(From the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews, St. Petersburg Press.)
Bo lived in the country, not far from the Gainesville city limits. I first met him in the early ‘80s, and over the years, I’d check in with him to write this or that story for the newspaper. He was always surrounded by family, but I always had the feeling that he was lonely, like the neighbor kid who’d beg you to stay and play just a little bit longer. He loved to show off his electronic equipment out in the barn – he was usually hot-wiring some amplifier, soldering a guitar body or overdubbing a rhythm track with an old tape machine. He’d say “Check this out,” and grab a handy microphone, hit the playback button and rap over the track. Live. Smiling the whole time. He was always demonstrating something new.
I did this career-spanning story for Goldmine in 2003. I wanted to cover it all, for posterity, and as it turned out, this was the last time I ever spoke with him.
Photo by John Moran.
At age 74, Bo Diddley may not be a spring chicken, exactly, but he’s hardly courting the rocking chair. Although Bo and his wife Sylvia live a relatively quiet life on 80 acres in Central Florida, six nights a month you’ll find the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on a stage somewhere in America, wailing on his rectangular guitar, pounding out the most intoxicating of primitive rhythms, and singing with all the energy and fervor of a man half his age.
Bo Diddley, he’s a man. Spelled M-A-N.
He’d rather be retired, casting for bass or tinkering with an old car engine, but this is how he makes his living. He receives no publishing royalties, having sold his great songs many years ago to clear up some debts. The terms of the record contracts he signed in the 1950s afford him very little money – if he didn’t perform today, he says, he wouldn’t have any steady income.
He’s been an entertainer all his life, though, and nothing gives him more pleasure than making an audience happy.
And those audiences, they know who he is. He likes that.
“I was first, man,” Diddley said. “Wasn’t nobody doing nothin’ until I thought of it. I was about a year and a half before Elvis Presley. And I don’t like it when they jump up and say Elvis started rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a lie. He didn’t do it. He was really good, a fantastic entertainer, but he didn’t do it.”
Bo Diddley’s great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll was as an innovator. He did things with rhythms that nobody in blues or country & western music had thought of. He figured out how to snake in and out of the breathy rhythm of a tremelo guitar. He introduced a toughness, a pride, into rock ‘n’ roll during its infancy, stitching in the naked, howling urgency of urban blues. Songs spoke volumes with just one chord. The rest – swagger, humor, lust and cool – was all Bo Diddley.
He likes to refer to himself as The Originator. “I think all the time,” Diddley explained. “I’m always sitting somewhere trying to put something together that somebody else ain’t did.”
In his 70s, he’s still as sharp and straightforward as that skinny, nearsighted cat in the checkered jacket and bow tie, crowing about a stripper named Mona, trading musical jibes with a rubber-faced dude named Jerome, or asking a woman named Arline, flat out, who do you love? “I’m just 23 and I don’t mind dyin’,” he boasted.
He still writes music, although he doesn’t realistically expect Snoop Dogg or Eminem to call him for advice. “They’re not breaking down any doors to get cats my age,” Diddley said. “They think that I’m finished. And I’m a tricky son of a bitch. I’m not finished, I just learned what to do.”
He was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, a black Creole, in the southern Mississippi delta land between McComb and Magnolia. Just about everyone in the extended family picked cotton for a living. His teenaged mother wasn’t able to raise a child in that impoverished climate, so at age eight months Ellas went to live with his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and her husband, Robert.
“That’s the way things was in those days,” Diddley recalled. “Everybody raised everybody else’s kids. I knew it as uncles and cousins and all that kind of stuff. There was quite a few of us. We shared everything.
“It ain’t like it is today. If your parents were next door and you didn’t happen to be a relative, if your parents had run out of some cornmeal or flour or bacon or whatever, if your mother was trying to cook, all she had to do was go across the field and ask Miss So-and-So could she borrow something? No problem.”
Robert McDaniel’s death in 1934 meant Gussie had to look for better work; she decided to join the flood of emigrants heading north.
So at age 7, Ellas relocated, with Gussie and her own kids, to the South Side of Chicago. His name became, legally, Ellas Bates McDaniel. They rented a house at 4746 Langley Avenue and joined the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He loved the urbanity of his new digs and he fit right in. In Chicago, “treatment of black people was better. In the South, things were really screwed up. It didn’t have to be that way, but I guess that’s the way it was.”
