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.
“[The British Invasion] wouldn’t have happened without Bo,” Taylor says. “When Bo Diddley’s records came out, we’d try and copy them. We were great collectors of whatever we could find of his. It all seemed very glamorous, but we were quite surprised when we went to Chicago years afterward. Some of the people we thought were huge stars were living in pretty dire straits.”
And perhaps that is why Diddley is still holding a grudge against Elvis Presley. Before he leaves his Manhattan hotel room, which is so small there is just enough space for a king-size bed and a small writing desk, Diddley recalls a television show he had seen that morning paying tribute to the pioneers of rock & roll.
“They started off with Elvis,” Diddley says. He shakes his head sadly. “Elvis was not first. I was the first son of a gun out here: me and Chuck Berry. And I’m very sick of the lie. You know, we are over that black-and-white crap, and that was all the reason Elvis got the appreciation that he did. I’m the dude that he copied, and I’m not even mentioned.” Diddley’s voice grows louder and he gestures sharply at his chest, where the wounds have only grown deeper with time. “I’m still here — seventy-six years old, feeling good and still working. But I don’t know how much longer I can stand by and see somebody else get all the glory. I’ve been out here for fifty years, man, and I haven’t ever seen a royalty check.”
Diddley is wearing a brown three-button collar shirt with food stains and a chest pocket that bulges with papers and knick-knacks. His standard black leather cowboy hat sits flat on his head, with a silver eagle medallion in the front, two small badges on the side and two toothpicks thrust into the brim.
“I tell young musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama,'” he says as we leave the hotel and slide into the back seat of a car. “And even then, look at her real good.”
As we run errands in Manhattan — combing the street stalls of Fourteenth Street for bargain clothing and B&H Photo for discount video-camera accessories — Diddley never stops trying to keep me entertained. Whenever a silence looms, he will ask, “What do you want to know?” or he will start singing one of his hits, or he’ll just chuckle and say, “Rock & roll.” His manner is easygoing, and despite the fact that the credit and royalties he wants will probably not come in his lifetime, he has not stopped caring or turned into a money-motivated hack, like many musicians on the oldies circuit. Every performance is just as much a battle to him as it was fifty years ago.
“I had a woman in the audience the other night in Oklahoma, sitting all stiff while everyone around her was moving and clapping,” he booms as we drive through midtown. “She looked like she was married to some dude who had her stuck in the house for years. I told her, ‘No, no, no, you can’t sit on the front row and look like you swallowed a liver. You’ve got to smile, baby, because you are pretty.'” He concludes, “She started grinning, and she started clapping along with the music, man. I got her.” He beams and claps his hands together. “I got through.”
Though Diddley is known mostly for his recorded work, his early concerts and image were just as striking. He toured in a white hearse; his looks ranged from a square in black horn-rimmed glasses to a sinner in black leather; he had custom-made square Gretsch guitars with fur bodies and rocket tails. In addition to his high-kicking, hip-wiggling stage moves, his repertoire included pre-Hendrix flourishes like playing the guitar with his teeth and over his head. And he was one of the first rockers to put female musicians in places of prominence in his band. (In fact, decades before Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes would pretend to be siblings, he spuriously claimed his bandmate the Duchess was his sister.)
Ronnie Hawkins recalls seeing Diddley at his prime. Hawkins’ version of “Bo Diddley” has often been cited as a pioneering rockabilly record, though he’s best known for his cover of Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” (backed by musicians who would later become the Band). “I saw Muddy Waters when he was still strong,” he says. “I saw Howlin’ Wolf at his peak. But Bo was the best. He could stir up a crowd with that rhythm. It went through you like a Holy Roller.”
“I was out to destroy the audience,” Diddley says, recalling the roots of his rhythm. “I wanted to destroy ’em, just make the toughest dude in the crowd pat his foot. I’d find a groove to get ’em by watching feet, and once I got one guy moving; I’ d start working on the dude sitting next to him.”
The car stops in front of Manny’s Music in midtown Manhattan. Diddley always checks out local music stores when he travels. He is on a constant mission for new instruments and effects, since he was a teenager plugging his guitar into the back of a radio in the 1940s to amplify it.
“I first came here fifty years ago,” Diddley says as we walk into the shop. “I was doing a show at the Apollo. I broke Sammy Davis Jr.’s record. He had a line halfway around the block. Mine wrapped all the way around the block. But I had to come here and get an amplifier. It was a 25-watt Magnatone, and back then they said it was too loud. Now you got everyone buying 650-watt amplifiers.”
