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Thorogood tribute album honors Chess

George Thorogood makes his first visit 2120 S. Michigan 1981. “This was place thchanged world” rocker says. | Bill Blough

George Thorogood makes his first visit to 2120 S. Michigan in 1981. “This was a place that changed the world,” the rocker says. | Bill Blough

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Updated: July 20, 2011 5:24PM

The best tribute records are those that take a lifetime to make.

George Thorogood’s “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is one of those records. Due out Tuesday on Capitol Records, the project sweats with rock, soul and sincerity.

Thorogood and his band the Destroyers pay homage to the historic Chess site by covering Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” Chuck Berry’s “Let it Rock” and Jimmy Rogers’ “Chicago Bound,” all recorded at Chess. When Thorogood was a teenager in Delaware he purchased his first Rolling Stone LP, “12 X 5,” portions of which were recorded at Chess in June 1964.

“I wrote to Chess, they sent me a catalog with a list of all their songs and my life was changed,” Thorogood said in an interview from Los Angeles. “I had seen Howlin’ Wolf on ‘Shindig’ (the popular television show), so I bought his record. They had a thing in there with 2120 South Michigan Ave. Through that I ordered a bunch of records. I read in a Rolling Stone interview where Keith Richards said that’s what Mick Jagger did when he was the same age, 16, 17.”

Jacqueline Dixon, executive director of the foundation that owns and operates the Chess building, recalled one of Thorogood’s several colorful visits.

“He popped in at Chess and called my mom [the widow of Chess legend Willie Dixon],” she recalled during a conversation at the studio. “He said, ‘Hang up the phone and call me right back. Because he wanted to answer the phone and say, ‘Chess Records’ ”

The “Bad to the Bone” singer first visited the Chess building in 1981.

“At that time there were tons of closed jewelry stores and pawn shops,” he said. “Most of them were boarded up. Chess had a chain link fence around it. I couldn’t get in. I was telling people in Chicago, ‘Do you know what this is? It is Chess Records. Everybody in Memphis knows what Sun Records is!’ And no one in Chicago knew Chess.

“This was a place that changed the world. This is where Chuck Berry recorded ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ Rock ’n’ roll is a social phenomena. ‘Roll Over Beethoven,’ ‘Bo Diddley,’ that’s the stuff the Beatles grew up on. Paul Butterfield was listening to it in Chicago. And people in Chicago did not know this. That’s like standing next to the Empire State Building and not knowing who King Kong is.

“I was so thrilled when they made it a museum. It’s an amazing contribution to American culture.”

On Thorogood’s most recent visit, in 2007, he let his then-9-year-old daughter Rio play the Hammond B-3 organ which the Stones used on the “2120 South Michigan” instrumental track on “12 X 5,” which Thorogood updated with blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite. Dixon said her family acquired the organ when they purchased the building.

“My daughter started playing ‘Hey Jude,’ ” Thorogood said. “I thought, ‘That’s perfect. My daughter got to play at 2120 before me.’ When we play at the House of Blues [on Aug. 20], we will try to do some promotion from the studio.”

Capitol Records approached Thorogood with the Chess concept.

“I didn’t have a record deal,” he said. “We made some noise with ‘The Dirty Dozen’ [Capitol, 2009], and that had a Howlin’ Wolf song called ‘Tail Dragger,’ which I had been listening to since 1970. I always thought ‘Tail Dragger’ was a song that would have been great for Led Zeppelin. We gave it a good rock treatment and kids started buying it. Capitol took notice and said, ‘This is a Chess thing. We need a whole album of this stuff.’ A combination of Chess and Capitol? That’s two icons. How can we go wrong?”

Thorogood combed the entire Chess catalog between 1947 and 1968.

“It wasn’t as easy as people might think,” he said. “I had already cut 20 to 25 songs that had previously been recorded at Chess. We dug pretty deep. I wouldn’t have pulled it off without our guitarist Jim Suhler, who can play anything.”

Buddy Guy guests on “High Heel Sneakers,” a Tommy Tucker song Guy originally recorded for Chess, although he was best known for his seminal work with Cobra. “2120 South Michigan Avenue” producer Tom Hambridge produced Guy’s 2010 Grammy-winning “Living Proof” record.

“I saw Buddy playing without Junior Wells at Antone’s around 1977 in Austin,” Thorogood recalled. “He led off with ‘High Heel Sneakers,’ and I always thought of it as a teenybopper thing. He played it and it sounded like Chuck Berry playing rhythm, Jimi Hendrix on lead and Wilson Pickett singing. I later found out Buddy and Junior recorded it as a single. [It appears on their 1981 Alligator release “Alone and Acoustic.]

“I found the original cut, and it don’t sound like Danny and the Juniors.”

Thorogood’s record kicks off with the Thorogood-Hambridge original “Going Back,” a sizzling blues-rock tribute to the Chess legacy:

“Ooh take me to the South Side baby/Blues turned into gold, R&B turned into rock

“Magic was made behind those walls/Cadillacs lined the block....”

The tune closes out with snappy salutes to Little Walter, Bo Diddley and even the Blues Brothers.

“I had to bring in Jake and Elwood,” Thorogood said. “They helped the blues movement in their own way. That has to be recognized. That song is a good way to lead off the record.”

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