It was here, in grammar school, he got his lifelong nickname. “The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley,” he said. “I still don’t know what the hell it means … but I know what it means in German!” (It’s a vulgarity.)
Initially, the kids had called him “Mac,” because of his surname.
Young Ellas announced he wanted to learn to play violin with the Ebenezer Sunday School Band. “I wanted to do what I’d seen some dudes doing, with a stick draggin’ across some strings and makin’ music,” Diddley said. “The church took up a collection, and the violin cost $29 at that time. And they bought me one. The lessons was like 50 cents a lesson. Are you ready for that? You can’t even talk to nobody on the phone for that today.”
He took lessons from Rev. O.W. Frederick – squinting at the dots on the page through his Coke-bottle glasses – and was soon proficient enough to play his instrument in church. He also sang in the choir.
One December five years later, Ellas was out shopping with his sister (technically, his first cousin) Lucille. “We went to this music store to buy some candy,” he recalled. “And they had the ol’ raggedy guitar hangin’ up in there. And I looked at it, and I told my sister ‘I want one of them.’
“I remember her saying ‘You want everything you see.’ I’m the same way today, man, if I see something that looks weird, I want to try that dude out.
“She bought it for me. It cost $29 or $30, almost the same thing with the violin. It was a old Kay guitar with two strings on it.”
Frustrated at trying to play blues and jive music on his violin – he never got it to sound quite right – Ellas was immediately comfortable around the guitar. “When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn,” he said.
“I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents apiece. You’d buy one string at a time, until you got all of ’em.”
Bo Diddley never learned how to properly tune the guitar; to this day, he still doesn’t know the names of the strings or their proper pitch.
“I tuned it by accident,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?’
“This was before my time. I was a kid, a youngster, dealing with the same things that kids are dealing with today.”
In 1940s Chicago, you had to learn how to fight. “We had a little neighborhood thing; we called ourselves the Golden Gloves,” Diddley recalled. “We beat up on each other, you know? But I wasn’t really what you’d call a boxer. I was what I would call a slugger, something like Mike Tyson.
“Mike’ll hurt you, if he ever gets ahold of you. So the smart thing is to stay away from him. Because the cat is so powerful, he could break something on you real easy. And that’s the way I was. As long as I kept you away from my head, I had it made.”
Briefly, he considered training to become a professional boxer. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “That was just to protect myself from gangs and all the stuff I grew up with. I never ran with a gang. I think a gang of boys jumpin’ on one person is a very cowardly action.”
Around the neighborhood, Ellas was known as the Fix-It Kid, because he could take virtually anything apart and put it back together again, good as new. He attended a vocational school and briefly thought about a career as an auto mechanic.
Music, however, was in his blood. “I started doing this and everybody thought I was the misfit in the family,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else doing it. I’m the only one that’s got any musical background.
“My brother started in the ministry, but he could have played in some big-name baseball teams. They were after him. And he also has a talent for spreading the gospel.” (Bo’s half-brother is Reverend Kenneth Haynes of Biloxi, Miss.)
Ellas was constantly told that music – especially the “Devil’s music” that he so enjoyed – would lead him down a path of destruction.
“I had to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no idea I was gonna end up Bo Diddley.”
Along with guitarist Jody Wilson, harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and school chum Roosevelt Jackson – playing a washboard bass that Ellas himself constructed – he started playing the three or four songs he knew on street corners, the way blues musicians did, to get coins out of passers-by. They played them over and over again, and made new songs out of schoolyard rhymes.
At first they were called the Hipsters, then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. “We did that and passed the hat,” Diddley said. “I was too chickenshit to steal.
“I did it because my mother didn’t have nothing. And everything that I wanted as I was growing up … it meant ‘let me work so I can earn some money, so I can buy a pair of shoes, buy a pair of socks. A handkerchief to go in my shirt.'”
The origin of the famous Bo Diddley beat has been in contention for years; it incorporates elements of the old “shave and a haircut” rhythm, the early ’50s shuck-and-jive hit “Hambone,” Chicago blues and the open-tuning, hard-hitting guitar chords of Bo himself – heavy on the tremelo, once Bo got off streetcorners and went electric. “They didn’t have no electric guitars down there,” Diddley said. “I made my first electric guitar. I built the first tremelo – I actually did it. I built it with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind–up clock. I sat down and I put it all together to make the music go whop/whop/whop/whop/whop. Because every time they made contact, you’d get a sound.
