Despite what anyone wants to believe, rock & roll wasn’t created by one single man. It was the inevitable result of social changes, rapidly diminishing racial dividing lines, and the long suppressed need to cut loose and raise hell by red-blooded American teenagers. Drawing equally from country, honky-tonk, jump blues, and R&B, when rock & roll burst upon the scene in the ’50s, no one knew quite how to handle it. A lot of people were scared: preachers and parents condemned it as an insidious plot to destroy the morals of youth, and government agencies wasted valuable time trying to figure out whether or not rock songs had dirty lyrics. They said it wouldn’t last, but as we all know, it did, despite repeated attempts to shut it down.
Part of the reason rock & roll survived its early years to flourish throughout the latter part of the 20th century is simple: attitude. More than any other form of music, that cocky, devil-may-care attitude that’s inherent in all good rock & roll is what makes it so enduring. More than any of the creators of rock & roll — guys like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, guys who had attitude in spades — the man known as Bo Diddley defined what we think of as “rock & roll ‘tude.” His song titles, from to “Bo Diddley is Gunslinger,” were littered with self-references, and he has no problem telling you just how much of a badass he still is. Right out of the gate, he let us know “I’m a Man,” “500% More Man,” as a matter of fact, long before rappers boasted of their sexual prowess on wax. While no one can really claim to have created rock & roll, the wildly original Bo Diddley has probably more right to say he caught on first because, well, Bo says so.
“That’s me, I didn’t copy nobody,” he states matter of factly. “I was the first, me and Chuck (Berry). We opened the door. I was standing right there when (disc jockey) Allen Freed and the Chess Brothers were discussing this separate thing, rock & roll. Little Richard says he was first, but I came three years before him.”
As for Elvis, the man called the King of Rock & Roll? “The man was good, damn good,” Bo admits. “The only thing I’m upset with is when they say he started rock & roll. I’m crazy about him and he did a lot of great things, but he didn’t start rock & roll.”
That’s a mighty big claim to lay, but if Bo Diddley wants to say he’s the first rock & roller, he’s damn well entitled to do so. Perhaps the dates don’t quite gel like he wants, but as far as pure attitude goes, he was definitely the first. Chuck Berry wrote songs from a teenager’s perspective; Bo wrote about the adult world. He threatens in the hard blues of “Before Your Accuse Me.” He cajoles in “Dearest Darling.” He struts a mile-wide in “Road Runner,” and quite frankly, all rock & roll attitude, whether it be the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols, owe a debt to Bo Diddley.
The other aspect of Bo’s incredible originality is his mind-boggling guitar technique. Sure, Berry and Carl Perkins could flat play, but what Bo was doing was… well, it was weird. Using a shave-and-a-haircut rhythm, that now famous “bomp-ba-bomp-BOMP-bomp,” Bo opened the doors for guitar players to take the instrument to the next level. Before Jimi Hendrix was doing things the good Lord never intended for a guitar to do, Bo was exploring different techniques and sounds that laid the cornerstone for rock & roll. Everyone from Buddy Holly to the Clash to Bruce Springsteen has incorporated the “Bo Diddley Beat,” which is as recognizable as Chuck Berry’s signature opening guitar lick. Despite that, some would paint Bo a one-trick pony, obviously ignoring stuff like “Who Do You Love?,” “Before You Accuse Me,” and the countryesque “Diddy Wah Diddy.”
“I play a mixture of music I grew up around, and people didn’t know what to say about me,” Bo says. “It’s the way I think and the way I play. The people who say I only got one lick, they don’t know me. They don’t know Diddley.”
Born Elias Bates (later McDaniel) in tiny McComb, Miss., on December 30, 1928, the young man who would become Bo Diddley moved with his family to Chicago in his early teens. The Windy City was a town full of blues and R&B at the time, with giants such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James cutting their classic sides at legendary places like Chess Records. The naturally musically inclined young Bo absorbed this music, and after a short career as a Golden Gloves boxer, he began playing guitar on street corners. He’d beforehand trained as a classical violinist, but the lure of rhythm & blues was too strong. He developed a “freight train” style of playing that owes a lot to Muddy’s primal blues and John Lee Hooker’s never-ending boogie. Hooking up with longtime sidekick Jerome Green on maracas and harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, Bo released his first single for Chess Records in 1955, “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man.”
