guitar legend and mail order rock star
Bold stuff: Jon Lewin
Medium stuff: Bo Diddley
Light stuff: Peter Anderson
Bo Diddley — is he still alive?
He must be really old by now —
"Ha ha ha..."
— he can't still be gigging?
"We did two shows at Dingwalls last week, then I went to Belgium. Now I'm just relaxing, doing some interviews, breakfast TV and so on. I'll be back in the States Sunday. I still enjoy gigging."
Who's he playing with these days?
"It's too expensive to fly my band over from the States, so I've been using a British band called Main Squeeze. They're good."
Is he making records any more?
"My new lp is coming out on New Rose it's called "Ain't It Good To Be Free". I recorded one side of it with my daughters, Tammi (she plays drums and sings), and Terri Lyn (she plays keys). The other side, which is earlier, was done with Lady Bo & The Family Jewels, from San Francisco."
Hold on, isn't New Rose a French punk label? What's an old rocker — a legend, no less — doing on a punk label? He's not based in Paris, is he?
"Gainesville, Florida, is where I live. I've been selling my music mail order for a while now, because I couldn't get an American label..."
Bo Diddley's one of the corner stones of rock'n'roll — how come he doesn't have a deal in his home country?
"That's what I'd like to know — it is strange. In the business that I'm in, you get shoved into a li'l slot after the first 10/15 years (if you last that long), and they don't want to know you no more. They just shove you in the closet, and shut the door on you because they figure you don't sell records. Like that woman... y'know... what's her name... She had that hit, 'Bette Davis' Eyes'..."
"Yeah... she just got swallowed up after that. You've got to stay in there while you're there, 'cos it doesn't take the kids too long to forget."
When was your last record though, Bo?
"I didn't like that I thought it was a piece of junk. I don't know when it was... no, the kids soon forget, because there's always something else coming up behind, saying 'move out of the way so I can get my shot'. And if you ain't got something else gonna keep you there a bit longer... you get the wrong dude call hisself 'producer', and he produces the wrong stuff on you — he keeps on producing, and you're out of a gig."
Did you produce "Ain't It Good To Be Free" yourself, Mr Diddley?
"Yeah, I produced... my wife and I, we put it together."
But if you hadn't got a deal, how did you sell it?
"We just started doing our own thing. We — my wife, Kay McDaniel and I — we set up this mail order company, called Bo Kay Productions, selling the lp on cassette, T-shirts, and stuff. Say, if you wanna list, I'll give you the address: it's Bo Kay Productions, (Contact Details). And you have to send one of them International Reply Coupons."
How long have you been making records, Bo?
"Ha ha ha... I must have made 32... 36 lps by now... you lose count."
Haven't studios changed a lot since you started? Recording must be very different these days —
"Have things changed? They did — they really got funky. It makes a difference. Nowadays, there's so much other stuff to play with."
Does it make life in the studio easier?
"No. There's all these gadgets to fool around with... y'see, I'm a gadget man, and I just love to fool around. That means I take more time, playing about, trying new sounds and things..."
What about your guitars, Bo?
"I play 'em."
Yes... you're known for those weird-looking rectangular Gretsches.
"Yeah, I had three or four of them made for me. I use something different now."
Is it still the same peculiar shape?
Er... do you use any special gadgets on your guitar?
"Not on it, in it. I had it built for me in Sydney Australia; a gentleman at Rock Guitars in Sydney made it to my design. It's got a lot of knobs on it; it has all my effects built inside it, echo, chorus, flange, vibrato...
But you use a Fender Twin amp — don't you use the vibrato in that?
"Nope — vibrato's in the guitar. It's got graphic equalisers, too."
Sounds pretty strange...
"It sounds great."
...I bet it even glows in the dark.
"Well, Rick at Rock Guitars suggested that, you know, putting 'BO DIDDLEY' on the machine in LEDs. I thought it was crazy, but now I love it. The lights light up when you plug the guitar in —
A phantom power source?
