We all know Diddley
Bo keeps cooking onstage, as long as he can dodge those lightning bolts
As he sees it, rock 'n' roll owes Bo Diddley a lot. But unfortunately he hasn't been able to collect.
While that's bad news for the 74-year-old victim of rock 'n' roll economics, who reckons he's been shorted between $6 million and $10 million in royalties from his old days at Chess Records, it's great news for his fans.
Reason is, he's still on the road. Oh, he's slowed down a bit and tries to play only on weekends, but even he doesn't know how many gigs he'll do this year.
'I'm still working and still being accepted, and that's great,' he says by phone from his home near Gainesville, Fla. Sounds of grandchildren running around and screaming can be heard in the background as Diddley talks nervously about approaching thunderstorms.
'It's been raining all day. I just came in from the studio,' he says, referring to the trailer on his 76-acre spread where he goes to write and play early each morning. 'I hate to be out there when there's lightning around. I don't even like to be on the phone.'
Diddley can expect better weather when he headlines the 7th Annual Columbia RiverFest in Hood River. He'll follow zydeco locals the New Iberians, the Rose City Kings blues band and the Jesus Presley dance band.
The festival is a daylong celebration of Hood River's connection to the Columbia River with a parade led by the Lions of Batucada. And there's actually something to celebrate: The windsurfing boom has given this old town an adrenaline shot in the heart, similar to Uma Thurman's in 'Pulp Fiction.'
Diddley is an ideal headliner for such an extrovert outdoors event. Ever since he burst onto the music scene in 1955 with his syncopated 'shave and a haircut, two bits' beat and sly, wisecracking songs such as 'Hey, Bo Diddley' and 'I'm a Man' he has defined wild rock 'n' roll frontmen.
He struts, he preens, he bellows and grins in a huge black Stetson hat with a gold eagle on the front, a big belt buckle and outrageous homemade guitars. And make no mistake, he can play. He was enough of an electronics whiz in the 1950s to develop tremolo, reverb and heavy distortion, effects that seem so familiar now, you never pause to wonder who started using them as everyday musical language.
But everybody who took his 'boom ba-boom boom, boom boom' beat owes him. Perhaps even more than Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Diddley's fingerprints are all over the music that's followed him, combining black rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones both had hits with 'Not Fade Away' and the Stones covered Bo Diddley's 'Hey, Mona' on their first album. His song 'Who Do You Love' has been covered by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks (who later became the Band, minus Hawkins), the Doors and that enthusiastic plunderer of Diddley material, George Thorogood. English rockers the Pretty Things took their name from a Diddley tune.
He's been given some recognition Ñ the first time the Beatles came to America, John Lennon said he was looking forward to meeting Diddley. And he was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1987 and given a lifetime Grammy in 1998.
Diddley was born Dec. 30, 1928, as Otha Ellas Bates in southwestern Mississippi. He was raised by his mother's first cousin Gussie McDaniel and changed his name to Ellas Bates McDaniel when the family moved to Chicago during the Depression.
There are all kinds of stories about where he got the name Bo Diddley and how he developed his signature rhythm.
Diddley has said at different times he got his name from a harmonica player in Mississippi, from children he played with in the Delta and at grammar school in Chicago, which is the story he tells on the phone.
The best story about developing the beat is one he told recently about trying to work out the Gene Autry song, 'I've Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle' on the guitar. A drummer friend helped him out, and the 'Bo Diddley beat' was born. You have to admit that Diddley's story is a lot more fun than all that academic pontification about Cuban-African rhythmic roots.
Diddley says he'll be playing his old favorites for the crowd.
'I still have as much fun onstage. I like playing the old songs, and I'll have a few new surprises as well,' he says. 'As long as people come and see me, I'll be satisfied.'
Two of his four children play music, he says. One has a band called Monkeys Striking Matches, and the other concentrates on gospel.
'I can do it, too. I'm thinking about doing some gospel,' he says thoughtfully. Then he kicks back into his '50s frontman mode.
'You tell everybody I'm coming! I want everybody looking! Tell everybody 'Hi!' and God bless America!'