The sales staff at Manny’s rushes to greet Diddley like an old friend. Diddley laughs and claps his hands together happily, then proceeds to grill the staff for forty-five minutes about new gear.
Gloria Jolivet, who sang with Diddley in the Sixties and married his nephew Ricky, said Diddley’s band used to call him “the junkman” behind his back. “Every time we came to Chicago, we’d have to hit Jew-town, where you can get all kinds of screws and little junk,” she recalls. “And he’d be trying to by things to make a new machine or do something to an amplifier.”
Lady Bo, who began playing guitar with Diddley in 1957, explains what some of those machines may have been. “This is a trade secret, but his guitar always weighed a ton because he put things in it,” she says. “He had toys in there.” She says that rather than adding pedals or modifying his amplifiers, he’d install various effects directly into his guitar.
“He was doing shit to that guitar ahead of Les Paul,” Hawkins claims. “He’s an inventor. I remember one time he had these three little boxes on top of the amps with motors, and he’d turn them on at a certain speed and get this humming going. So it would keep humming with the rhythm while he was playing the lead licks.”
On the walls of Manny’s, there are half a dozen autographed photos of Diddley at various stages in his career. “That picture there is from 1955,” he says, pointing to one photo as he pays for his guitar pedal and a synthesizer for one of his twenty-two great-grandchildren. He cracks a mischievous smile. “And I’m still jumping.”
Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi, just after Christmas 1928. McComb is not part of the Mississippi of blues legend, the Delta that gave rise to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. McComb is some 120 miles south, closer to Louisiana, and today it’s best known as the birthplace of another musician: Britney Spears. Down in Cajun country, ethnicities blur, and Diddley says he is a Creole mix of African, French and American Indian.
Diddley began life as an accident. His mother, who was fifteen or so, had gotten pregnant by a local boy whom Diddley would never know. He was raised by another woman, his mother’s first cousin Gussie McDaniel, who, during the Great Depression, joined the migration from rural Mississippi up to the metropolis of Chicago, where work and civil rights were easier to come by.
It was a trek that Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Elmore James and dozens more had also made. In the city, the chaotic din of the street and bars, as well as the access to new trends and technology, coaxed the musicians to plug in their instruments and add drums to the music of their rural past, giving rise to electric Chicago blues. Though Bluebird and then Vee-Jay dominated the Chicago blues scene with Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Tampa Red and Jimmy Reed, it was ultimately Chess that would become the best-known Chicago label, home to Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Berry and Diddley.
Diddley was too young to know the destiny that was waiting for him in Chicago. “All I remember is that the year we arrived, it snowed like hell in Chicago,” Diddley says. “[My mother] had a brother there, and we went to stay at his house — Uncle Herbert Wilson. And Gussie found a job as a cook in a school on the North Side.”
Diddley was eight and, after Gussie legally changed his last name to Bates McDaniel, he went to public school, where, to protect his lunch money, he learned the skill that he thought would become a career: boxing.
“I wasn’t very quick in school,” Diddley says. “The mother makes the child. I never really knew her, but somehow or another, my mama gave me something called common sense. And that is what I live on all the time.”
At the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, he developed a love of music and moved from choral singing to violin and trombone. Diddley has always pointed to church music as a source of his sound and say his earliest records were attempts to re-create the feeling of his entire church thundering hymns and spirituals.
He added guitar to his repertoire at age twelve after hearing John Lee Hooker and persuading his stepsister to buy him the instrument for Christmas. His style, he says, came from playing his guitar as if it were a violin. Lady Bo tells it differently. “Have you ever seen his hands?” she asks. “His fingers are so thick he has to play rhythm rather than complicated leads.”
By the time he was seventeen, Diddley was busking in the streets. “We used to carry a washtub bass around and, since we didn’t have no drums, we made noise on a board,” he recalls. “But then I learned about a paper bag. Put a paper bag in your pants and then you can hit it to make a beat.”
Later, for percussion, he found a sand dancer who made noise by scraping his feet in a patch of sand. They played together on street corners as the Hipsters. “I was creating my own thing,” Diddley says of the band. “I wanted to make a few bucks.”
Eventually, he electrified his guitar from old radio and phonograph parts in order to win the attention of passers-by. He replaced his sand dancer with Jerome Green, a neighbor whom he had originally recruited to pass the hat in the street. To add a freight-train sound to the music, Diddley gave Green maracas, which he built by taking apart a toilet, removing the floating rubber ball and filling it with black-eyed peas.
