It’s a beat like no other–the call of the wild, electrified. A rhythm that’s a raw, primitive thud that shakes you to your core. His sound was unique in the ’50s, and still today it’s instantly recognizable as the property of one Ellas McDaniel–better known to millions as Bo Diddley. The trademark rhythm came along by accident. “I was trying to play Gene Autry’s song ‘I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle,’ and struck up on boomty boomty boom … boom boom,” the guitarist explained in an interview from his home in Florida. That story differs a little from one in the Aug. 25 issue of Rolling Stone, where Diddley says the inspiration came from hearing some old ladies rattling a tambourine and banging on a piano at a sanctified church when he was in his teens.
Wherever it came from, his sound is far from sanctified. That backbeat and Diddley’s call and response technique on records like “Say Man” and “Hey Bo Diddley” have led some to proclaim him the “godfather of rap,” a concept he’s amenable to. “We used to call it signifying. The dozens and stuff like that, but there weren’t no dirt involved in it. No dirty lyrics. I like rap, but not the rap that’s got the dirty lyrics.” The guitarist has no use for gangsta rap, either. “It’s bad news for our kids. Sends the wrong message to the youngsters.”
Though he had no trouble spreading his musical message, other musicians got the money and the fame. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Stones all borrowed the Diddley beat.
He’s still bitter over the lack of respect and royalties. “I just never got paid,” says Diddley. “All around the world, man, I got records, CDs and all this other shit that I ain’t never seen a dime from. They lied and said that they paid Bo Diddley. I don’t know, there must be another one somewhere, but it didn’t come to my house.”
The 76-year-old guitarist has come to terms with the fact that he may never get what’s coming to him. “I don’t have ten or fifteen or twenty thousand dollars to hand to an attorney because I can’t do it myself,” he says heatedly.
For those just starting out, Diddley has some advice. “You can’t go around trusting people as I did,” he says sadly. “A contract is just what it says: con-tract. A lot of guys don’t intend to pay you in the first place.”
Diddley’s bitterness sometimes spills out onto those who share the stage with him, often locals playing the part of pickup band.
Two Dollar Pistol frontman John Howie Jr. is too much of a gentleman to share all the details of his Diddley experience. “I was raised in the Southern thing of if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything.” Howie was 25 at the time and still behind a drum kit. “He [Diddley] said, ‘Look, I don’t need Gene Krupa here, boy.’ Made me play the simplest drum stuff possible, which I would have been fine with. But then he’d come back and do this huge solo and totally show me up. To his credit, he was fairly nice to me,” Howie says, “but it was pretty much a nightmare.”
To supplement his income, Diddley has worked gigs outside music over the years. Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger, proclaims one of his best known albums. It wasn’t just a concept. Diddley, who sometimes still wears a badge pinned to his black Stetson, was a deputy sheriff in his then hometown of Los Lunas, N.M. in the early ’70s. A couple of years ago his showed his cop roots at a show at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem.
Despite what he said was a sore back that had him sitting down through much of his set, the guitarist was on his feet for “Put a Hump in Your Back,” a song that’s little more than Bo chanting the title, then tossing in some salacious directions to his hump mate. The audience was repeating that refrain when Diddley suddenly changed the lyrics. “Put it out, put it out, put it out,” he yelled, and many in the audience started chanting along and clapping when he stopped playing his trademark square guitar and began shouting: “Put it out! Godammit! I mean it! I smell something funny. I see you! Put it out! Put it out or I’ll leave the stage!” Bo had detected the aroma of marijuana, and spotted some poor slob taking a toke near the front of the stage.
“Put it out, now,” he shouted. “I don’t care what you do on your own. Smoke all of that shit you want, just don’t do that stuff around me.”
Despite his financial setbacks and the lack of respect for his contributions, the man has no plans to quit. “I just got started, baby,” he says. “I know what the stage is made for, and I’m gonna use it ’til I can’t use it no more.”
Bo Diddley plays the Bull Durham Blues Festival Friday, Sept. 9, at 9:30 p.m.
Bull Durham Blues Festival schedule
Friday, Sept. 9
9:30 p.m. Bo Diddley
8:15 p.m. Bettye Lavette
7 p.m. Duwayne Burnside & the Mississippi Mafia
6 p.m. The Matt Hill Band
Saturday, Sept. 10
9:30 p.m. Ruth Brown
8:15 p.m. John Lee Hooker Jr.
7 p.m. Lil’ Brian & the Zydeco Travelers
6 p.m. Diunna Greenleaf & the Blue Mercy Band
All shows are at the Historic Durham Athletic Park. For information and tickets, visit www.hayti.org/blues/index.asp. Tickets are $30 per night, $35 after Sept. 8. Children under 12 are free with an adult. Gates open at 5 p.m.