The man who put the rock into Gibraltar (no 'roll', numbskull, into 'roll').
Bo Diddley, the man who put the 'rock' in 'rock & roll', meets Jon Lewin, who didn't.
Living Legend — I hate the phrase, but in this case it's the only one that will do. They call him 'The Man Who Put The Rock In Rock & Roll', and they're right. This is why.
Elias McDaniel was born on December 30th 1928. He got his first regular nightclub booking in 1951, was signed to Chess Records some four years later, took the name Bo Diddley and began having hit records — "Bo Diddley", "I'm A Man", "Who Do You Love?", "Mona", "Roadrunner", "You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover", to name a few. Do you recognise this?
Bo Diddley is best known for inventing this rhythm; verbalised, it goes 'shave and a haircut, six bits'. Try saying it.
That rhythm is one of rock's base elements, a consistent beat that runs through modern popular music: Buddy Holly borrowed it for a B-side, which the Rolling Stones turned into a hit, The Yardbirds and The Animals used it, Ry Cooder, The Grateful Dead, and now even The Smiths. Its roots lie in an old blues song called "Hambone", but Bo has turned it round and made it his. And even if that had been his only contribution, it would have been enough to ensure Bo Diddley his wings in the rock & roll hagiography.
But it's not his only contribution: Bo Diddley is a great R&B performer, with a fine voice (an almost Sam Cooke gospel tone), and dominating stage presence, as his recent gigs around Britain confirmed.
If you're as naive as I am, you'll probably expect life as a rock & roll legend to be a graceful maturing into the Autumn of life, with the occasional gig and recording session, all of it bathed in the warm glow of the fans' adulation. Sadly, it's not like that at all for Bo Diddley, as I discovered backstage at Dingwalls last month, when I asked him how often he toured.
THE MAN: "I work practically all the time; I make a few bucks; I pay the bills."
THE BOY: Do you get much in royalties?
THE MAN: "No royalties. I haven't seen a royalties cheque since 19... burble urble."
THE BOY: So it's actually through gigging you make your living?
THE MAN: "Right."
THE BOY: Do you find it hard work or do you still enjoy it?
THE MAN: "I enjoy it, but it's hard work — there ain't nothing easy about it."
THE BOY: Do you feel bitter about the music business, about people ripping you off?
THE MAN: "I have a hell of a manager now, beautiful person, honest man, Mr Marty Otelsberg, but the people who came before him, they SUCKED. Y'under stand? And everybody that I previously dealt with obviously was thieves, cos they got something I ain't."
THE BOY: Like your money?
THE MAN: "Uh-huh."
THE BOY: What about the bands?
THE MAN: "The bands had nothing to do with it — the bands that did my material never got paid. Buddy Holly & The Stones: these people paid tribute to me by doing my material — I don't feel bitter about the other musicians."
THE BOY: Is there any advice you could offer young bands?
THE MAN: "Advice? Don't trust nobody, that's it. Don't trust nobody... 'cept mummy and daddy."
THE BOY: So what are you doing now?
THE MAN: "I've just started working on a new album. I've been waiting on a record deal with a company in the States, but I'm not sure that's gonna happen — I'll believe that stuff when I see it. I've waited before for three years when someone promised they wanted to do a record deal, and I don't intend to wait three years more.
When it's finished, it'll be on my new company, Bad Dad Productions, out of the United States. It'll be available through the mail order thing. I'm gonna have fliers (handbills) that I give out at gigs. I'm gonna have a new address, (Contact Details). I've just moved from one side of Gainesville to the other — I'm still living in the same area."
THE BOY: Will they be new songs, or are you re-recording old favourites?
THE MAN: "All new songs on the album. Old songs have been recorded once and that's enough. If I redo them... you have a tendency to update them, and I play them on the stage updated enough and screwed up enough, so I think the originality should stay where it's at, and let me get on with new compositions. It's kinda hard to duplicate what I did 30 years ago."
THE BOY: You announced one of the new songs in the set...
THE MAN: "That was 'Ginny Ginny Ginette', that's gonna be on the new album... Don't necessarily want to talk about the new label as it might not materialise. If I do anything over here it'll probably be with New Rose in Paris, who did my last album, 'Ain't It Good To Be Free?'. We didn't make no money out of it hardly, looks like, but it kept my name before the public."
THE BOY: How do you find other musicians to play with overseas?
THE MAN: "Well, some of them I find good, and some of them... can't hang. Oh, you mean how do I get hold of them? That's not my problem. The promoters find them. The current band? S'beautiful... but we had another drummer which quit yesterday, that's very unprofessional... what's that dude's name, that you hired, that drummer that quit? Roger Nutting. That's very unprofessional to up and leave his fellow musicians hanging... you should think more of the people you're with, to give them some kind of warning..."
Bo still plays a square guitar — no longer the Gretsches that were his trademark in the sixties, but a Kinman, made to his own specifications by Chris Kinman in Brisbane, Australia. It's got built-in vibrato, flange, chorus, and graphic equalisers, though The Man is very cagey as to the exact details.
The next time Bo Diddley circumnavigates the globe (1987, probably), go and see him. He's a great entertainer, and a fine musician, truly one of the originals. In the mean time, look out his albums in the Chess Masters series; you won't be disappointed.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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