You may think Bo Diddley's rich. You may think Bo Diddley inhabits a Jaggeresque world of limos, laughs and luxury. You may think his membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame secures him universal credit for his contributions to the music. If you do, you're wrong.
"My life is not as gloryful as everybody thinks it is," says Bo Diddley.
If you need proof, check out The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Although Bo Diddley's name comes up in the index more than a dozen times (mainly as a footnote to other biographies), he receives only a paragraph for himself. And there's only one tiny, nondescript picture of him in the whole book, a shot of Bo schlepping through a London airport behind Chuck Berry. Hell, there are two pictures of Connie Francis, and no one's ever named a beat after her! But wait. It gets worse.
Pull out any number of rock history books and look up Diddley. You'll find some snooty writer either trying to tell you that the Bo-beat is based on African Masai tribal rhythms or that it's merely a variation of "shave and a haircut/two bits." What gives?
"I just came up with the Bo Diddley beat, and it seems everybody around the fucking world is copying it," he says from his home in Florida. "I'm not getting a dime for it, and I'm really getting tired of this."
Everything from Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" to the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy" to the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" owes more than a passing nod to Diddley classics like "Who Do You Love" and "Mona." If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Bo's been steamrollered.
"I don't care about imitation, just pay me," says an indignant Diddley. "If people want to imitate me, it must be that I was doing something worth imitating."
Yet when both the Stones and Paul McCartney covered a Bo Diddley original like "Crackin' Up," he also got zilch. It's a familiar story: Early rock n' roll legend gets bamboozled out of his publishing by some suit sitting behind a desk. Virtually every highlight of Bo's 39-year career is blemished by a past rip-off or some broken trust. Imagine--he made more money playing pool in a George Thorogood video than from all the Bo Diddley cover versions George has recorded. That his benefactors are still free to roam the Earth and go to church on Sunday makes it all the more cruel.
Born Ellas McDaniel 65 years ago, he was nicknamed "Bo Diddley" in grammar school. This moniker is supposed to mean "mischievous" or "bully boy," but Bo contends he's always been a nice guy who only beat on thugs who beat on little pipsqueaks. "That's not bullying. I call that equalizing."
Sometime between 12 years of classical violin lessons and a stint as a semiprofessional boxer named Bo Diddley in Chicago, Ellas begat the Bo Diddley sound using distorted tremolo guitar, maracas, backsliding bass and that infamous beat.
Asked to describe his sound, Bo says, "Energy. And mass destruction." Mass destruction? Before you go searching for "Bo Diddley Is an Anarchist" in your record collection, note that Bo is only interested in the mass destruction "of your mind. My music makes your body move in places you didn't think you could move."
Confident enough at the outset to sing about himself in the first person, Bo refashioned his song "Uncle John" into "Bo Diddley," his debut release for Chess Records in 1955. Later installments such as "Bo Diddley Is on the Loose," "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger," "Bo Diddley Is a Lumberjack" and "Bo Diddley Is a Twister" served to build up his mystique even further.
This is the same approach to songwriting taken by today's rappers, who are almost exclusively self-referential. Perhaps to align himself with this movement, Bo recently toyed with changing his handle to EMC (for Ellas McDaniel), but the Bo Diddley pedigree wasn't about to roll over and play dead.
"I like singing about me because I'm crazy about me," he says.
One person perhaps less than over-the-moon about Bo Diddley was Ed Sullivan, the man who gave Bo his first prime-time national exposure in 1955. On that particular Talk of the Town program, which also featured LaVern Baker and the Five Keys, there was a mix-up. Bo, there to plug his current hit, "Bo Diddley," was at odds with Mr. Really Big Shew, who wanted to hear a version of Tennessee Ernie Ford's current hit, "Sixteen Tons." Come showtime, the man with "a rattlesnake for a necktie" prevailed, and Sullivan was reportedly "more surprised than pleased."
