Max Kay Meets Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley tells Max Kay a bed-time story
The young guy at the hotel reception desk has never heard of Bo Diddley, perhaps not too startling a fact considering this hotel employee has no whiskers on his chin. He does however, agree to show me up to the room where the 54-year old Bo Diddley has parked his 'ass' for a one nighter at the Venue.
On entering the room, to my horror, I'm greeted by the sight of the hulking framework they call 'Uncle Bo', stretched out in bed. 'Hi, watcha smokin?' offers Diddley as an alternative to 'hello'.
After enquiring if I'm supposed to climb into the other twin bed to consummate this interview, Bo slides up his bed displaying his whiter than white vest, and remains in this position for the entire interview, pausing once in a while (as if in deep thought) merely to bury his other hand beneath the bedclothes in order to scratch his private parts.
As a contemporary of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley almost single-handedly developed a basic jungle rhythm that was in turn copied by Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and a few more besides. So you thought Bow Wow Wow were touched by a stroke of genius? Read on...
Bo Diddley has played professionally for about 28 years, learning and sharpening up his art on street corners until he turned professional at age 25.
'I listened to John Lee Hooker and a lot of blues,' says Bo, 'but only when I was on my own, my mother didn't allow that stuff in her house. I came out of a very religious background, and I'm the odd one (sniggers) in the family. I'm the one that wouldn't go to school — stubborn as they call it.'
The famous Bo Diddley riff came about for one very good reason.
'I just got tired of hearin' the same crap every day and I decided to sit down and perfect something else, and I struck upon that. It felt good and I kept on doin' it and then I wrote some lyrics to go with it (Check out the Bo Diddley Cut by of course Bo D.) which fell right into place.'
Here Bo treats me to a superb rendition of the song, unaccompanied by his guitar, to demonstrate the difference between this and an earlier tune called Ham Bone which certain people believed Bo Diddley used as a model for his song.
"MOST ENTERTAINERS START OFF DOING ALL KINDS OF WORK, FROM SWEEPING THE STREETS...."
Although Diddley was copied himself, at a later date, by bands like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, he feels no animosity towards them, reserving whatever he has for the likes of music publishers.
'I don't look for a dime from people like the Rolling Stones... I look for publishers. When they collect from people, the publishers are the ones who're supposed to pass it on to Bo Diddley. I've never ever received a penny from royalties in Europe from whoever had what, and that's a big mystery. All I know is that the bands who did pay royalties paid the right people, and I've been lookin' and lookin' and lookin' to trace all of this stuff down. I trusted a lot of people and I can't name any names because I got a thing going on with this whole situation. The Rolling Stones don't owe me anything, it's who they paid.'
Sensing that it's anecdote time, I lever Bo Diddley for any memories of those early tours he did with the Stones, and Bo looks puzzled.
'I've never played with the Stones! ... Oh — no they... erm... wait a minute... was it...? Yeah I believe it was... I think I did... Hey... it's been a long time, man!' Since Bo's memory appears to be failing him, I try to arouse the man from his slumbers by demanding to know if he'd be half the man he is without that famous guitar?
'The gittar (as Bo pronounces it) is nothing without me, y'know. That's the trademark, it's square, and it identifies me from anybody else.'
Bo Diddley's original gittar (sorry, Bo) was made by Gretsch to Diddley's specifications, after he'd built a number of them himself. The latest is made in Australia, and carries a number of effects such as wah-wah and echo built into the body of the instrument. The guitar is parked at the foot of the bed with the also famous hat perched behind my shoulder. The hat looks well worn, and the guitar? Not surprisingly, he refuses to pull it out of the case and show me, even though I assure him I'm not spying part-time for the Japanese. No, Bo's been ripped off before and he's too smart for a honky English journalist like myself.
'This one in the case is built by Chris Kingman in Brisbane,' says Bo with a smirk on his face. 'You'll see it tonight.'
"WITH ALL THE EARLY CHESS RECORDS WE JUST WENT IN AND DID IT AND THAT WAS IT."
In his time Bo Diddley has been a truck driver, a boxer and even spent 2½ years in New Mexico as a deputy sheriff, never once believing that one day he'd be a star.
'Most entertainers start off doing all kinds of work, from sweeping the streets to cleaning bathrooms and anything you can think of, and a lot of people think that they've never had it hard. I am very much down on the cats who don't pay any dues. A dude learns how to play a guitar, and they put a couple of synthesisers behind him and the cat is a millionaire in six months. I was made to go through the ropes, in other words the school of hard knocks. And not just me because I'm black. I've seen some white cats who had to go through the same stuff. Electronics has put a lot of people out there. Snatch their synthesisers and a lot of that stuff from a lot of these guys... and you've got nuthin'.