“We used to be three dudes going down the street with a washtub, a little raggedy guitar and another cat with maracas,” Diddley recalls. “We would go into the club and we would stand right by the front door because we weren’t old enough to be in there. We would play for people and pass the hat. We ended up with fifteen places to go on Friday and Saturday nights. We’d make fifteen to sixteen dollars apiece. That was a lot of money when I was thirteen years old. Fifteen bucks. Shit, I become a loan shark.”
His first guitarist, Jody Williams, remembers meeting a fifteen-year-old Diddley. “We were on the same talent show, and I saw him play,” he recalls. “It was the first time I really listened to the sound of a guitar. So I asked him if I got a guitar, would he teach me how to play it? I spied a guitar in pawn shop for $32.50, and my mother bought it for me.”
Williams soon joined the band and, in 1951, their luck began to change. “There was an old theater that would give midnight shows for adults with comedy on the stage,” Diddley says. “So the cat came out one night and grabbed me and my partners and said, ‘Why don’t you all come in here and play something? I heard about you all on the street corner.’ We went in, and they had a little contest. We played our little song, which was called ‘Dirty Mother Fuyer'” — a euphemism Diddley took to using after his aunt beat him for calling his cousin a “dirty motherfucker.” “Well, we won the contest. That was fifteen bucks, So next Saturday I thought, ‘Well, shit, let’s go back there again.’ So we went back and played it again — and we won again.”
It was having to compete at band battles and win over an uncaring audience on the sidewalks of Chicago’s Maxwell Street market — with louder music, with more insistent rhythms, with showmanship, with new technology, with ribald lyrics and comic innuendos — that changed Ellas McDaniel, the bearer of standards, into Bo Diddley, the originator.
“I made the first tremolo, and I didn’t know what the hell I did,” Diddley says. “A guy I grew up with was into electronics, so we’d go to this old Army surplus place, looking through all the electronic bullshit for something that would vibrate the sound. I eventually went to the junkyard and found some parts out of an old car Later, I made it out of an old windup clock. I had it fixed so it would run faster. I was just breaking the circuit to get that sound. But then Diamature out of Toledo made one. That’s when I got the thing and messed it up and bent it to adjust the speed to make it go faster. That’s how I got it to go whoomp-whoomp-whoomp, and I built my career or my style around that.”
In interviews, Diddley tends to obfuscate the truth about elements of his past. There are at least a dozen stories about where his name came from (from his prowess as a boxer, from the one-stringed folk instrument the diddley bow, from a local performer in McComb, from street slang for a bully).
Williams, who stopped playing music for thirty years after he felt that he wasn’t getting credit and royalties for his work with Diddley and others, offers a different solution to the mystery. “This Bo Diddley thing — it’s a farce,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago. “You want to know where it actually came from? When we were on the street corners, playing at the old Indiana Theater, there was a little six-or seven-piece band in the orchestra pit. There were singers, dancers and comedians. And then there were three old vaudeville actors, and their names were Bo Diddley, Coal Dust and Ash.”
Diddley, however, flatly denies this. “My name came from grammar school in Chicago,” he says. “Some kids started calling me that, and it stuck.”
As for his signature beat, which has been cited as the most plagiarized rhythm of the twentieth century, some trace it to the Yoruba drumming of West Africa; others to the novelty rhythm known as “shave and a haircut, two bits.” However, Williams says, “That Bo Diddley sound — guess where it came from? There was a group of young black kids, teenagers. They had this thing called hambone. And that’s all it is: hambone.”
Hambone, also called patting juba, originated on the plantations after salves were forbidden to use drums. So instead thy created percussion by clapping their hands, stomping their feet and slapping their chests and thighs. It made its way to popular culture in minstrel shows and vaudeville. And, just as Bo Diddley was finessing his sound, the trend hit the mainstream again when Red Saunders, a drummer who had also moved to Chicago from the South as a teenager, scored the novelty hit of 1952 with “Hambone.” Soon, everyone from children on television shows to street performers to the country star Tennessee Ernie Ford was slapping body parts and singing “Hambone.”
Diddley denies that he simply adopted hambone to the guitar, claiming that he was playing his beat in the streets before the Red Saunders song. Though he has said that he invented the beat while trying to play the Gene Autry song “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” he told me that the inspiration came from church. “I heard something like that when I was twelve or thirteen in a sanctified church. I’d peek through the curtain, and they just had a tambourine and an old raggedy piano, and these old ladies was just letting loose.”