“I figured out how to do this, and a company was building one at the same time. I never went to Toledo, Ohio in my life, but somebody there was doin’ one.”
Then, as now, he was always tinkering. “I used to play by tapping into the audio tube in the back of a big radio. Got shocked a few times before I figured out which of the plugs on the back was the one.”
By the time Ellas was 15, he and the guys were playing 20 street corners every Friday night, after school let out. “People would say ‘There’s them three dudes again,'” he recalled.
“We did something worthwhile, man; we didn’t go out robbing people and all that. The police would sometimes take our little tip money, because they said it was illegal for us to try and make a living to buy bread.”
Ellas left home, and school, at 16 and briefly went to vocational college. He married and divorced a young girl named Louise inside of a year. “She wanted to juke me around,” he recalled. “All she wanted to do was get away from home.”
Eventually the group came to include Jerome Green on maracas and vocals. Jerome would become Bo’s onstage foil during the hit years, and an important part of the sound.
“I met Jerome when I was with my second wife, Ethel Smith,” Diddley said. “I met Jerome when I used to go over to her house to see her. He came up the back stairs with a tuba wrapped around his head, from school. They let him bring it home.
“I talked him into going with us on the street corners. He said ‘Man, I ain’t goin’ out there,’ and I said, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna pay you the same. We’re gonna split up the money.’
“I stole my mother’s cake bowl, and went out there and filled it up (with money). We came back with $15 apiece, for three of us. And the next weekend, Jerome was looking for me: ‘Hey man, are we goin’ back on the corner again?'”
Once the boys had turned 18, they left the street and getting booked into clubs. The next step was to get on record.
“I had an old Webco recorder,” Diddley recalled. “And we made a dub, and I took it to Vee-Jay Records first. They looked at me and said ‘What kind of crap is that?’ I said I don’t know, I just play it.
“They said ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with it,’ because they was strictly into blues. John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and all that kind of stuff.
“Nobody inspired me. I just wanted to be me. That’s what I wanted to do, me.”
“I figured I had something good enough to make a record. ‘Cause the people on the streetcorner, they was jumpin’ and clappin’ their hands. I said ‘Hey …. I’m making ’em jump.’ So I figured this must be it.”
In early 1955, Bo Diddley was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records (Bo was to record for the subsidiary label, Checker).
The idea of being on the same label as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and the rest of his heroes from the Chicago club scene “didn’t excite me. It’s just that I knew I was different from the rest of ’em. I was different from the other bands that I heard.
“I played a different type of music, and people were trying to figure out what the hell was I doing? Because I sounded like 10 people, rather than just three.”
Momma Gussie and the others did not approve. “They said that I was playing for the Devil,” Diddley remembered. “My aunts and uncles, everybody said ‘Why don’t you put that talent of yours to good use and play in the church? I said well, why do you all tell me to do that, and then you tell me I’m God-gifted?
“I said, you all can’t pay me the money that I make in clubs, for playing in the church, no. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just doing it to try and make a living. I’m not hanging in clubs, getting drunk and fighting and cutting up people and cussing. I don’t do no drugs, never have, never will. I’m scared of what the doctor gives me. I have no idea what the hell it is. I’m just what you call chickenshit.”
“Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” was released in the spring and reached the top spot on the national R&B charts. The A side introduced the Bo Diddley beat to the world, syncopated in a blustery onslaught with Jerome’s maracas and tribal tom-toms from drummer Clifton James.
Diddley’s original version of the song went “Uncle John’s got corn ain’t never been shucked/Uncle John’s got daughters ain’t never been … to school.”
At Leonard Chess’ suggestion, he re-wrote the lyrics as a song about himself … about this character he’d created. Bo Diddley. Bo’s legend would become a recurring theme.
“I’m a Man” was another ballgame altogether. Here, Diddley dealt a straight hand of Chicago blues, punctuated by Billy Boy’s wailing harmonica.
“Muddy Waters came up with ‘I’m a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘I’m a King Bee,’ one of those songs, saying ‘when I was 26 years old,'” Diddley recalls. “And I said well, if you’re a rolling stone, I’m a man. You understand? Willie Dixon wrote those – and I thought if he’s that bad, I’m a man.”
Not long after, “Muddy copied it and wrote ‘Mannish Boy.’ There’s only one word in ‘Mannish Boy’ that I never understood. He uses the line ‘woe be.’ I ain’t never figured out what ‘woe be’ means.”
