Today’s Guest: Bo Diddley, legendary rock and blues guitarist.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found this 54-minute interview with Bo Diddley from May 10, 1985 by accident after digging up the print version of the interview. The audio isn’t great, but if you spent an hour with the man, you’d want to share it, too!)
“I’m the dude that Elvis Presley copied. He copied me and combined Jackie Wilson,” Diddley told me.
That was a memorable day for two reasons: spending an hour with Bo in Ybor City, Florida (east of downtown Tampa), the afternoon of his show, of course, but also my memories of the photographer I worked with that day, Tom Howland, who was a long-time friend and who passed away suddenly a few years ago.
Anyway, this interview is one of my all-time favorites. I hope you’ll enjoy this Mr. Media “Lost Tape.”)
Hours before the public would swarm in, Bo Diddley sat tapping out simple melodies at an ages-old piano, ample belly hanging over his belt, black felt hat perched comfortably on his head.
Later, as an interview began in his dressing room, he was tapping out the 30-year-old “Bo Beat” on the side of a wooden desk.
But when the amplified roar of heavy metal electric guitars burst through the walls, he reeled. “They don’t need to do all that noise to tell they got power.”
Diddley may be the man who created the dominant sound of rock ‘n’ roll – with songs like “Hey, Bo Diddley,” “Say Man,” “Mona,” “Road Runner” and a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Who Do You Love” – but he has been slighted by revisionist historians, record company accountants and lawyers.
Life has never been simple for Ellas “Bo Diddley” McDaniel, born on Dec. 30, 1928 in Magnolia, Mississippi, presently a resident of Hawthorne, Florida (southeast of Gainesville).
Even his born-again friend Little Richard has taken a pound of flesh, claiming he created rock.
“You have to understand Richard,” Diddley sighs.
“Richard was a man that could get away with anything that had to do with music and talking. But try this on for size: I was number one. No fantasies, not trying to hog up publicity. (With “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” in 1955.) I’m the dude that turned the stuff around. Later, Richard came up – ‘Long Tall Sally’, I believe it was that hit the charts. Shoot, I was already going. Richard opened the door for a lot of piano players like Jerry Lee Lewis, y’understand? He laid the groundwork. He’s a kingpin. The man is a hellified entertainer. But he’s not responsible for rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m the dude that Elvis Presley copied. He copied me and combined Jackie Wilson,” Diddley insists.
Assuring his place in history is the least of the guitar-slinger’s on-going hassle~3, though. Two decades after the fact, he still works up quite a lather about being cheated out of record royalties for almost all his songs and recordings.
“To know that something like this can happen in America is really sickening,” Diddley says. He was only one of hundreds of rock pioneers – including Little Richard – to be denied the fruits of his labor. “They got everybody. We all were country boys, city kids off the streets that never had nothin’ …
“I only went though sixth grade in school,” he continues. “I wouldn’t exactly say I was dumb about all the stuff that happened to me. My thing was, I trusted people. And I used to be a kid that didn’t trust nobody. My sister said to me, ‘Elias, you gotta trust somebody.’ Why?”
BO DIDDLEY podcast excerpt: “I’m the dude that Elvis Presley copied. He copied me and combined Jackie Wilson.”
Diddley says the record company executives at Chess warned him to keep an eye on booking agents, not themselves. He realized something was wrong when they bragged of his great sales.
“They started buying mansions, Rolls Royces, chauffeurs, a radio station – I figured out somethin’s wrong. I couldn’t even buy a Ford! I haven’t seen statements from these people in years and they’re selling records allover the world! But where’s mine?”
The situation further frustrates the man when he looks more at today’s young artists.
“Man, it’s a hurtin’ thing and look’a here, cats make one record, all of a sudden go buy a house … I respect the stuff today. The only thing I don’t like is they call it rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll! They can call it new music, anything they want, but it don’t: sound like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, none of us.”
Diddley is also having a problem over the manufacture of his trademarked guitars. A New York company is selling an illegal “Bad Bo” square body axe, he alleges, although only Gretsch and Tom Holmes in Nashville have Diddley’s permission to use his name and design.
“This is why I’m so negative,” he explains. “People wonder why I got the attitude I got. They use my name. How do they expect to get away with that? I own that. This is what people do to me. How do they expect to get away with that? I own that. This is what people do to me. How much of this shit can I take? I’m here – I ain’t dead. Now I gotta get a lawyer.”
A more personal complication in Diddley’s life is his five-month separation from his wife of more than 20 years, Kay.
“She don’t even want to talk to me. It’s a bad situation,” he laments. “It’s something that bugs me. I didn’t think I could cry. It really got funky. I thought I was the hardest dude in the world. Shoot. Me, cry? Hell no.” But he did.
It was Kay who talked Bo into moving to Florida from New Mexico in 1979. With money she inherited from her parents and he earned outside the record industry, they bought a 72.6 acre farm in Hawthorne where Bo raised crops, restored crops and built a recording studio. Now the walls have come tumbling down.
“I’m looking to sell it,” Diddley reveals. Although he valued the property in 1979 at $100,000, “I’m asking a half-million dollars for it. She doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.”
The likelihood of divorce won’t cause Diddley to leave Florida. “Y’all ain’t gettin’ rid of me that easily. I just wanna sell the damn place, take the money an’ buy four or five acres right around in Hawthorne.”
Until things reach a conclusion with his marriage, Diddley will not be recording any new material, although he says the first authorized live collection of his songs is being released in Paris.
“I’m not going to do anything until after I get through with this divorce mess. Then I’m going to try and make some money. Ain’t no guarantee I’m going to make a dime, but I gotta try.
“I’m 56 years old and I’m still out here workin’ ,” Bo Diddley says. “I’m not hungry but I’m not no millionaire. I ain’t got no money. I got a big name, I should have a big name. I gave people a lot of good years of good listening music.”