This doesn't, however, mean that Bo Diddley hates synthesisers, 'I've never used them on recordings, but I probably will. If that's what it's gonna take to stay out there, you're damn right I'm gonna use them... Get me a whole stack of 'em y'know (laughs)...'
Not only has the music changed since Diddley's career began, the way of recording that music has also changed.
'With all the early Chess records we just went in and did it and that was it. Today, guy's spend a lot of time drinking coffee and smokin' cigarettes, and er... punchin' in this and that and the other... and that's where they make a guy sound like a million dollars... Machines ... If I write a tune and go into the studio with it, I don't want nobody messin' with it. I'm likely to come out of the studio and go home and learn the thing all over again, because you got twenty guys hangin' around in there with different ideas, but if it flops, you're the one that's carrying the bag. People never look at the guy that was over there tellin' you what you should do. You're the one that got the monkey on your back because it's your name, and they don't see no further than your name, and that might be my problem. When I did the 20th Anniversary of Rock and Roll, I think it was for RCA, I didn't like anything that went on in that session — NUTHIN'. All the other different people were put on the session, it was great, but I should have known about it before I went in there. When I saw a pressing of it, I seen all these people on it, I said 'where did they come from, they wasn't in the studio when I was there,' you understand what I'm saying? The thing stepped too far out from Bo Diddley. If I go for a contract to another record company they say, 'man, he aint got it no more'. All they know is the album that didn't go, and they don't wanna take no chance. Now that's what I had to go through, and I'm trying to live that shit down now, ya understand? Some cat brought the tracks down to me, and I can't even play none of the stuff. I said, 'I don't wanna do any of this stuff, this is not me, man, and I don't wanna rip off my fans... I only had trouble with one record company, and that was the one that signed me in the beginning and I don't wanna talk about that...'
Bo's going full steam now and I pry a little more into that guitar he refuses to show me. Why the hell have a guitar made in Australia when one is simply surrounded by a nation of luthiers?
"WHAT I'M DOIN' IS SELF TAUGHT, I'M NOT WHAT I CALL A GUITAR PLAYER"
'That's a good question,' says Bo Diddley. 'I liked the way you asked that. I believe you would name it guitar economy. I could get a guitar made in the States. How long would it last me? You don't just jump out of the clear blue sky and start building guitars. You gotta have a little time to find out what would do, what kinda wood don't warp on you, and you go through years of this. Then you talk about price, guys want too much money to build an instrument. Hey, I used to make em... guys now want three or four thousand dollars! For what?'
Bo's extremely large hands disappear below the sheets once more and I'm wondering if he's working on a new riff down there. As a regular working musician Bo Diddley travels incredibly lightly, with just the one instrument.
'It's gettin' ridiculous. How many guitars can you play in forty five minutes or an hour? It don't make any sense and I wish people would cut it out. Who needs all these amplifiers and all this crap? You don't need none of it, a couple of spare amps, extra skins for the drums, a foot pedal, and that's it. Who needs all this other shit? If the keyboard breaks down, I'm gonna take it to the shop and get it fixed, ya understand? Money goes faster than it comes in, it don't take ya long to spend $100,000.'
Bo Diddley revels in and appreciates the adulation he normally receives, but at the same time, he's under no illusions about his standing in the rock world.
'I got people fooled, I got 'em pullin' their hair out because they can't figure out what I'm doin'. What I'm doin' is self taught, I am not what I call a guitar player. I am a showman. The hands is quicker than the eyes...'
What Bo does admit to is a preference for Fender amps — he's even a friend of the old boy. Again I press him for a close-up shot of the famous square guitar and he refuses point blank. 'No,' he drawls.
Bo Diddley looks too healthy for a man who's been on the road almost 30 years, and pinpoints his healthy appearance to an abstinence from drugs, and only a little drink. 'I am not out on the streets chasin' chicks — birds, ya know? I get my rest, I got a family at home, two beautiful daughters and a wife.' Before I left Bo to continue the sleep I'd so rudely interrupted, I begged him for a few hints.
'Learn the basics, because when all the electronics go off what do you do, where do you go from there? Learn the basics and you can work anytime.'
Before we exchanged pleasantries and parted company, Bo Diddley gave vent to his feelings on a number of subjects ranging from the invention of the fuzz box, to drugs and back to record companies. The fuzz box apparently 'burst my bubble' after spending 20 years perfecting a clean sound. Drugs (or dummy dust, as he like to call them) he doesn't recommend to anybody, and record companies?
'It's a damned shame that you trust people and they do this to ya, now I'm back for what should've been comin' a long time ago...'
Interview by Max Kay
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