Why Bo Diddley matters

Thursday’s Thoughts


Last month Bo Diddley would have turned 85 and I remember the first time I ever shared a stage with him. Well, I didn’t actually share a stage as much as I shared the floor, watching him perform. But I felt just as privileged.

It was one night almost 20 years ago when a friend Brian and I got wind that the great Bo Diddley would be playing the Blues Ship, some hole in the wall in Ybor City in about an hour’s time. Not ones to pass up the chance to see rock royalty, we jumped in my aging yet trusty Mustang and sped off to make it in time.

A late-blooming concert goer, I’d only been to handful of shows by the time I was in my early 20s, and all of them were to see rock gods whom I’d idolized in high school. But by the time I caught up with these acts, they needed football stadiums for their shows— the last time they played small clubs, the world was staring down the barrel of possible nuclear annihilation with the Cuban missile crisis.

This was my chance to see a bona-fide legend up close, I thought, as we climbed a dark, narrow stairway leading up to the bar. A primal noise pulsated from above as the foggy, bluish light oozed down to meet us—it was like we were ascending to some foreboding place of otherworldly mojo.

In we walked and there he stood, dressed in a burgundy V-neck sweater, black trousers, cowboy boots and his one-of-a-kind bowler hat, conjuring his personal brand of rhythmical hoodoo. To be sure, this was no football stadium. It wasn’t even an arena. Hell, I don’t think it wasn’t even the size of your local Chipotle Grill. And Mr. Bo Diddley, a titan of blues and rock and one of the most influential performers ever, wasn’t even on a stage. He and his small band performed from a corner in the bar, on equal footing with the rest of us.

As I watched him run through his set, something felt off to me. Exuding the presence of an old, grizzled soldier who had been through the war, he seemed to be carrying some weighty, residual resentment slung around his shoulder like an extra 200 pound guitar.

Perhaps he was bitter about the fact that at his age, he still had to sing for his supper. It’s common knowledge that Ellas McDaniel—better known as Bo Diddley—believed he was given the short end of the dollar bill by record company executives back in the day, who he claimed deprived him out of so many deserved royalties.

But make no mistake, he was very workmanlike with his trademark rectangular guitar as he played the virile, square-jawed songs that helped lay the very foundation of rock and roll like “Roadrunner” and “Crackin’ Up.” And he was separated by only a few yards from the sparse audience, as though he were performing in someone’s living room. Yet I remember thinking that his playing to such a select crowd was all so wonderful yet in a way, sad.

Diddley seemed to perk up when he played some newer, experimental beat music with the help of some knobs and buttons on his custom-built guitar. And though we all listened politely, it was clear that most of us wanted the old Bo Diddley we knew to reappear.

After the show my friend talked our way backstage into the dressing room where we were allowed to have a few words with the man himself. Brian actually pulled up a chair next to Bo Diddley and talked for a couple minutes or so before getting some pictures with him. Sheepishly grinning like an idiot, I just hovered in the doorway the entire time until it was clear our time was up.

Bo Diddley was turning his back when I saw my chance and took it. I walked quickly up to him, gently put my hand on his shoulder and asked,

“Mr. Diddley, one more?” He obliged and posed with me, and at the last second opened his mouth wide and pointed playfully as the camera clicked. Maybe he’s not so dour after all, I remember thinking. Approachable was another word that came to mind.

I often pictured my rock heroes at the time like the Stones and The Who flying in solid gold airplanes and residing in enormous mansions with moats. A commoner like me could never approach them or hope to see them play without a big pit guarded by a string of beefy, scowling security guys between us (at best) or without 50,000 people between us (at worst). But all these bands had a debt to pay to Mr. McDaniel.

They’d all listened to, studied and emulated him and other American rockers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins, to name a few. And they’d made so much money in the ensuing decades doing it that their great grandchildren will come out of the womb wearing Louis Vuitton sunglasses. But way back when they were just starting out, this American music was a call-to-arms for them to pick up guitars, form a band and change the world. And laying down the rhythm to it all was the ‘Bo Diddley’ sound.

Boom-a-boom-a boom, a boom-boom! It is a distinct primordial beat—dangerous, hypnotic and steady as a locomotive. Ancient yet fresh, it sounds like it originated from a very dark but very familiar place within all of us. Boom-a-boom-a boom, a boom-boom!

And where someone like Berry chose to turn his brand of R & B into accessible, joyous music to capture the white audience through radio airplay, Bo Diddley kept an undertone of something sinister in his rhythms. Underrated and underappreciated, he was not as well-known as some of his peers. (Even years on, during the ‘90s when my brother-in-law was on a small plane to Crested Butte, Colo., he looked over to the old guy seated across the aisle. “Excuse me,” he ventured, “but aren’t you Bo Diddley?” Diddley’s face broke into a smile as he said, “It’s about time somebody recognized me!”)

That night at the Blues Ship I was awed by the humility it must take to perform in front of, say, 100 people or so, when you have toiled to lay down the track on which so many acts would ultimately streak toward superstardom. And here was Bo, still plugging away.

The second and last time I saw him was in 2005 at the State Theater in St. Pete. And though he was on an actual stage, he performed the entire show seated but near the lip of the stage, close to the 200 or so people who turned up. By that point not only was the man edging into octogenarian territory, but diabetes had claimed part of his foot. Even so, he had aged gracefully and still looked kingly seated onstage, with his ever-present distinctive hat positioned regally atop his head. Yet at the same time he was within reach, connecting with us that night as he had done with generations before us—intimately.

Not only did he trot out the familiar warhorses like “I’m a Man” and the deathless “Who Do You Love?” but even led us through a sing-a-long of a song in progress (I’m pretty sure it had a woman’s name for a title). And through the evening he seemed to have made peace with the fact that he will go out playing to small but adoring crowds, and took the time to talk and joke with us. He seemed to be making up the play list as he went along, knowing he had earned the right to do his shows any way he wanted.

But come to think of it, that had always been the case with him. Back in 1955, Bo Diddley was to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show and was expected to play “Sixteen Tons,” a ditty that Tennessee Ernie Ford had made popular. But Bo Diddley, one of the original rebels, didn’t want to play a Tennessee Ernie Ford song; he wanted to play his song.

And that’s exactly what he and his band did right after they’d been introduced, stomping into the pulsating beat of “Bo Diddley,” his masterpiece of hambone rhythm complete with maracas that sound like the Devil snickering. Sullivan stood fuming and helpless, no doubt feeling double-crossed by this young upstart who should have been grateful to be on his show at all. Sullivan was an institution, but just like that Bo Diddley swaggered in, swung his mighty guitar and smashed a huge hole in the wall of convention through which countless bands climbed for years to come.

In a way, I see a healthy measure of Bo Diddley not only in the supernova British acts I used to love, but in every noise band thrashing about for beer money in sticky-floored dive bars. Seeing him those two nights made me realize that whether we are journeymen at our chosen crafts or just taking our first steps, there’s a touch of Bo in everyone—musician or not that is doing his thing, his own way, and no other way will do.

And it didn’t hurt that he drove this point home with a wicked beat, to boot. Boom-a-boom-a boom, a BOOM-BOOM!

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