By Paul Rubin
Back when I was a young 'un, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a gentleman by the name of Ellas Otha Bates. Mr. Bates was a guitar player and singer of great repute, and when he pulled into town with his band for a gig, I decided to take a shot at interviewing him for the local weekly. I felt that I knew the guy's groundbreaking music really well, and his history, too, so I was fairly comfortable when I called him up at his hotel room.
To my surprise, he answered the phone after the first ring with a gruff, "What do you want?" I told him who I was--"What, you a sandwich?" he snapped at me, to which I responded that the sandwich--the ubiquitous Reuben--was spelled wrong. He thought that was funny, and invited me over, said to meet him in the restaurant at the hotel, that he was going down to eat.
I stopped whatever it was I was doing, grabbed a recorder and notebook, and pedaled over to the hotel on my sole mode of transportation at the time, a bicycle. It took about 20 minutes.
I rushed into the restaurant, and there he was, resplendent in a bright-red shirt, turquiose bolo tie and a large black Stetson-like hat. I greeted him by the name everyone knew him by: Mr. Bo Diddley.
"What do you want to know?" he said by way of introduction.
I have no idea what I stammered in response.
What I knew about Bo Diddley was this: Along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and, yes, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddly had been one of the architects of rock `n' roll in the 1950s, with his hits "Bo Diddley," "I'm A Man," and many others.
The guy actually invented a beat, instantly recognizable to this day, one that would influence musicians far and wide, from Buddy Holly ("Not Fade Away") to Tom Petty ("American Girl") and on and on.
It was kind of a chunk-da-chunk-da-chunk, da-chunk-chunk, if that makes any sense, but you'd know it if you heard it--remember The Who's "Magic Bus?" That's Bo Diddley's beat.
Anyway, when it came down to it, I was more duh than chunk-da-chunk. I couldn't think of a thing to ask him. He asked me, quite kindly this time, if I'd done my homework.
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Well, just ask me something, like what I think of the Beatles or something like that."
A band member who was sitting at the table broke up laughing, but I decided to take him up on the interviewing tip.
"What do you think of Elvis and The Beatles?" I asked him.
"They're terrible," he said, staring at me with a dead pan.
"How terrible?" I tossed back.
"Now we're going someplace," Bo Diddley told me.
Come to find out that he really thought the Beatles were cool.
We spent a few hours talking about his music and his life. One anecdote: In 1955, Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, after "Bo Diddley" became the number-one hit on Billboard's R&B singles chart.
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Diddley said that Mr. Sullivan had wanted him to sing a version of "Sixteen Tons," which was a smash hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford. Sullivan's staff wrote out the words of Ford's hit on cue cards, but when it came time to perform, Diddley and his band did his own tune instead, and caused a sensation (this was before Elvis and The Beatles made history on that show).
"They could have had the words to `Jingle Bells' on those cards and I still would have sang `Bo Diddley,'" he told me.
All of this came back to me this morning when I read that this rock pioneer and fine gentleman died yesterday at his home in Florida at the age of 79.
Here's to Bo Diddley and his chunk-da-chunk-da-chunk.