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Rich in purpose

The rock pioneer laments an industry that cheated him out of millions. But Bo Diddley, now 73, continues to tour, write songs and enjoy his North Florida home.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


ARCHER -- Down an old asphalt highway in this one-stoplight town, past grazing cows and lush North Florida foliage, and off a winding dirt road that leads to the middle of nowhere, rock 'n' roll's pulse still beats strong.

Boom-t'boom-t'boom tika-boom-boom.

It is the beat that helped define the genre almost a half-century ago. It is the beat of Bo Diddley.

The man who created that syncopated rhythm -- inspiring countless acts, from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen -- lives here on a sprawling 76-acre farm, surrounded by his large family, dogs Mo and Jo, a John Deere tractor and the music he continues to make at age 73.

"Nobody knows what Bo's sitting back doing in the woods," he says, smiling. "I'm fixin' to shock everybody. They think I'm just doing my boom-t'boom-t'boom, like that's all I know."

On this morning, the man who grew up Ellas Bates McDaniel sits in an easy chair in his living room. It could pass for a wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with all manner of trophies, vintage photos and gold records.

Diddley is wearing a New York City police hat and big-rimmed glasses. They look like the kind he donned in his heyday, when he belted out hits such as Mona, Who Do You Love and Hey Bo Diddley while picking the trademark square-body guitar that he built.

Forever the innovator, Diddley has been working on a raucous rap song in his home recording studio about Saddam Hussein ("Saddam Hussein, pick up your phone, if you do we might leave you alone . . ."). He's also working on a symphonic synthesizer epic based on the Bible's book of Genesis, several old-time gospel choir pieces and a rap song for children.
What Bo knows
Bo Diddley is nothing if not outspoken. Here are his thoughts on some of the big names who caught his attention during his career -- from the Rolling Stones (for whom he opened in 1963) to Bo Jackson (whose "Bo Knows" Nike campaign in the '90s gave the old rocker a visibility boost).

Diddley likes to sprinkle homespun "Boisms" into conversation, such as this view of Iraq: "If I got a stack of bricks in my pocket, I ain't gonna tell you that I'm coming with them, because you liable to get some cinder blocks and wait for me to show up!"

He is feeling good right now but a bit tired. Two months ago, he cut short his busy touring schedule after feeling dizzy and weak. Doctors thought it might be a heart problem. "They had me all but dead," he says, "but turns out, it was low blood sugar and high blood pressure. So I have to watch what I eat now and make sure I get my rest."

With that, he tells a writer from St. Petersburg that the interview must end after 10 minutes so he can go to sleep. Upon seeing a look of mild panic, Diddley breaks out laughing: "Just messing with you, man. I feel good enough to go out and fight a gorilla."

The fact is, one fight still consumes him.

It is the reason that well into his senior years, he is still playing shows, from tiny clubs in the Panhandle to the grueling, 1,700-mile drive from New Mexico he and his band had finished days earlier.

It is why, despite his undisputed stature as a pioneer of rock 'n' roll, Bo Diddley is still angry.

photo
[Times photos: Bill Serne]
Diddley checks the food and water for his dogs Mo and Jo. He lives on a 76-acre farm in Archer near Gainesville, where he enjoys the company of his wife and family, his tractor and his music. Bo Diddley had to cut short his grueling tour schedule -- which included driving from the Panhandle to New Mexico -- after having chest pains.

* * *

"The only thing I'm proud about in this business is being the person that I am, and that I've always treated other people good," he says. "But there's some unproud things that have hit me in the face. Like crooked record people."

Diddley may be rock royalty, but he has no royalties to show for it. Like many early rock 'n' roll artists -- especially African-American acts -- record producers, music publishers and booking agents pocketed most of the cash. Along with counterparts such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Diddley lost out on untold income from album sales, songs he wrote and concerts he performed.

"Let me tell you: I got about 240 records all over the world between the ones I made and the bootlegs," he says. "I don't see no money. And another thing. When Buddy Holly made his record, That'll Be The Day, he was able to buy his mother a new home from that one record. I couldn't buy my mother a home. I never got paid. See, Chess and Checkers records -- those albums I got up there -- I started (talking about the money), and all of a sudden, you started hearing less and less about Bo Diddley."

