On October 23rd 1981, George Thorogood launched his ambitious 50/50 tour in Honolulu, aiming to play concerts in 50 different states in 50 days.
Thorogood and his band travelled between 200 to 500 miles per day in a converted Checker Taxi that had been modified with sleeping space. The only flights they took were to Hawaii and Alaska.
"We’re playing some places that maybe have never seen a live band," said Thorogood at the time - they had small club dates in places like Mandan, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota, which were small cities at the time. Thorogood planned to play at the Wyoming State Prison as one of his shows, but as noted on the 50/50 tour blog, the tour schedule ran into some issues in some of the markets and occassionally venue problems that caused a number of the planned performances to be moved.
The band ended up overachieving the goal, playing 51 shows in 50 days. Thorogood said in a recent interview that the feat was a lot to tackle under the best of circumstances, but he started the trek after more than a week of shows supporting the Rolling Stones feeling under the weather.
"I had a really bad cold. I caught a real bad head cold, and after we played those shows with the Stones, Bill Graham wanted us to play a whole bunch more. But the 50/50 tour was already booked. So I missed out on some big gigs -- Madison Square Garden, among other places -- with the Stones. Even one of the dates we did on the 50/50 tour was with the Rolling Stones, in New Orleans," he said.
"But I was sick as a dog, I had a temperature of about 110. And I was in front of 80,000 people, and I had to go on after the Neville Brothers and before the Rolling Stones. That was tough."
Thorogood's incredible career now stretches four and a half decades, and he isn't spending much time looking fondly at the past - he's out on the road, playing shows on his Good to Be Bad: 45 Years of Rock tour. The only nostalgic look back he's doing is an upcoming box set due out next year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of his longtime label, Rounder Records.
"I’m from the Satchel Paige school of life," he chuckles. "I don’t look back."
He says the box set will focus on his well-known songs and probably a few surprises. "It’s in the making. We’ve got a few tunes that may have never been released before."
Thorogood's career began as an acoustic performer, but he said the eventual idea of playing with a band was always there in his mind.
"I was heading that direction anyway, I kept putting pickups in my acoustic guitar so it would be louder. Then I had a friend who came and played and sat in with me, playing rhythm guitar behind me. So I said, 'Well, we might as well have a band. All we need is a drummer. We’re going in that direction anyway.'"
He intitally formed a trio with a bassist and a drummer, but Thorogood hesitates to call them a power trio. "I don’t know how powerful we were. We definitely were a trio, but as soon as people get a trio together, they think it’s a power trio. Were the Three Stooges a power trio?"
Drummer Jeff Simon was a childhood friend of Thorogood, and even though he wasn't George's first choice, he knew he was a good option:
"We’d been playing around, jamming together, since we were kids, anyway," he explains. "He hadn’t played any drums professionally. He’d been fooling around with them, not as a hobby, but he just had a drum set in his basement, and I’d wander over there and pick up his brother’s electric guitar and we’d just wail away for a couple of hours,"
"Then I wouldn’t see him for a couple of months and I’d drop by again. Lo and behold, we were playing at a party and we said, 'We need a drummer', because the drummer didn’t show up. I said, 'I know a guy who plays drums'. So I called Jeff and he really had it from the beginning. He knew how to play with me. He knew the music too. He listened to a lot of blues and he had seen everybody play: Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, John Hammond. So he was well-educated in what I was doing. He just needed more experience."
With the band coming together with the addition of Bassist Billy Blough, Thorogood went to work:
"We took every gig that we could get, but there wasn’t very many that were suited for what we did," he recalls. "We were like a poor man’s version of Hound Dog Taylor or something like that. You know, frat parties -- they wanted people who played Top 40. Most clubs did, but the only way you could break into that circuit, doing what we were doing, was to make records. But in the meantime, we found a couple of gigs where we could just go in and blow the blues out. Some places, we had to educate them when we went there. I got tired of that and I wanted to have a record out. I wanted to do what John Hammond did, Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers, all of those cats. I wasn’t unique in that fashion, we just had to keep plugging away until we got that record."
One thing that's changed for Thorogood since his original days though is the guitar he plays on. The longtime Gibson 125 he's used for decades has been replaced by a new signature model from Epiphone.
"It pretty much just duplicated the Gibson 125 that I’ve been playing since 1973. I have several of them, but I beat ‘em up so bad that they were just not usable anymore. They just kept repairing them and repairing them until they were unrepairable, and it was costing us a fortune. They stopped making that guitar in 1970, so I was forced to make a move. People that work in our organization stepped up and, 'Well, this organization, Epiphone ...' I said, 'I don’t play Epiphone, I play a Gibson'. They said, 'Well, they're going to design a guitar that’s just like your 125'. And they’ve come pretty close to it."
It's so close that when Thorogood's crew handed him one of the Epiphones without telling him, he played it without realizing he had switched over.
"It took a while to get it to where it needed to be. Finally, they were slipping me the guitar without me even knowing I was using the Epiphone. I still thought I was playing the Gibson. I didn’t check it out when I walked onstage. A few days later, I said, 'Listen, I don’t know if I can play these Epiphones'. They said, 'You already have'. I said, 'I have?' They said, 'Yeah, two nights ago, you played with them'. I didn’t even know."
Watch George performing 'Reelin and Rockin' live in December 1981 while opening for the Rolling Stones above.