By Mark Guarino
Bo Diddley has the flu. “It’s kickin’ booty too,” he laughs.
But he aims to recover fast. He talks from his Florida home, two weeks before he travels north to Chicago where he’ll play the a benefit show for the Chicago Coalition For the Homeless, the tenth show of its kind he’s performed for the charity over ten years.
To mark the occasion, Diddley is bringing an all-star line-up of classic and modern blues greats with him, including Staple Singers, The Robert Cray Band, Koko Taylor and Kenny Wayne Sheperd and, most significantly, his rostermate from their Chess Records days, Chuck Berry.
Berry and Diddley are undoubtedly living legends and have been capitalizing on that since their more prolific recording days in the early ‘50s to early ‘60s. In 1987, Diddley became one the early inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and in 1998, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards.
But the real recognition Diddley would like to get is money. When recording at Chess, he sold away his publishing rights which denied him crucial royalty checks, especially when early rockers like Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and later George Thorogood and Eric Clapton, began recording his songs.
Diddley has enjoyed a few hits himself but his real innovation is their sound. Starting with his first hit, “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” in 1955, Diddley infused a raw, distorted guitar power that hadn’t been heard before. Although often categorized as a blues performer, his music strayed into a territory that became known as guitar rock. Unlike most blues players, Diddley played rhythm cords, not notes, and the famous shark-like beat that carries his name is still being copied today — from the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” to U2’s “Desire” to George Michael’s “Faith.”
There’s no doubt Bo Diddley is one of rock’s true and earliest originals.
He’s 71, has a “football team”-sized family including five kids and numerous grandkids. As he battled keeping his voice alive, he talked from his Florida home where he lives with his wife.
Q: What’s made you return to Chicago every year, for ten years, do play these shows for the homeless?
A: Well, I’m a Chicagoan. I was raised in that great city. And I just felt like I was fortunate enough to be who I am, thank God. I’m just trying to give something back to a city that gave me so much. It’s a great honor that I can do this, but I wish that I didn’t have to do this because there shouldn’t be homeless people and hungry people in this country, period. The fat cats need to stop dumping crumbs on the floor and give out some slices.
Q: Where did you grow up in Chicago?
A: 4746 Langley on the South Side.
Q: You were one of the more famous names that began their career playing on Maxwell St. What was that scene like?
A: It was a great place to be on Saturday morning, Sunday morning. And everybody would rush down there to get a good corner (to play). Because that’s where they paid their bills from. And it’s a shame that the city is taking that away. I think it’s a slap in the face. They’ve been there for years and all of the sudden the urban renewal crap come along and want to kick them around. I don’t think that’s right.
Q: Where was the first club you played?
A: The first club I played in was the Castle Rock on Wentworth. That was with (Diddley’s famous recording band at Chess) Clifton James, Jerome Green and Roosevelt Jackson. Roosevelt played the bass tub, Clifton James was the original drummer and Jerome played the maracas and I played the guitar and sang. The next club was the 708 Club.
Q: You were in early twenties.
A: No I was a younger man. I was 19 years old.
Q: Last year, you performed for Hillary Clinton at the Chess Records Studios (2120 S. Michigan Ave.) when she announced funding to restore the site back to its original condition. So many contradictory things have been said about the Chess brothers and the way they treated musicians back in the day. What was your experience?
A: They gave me a chance to be where I’m at today. But they were not really what you call honest people. If they hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be working today. I’d be working by choice, not because I have to, you know what I’m saying?
Q: They could have looked out for you better, business-wise.
A: Well, they saw a chance to make some money. But not caring how they went about doing it. And they mistreated a lot of the entertainers. It’s a hard thing to even talk about because they just did some things that weren’t cool. Now I’m starting to find these things out. It’s heartbreaking but I’ll survive.
Q: How did you feel when the British invasion happened and you heard other people singing your songs?
A: It helped keep the name alive, but we’re talking about dollar bills. What happened to the money? It led me into a situation where I had to sell my songs which I didn’t know what I was doing but if you never got paid royalties then you had to do something because if you had kids you had to feed. And that’s what happened. I had to do that in order to survive and because they weren’t paying me no royalties so I said “what the heck.” And not being smart and educated enough to understand the business of what the hell was going on, I was pushed to that point.
It shouldn’t have never been that way. Because I had hit records that stayed on the charts longer than Elvis did. And I’m pissed off about the crap that came off about “Elvis did this and Elvis did that.” Elvis was great but he didn’t start and didn’t change the (blues) into rock and roll. I’m sick of that lie. Let the world know. The (blues) changed when I came on the scene.
A: A lot of people ask me, “why are you bitching about that now?” I can’t be 21 years old no more.
Q: You still have to work.
A: That’s it. But if I were a millionaire, I would still work for my public and my fans, I would still go out there an do it.
Q: Eric Clapton made your song, “Before You Accuse Me” one of his signature songs.
A: But I don’t have any problem with Eric Clapton. Eric did a darn good job with “Before You Accuse Me.” He made me a few bucks and I take my hat off to him. He’s my friend and I think he’s beautiful.
Q: Your distinctive beat pops up all the time.
A: I’ve been the most copied dude in the world and I ain’t made a dime. I think it’s I call it the “good ‘ol American rip-off.”
Q: How did you invent it?
A: I was trying to play, “I’ve got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle” by Gene Autry way back when I was 15 years old. And I stumbled on that. And I put the drums to it by Clifton James. He’s the original drummer. Nobody plays that beat like Clifton.
Q: What is it about that beat that makes people respond so much to it?
A: They’re making money. I ain’t getting a dime. And I’m sick of it.
Q: Can you copyright a rhythm?
A: If you can write it, you can copyright it.
Q: How did you get that early fuzzy distortion on songs like “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man?”
A: That wasn’t really distortion. That was a raggedy speaker (laughs). I didn’t have no money to buy a good speaker and that’s what came out. It was called a Silvertone Amplifier put out by Sears and Roebuck.
Q: So that sound was a mistake.
A: No, single notes was what most players played. I played with a rhythm pattern. And that speaker couldn’t stand what I was putting on it. So (my playing) rattled it, tore up, did all sorts of stuff, you know.
Q: When did you create your famous box-shaped guitar.
Q: Did you do it for any particular sound?
A: Showmanship. I didn’t want to be like anyone else. I think a lot of times people come to the show to see the guitar and the hell with me.
Q: You were born Otha Ellas Bates. Where did you get your name?
A: Kids in grammar school gave it to me.
Q: Did it mean anything?
A: I have no idea.
Q: When the U.K. reggae/punk band The Clash toured the U.S. for the first time, they asked you to be their opener. What do you remember about that tour?
A: It was good. They didn’t think I would make it with the show on them. But I just said, “you want a rock and roller I’m going to show you what it’s all about, let’s go.” The audiences were beautiful. Lots of kids.
Q: Going back to your experience with Chess, do you feel divided about promoting the Chess museum and coming to terms about how you say you’ve been treated?
A: To me, it has nothing to do with the Chess (brothers). As far as I’m concerned, I got my start from that building. It still should be a museum. Because a lot of people passed through there. People don’t know what the heck went down. Some cold things went down concerning money, royalties. And we thought the world of Leonard and Phil Chess because they gave us a chance to be somebody, but they also saw a chance to make money, it’s a business. I don’t think the (younger generation) knew they were doing this mess. It’s like a dude in the deep South, whose parents went around hanging people…and the kids never knew their daddies were doing this mess and never knew they had this hate thing going on. It’s basically about the same thing. I wish we could get away from this black and white thing and live up to what America stands for.