Diddley pauses and gestures at a room adorned with dozens of photos: Bo with Keith Richards, Bo with B.B. King and Aretha Franklin, Bo with Tom Petty.

"All that I own here, I got by penny-pinching," he says. "This is bought and paid for, all 76 acres. Don't nobody else own this. Only things that can get me out of here are Uncle Sam and death."

He estimates his losses at $50-million.

"Ain't no way in hell I'll get past the anger feeling until I see some checks," he says. "I can't be 21 years old no more. A lot of people ask me, why you angry about this still? What the hell you mean?"

One cult blues group, Microwave Dave and the Nukes, has even cut a song to the tune of Hey Bo Diddley and called it Pay Bo Diddley. (Ironically, Diddley didn't get a song credit.)

"I do all right, but I don't got people running around calling me Money Bags," Diddley says. "Don't get me wrong. I've had lots of blessings in life. I've got enough to lend you some. But I'm not on easy street. I have bills to pay, and I have to work."

* * *

If royalties were paid for stylistic creations, Diddley would likely have made millions.

He was always experimenting with new sounds. He started as a classically trained violinist as a child at Chicago's Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and later tried playing drums. Diddley couldn't get the hang of it, but he applied the percussive technique to his guitar strum.

That rhythmic approach led him to develop what became universally known as the Bo Diddley beat. Musicologists have pointed to that beat's roots in West Africa before slavery, then to Deep South slaves patting out what became known as the "Hambone" rhythm on their bodies. But Diddley came up with his version and brought it to the mainstream after signing with Chess Records in 1955.

"I haven't told too many people where I got that beat from, but I'm tired of people saying, 'Oh, it's from Shave and a Haircut,' " he says. "This is the story. I was trying to play this Gene Autry tune, I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle. Everybody was trying to sing that dude back then." Diddley air-strums as he hums the melody, illustrating how he stumbled upon the beat: boom-t'boom-t'boom tika-boom-boom.

He not only introduced the landmark beat but coaxed new, edgy sounds out of electric guitars and played with feedback long before Jimi Hendrix.

He was the first big act of the day to make a female a featured member of his band, guitarist Lady Bo (Peggy Jones). "I just felt like girls go out and buy records, too, and I didn't believe they should always be in the background singing ooo-wah-shoobie-do."

Some of his early music can be traced to modern rap. And as a performer, Diddley also made his mark, cavorting and shaking a leg while he sang, much in the same way a young Elvis Presley would do.

But ultimately, Diddley's contributions to rock style didn't help him financially.

"You can copyright words, you can copyright music, but you can't really copyright style. If you could, Bo Diddley would get a chunk of almost every great rock 'n' roll song ever done," says William McKeen, chairman of the University of Florida journalism department and author of the anthology Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay.

Songs such as I Want Candy, Not Fade Away, She's The One and Willie & The Hand Jive, to name a few, are built on the Diddley beat. Still, Chuck Berry and Little Richard are often regarded as one notch above Bo on rock's Mount Rushmore and command a somewhat higher asking price for concerts.

"Bo still certainly gets five-figure fees, but maybe not the same five figures as some of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brethren like Chuck Berry, Little Richard or Fats Domino," says Bob Rossi, who books acts for Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"I think it's because their songs got played by radio," McKeen says."Bo's songs probably demanded a little more of the listener. And maybe they weren't as radio friendly. But a couple of years ago, I bought the Bo Diddley box set, and I was just blown away by how much good material there was."

But the world didn't really get to know Diddley as well as Chuck, Little Richard and Elvis. Not after what happened on The Ed Sullivan Show in November 1955. His independent streak cost his career dearly.

"He appeared on the Sullivan show and was supposed to sing Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons," says Howard Kramer, associate curator for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland. "But he didn't do it. He sang his own song, Bo Diddley. And basically, Bo was banned from television for 10 years after that. Sullivan had that kind of power.
photo
One of Diddley’s latest creations is a guitar he built out of plywood. It has a built-in CD player that lets him accompany himself.

Kramer has seen the footage: "It's probably the only footage of Bo in the '50s, and it is unbelievable. It's like the martians are landing."