"Ed Sullivan was a racist in the worst way," says Bo. "And he was pressured to start putting black people on his show. I feel I helped him as much as he helped me, since I was at the beginning of what was a new thing. He smiled in our faces, but the sucker didn't actually like us." Diddley lets out his trademark laugh, which could match Darth Vader's for depth. "I don't see color. I've always been that way. This country is tearing itself apart--quietly. We need to cut the crap and make America like it should be. This is where every sonabitch from another land comes to hide from oppression. And to come here and put it on someone else, that ain't right." Nowadays, "every sonabitch from another land" is busy bootlegging Bo Diddley product, yet another in a minefield of touchy subjects. Japan, with its lax copyright laws, seems to be the worst offender. "I'm tired of my fans thinking that they're buying an authentic Bo Diddley CD and it's not," moans Bo. "The only authentic ones are the MCA ones and the ones I'm doing for Triple XXX. All this stuff from overseas is all bootlegs--they can't just come here and take my shit and do what the fuck they want with it. I can't just go out and start building Cadillacs, you know? They'd have me in jail before the sun come up."
Bo recorded quality music in the Sixties, a decade not especially kind to rock's forefathers. Although the British invaders heavily covered early rock standards for their young audience, the originators of the form seemed unwilling or unable to make credible records. Chuck Berry went on to cut inconceivably lousy sides like "Anthony Boy," "Too Pooped to Pop" and his entire Mercury output. Little Richard was too busy making promises to God and later backpedaling on them to sustain any momentum. Even Bo's mentor, the great Muddy Waters, buckled under pressure from Chess Records to do a psychedelic album. All you need to do is look at the cover of Electric Mud, with Muddy hiding his face in his hands, to know he was ever so sorry.
But there're no mind-blowing travesties like Bo Diddley Is an Avatar or Have Guitar Will Time Travel in Bo's catalogue. Just great music.
"I won't be pressurized by anybody," says Bo of his single-minded career. "I'm in the driver's seat, and I don't mind driving."
Which doesn't mean Bo isn't interested in keeping up with the times; his latest recording is a country-rap song. Though he might fume about being bootlegged by record companies overseas, he's not so cynical that he won't play "Promises" over the telephone. It doesn't sport the Bo-beat, but it pits a metronomic rhythm against chugging and sliding guitars. Any young country star today could have penned the lyrics, but given Bo's wealth of experience, they carry added sting you won't get from Alan Jackson:
Promises, those promises, you never keep
Promises, those promises, you made a fool of me
"I call it 'black country,'" Bo explains after the song plays out. "It's different, ain't it? See, I put that little rap thing on the end of it; that's something ain't nobody ever did. I'm following dollar bills. I hear rap. I hear country. I hear this other shit that these dudes is doing onstage with their knees all out and their funky, fright pants. . . ."
"I don't know what that is, but people are buying it."
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Bo is less than enthusiastic when the subject of digital audio comes up. "I don't like that crap. I'm not old-fashioned, but I feel it's all just bullshit for your pocketbook. My old tapes sound great. What the hell do I need with CDs?" Don't expect Bo to endorse gangsta rap, either. The man who wrote "Cops and Robbers" in the Fifties became the law in the early Seventies when he served as deputy sheriff in Los Lunas, New Mexico. And, no, he never came up against any gunslingers there.
"There's a lot of nice people out there. You have to talk to people," says Bo of his enforcement methods. "The police don't have to go around beating people up unless his life [the policeman's] is being threatened with a revolver or a weapon."
Although he has the recognition of his rock peers, the real "equalizing" that needs to be done is still slow in coming. But come it will.
"Money's out there that nobody's ever paid me because they think I'm a nice guy, I'm not going to do anything. But they don't know. I'm building. And when I come, I'm going to dump this stuff on a judge's desk and there ain't no way he can look at me and say, 'What's this?' He can see what it is and do what he has to do.
"I have a dream," growls Bo Diddley. "I have a dream that I'm gonna tear the courthouse down with somebody's booty!"
Bo Diddley will perform on Sunday, February 6, at the Rhythm Room, with Buddy Reed and the Rip-It-Ups. Showtimes are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.