You got to get yourself some Velcro,” Bo Diddley advises.
“What?” I ask.
“For your phone.” My cell phone had just slipped out of my hand and landed on the carpet of his room at the Washington Square Hotel in downtown Manhattan. And Diddley is quick to leap into action with a solution. “Yeah, Velcro’s got rough edges and you can just attach it to the side of your phone so you can keep your grip on it.”
He stretches his legs and points to them. “Look here!” he continues. His left foot is swollen from the amputation of two toes due to recent diabetes complications, and he’s fashioned two long strips of Velcro to secure a slipper to his instep.
“That’s how it’s done,” he says, smiling proudly.
At age seventy-six, reeling from diabetes, back problems and a pending divorce, Diddley still brims with life and enthusiasm, displaying the maverick spirit that made him one of the inventors of rock & roll, as well as the square guitar he used to play, to say nothing of the beat that bears his name. Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to figure out just where the oft-imitated Bo Diddley beat came from. But to meet Diddley, who’s in Manhattan to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first single, “Bo Diddley,” is to understand the answer: The man is simply inventive. The Velcro suggestion is just one of several dozen do-it-yourself ideas that Diddley will come up with in the time I spend with him in New York and his home in Gainesville, Florida, where Diddley will improvise the most astonishing private concert I’ve ever witnessed.
History belongs to the victors, and in the annals of rock & roll, three men have emerged as winners: Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, a holy trinity who were there at the start. Diddley’s importance is acknowledged but less often celebrated. His music strikes many as more simple, more direct than his contemporaries, yet it remains more difficult to categorize, understand or explain. Listen to “Bo Diddley” and you won’t hear the teenage fantasy of Berry’s “School Day” or the youth-gone-wild adrenaline of Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” It is slower and unearthly, with a space-age tremolo guitar rippling through the song, the nervous rattle of constantly shaking maracas and a staggered shuffle-beat that sounds completely primal yet wholly original.
“‘Maybellene’ is a country song sped up,” says George Thorogood, who has covered Diddley songs on at least half his records. “‘Johnny B. Goode’ is blues sped up. But you listen to ‘Bo Diddley,’ and you say, ‘What in the Jesus is that?’ You sit there and you get numb listening to it.”
Keith Richards recalls experiencing the same shock. “Muddy [Waters] and Chuck were close to the straight electric blues,” he said. “But Bo was fascinatingly on the edge. There was something African going on in there. His style was outrageous, suggesting that the kind of music we loved didn’t just come from Mississippi. It was coming from somewhere else.”
To use the word “influenced” is an under-statement to describe the effect of Diddley’s first half-dozen singles and careening performances on rock music. In 1956, the Harlem newspaper the Amsterdam News, on first seeing Elvis Presley perform, claimed he had “copied Bo Diddley’s style to the letter”; Buddy Holly, borrowed Diddley’s music for his biggest hit, “Not Fade Away” (some say Holly copped his horn-rimmed glasses from Diddley as well); the Stones, influenced as much by Diddley’s guitar tremolo and tuning as his beat, recorded versions of “Not Fade Away” and Diddley’s “Mona” for their early albums; the Grateful Dead covered Diddley and eventually played with him; De La Soul sampled his Seventies funk recordings; and everything from the Who’s “Magic Bus” to U2’s “Desire” to Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One” to George Michael’s “Faith” is based on the ubiquitous Diddley beat.
“His chart successes may have been fewer than those of his contemporaries, but Diddley’s innovations are now inextricably woven into the fabric of today’s popular music,” says George R. White, who wrote Diddley’s only significant biography, Bo Diddley — Living Legend. “The powerful amplification and driving rhythms he pioneered evolved into hard rock during the Sixties and continue to influence the heavy-metal bands of today. His clipped, string-scratching technique laid the foundations for funk. Jimi Hendrix picked up on his ideas. And, of course, the Bo Diddley beat itself is now probably the most famous beat in the world.”
Dick Taylor will never forget where he was the first time he heard Diddley. Most people don’t. It was the early Sixties, and a DJ on the radio announced, “This is Bo Diddley doing ‘Bo Diddley.'”
“When I heard the first few bars of it, I leapt across the room and turned up the volume on the radio,” he recalls. “My parents must have thought I was crazy. It wasn’t long after that that Mick Jagger and I were digging for his albums at record stores.”
Back then, there was no Rolling Stones. Just Dick Taylor, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, kicking around the bar scene as Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, playing covers of singles on the Chess label — the Chicago home of Diddley, Berry and Muddy Waters. Taylor would go on to form and play guitar in the Sixties British rock group the Pretty Things, named after a Diddley single.