"It's powered down the cord — the lights are orange, and the guitar's green-red sunburst."
It must look hideous...
"Ha ha ha."
Can I see it?
"It's put away, because it's going back to the States."
Oh. Since you can't show me your guitar, have a look at this instrument — it's brand new.
"What is that? Hey, let me have hold of it. It looks really good. What's it called?"
It's a new make of guitar called a Bond. It's got a new design of neck.
"I want one — hey, this neck's really smooth; and it plays real nice. Let me just get it in tune here...
I see you play in open tunings, Bo. Can you tell me which you use?
No? But that sounds like an Emaj7 (E, B, E, G sharp, B, E flat).
You don't want to tell me if this tuning you've just changed to is a simple EBEGBE Emin?
You're not giving anything away. Isn't that song you're playing 'Bo Diddley'?
"'Bo Diddley buy you a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring don't shine...'"
That sounds very much like a straight Emaj chord — EBEG#BE.
"'Then Bo Diddley take it to a private eye..."
That rhythm, Bo, that 'shave-and-a-haircut, six bits' rhythm — where does it come from?
"I don't usually say much for guitars, but I like this Bond — no frets, ha! Yeah, that rhythm; I just started doing it. I'd probably heard something that may have led me into it, but I don't remember anything in particular. A lot of people try to hook me up with 'Hambone', but there's all the difference in the world."
"Hambone"? What's that?
"It's an old black blues, a folk song; it's really old. I knew it when I was a kid, and it was old then. "Hambone" goes like this, with the heavy beat in the chorus, on the words 'ham bone' — chunk a chucker chunk, chucker chunk chunk..."
I can see the similarity.
"But 'Bo Diddley' goes like this — chunk a chunk a chunk, chucker chunk chunk chunk..."
I can hear the difference. 'Bo Diddley' seems to roll, almost lollop along. It's much more relaxed.
"Hey, I love this guitar. Do you think they'd make me one if I gave them the plans?"
Doesn't it feel a bit head-heavy to you?
"Hell — you should feel my guitar; no, this sits just fine. And it looks so good, too."
Talking of 'head-heavy' Bo, where did you get that hat?
"Italy. It's an I-talian policeman's hat. It's a long story where it came from."
Which you're not going to tell me?
Back in the early days, on those first records, did you use any particular techniques, such as Sun Records' Sam Philips used with Elvis Presley? Slap-back echo, things like that?
"No — all the techniques, those funny sounds, were in my fingers, that's where the noise comes from, left-hand and right-hand. Before I was a guitar player, I was a classical violinist..."
You're winding me up?
"No, Bo Diddley was a classical violinist, and that taught me about the music. Then I just picked up the guitar, started out on rock'n' roll."
Were you influenced by any of your contemporaries, like Chuck Berry, for example?
"I know Chuck of old, we're old friends. He's a bit like me in a way: he's got his one style, and he's just stuck to that over the years. Chuck is a very smart operator. He only plays that one way, but he knows his public, who they are. I didn't listen to many people though, just got on with my own thing."
Are there any of the new groups using your style that you like?
"I don't listen to much music when I'm at home. I'm busy with my group, and the business, and my cars. When I'm travelling, I listen to the radio all the time. I've got one of these Walkman things, so I listen to the radio wherever I am. There's a lot of that disco beat around at the moment, but I don't hear too many people playing 'Bo Diddley'."
Have you heard the Smiths, because they use it?
"Haven't heard them yet."
What's coming up in the future. Bo? Any plans for more gigs or records?
"Well, I've given away about 4000 of these cassettes, so I've got to try and make some money back for them. I'm just trying to tell the world that Bo Diddley is still alive and well."
And there we leave the thriving-but-unforthcoming Mr D. I saw one of his shows at Dingwalls last month, and he was GREAT. It's not often that a one-time rock'n'roll legend actually succeeds in acquitting himself on stage, 20 years on. His influence, even if it is limited to THAT rhythm, is still audible in contemporary rock music.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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