the Beatles.
“They were the only thing out at the time that was happy. We just lost (President John F.) Kennedy, guys were out of work, nobody trusted parents, there was racial stuff goin’ on. But those four guys showed us how to unleash our worries. I’m tellin’ ya, they changed us all for life.”
Thorogood and his band of more than 40 years, the Destroyers, rocked The Arcada with his high-energy show in front of an audience on its feet for practically two hours. His huge hits “Move It On Over,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and, of course, “Bad To The Bone,” and his pick-less command of the electric guitar, just tore the roof off the place!
“So was ‘Bad to the Bone’ your nickname? Is that where the song came from?” I asked.
“I really should make up some cool story about that. The truth is that ‘Bad to the Bone’ was just a popular saying at the time, and I figured it would just be a matter of time before someone used it in a song, so I just wrote one.”
His show in St. Charles was just days after the passing of rock icon Chuck Berry. I asked George if he ever got to work with him.
“We tried to get him our music to record. I even went to his compound to try and meet with him, but we never got past his secretary,” George said. “But in 1984 I had one of the biggest thrills of my life. John Denver, Stevie Ray Vaughan and I presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Chuck at the Grammys that year. Then me and Stevie jammed on stage with him during ‘Maybelline.’ It was surreal for me.”
Just before he went on stage, George asked me to get ten of his posters from his merchandise seller. He then proceeded to take a black marker and spell out C-H-U-C-K B-E-R-R-Y on the backs of the posters, one letter on each poster. His band walk on stage and held up the posters to a respect-giving crowd. The posters were then given out to audience members. Classy.
As he walked onto the stage, I maintained a newfound respect for George Thorogood. With his dark sunglasses and worn leather jacket, he definitely is “Bad to the Bone” — true to his onstage persona. But he is also accessible, sincere and lives for his music (and the New York Mets). He defines HIS rock and HIS blues with a deep and vocal respect for the genres’ roots as he offers continuous nods of affection to his musical heroes.
George is one of the reasons why I am in the business. He represents the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll, and for me, it is an honor to put THAT “Heart and Soul” on my stage at the Arcada Theatre!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.