The record was like nothing heard before. There were no complex changes, just gut-busting emotion on “I’m a Man” and shuffling energy on “Bo Diddley.”
The success of the single meant live appearances, and Diddley’s group hit the road, getting farther from Chicago with every performance. On Aug. 20, he played the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York City. “And destroyed it,” he recalled. “People was trying to figure out, how is three dudes makin’ all that noise?”
In those days, Diddley said, the national speed limit was 45 MPH. “I mostly drove with my band. I had a 1941 DeSoto station wagon; they called it a Stagecoach. It had a rack on the top, and we used to tie all our stuff up on top of it. And away we went.”
In November, the band returned to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. This story has become an integral part of the Bo Diddley legend; this is the artist’s own version:
“Ed Sullivan heard us in the dressing room practicing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ Tennessee Ernie’s song. He said ‘Can you guys play that on the show?’ and I said ‘Yeah, we can play it our way.’ But I was there to do ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. So I did two songs, and he got pissed.
“But it was their mistake, the way that they had the program written up. I did it the way that the program said: Bo Diddley and ‘Sixteen Tons.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the name of the song – and, ‘Sixteen Tons.’
“Ed Sullivan said I was the first colored boy that ever double-crossed him on a song, or something. And I started to get on him, just to tell this old man the truth, right in his fuckin’ face. Because I hadn’t ever been said nothin’ to like that, and I didn’t double cross him. They made the mistake, and I lived with it for a lot of years.
“He said I would never work again. And I got 48 years of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not happy that he’s dead, you know, but I had something that I perfected. And I did my best. And I think that’s the reason why I’m still here.”
History always seems to contrast Diddley with his Chess labelmate Chuck Berry – the two even issued a patched-together duet album in the early ’60s – but Bo Diddley sees this as an apples-and-oranges thing. “We were writing different,” he said. “He was writing about school days and stuff like that, which was very interesting. And I wrote comical-type tunes. He couldn’t be funny; I could. I could make you laugh.”
Berry also crossed over to a white audience in those heavily segregated days, something Diddley never really managed. Although he made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, only one of his singles, 1959’s “Say Man,” made a dent on the pop side.
“Say Man” was a series of good-natured back and forth insults between Bo and Jerome, what they used to call “signifying” back on the streets in Chicago.
He considers “Who Do You Love,” first released in the summer of 1956, a “funny” song. “Well, it was serious and funny at the same time,” he said. For the record, there never was a woman named Arlene in his life. He just made it up.
As his fortunes faded in the United States, as Presley, Berry, Holly and so many others brought rock ‘n’ roll to an insatiable audience, Bo Diddley struggled. “Say Man,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Road Runner” were major hits, but by the early ’60s, it just wasn’t happening.
The live show continued to generate excitement. Guitarist Norma Jean Wofford joined his band in 1961 (following a short stint by another woman stringbender, Peggy Jones). Wofford became known as The Duchess; it was whispered that she was Bo Diddley’s sister.
“We told that lie so much that it started sticking,” Diddley said. “But we’re actually no kin. I had started adding different people to the group. It was just guys at first, and I said ‘I need some glamor on the stage,’ so I started putting the girls in the group.”
Novelty had always been important for Diddley – his classic 1960 album, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger was inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven and had a Western theme – and his act had always included a little comedy, a little dancing. “Didn’t none of us stand still,” he recalled.
Diddley was surprised to learn, during a 1963 trip to Great Britain, that he was held in high regard by the young, rhythm ‘n’ blues worshiping musician crowd. The Rolling Stones, one of the tour’s opening acts, dropped all Diddley covers from their set as an act of respect.
The young Stones viewed Bo Diddley with awe; Brian Jones, Diddley remembered, had an insatiable curiosity about the rhythm and the blues. And “Mick (Jagger) is like a loner; he stays by himself all the time. And you don’t impose on a person like that – if that’s his way, that’s his way. I don’t fault him for it.”
Diddley’s relationship with the Stones continued over time – in the ’80s, Diddley and guitarist Ron Wood toured Japan together, and Bo joined the band onstage in Miami on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.
In 1965, he appeared in the legendary TAMI Show, and four years later played the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival, on a bill with the Plastic Ono Band. Diddley can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Sweet Toronto.
Overall, though, the ’60s were rough. Diddley continued to record and perform, but his records had little impact. The British Invasion, followed by the psychedelic and hippie movements, left little room for the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers.
