Rock-and-roll pioneer Bo Diddley died of heart failure June 2 at his home in Florida. He was 79 years old.
Born Otha EllasBates in Mississippi in 1928, in the ’50s, Diddley adapted the blues and folk music of his native state and combined them with African rhythms to devise the trademark rhythmic-guitar beat that was later given his name. That rhythm laid the groundworkfor many rock and roll performers and songs including Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones (“Not Fade Away”), Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”), the Strangeloves (“I Want Candy,” covered by ’80s new-wave band Bow Wow Wow), and U2 (“Desire”). There are myriad examples.
Look for a complete remembrance in the September issue of Vintage Guitar.
Bo Diddley Is A Conversationalist
“Retro, my ass,” opined an acquaintance of this writer. “This thing rocks!”
He was referring to the latest audio offering from the redoubtable Bo Diddley, whose unique music (not to mention unique, percussive musical beat) has been on the popular music scene for over 40 years. Diddley’s recent album, A Man Amongst Men, is a tour dé force produced by British veteran Mike Vernon, and the recording features guest appearances by Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Richie Sambora, the Shirelles, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Jimmie Vaughan, among others.
Then there are the unique guitars Bo Diddley has brandished throughout his career. In a recent conversation from his home in central Florida, the venerable veteran discussed his music and instruments, and one of his more eloquent opinions concerned the current rap entertainment phenomenon:
Vintage Guitar: You’re one of the few musicians, if not the only musician, who has a beat named after him, and one profile I read speculated it was something you picked up on in Mississippi and “refined” once you moved to Chicago.
Bo Diddley That’s not what happened. I was a very small child when I left Mississippi, and I came up with that beat by beating and banging on a guitar when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I was trying to come up with something that I wanted to hear on drums.
What was your reaction when the “Bo Diddley beat” turned up on songs by other performers? I’m thinking of songs like “Not Fade Away” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
I didn’t like it at first, because I wasn’t educated in understanding the importance of other people copying your material. When I found out it was good for Bo Diddley, I said: “Hey, copy it of ‘em!” (chuckles). I thought I could go to the bank with royalties, but that never happened.
One classic black and white video clip from the ’50s shows you on the right, and Jerome Green is on the left with his maracas; I think you’re singing “Bo Diddley.” That looks like a Harmony Stratotone you’re playing.
That’s a Gretsch Jet Firebird. I liked the color of that guitar, its shape, and the neck. I used to have a Harmony, but I don’t remember ever playing it onstage. Not long after that, Gretsch built that square guitar for me, and they ended up building three or four different styles I designed.
Of the guitars you’ve designed over the years, which style came first?
The square guitar. I made one when I was a teenager; its pickup was the part of a Victrola record player where the needle went in. I clamped it to the metal tailpiece to pick up the vibrations. I wasn’t able to buy electric guitars back then, so I built them, and they worked pretty good. Somebody stole the square guitar I built, but in 1958 Gretsch made me one with DeArmond pickups. They only made one authorized square guitar, but I’ve seen other unauthorized models out there. I’m not sure how that happened; maybe it had something to do with the times when the Gretsch company was closed up.
I thought my manager had copyrighted all my designs, but that wasn’t the case. One teardrop-style I designed looked a lot like an Ovation model that came out a while back.
Then there’s the style your fans call the “Cadillac” guitar; you called it the “Jupiter Thunderbird.”
Gretsch made two of those for me, and then about 15 years ago, Tom Holmes, from Tennessee, made some. He’s a fantastic builder, and he makes fantastic pickups, too.
I’m still designing instruments. I designed one called the “Drumstick;” I built one for my daughter, and I have two here. You play it like a drum, and I’m looking at trying to get it on the market. There are times when I get tired of listening to the same old instrument sounds, and what I’ve been designing sounds different. I’m still coming up with ideas. When you quit thinking, it’s all over!
The square guitar you’ve been seen with recently has an “Unleaded Fuel Only” sticker and humbucking pickups.
That was made by Kid Guitars, in Japan. I have another square guitar that was built by Roadrunner Guitars in France; it’s a beautiful instrument.
Do you primarily use the square guitars at concerts these days?
Sometimes I’ll take something else out there, just to freak people out (chuckles). Somebody in the audiences will ask where the square guitar is, and sometimes I feel like saying “What did you come here to see, the guitar or me?”
There was some backstage dialogue heard on the soundtrack to the 1972 concert movie, Let The Good Times Roll; it sounded like the members of a doo-wop group who were worried about having to follow you onstage. One of them opined: “Bo Diddley gonna kill us!” Details?
That was the Crests. They’re my buddies, and we used to have fun like that. One group would go onstage and do such a great job that other groups on the same show would be saying things like “That ain’t fair” when the one onstage would come off. But we never really did try to outdo one another; we all just tried to put on a good show and give the audience their money’s worth…and that’s still the case for me.
You’ve also been seen on TV in more than one venture. There was the George Thorogood “Bad to the Bone” video.
Willie Mosconi was in that as well; he played “Mr. Big,” with the pretty girl, and I blew his money (laughs). George has been a good friend of mine for a long time. He and his band are fantastic entertainers.
