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Bo Diddley: Guitar God

The legendary bluesman on sex in rap lyrics, not doing drugs, and being a rock n’ roll granddaddy

Bo Diddley

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 871 -- Aired 02/26/1996 -- Pictured: Musician Bo Diddley (Photo by Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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In the last 40 years, Ellas Bates McDaniel, better known as Bo Diddley, has entertained three presidents (Kennedy, Bush and Clinton), has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and has trademarked the rectangular guitar he built at age 15. He’s toured with everyone from the Everly Brothers to the Clash to the Rolling Stones. A Man Amongst Men, his first major label album in 25 years, boasts quite the celebrity line up: Ron Wood, Keith Richards, the Shirelles and rapper Philosopher G. (“That’s my grandson,” Diddley says. “His real name’s Reese.”) Over a lunch of five pastrami sandwiches and some rugelach — on the house — from New York’s Second Avenue Deli, Diddley speaks in rolling rhythms that bring to mind his legendary shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits beat He is wearing a black hat bearing a crest and two gold letters: Bo.

OK, let’s get goin’.

You’ve been in the business a very long time. Why a new record now?

I have to brag a little bit. I know what I’m doin’. At 67 years old, I’m still goin.’ I want to move on to the new kid on the block. I can write way back to Muddy Waters, when I first started, if I feel like it. But I wanna sell records – I don’t want ’em to sit in the back room and get moss on ’em. I want ’em in people’s homes. You understand me? You gotta be able to roll with the punches. I find you have no idea what kids are going to go after. I have a song on this album called “Bo Diddley Is Crazy.” I directed that tune at young people.

How so?

They like to have fun. These days, kids are just jumping all over the place, and they’re having a good time, so I figured this would do it. I see that word in the household, parents telling kids, “You sick, you crazy. I don’t know what to do with you, you ain’t wrapped too tight.” My mother told me that once. I was puttin’ too many moves into it with the guitar. I started wiggling and carryin’ on, and everybody thought I was the worst thing to hit the stage because I was wigglin’. Me and Elvis, he started his legs wigglin’. We weren’t doin’ nothin’. You dig?

I dig. Do you have any message for kids today?

I want to emphasize: Kids, don’t do drugs. I’ve seen the results. When you start to use drugs, you lose all respect for your mama and daddy. And the dude who’s selling the stuff is lower than an earthworm. He should be dealt with in the most harsh way. You have to say, “I don’t want it. Get out my face.” If they ask you again, find the authorities.

You’re very aware of what’s going on.

This planet ain’t as big as everybody thinks. We all gotta stand together to protect this land, because somebody is after us. And all I wanna do is sell records. I want to go to sleep every night, wake up in a good spirit, and somebody calls me to say, “You sold more records.”

What are your favorite blues albums?

Man, I couldn’t tell you that. Because I got so many, I don’t know. Just go out and buy Bo Diddley, whatever you can get your hands on. I’m sure you’ll like it.

So what do you think of current rock & roll music?

The one thing I can say: Jazz has remained jazz, but rock & roll has went into something I don’t understand myself. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, the Shirelles, the Drifters — we were rock & roll. All those screaming guitars today, that’s something else. I refuse to be put in the position where a cat 25 years old comes in when I’m onstage playing the only thing I ever knew, and he hollers, “Play some rock & roll!” Because he ain’t never heard the song “I’m a Man” or “Who Do You Love” or “Under the Boardwalk,” by the Drifters. If you ask Chuck Berry and Elvis — you can’t ask him because he’s gone from us — and Fats Domino, they feel the same. We feel offended, very hurt. We’re not making the money the new cats is making. And they took our thing. Some of the country singers is hollerin’ about the same thing.

Is there anyone you do like?

Well, there’s a few guys. Hootie and the Blowfish. Yeah, yeah. They’re neat. A little different, you know. You’d be surprised, man. I like a lot of the things that’s being played. I like a lot of the rap music up until it gets dirty. Then I don’t want any part of it.

You once opened for the Clash.

My ears are still fucked up from that, man.

What’s your favorite venue here in New York?

I got a bunch of ’em. The Bottom Line as a club and Madison Square Garden as a big venue. If I ever get my booty back in there, I’m gonna destroy that sucker. Make ’em take the roof off.

How do you have all this energy? Other people your age get tired playing bingo.  

Every day, I get up and get goin’, man. The day starts at 8 a.m., 4:30 p.m. quit. I can’t hang around laying in the bed. Night-life hours is different, but if you train yourself, you can get sleep. Some cats work nights, then try to see everything that’s going on. You dig what I’m saying? Get off work and they still won’t go to bed. Me, I leave a club, go straight to a hotel, get into bed. And I go to sleep when I get where I’m goin’. You dig? If I go to sleep on a plane, it’s not really sleep. There’s no stress like riding an airplane. Think about it. You have no idea if it’s gonna fall outta the sky. That’s stress. Stress is the worst when your booty is up in somebody else’s control. I am gettin’ very scared to fly because of the sick people loose, runnin’ in the streets.

How’s being a rock & roll granddaddy?

Hanging out with my grandkids and having ’em all around me is a good feeling. Thank God I’m still here and in good health. I had an operation, but I’m fine; I’m walking, you know. Leg hurts a little bit, but the doctor just told me to be cool so I won’t end up back on that table. But I feel great. It’s great to have grandkids and see ’em grow up, go to school, come out of school. That’s a great feeling. It really is. 

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