Diddley watched attitudes and fashions change all around him. “My generation wasn’t into that shit,” he laughed. “So I’m sitting outside going what the hell’s going on? I’m starving in my own world, my music world. But I found out something: If you can’t beat ’em, you gotta join ’em” (see the Chess albums The Black Gladiator; Another Dimension).
Strapped for cash because of an investment scheme gone wrong, Diddley sold his publishing in this period.
And like many artists who rode in on the first wave in the ’50s, he got paid a ridiculous royalty rate. He was never a math whiz, so he signed whatever contract had been put in front of him. “The Chess Brothers were very secluded about telling an artist,” he said. “It looked like to me that they were afraid somebody would step out of place and start asking for more money. I was just interested in playin’ for the people. I had no idea about the business, how it worked and all this.
“They were beginning to set up little things here and there that would elude you from the right things – in other words, while you sleep, we’ll figure out how we can not pay you something.”
The winter of Diddley’s discontent began in the glory days and has yet to blow over. He remembers precisely when he first realized he’d been short-changed:
“When I started to asking about royalty checks and all this kind of stuff, my stuff started getting played less and less,” he said. “And I didn’t understand. And after a while it looked like it was set before me so that I could plainly see it, that I was becoming a troublemaker because I started asking about royalty checks. This meant that I was going to cause problems. And the easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves. It’s called blackball.
“When the people buy your stuff and make you earn the name ‘So-and-so is really great.’ But when your record company don’t acknowledge that you got a contract with ’em, and so much revenue come in that they’re supposed to give you this and that … this didn’t happen with me. Instead, they put the money in their pocket. I guess because I was a little country black boy in Chicago, I got ripped off. Because they figured I didn’t know what time it was.”
Then, as now, the only real money that came Bo Diddley’s way was from live shows. And if somebody’s making money off those classic records, it’s not him. “I ain’t seen shit,” he said.
And so he works, flying hundreds, thousands of miles, equipped with only a guitar and a suitcase. Although he has a semi-regular group for big shows, he does most gigs with a pickup band, hired by the local promoter in each town he plays.
After Chicago, he lived in Washington, D.C. (the Gunslinger album was recorded on a two-track Presto machine in his basement), then Los Angeles and, ultimately, Florida (he spent a year or two in Las Lunas, N.M., too, where he was deputized and walked a sheriff’s beat). He was married to Georgia native Kay Reynolds for 20 years, and bought his first Florida property from her dentist.
Every few years, some music business sharpie with a few bucks in his wallet signs him up for an album; without fail, they make little or no commercial impact.
Diddley cares very little for the 1973 The London Bo Diddley Sessions, which paired him with a contingent of hip young English rock players. “When you turn your back, they do whatever they feel like doing,” he said. Since the end of Chess in the mid ’70s, he’s drifted from label to label.
In 1996, producer Mike Vernon put out the Bo Diddley album A Man Amongst Men, which featured “collaborations” from the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Richie Sambora.
Trouble was, Vernon assembled the tracks from pieces; Bo was rarely in the same room with his guest stars. “It just never occurred to them that maybe Bo doesn’t want it that way, you know?” Diddley said. “So it would be my mistake if I fucked up. But they fucked up, and I still bear the cross of them messing up. And the public don’t know that I had nothing to do with it.”
He has a handful of bedrock songs that continue to reverberate today (“Who Do You Love,” “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” “Mona”), and the “Bo Diddley Beat” is a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll (see “Not Fade Away,” “I Want Candy,” “She’s the One”).
His 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame was logical – and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bo Diddley took it with a grain of salt.
“The way I look at it, the attention is really great,” he said. “But the reward in what I have done is not a plaque sitting on my wall, because I can’t do anything with it. They’re worth a lot of money to a collector, but to me they’re not worth anything.
“It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills. Take the actors who got the Oscars and the Emmys, they don’t mean nothin.’ It’s just that people can come to your house and see ’em and go ‘Wow, you got an Oscar.’ What does it mean? Is it worth a thousand dollars? $400? $200? Or worth a million dollars?
“What is it worth in dollar bills, because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it.”
Back surgery slowed him down in the ’90s – he had to sit in a chair onstage for a while – and a recurring bout with high blood pressure caused him to cancel a few dates in 2002.
Otherwise, hell, he ain’t slowing down.
“I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he said. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting’ scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.
“As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and … you don’t know that you’re gone? That’s the way I feel.
“That is the most scary thing in the world. You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that.”