Whatever the exact origins of his sound may be — most likely, a combination of all these tales-the fact is, most other musicians at the time also had access to those same precedents. So why is it that only Diddley and a select few others ended up turning these influences into rock & roll? The reason isn’t anthropology. It’s personality. Diddley is not like most other musicians. He doesn’t regard convention; he actively seeks to disregard it in a way that’s still acceptable and entertaining. When I point this out, he cracks, “I’m smarter than the average bear.”
But he wasn’t always so smart. He would eventually sell the publishing rights to his entire catalog for a $10,000 down payment on a new house.
Back in 1955, musicians didn’t hire lawyers before getting signed; they didn’t even have managers or agents. They just had songs. And so it was that Diddley and his band cut a single and dragged it around to local record-company offices for several months, hoping for a deal. The songs they carried were “Uncle John,” a more ribald version of the tune that would become “Bo Diddley,” and “I’m a Man, a slice of badass swagger that would later inspire Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”
There is a bootleg tape floating around of Raymond Scott, an inventive musical genius in his own right from the swing era, auditioning Bo Diddley for Everest Records. To hear it is to understand the challenge that Diddley was up against: Scott wanted Diddley to play guitar normally. But that wasn’t how Diddley played. His music was all jittery high-end rhythm — from the tremolo-drenched guitar to the constant hailstorm of maracas. The music Diddley was playing didn’t swing or boogie-woogie. It was all about the guitar — played with fat, clumsy thumbs and tuned to an open E. It wasn’t commercial. It was strange.
“I couldn’t play like other people wanted me,” Diddley says, with some pride. “I played backwards. You can’t change my stuff. I am me.”
It was in the offices of Chess, a five-year-old label that had already amassed a stellar catalog of blues and proto-rock roll, that Diddley caught the ear of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and the label’s owners, Phil and Leonard Chess, two Jewish brothers from Poland. The blues market was beginning to dry up, and the Chess brothers were looking for a new sound to help support their swelling overhead. They found it that year in Diddley and, later, in Chuck Berry, whose first hit, “Maybellene,” featured Diddley’s maraca man Jerome Green and helped ignite a revolution.
Diddley’s first single — “Bo Diddley” on the A side and “I’m a Man” on the B side — was not as great a success but with no less of a historical impact. The two songs total just under six minutes and deliver one of the most powerful myths in music. Diddley beats rap to the punch by name-checking himself incessantly on one side of the record and bragging about his sexual prowess with a distinct lack of modesty on the other. He already had his own hype man, Green, the antecedent for Flavor Flav. And then there was the rhythm, the tremolo, the maracas. Altogether, the spectral “Bo Diddley” was a song that was far too novel to be a massive pop hit but too raw and authentic to be a novelty hit.
The blues guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr. used to tell the story of touring with Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters in 1955, traveling east from Chicago. Diddley started off the tour as a fresh-faced opening act, but by the time they reached Atlantic City he was headlining because the predominantly white audience kept yelling for “Bo Diddley.” That was when Lockwood knew that blues was over, and rock roll had arrived.
Diddley’s bravado would culminate a year later with “Who Do You Love.” Here, he walks forty-seven miles of barbed wire; wears a cobra snake for a necktie; carries a rattlesnake whip; has a chimney made from a human skull; and, in a flash of nihilism that wouldn’t find an equal until gangsta rap, he claims, “Just twenty-two, and I don’t mind dying.” Its pure, swaggering menace would inspire covers by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, the Band and the Yardbirds. Where Chuck Berry was a sleek convertible full of teenagers speeding down the road at night, Diddley was a gnarled, ancient medicine stick, connecting the dots between ritual African music, coded slave communication and the street games of the ghetto.
Oddly, despite the influence of his songs on the generations of rock to follow, Diddley’s biggest chart success was a novelty, “Say Man.” (A similar fate would befall Chuck Berry, whose only Number One was also a novelty, the bawdy, unrocking “My Ding-A-Ling.”) “Say Man” and its follow-up, “Say Man, Back Again,” were litanies of “yo’mama”-style jokes that originated when the Chess brothers recorded Diddley and Green goofing off in the studio playing the dozens.
In the decades since the Fifties, Diddley has lived several lifetimes. He moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C., where he built a home studio and recorded his Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger album. Later, he moved to Albuquerque, where he worked as a deputy sheriff.
As new trends supplanted the Chess sound, the label pushed Diddley on each one — the Twist, surf rock — with diminishing returns. The British Invasion gave him a much-needed revival, and he returned to festivals and stages. As funk took over in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Diddley renamed himself the Black Gladiator and recorded a series of funky albums that have become cult favorites, recently reissued as Drive By Bo Diddley.
