Remembering Bo Diddley

A year after the rock 'n' roll pioneer's death, Bill DeYoung remembers their last conversation

In the autumn of 2002, I sat in Bo Diddley's kitchen for what would turn out to be the last time. The rock ‘n' roll pioneer had moved to Central Florida 20 years before, and because I was the music writer for the newspaper in Gainesville - just a few miles from his home in rural Levy County - I got to know him pretty well. I don't want to claim we were great friends or anything, but he trusted me. And he liked to talk.

Bo died a year ago this week, on June 2, from heart failure brought on by a stroke he'd suffered the year before. On the anniversary of his death, at age 79, I've been thinking about him, and all the times I drove down the long, dusty, unpaved road to the triple-wide he shared with Sylvia - his fourth wife - and sundry grandchildren, nephews, cousins and other relatives.

At the entrance to his property was a little wooden sign reading "McDaniel." Bo Diddley's real name was Ellas Bates McDaniel, and even though everybody (including Sylvia) called him Bo, he never forgot who he was, or where he'd come from.

Born into a Black Creole family in the Mississippi delta region, he'd moved to Chicago with his adoptive mother - his birth mother's first cousin - in 1934, when Ellas was 7.

"The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley," he told me that morning in his kitchen. "I still don't know what the hell it means ... but I know what it means in German!" (look it up - it's not nice).

His first musical instrument was the violin, but it was when he got a guitar - a battered old Kay that only had two strings - he was hooked.

"When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn," he said.

"I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In' running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents a piece. You'd buy one string at a time, until you got all of ‘em."

To the day he died, this groundbreaking musical artist couldn't tune a guitar to anything but an open chord - he never learned the names of the strings, or their proper pitch.

"I tuned it by accident," he told me. "I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn't know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?"

Bo was not an educated man, but he was quick-witted, savvy, and a fast learner. He built his first electric guitar amplifier by re-wiring an old radio, and came up with the distinctive Bo Diddley tremolo sound "with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind-up clock."

By 1955, of course, he was signed to Chess Records and turning out all those classic records - "Road Runner," "I'm a Man," "Who Do You Love," "Mona," "Say Man" and, of course, "Bo Diddley."

This was the irony of Bo Diddley: He was a pioneer, an innovator, one of the first to take rhythm ‘n' blues into the mainstream. Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen and countless others made liberal use of his bompa-bomp rhythm. The Rolling Stones worshipped the ground he walked on.

Yet, in the 1950s when he was young and hungry for success, he'd signed some bad contracts; years later, when an investment deal went bad, he sold all his publishing rights to stay afloat.

And so, well into his 70s, he had to leave Florida several weekends each month to perform somewhere. And boy, did he resent having to do that, when his contemporaries like Chuck Berry were, he was sure, living in mansions somewhere.

For the last three years of his life, he played every show from a chair, after back surgery had made it too painful to stand for extended periods.

This is how that final interview ended in 2002:

"I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that. If I take care of myself. But it's winding down. I might as well face it. I don't look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that's a guarantee. We're all gonna leave out of here.

"You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don't know if I'm gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that."










About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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