The record was a double-sided smash, and quite unlike anything heard before. The A-side set a timeless nursery rhyme to that driving beat awash with futuristic guitar tremolo and a sly winking sense of humor. “I’m a Man” was a bit more traditional, a harmonica driven bump-and-grinder built around a powerful blues riff. The end result was something neither blues nor R&B, but a wholly unique style of guitar-driven rock & roll. He reprised the formula a multitude of times in the ’50s and early ’60s, and while he never received the accolades of labelmate Chuck Berry, Bo carved out a strong niche in the pantheon of early rockers, particularly among those who would soon become rock & roll’s next generation.
It’s ironic, then, that the very people Bo had such a strong influence on would be the ones who would pretty much put him on the backburner of American pop consciousness. British Invasion bands, particularly the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Pretty Things, borrowed heavily from Bo in changing the face of rock & roll. The Stones and the Animals covered a number of Bo’s tunes, and the Pretty Things took their name from an early Bo song. It took years for Bo to receive the credit due him, and it was the actions of those same young English rockers (especially latter-day Stone Ronnie Wood) that got him his due.
“Every generation has something they look back to and get influence from, just like I did,” Bo explains. “Every nationality has it’s own culture and music. Blacks were into blues and gospel, and most of my white brothers were into country and rockabilly, and when you start integrating groups of people, you start to share culture and music.
“A lot of the stuff they call rock & roll now, they just jumped on the bandwagon because it was already rolling and we started it. A band like AC/DC is a damn good band, but they’re not rock & roll. The kids today, they don’t know what rock & roll is anymore.”
Getting credit for helping start rock & roll is nice and all, but the music business is a business, and it’s often a dirty business. Tragically, Bo knows this better than just about anyone else. Signing with Chess for what amounted to a “pay for play” contact, Bo saw little of the money his records made. It’s a familiar story among musicians of the past, particularly black musicians, and a sore point for Bo. He’s been involved in legal battles over royalties for the past two decades, and while he is admittedly a bit angry over being shafted, he simply wants the money he’s earned.
“You’d think the people who own my stuff now, and I’m not gonna name names, you’d think they’ll give me what I’m due,” he points out. “I’ve been in this business for 45 years, man, and I don’t expect to get it all back, but a little would be nice.
“I’ve been walked on royally, and I didn’t know there was so many dishonest people in this nation. You can get ripped off easier by a dude with a pen than a dude with a pistol.”
Still working at 71, Bo still has an ear tuned to the problems of America’s youth. He’s especially concerned with the urban situation, expressing his worries on tunes like “Kids Don’t Do It” with his grandson, Reese “Philosopher G” Mitchell, on Bo’s latest album, A Man Amongst Men . Bo feels a lot of parents have dropped the ball with their children, and should worry more about spending time with their kids than making money, and recent tragedies like Columbine and Pearl, Miss., bear it out.
“I wrote that song before that mess happened, so it goes to show you,” Bo says. “I’m sick of people sitting around the table just talking and not doing shit. It’s gotta stop, man, because I’m scared to go out in the street. I’m 71 and I ain’t takin’ no ass-whippin’. We’re a nation of hypocrites sometimes, and we should let a child be a child for the childhood years.
“Parents, rock & roll… but police your kids. You kick a little booty, that mess will stop.”
Still and all, despite all the legal problems, lack of credit, and just the hardships of nearly 45 years in the rock & roll business, Bo Diddley is pleased with what all he’s accomplished. No modern rock & roller worth his or her guitar strings can ignore the debt they owe Bo Diddley, and he’s not planning on slowing down anytime soon. At work on a new album, tentatively titled Right Off the Top of My Head , Bo will take that mammoth beat from the start of this new millennium and beyond.
“Oh, hell yeah, I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished,” he states. “I love all my fans, the ones that know me. I’m gonna keep on doing it. I work all the time, and “right off the top of my head” is how my mind runs when I’m doing a song. I can come up with a song in two minutes, just to show people I’m still thinking.”