For Bo Diddley, the Beat Goes On and On

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

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."

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