For Bo Diddley, the Beat Goes On and On
Friday, November 3, 2006
On Capitol Hill, Bo Diddley hovered over an 1898 Edison recorder, playing his trademark rectangular guitar and singing into a large zinc horn as a vibrating needle scratched bands onto a slowly turning wax cylinder.
But although one of rock 'n' roll's founding fathers has been around a very long time, this was actually the turn of the 21st century, not the 20th, as such antique equipment might suggest. The 2003 Cannon Office Building session marked the anniversary of the first sound recording by Thomas Edison 125 years earlier, and it made sense to invite Diddley: The propulsive, syncopated Bo Diddley beat is one of the most identifiable and instantly recognizable rhythms in rock history.
In cold type, "bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp bomp-bomp" or "shave and a haircut two bits" seem the favored transcriptions, but by any iteration, it's one of the most copied rhythms in rock. On Capitol Hill, Diddley was backed by a quintet of House members who gamely tried to keep the infectious beat as the venerable guitarist sang from his "wheelchair Cadillac," which he sometimes uses because of a recurring back ailment.
Diddley walks with a limp and often plays sitting down, his guitar on his lap. Annoying ailments crop up when you're 77 and still have to work regularly because, until 1989, you received no royalties from classic songs that have been cornerstones of rock, songs such as "Bo Diddley," "I'm a Man," "Road Runner," "Who Do You Love" and "Mona."
But Diddley sold the rights to those songs many years ago to clear up debts, and the terms of record contracts he'd signed in the '50s afforded him very little money. If he didn't perform regularly, Diddley wouldn't have, well, diddly.
Yet that's less bothersome to Diddley than not having recognition as an originator and innovator of rock and one of its first electric-guitar heroes through the introduction of such sound effects as reverb, tremolo and distortion.
"They don't know who I am," Diddley groused recently from Archer, Fla., where he has lived for the past 20 years.
It has been 51 years since the release of his double-sided debut single, featuring the beat-introducing, self-proclaiming "Bo Diddley" and the blues shuffle "I'm a Man" a now-tame, then-ribald slice of sexual bravado. Those songs topped the R&B charts, and, Diddley says, "I was there before Elvis and Bill Haley, but people don't know that. Somebody's got to tell the stories before I'm dead and gone. I want to be in the history books for what I really did."
Thankfully, there are a lot of folks who know what Diddley did. He didn't write his hit "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" (Willie Dixon did), but you can judge Diddley by looking at who has covered him. Just drawing from fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the list includes Buddy Holly (whose own "Not Fade Away" is pure Diddley homage), the Band (when they were the Hawks), the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks all included Diddley songs on their debut albums. Yet Diddley, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer since 1987 and winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, is seldom a part of the historic conversation in the same way surviving pioneers Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis are. For one thing, he has a lesser commercial track record: no gold albums, one Top 20 pop hit and limited radio play.
"It's sad that I have to sit and toot my own whistle," Diddley says. "I'm sick about this, that I haven't got the recognition that I truly should have got and that I am still working at 77 years old. It's [expletive] up."
Mississippi-born and Chicago-bred, Diddley (real name Ellas McDaniel) knows Washington after numerous appearances in theaters and clubs, as well as at the White House (a private performance for the Kennedys) and presidential inaugurations for both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But he hasn't just been a frequent visitor: Diddley lived here from 1959 to 1966, building a studio in the basement of his house at 2614 Rhode Island Ave. NE, where he recorded 1960's classic "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger" album.
"I just wanted to be in Washington, D.C., around the Howard Theater," Diddley explains. "I did everything from D.C. At that time, I was driving all the time -- I didn't start flying until 1968 -- and it was close to New York and the South."