I thought Thorogood showed some class by bringing you and Albert Collins onstage at Live Aid.
That was great. Live Aid was good, if the people we were doing it for got all of the aid, and I’ve had some very funky thoughts about that.
What about the TV ads with Bo Jackson?
It was really great that Nike gave me that kind of exposure. We had a good time doing that, but Bo Jackson can’t play guitar (laughs).
Your new album, A Man Amongst Men, has some songs on it that are straight blues tunes instead of R & B or rock. The album’s producer, Mike Vernon, had produced British blues bands like Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown back in the ’60s. Did that have anything to do with the mix of the material?
Not really. I’ve known Mike for many years, but this was the first time we’d worked together. I’ve got a repertoire of all kinds of songs; R & B songs, blues songs, funny songs, and sometimes I write songs in the studio. I think the blend of songs on this album turned out pretty good.
You see, I have to come up with the right songs on a record, and onstage as well, and after 40 years, I’ve learned how to work an audience and make people happy; I know how to handle a stage.
Are you saying that in concert, there can be a difference between a “musician” and an “entertainer that plays music?”
You have to be a showman, and that’s what I try to be on the stage, and even when I record. There’s a song on the new album called Bo Diddley is Crazy, and it’s just a basic, fun song that makes people jump. That’s what I’m talking about.
Another song on A Man Amongst Men that ought to get folks’ attention is “Kids Don’t Do It,” which has some rap on it.
That’s my grandson, Philosopher G. He’s a rapper, but he’s also an elementary school teacher. “Kids Don’t Do It” is positive rap, not dirt. One writer who heard it thought the song was lame, and I don’t understand why someone would think that, because the song is saying the right things that kids need to hear: don’t bring guns to school, stay away from drugs and gangs, get an education. I asked that writer what he thought I should say to the kids, and he couldn’t answer me, so that told me something right there.
And I can’t get this song played on the air, and that’s something I don’t understand: why the disc jockeys wouldn’t play a positive song like this, but they’ll play a lot of garbage for the kids.
Do you think rap is “music,” or perhaps “entertainment with a beat?”
It’s not music, and the young people that are doing it need to understand that. It’s a bunch of rhythm patterns with a guy who’s talking the lyrics instead of singing them. A lot of those performers can’t sing, and they’re making all kinds of money talking about carrying guns and shooting people. I knew a change was in the wind when that song called “I Shot the Sheriff” became a hit; I said: “Uh-oh, the doors are fixin’ to open for some crap to come out.”
Now they’ve got all these songs about looking under womens’ clothes. I don’t like that crap because my mama’s a woman, you know? I think it’s in bad taste and disrespectful. There’s a line in “Kid Don’t Do It” that says “Where did the respect go?”
And that line is repeated over and over, apparently for emphasis.
BD: That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be, and I can’t get that song played. Why? Not all rap is bad, but I don’t like the dirty stuff.
I have a studio, and I let other people use it, but I tell them when they first get here that regardless of what they think of me, if I find out they’re bringing any drugs in, I’m going to call the police. Scott “Scooter” Smith and I will try to help if someone’s doing something that has got decent lyrics or a positive message, but I feel as strongly about dirty lyrics as I do about some dude coming into my place drunk, or who’s been smokin’ roots or sniffin’ dummy dust.
I think that’s the first time I’ve heard the term “dummy dust” applied to the subject.
That’s because it ain’t nothin’ but dust, and ain’t nothin’ but a dummy uses it! That’s just the way I am about such things. The record companies should look take a hard look at what they’re doing, and the messages that are being sent; they need to stop thinking about the almighty dollar.
I understand that the numerous guest stars on A Man Amongst Men got in touch with you when they heard you were making an album; you didn’t have to contact them first, for the most part.
That’s right, but we lost Johnny Watson a while back. My album was the last thing he played on. He was a wonderful entertainer. I had fun playing with everyone; I’ve known the Shirelles for years, and they still sound good.
Have you done any touring to promote the album?
I did a few things overseas, and I’m thinking about doing something at home. There’s a lot of people in the younger generation who don’t know who Bo Diddley is. I want to work at home, where I started and where I created the message.
I can identify with country singers like Charlie Pride and Waylon Jennings; they can’t get their records played either, because we ain’t wearin’ tight pants no more (laughs)!
Think you’ll ever retire?
Oh yeah, eventually. I ain’t gonna stay out there until I need somebody to carry me onstage. I want to enjoy life and go at my own pace; go when I want to go and stay home when I want to stay home. I’ll still play a few gigs, but I’m not going onstage in a wheelchair. That’s not smart for any performer; I don’t care how much you love playing, you’ve got to have a little time for yourself. I’ve been going this for 40 years, so I think people can understand why someone like me would feel like that.
It’s obvious Bo Diddley’s conversational abilities (and his opinions) are as straightforward as his music. In the glut of hype and B.S. that seems to be predominant in the popular music scene these days, such plain talk should be appreciated by music fans, and it’s all the more gratifying that such pronouncements are those of a guitar mentor who’s been rockin’ on for over four decades. This Bo really knows.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June 1997 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Bo Diddley in 1966