Since the Seventies, he has had more revivals than some artists have had albums, as various bands from the Stones to the Clash to George Thorogood have included him on tours or in videos. And through it all, Diddley’s music has never been uncool. Even acts that stand in direct opposition to classic rock — the Smiths, Nine Inch Nails, the Jesus and Mary Chain (who named a song “Bo Diddley Is Jesus”) — have incorporated his beat, his tremolo or his material.
One of the main factors Diddley attributes to his longevity is that he never messed with drugs or alcohol. Gloria Jolivet, who began singing with Diddley when she was seventeen, recalls, “We were doing a show in San Francisco at the Fillmore with Janis Joplin and Big Brother, and there was plenty of marijuana going around. But Bo would throw it in the trash. If anyone got onstage drunk, they were fired. He was so strict, which I didn’t appreciate at the time.”
I meet Diddley’s newest protégée in Gainesville, at another instrument store, which Diddley has been patronizing for twenty years. Her name is Tiffany. She is a twenty-year-old dentistry student, wearing a powder-blue dress.
“I started rock roll fifty years ago, and I’m trying something else,” Diddley informs me, beaming at her proudly. “She can’t sing, but there’s room in the business for people who can’t sing. When we get through with this, if it catches on, a lot of people are going to jump all over it.”
In the background, “Mona” plays over the store’s sound system. Diddley turns to Tiffany and informs her, “That’s me.”
Diddley is looking better, stronger and thinner then he did in New York, perhaps because of the diet his family and manager are trying to make him stick to. His radiant smile brightens the room.
“This is one of the kindest, gentlest people you’ll ever meet in your life,” the store’s owner says, speaking of Diddley. “It’s unbelievable how many free concerts he’s done for charity and the Just Say No program.”
Diddley smiles modestly and suggests we adjourn to the house he is renting. His real home is a large property with its own small lake in Archer, fifteen miles outside the city. He originally bought the house so could enjoy her racehorses. But, at present, he is living in exile.
“I got some shocking things I want to do before I decide to say, ‘Hey, I’m giving up,” he says as we climb into his Ford minivan, which is equipped with a Diddley-built wooden console full of drink and map holders. “But I’m not doing anything at the moment because I have a undecided problem. They call it a matrimony problem. I’m going through a separation, a divorce, whatever you want to call it.” In his deep, rich voice, Diddley explains that he has decided to lay low creatively, in case the courts decide that his fourth wife should have a piece of any new project.
We pull into the driveway of an old white house. Lola, a white pit bull missing an eye, greets us.
There is only one item in his hallway: an overturned washtub with a three-foot board screwed into the side. Running between the center of the washtub and the top of the board is a nylon string. Diddley steps up to the washtub bass and begins picking at the string, adjusting the pitch by tilting the plank backward and forward. Whenever he gets a particularly resonant sound he chuckles happily. We are in Bo Diddley’s playpen now.
In the first room off the hallway is a giant amplifier, at least six feet long, that Diddley made. It sits next to another one of his inventions. “It’s a board game,” Diddley says, gesturing to a giant wooden tabletop covered with squares of writing. “The Bo Diddley Horse Racing Game.”
“If I put the guitar down today or tomorrow, I would not starve,” Diddley continues as he leads me to the next room, his studio. “I know too many damn things. I can decorate. I can cook. I can do electronics and wire any kind of electric shit. I can figure anything out.”
Leaning against the studio wall is a gorgeous square guitar made of blond wood and covered with eagle stickers. His picks, which he rarely uses, are coated with Velcro and attached to a Velcro patch on the side of the side of the instrument. Next to it is a guitar with a misshapen head that’s at least two feet long. Inset into this surreal instrument is a CD player, which has been rigged to play backing tracks while the guitar is played.
“I built that motherfucker, but I built that motherfucker too big,” Diddley says, sighing.
He sits behind a desk strewn with recording equipment: a Mackie mixing board, a sixteen-track reel-to-reel recorder, a cassette deck, keyboards and half a dozen effects. On a nearby shelf there are dozens of boxes of Ampex tapes stacked in unwieldy piles, dated from 1958 to the present. “See all that over there,” Diddley says, gesturing lazily at the shelf. “That’s stuff people ain’t heard before.”
Diddley turns on a drum machine and picks up a microphone. What follows is a rare insight into the musical mind that helped invent rock roll. His performance lasts nearly two hours.
