2120 South Michigan Avenue (EPK Link), home of Chicago’s Chess Records, may be the most important address in the bloodline of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
That address – immortalized in the Rolling Stones’ like-named instrumental, recorded at an epochal session at Chess in June 1964 and included on the band’s album 12 X 5 – serves as the title to George Thorogood’s electrifying Capitol/EMI salute to the Chess label and its immortal artists.
Thorogood has been essaying the Chess repertoire since his 1977 debut album, which included songs by Elmore James and Bo Diddley that originated on the label. He has cut 18 Chess covers over the years; three appeared on his last studio release, 2009’s The Dirty Dozen. On 2120 South Michigan Avenue, he offers a full-length homage to the label that bred his style with interpretations of 10 Chess classics.
The album also includes original tributes to the Windy City and Chess’ crucial songwriter-producer-bassist Willie Dixon, penned by Thorogood, producer Tom Hambridge, and Richard Fleming, plus a cranked-up version of the Stones’ titular instrumental.
Chess Records had been making musical history for a decade before it moved into its offices on Michigan Avenue, in the heart of the Windy City’s record business district, in 1957. Leonard and Phil Chess, sons of a Polish immigrant family and South Side nightclub operators, bought into a new independent label called Aristocrat Records in 1947. The brothers bought out their partners in 1950 and gave the label the family name; by that time, they had racked up blues hits by Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Nighthawk, and St. Louis Jimmy.
Chess’ studio spawned timeless ‘50s and ‘60s recordings by Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf, which served as inspiration for the Stones and their blues-rocking brethren, and then lit a fire under their successors George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
Thorogood recalls, “I remember as a teenager reading about Mick Jagger meeting Keith Richards on a train. Jagger had a Chuck Berry record, and he said he wrote to Chess Records and got a catalog sent to him. Just out of curiosity, I took out one of my Chess records, got the address, and I wrote to Chess Records. And they sent me a catalog of the complete Chess library, and I started buying up these Chess records. I bought every single one of them I could possibly get.
“And I remember reading the backs of those Chess records and seeing the address, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, and I said, ‘That’s the same address as the Rolling Stones’ instrumental!’ And I started putting one and one together and coming up with a big two.”
Over time, Chess’ catalog and artists became the sources of Thorogood’s higher education in music. “That was my school, the college that I had to learn my trade in,” he says. “I had to figure out how these people did these things.”
The new album also celebrates the performers who shared stages with Thorogood and the Destroyers and encouraged them when they were just coming up on the East Coast blues scene.
He says, “The people who helped me out were all the guys in Muddy Waters’ band, all the guys in Howlin’ Wolf’s band. They were wonderful to me, and they wanted to help me. They saw what I was trying to do.”
2120 South Michigan Avenue isn’t just Thorogood’s salute to a great record label – it also pays homage to the tough, larger-than-life men who made the music.
“It was a lifestyle as well as an art form, as far as music goes,” Thorogood notes. “They were singing about what their life was like on a daily basis. Sonny Boy Williamson and Wolf and Muddy Waters – they didn’t think they were the baddest cats in the world, they knew they were the baddest cats in the world. They had to be, or they wouldn’t have survived. There’s nothing glamorous in it – that’s just the facts. They had to fight their way through on a daily basis just to keep their heads above water. That’s very clear in a lot of their songs.”
Some of the songs from the Chess catalog heard on 2120 South Michigan Avenue were staples of the Destroyers’ live repertoire; Thorogood says, “A lot of the things I recorded I was doing 25 or 30 years ago, and I had stopped doing them.”
He adds that since many Chess recordings have become linchpins of the rock and blues repertoire, both on record and in concert, some careful winnowing had to be done for the album: “We did a lot of research and said, ‘Wait a minute, the Rolling Stones did that song, John Hammond did that song.’”
Producer Tom Hambridge is the ideal collaborator for 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A veteran of tours with Chuck Berry, Roy Buchanan, the Drifters, and other stars, Hambridge won a 2010 Grammy for his work on Buddy Guy’s Living Proof, and wrote the album’s Guy-B.B. King duet “Stay Around a Little Longer.” He received Grammy nominations for Guy’s Skin Deep (2008), Johnny Winter’s I’m a Bluesman (2004), and Susan Tedeschi’s Just Won’t Burn (1998). He also fronts his own band, Tom Hambridge & the Rattlesnakes.
The special guests on 2120 South Michigan Avenue sport direct connections to Chess and Chicago’s blues scene. Guitarist Buddy Guy made his Chess label debut 51 years ago.
Thorogood remembers, “I went to [the Austin blues club] Antone’s for the first time in 1977, and I saw Buddy Guy play. It was the first time I saw him, and I never forgot that he led off with [Chess artist Tommy Tucker’s] ‘High Heeled Sneakers.’ I thought that was just unbelievable. Buddy just tore it apart, like he does everything – that’s his style.”
Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite is heard on two of the album’s tracks, a cover of Little Walter’s hit “My Babe” and the Stones’ “2120.” “Memphis Charlie” haunted Chicago’s South Side clubs in the ‘60s, learning at the feet of Chess titans like Little Walter Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson and hanging out with such like-minded contemporaries as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop of the pathfinding Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Thorogood says, “I don’t play harmonica. Little Walter plays harp, and Sonny Boy Williamson plays harp, and Howlin’ Wolf plays harp. So I said, ‘Well, what am I gonna do about this?’ It’s an easy choice. I said, ‘There’s only one cat we can get to play ‘My Babe’ by Little Walter, and that’s Charlie.’ He’s the last cat!”
Through the entire project, Thorogood and the Destroyers attempted to put their own distinctive spin on the Chess material while maintaining fidelity to the originals’ attack.
“When you do Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, when you play Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, there’s no experimenting,” Thorogood explains. “That’s a religion, and you’ve gotta do it right.”
The historic music heard on 2120 South Michigan Avenue didn’t merely change George Thorogood’s life, as he himself notes.
“It’s not a musical phenomenon, it’s a social phenomenon. The man who created rock ‘n’ roll was Chuck Berry, and he listened to Muddy Waters. Bo Diddley went to the same school and listened to the same people. Rock ‘n’ roll changed the whole world. That never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Chess Records. It’s the source of the whole thing.”
George Thorogood and the Destroyers
GEORGE THOROGOOD has a theory.