Missing out on TV became a major setback.

"You have to realize that the arrival of television was key to the explosion of rock 'n' roll," Kramer says. "Remember, Elvis appeared on TV 12 times in 12 months, and that cemented his career. Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand numerous times. Little Richard was in movies.

"The less threatening you were, the easier it was to get on TV. But Bo Diddley's music was never less threatening. Not to say it was menacing. But it was just completely different. It was primal. It still is. It was driving and purely energetic. It had its corner on radio, but it wasn't getting on TV."

Kramer says rock 'n' roll "is unimaginable" without Diddley. He was elected to the hall in 1987, but even on that front, he feels slighted. The first class of inductees was in 1986: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.

Diddley made it in the next wave with the Coasters, Eddie Cochrane, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bill Haley, B.B. King, Clyde McFadder, Rick Nelson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters and Jackie Wilson.

"There's not a slouch in that group," Kramer says. "But he's a little bitter about it."

* * *

The Diddley household, 10 miles southwest of Gainesville, is always in motion.

He has been married for almost 11 years to an attractive, outgoing woman named Sylvia, who is some 30 years younger. They met and fell in love when Diddley lived for a time in Albuquerque, N.M.

"He's such a hard worker," she says. "He never stops, even here. He's always on a tractor or digging in the yard or trying to invent something new."

Sylvia has four children, the youngest of whom lives with her and Diddley, while the other three live nearby but visit frequently. Diddley's oldest grandson, Mark McDaniel, lives just down the road and spends hours each day helping run the farm. An array of other adult grandkids are also constant visitors. Diddley has four children who live elsewhere: daughters Evelyn, Terri Lynn (a keyboardist who goes by Bodetta) and Tammy (a drummer named Tammy D. Diddley), and son Anthony.

"I like to entertain people here," Diddley says. "I've always been a people person."

On this day, Diddley is thrilled to have extra visitors, a quartet of young, white bluesmen from Texas, en route to a gig in Fort Lauderdale. They have just made a pilgrimage from Houston to Bo's place, where a simple homemade sign reading "Bo Diddley" rises into view from atop a shed.

Diddley has known the act's 26-year-old frontman, Hamilton Loomis, since Loomis' parents took him to a show when he was 14. The legend let the kid sit in, and the kid could play.

From then on, Diddley was a mentor for Loomis. "I always told him, 'Do your thing, but stay away from drugs,' " Diddley says.

Diddley preaches against drugs often to local school and youth groups. "I think the secret of my success is I don't drink, I don't smoke and I don't do drugs," he says. "I have to be focused. I talk to any organization trying to do the right things with kids."

One of his good friends is a Central Florida musician named Keith Caton, whose group the Accelerators has performed in Florida as Diddley's backup band.

Caton says he is amazed at how creative Diddley remains. He says Bo is most at home these days playing small, intimate clubs. And sitting on a stool, taking the load from that extra-heavy square guitar off his shoulders and feet. "The thing is heavy as a Volkswagen," Caton says.

The other place Diddley loves is the converted trailer by the house: a fully equipped studio.

After Loomis and the group say their goodbyes, Diddley settles into the studio. He hooks up a huge new contraption of a guitar he built, this one made of plywood, with a portable CD player built into the body, allowing him to accompany himself. On the front of the guitar, he's written the words "Just Me."

Diddley plugs in a Roland synthesizer, which turns his guitar notes into full string sections or Hammond B-3 organs. He cues up his reel-to-reel tape machine and plays along to songs he's been crafting, including the Saddam rap that he hopes to land on radio.

He has two projects in mind: remastering tapes he recorded in 1968 and making an independent album. "The first one I'll call The Best in Junk, and the second one will be Bo Diddley Speaks Again."

Diddley pauses. He's feeling a bit lightheaded.

"It's the blood-sugar thing, man," he says. "Makes you feel a little weird, but I'm all right."

He heads to the house for a snack. But you sense there is still unfinished business for Bo Diddley.

"I want people to know I'm out here, doing all kinds of stuff," he says. "Folks are gonna be in for a surprise, a big awakening. Hey, I ain't dead yet."

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