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For Bo Diddley, the Beat Goes On and On
Diddley would have a hand in the city's soul history, discovering piano-playing soul man Billy Stewart and recording the Jewels and the Marquees (with a young Marvin Gaye). Bluesman Bobby Parker, who still plays regularly, was lead guitarist in Diddley's band for two years in the late '50s.
If there's one thing that can rile Diddley, it's the issue of royalties he believes he's owed as creator of a signature beat so pervasive it has become part of the culture. But it's extremely difficult to claim plagiarism on chord progressions and rhythms; most successful plagiarism claims revolve around melody or lyrics because you can't copyright licks or a style. And the Bo Diddley beat has traceable roots in African and African American culture, including the hambone tradition that originated on Southern plantations after slaves, denied access to traditional drums, patted rhythms on their bodies. (Red Saunders and the Hambone Kids' 1952 hit "Hambone" signaled a brief hambone craze.)
"They tried to tell me it was public domain, and that is the biggest lie in the world," Diddley says. "If you can write the music, you can copyright it, and it was written in the music books. I should be a multimillionaire. That's one thing about America. We got a lot of thieves here, when somebody don't pay somebody and totally take their [expletive] and then put a gate up called statute of limitations to cut cats off. The lawyers that handle this stuff are as crooked as a barrel of rattlesnakes."
Even if he could claim authorship, Diddley sold the rights to his classics decades ago.
"I did that because I didn't have no money," he explains. "I had kids to feed, but I should have had an attorney instead of my manager, which is dead now, to make the deal. I was fixing to get some money so I could pay my car note, my house note, so I could eat. I wasn't getting no royalty check like I should have, but, being a young musician like I was -- 27, 28 years old getting into the business -- all I wanted to do was play, and these guys were up all night trying to figure out how to [expletive] me around, and they did it."
Diddley has said he never saw a dime in royalties during his heyday. It wasn't until 1990's "Bo Diddley: The Chess Box," that he got royalties for those classic tracks as MCA Records, which had acquired the Chess catalogue, wiped out Diddley's negative balances and raised his royalty rate from 2 percent to 10 percent. It has paid on reissues ever since.
The British Invasion's bluesier bands paid what they could, which was homage. In the '60s, British bands naming themselves after Diddley or his songs included the Pretty Things, the Roadrunners, Bo Street Runners, the Bo-Weevils, the Cops 'n' Robbers and the Diddley Daddies. The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones played early '60s residencies at the Crawdaddy, a blues club named after Diddley's "Doing the Crawdaddy." All three Yardbird guitarists -- Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page -- recorded "I'm a Man." When latter-day Rolling Stone Ron Wood toured with Diddley in the '80s, they called themselves the Gunslingers.
The original gunslinger appreciates such attention. "They do a good job of that, but it don't put no money in my pocket, and I got bills like anybody else. It's a job -- it used to be glamour, but it turned into a job overnight."
Rappers would do well to recognize Diddley's legacy as well. After all, his debut single featured prototype name-checking on one side and sex boasts on the other, while the voodoo "Who Do You Love?" embraces both the poetics of rap ("I walk 47 miles of barbed wire / I use a cobra snake for a necktie /I got a brand new house by the roadside made from rattlesnake hide") and its occasional nihilism ("got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / Just 22 and I don't mind dying"). And you could argue that 1959's "Say Man" is another rap prototype, crafted from a tape of Diddley and his maracas player Jerome Green swapping street insults while goofing off in the studio.
"Rap is good, but some of it with the dirty lyrics, I do not like," says Diddley, who gets a little riled when it's mentioned that "Bo Diddley," originally titled "Uncle John," was rejected by the owners of Chess Records because its original raunchy lyrics were deemed "too dirty."
"There's nothing you can make dirty out of any song that I ever did," Diddley insists, adding, "I can sing my [expletive] songs in church! I always try to stay as clean as I can, and it works. I can do the same things the rap kids are doing, but I prefer not to do things where I'm shooting the police and dragging my mother down the steps. . . . Little kids don't need to listen to that stuff. I take my hat off to the rap kids, but they need to watch it, to become role models like I have, and I been out here 52 years."
In fact, rock's godfather is now a great-great-grandfather many times over. He leads a relatively quiet life on his 80-acre spread in central Florida, doing a half-dozen shows a month.
"I work a lot," Diddley says. "Seventy-seven ain't nothin' but a number."
Bo Diddley & Friends, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Ruthie Foster Saturday at George Mason University Center for the Arts and Wednesday at the Music Center at Strathmore Sounds like: The roots of rock 'n' roll, with a little bit of blues and R&B for good measure. Hall of Diddley beats: Buddy Holly, "Not Fade Away"; Johnny Otis Show, "Willie and the Hand Jive"; Elvis Presley, "His Latest Flame"; The Who, "Magic Bus"; The Strangeloves, "I Want Candy"; Bruce Springsteen, "She's The One"; George Michael, "Faith"; U2, "Desire."