The man making music before me is not the Bo Diddley I’ve seen onstage countless times, leading a band through classic blues and rock numbers, with a little rap mixed in. This Diddley is a low-fidelity genius, a do-it-yourself musical tinkerer, a cross between a children’s entertainer and a scatological comedian.
The drum machine churns out a “Rock the Bells”-style beat as Diddley raps verse after verse of a nursery rhyme involving the three little pigs, who call Bo Diddley for help when confronted by a big bad wolf. His voice, laden with effects to sound like a chorus of four, booms through the speakers. “I don’t care who you are,” he sings as the wolf. “Bo Diddley, I’ll eat you and your guitar.”
Without changing the beat, he begins rapping dirty rhyming verses. “Two old maids was playing in the sand/One told the other, ‘I wish you was a man’/One said, the other said, ‘I ain’t no man/But hold still baby, I’ll do the best I can.”
In another verse, a rooter tells a bow-legged duck, “You ain’t good-looking, but you sure can doo-doo-doo,” He covers up a swear word in each couplet with innocent singing or an innocuous rhyming word.
When Diddley finishes, he tells me, “That’s the stuff I used to do as a kid.”
I ask if I’ve been treated to a version of the bawdy prototype for his first single, “Bo Diddley,” the legendary, unissued song “Uncle John.”
“Yes,” he says.
“You should consider putting that version out sometime.”
He shakes his head on the negative axis. “It’s too rough,” he says firmly.
He picks up his blond guitar and launches into an even more obscene song, “Dirty Mother Fuyer,” which seems to be his version of the ribald blues made popular by Roosevelt Sykes and Memphis Minnie. “You’ve been drinking/Come home a-stinking/You’re a dirty mother fuyer/ You’re a dirty, lying mother fuyer.”
I want to record these performances, or at the very least ask him more about the song and their origins. But he resists my every attempt. This is a performance solely for entertainment, not the history books. At the end of each line or guitar flourish, Diddley searches my face for a smile. If he doesn’t find one, he laughs himself, in an attempt to let me know it’s OK to do the same. Like a stand-up comedian, he needs a reaction — and he’ll do anything for it.
That’s when I realize that his music was invented simply out of the need for a reaction. That’s why the songs are so immediately gripping. They shake you awake with a beat. If that doesn’t work, the tremolo will shock your system or the maracas will rattle you like straight caffeine. And just in case you don’t respond to music, he makes sure the lyrics are memorable. In this case, to make sure he has my attention, he starts rapping about me.
“I know a guy, a guy named Neil/He come way down here to hang out with me/He’s got a little article and he’s gonna write it right . . . /Bo, Bo Diddley, do my thing/ Gonna take him back to hear me sing.”
After this comes the coup de grace. Diddley hits a button on a sampler, and a screaming heavy-metal guitar riff rips through the speakers. He starts yowling in a mock-metal style, but he’s not feeling it. So he opens a drawer and removes a wig of long black hair. for the first time — tight gray curls — then promptly puts the Nikki Sixx wig on and starts mock-headbanging as he screams lyrics with new, committed venom.
“People would be surprised at what I know how to do,” he explains afterward as he removes the wig and replaces his hat.
He then patches his instrument into a guitar synthesizer and begins playing Bach on the strings, followed by minor-key orchestrations of his songs that sound more goth than blues. I get the feeling that Diddley could play forever.
Tiffany arrives, and the two perform a new song in which a woman gives a man a sound tongue-lashing. Diddley has evidently written a song for her that involves play-acting rather than singing.
Diddley doesn’t like to reminisce about the past. He prefers to look forward, to talk about these home-studio experiments, the relatives he is training to carry on his sound and protégés like Tiffany.
The only thing holding him back is his health. Besides diabetes, which he developed last year, he broke two discs in his back seven year, ago. “We aren’t put together that great,” he says as I leave him and Tiffany to rehearse, “Down here” — he points to his legs — “I can’t stand no more weight than the top of my body. But from here up” — he slides his thick hand up along his torso — “I’m not to be messed with.”
He grins broadly and shows me to the door. When I call three hours later, he is still in the studio. I can hear the lyrics “Run, monkey run/The baboon got a gun” in the background when his granddaughter answers the phone. Some patient producer needs to get to that studio and do some recording, because beyond the Bo Diddley seen onstage at blues- and rock-revival shows, there lies another performer. And this one, who sounds more low-fi, crude and experimental than Chuck Berry and Little Richard, still has something new to say.