Bo knows irony.
"You work your buns off all these years -- going up and down the highway, riding those raggedy airplanes and stuff like that," Bo Diddley says. "And I make a commercial with Bo Jackson and all I say is 'Bo, you don't know Diddley!' and all of a sudden I'm back up at the top again?
"I ain't figured this out yet."
Indeed. The fact is that after several rough decades -- the loss of most of his royalties to unscrupulous record label owners followed by years of undeserved semi-obscurity -- the past few years have been very good to Bo Diddley.
In 1987, he was inducted into the still-unbuilt Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, belated recognition for the rhythmic cornerstones Diddley laid as one of rock's key architects in the '50s.
Then, MCA put out "Bo Diddley: The Chess Box," gathering crucial recordings Diddley made for the Chicago label between 1955 and 1968, which provided not only artistic validation, but the first royalties Diddley ever received for those classic tracks.
And then Diddley made a Nike commercial with another Bo, last name Jackson.
That commercial -- in which sports virtuoso Jack- son unsuccessfully tackles the electric guitar -- provided a much-needed boost for Diddley, who performs at Anton's 1201 Club through Sunday. It's not Capital Centre, but the Nike ads -- Diddley won't say what they earned him -- made him visible again, made him real to a new generation of fans who knew him only secondhand when their favorite bands did songs like"Bo Diddley," "Who Do You Love?," "Mona," "I'm a Man," "Pretty Thing," "Road Runner" and "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover."
Despite a follow-up Nike spot suggesting otherwise, Diddley says, "Bo can't play no guitar, noooooo!" He is relaxing in his hotel room after driving from New York to Washington, having arrived just a few hours before his opening show. Diddley in his sixties looks pretty much as he has since the '60s -- squat, genial and thoughtful behind the familiar thick black frames of his glasses.
"But Bo is really a nice guy, and I told him as long as he stays that way, he'll always be remembered."
Diddley's likely to be remembered, not for being a nice guy, which he is, but for the signature hambone riff of "Who Do You Love?" and "Bo Diddley." Rendered in cold type, it goes something like "chunk, a-chunk chunk a-chunk chunk," or more poetically, "shave and a haircut, six bits." Unfortunately, while it's a trademark sound, it's not a copyrightable one, which may explain why Diddley has been overlooked and undervalued, even though his sound snakes through a hit list spanning two generations.
You could start in the '50s with Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and Johnny Otis's "Willie and the Hand Jive," dip into the '60s with the Who's "Magic Bus" and assorted Creedence Clearwater revivals, and go modern with Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One," Elvis Costello's "Lover's Walk" and George Michael's "Faith" (sort of Diddley Lite).
It's a primordial guitar-driven rhythm rooted in African and African American culture. Along with Chuck Berry's roiling rhythms, the Diddley beat established the electric guitar as the foundation of rock-and-roll (as did the attendant showmanship of both musicians). But Diddley never enjoyed Chuck Berry's commercial success -- his only Top 40 hit was 1959's "Say Man," though he had a number of hits on the R&B charts. He never had a million-seller, though he was one of the most popular jukebox artists of the '50s. There, as elsewhere, the money went into other people's pockets.
"Phil and Leonard Chess robbed me," Diddley says evenly, of the owners of the label that recorded him, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon and other seminal rock figures. "I know they robbed me, but I didn't have sense enough to know it at the time they were doing it." Royalty subterfuge and creative bookkeeping that seldom favored the artist were all too common practices at small labels in the '50s, though Diddley was also "robbed," as he calls it, by subsequent owners of the Chess catalogue -- until MCA bought it in 1987. "They've been kicking out a few bucks to Bo Diddley -- they take care of business, and I'm very happy about it."
"But all the things that I own, I got by working one-nighters, not from no royalty checks," he says.
Serious money was usually just out of reach for Diddley, who was born Otha Ellis Bates in McComb, Miss., in 1928 and changed his name to Ellas McDaniel when he was adopted by his mother's cousin after moving to Chicago in 1933. He picked up the Diddley name -- a slang term for street savvy -- for his boxing prowess; prophetically, it was also the name of an African one-string guitar. Diddley began playing a six-string American cousin after starting on violin and dropping it when he noticed a dearth of black violinists. He built his first guitar in shop class at Foster Vocational School. "I just decided to make a square one and see if it worked, and it did, so I used it in my act."
Chuck Berry had his duckwalk. Bo Diddley had his collection of off-shaped guitars: square, oblong, round, triangular, some covered with fur or carpeting. Diddley's guitar playing was always less proficient than efficient; often he'd tune to an open chord to facilitate his percussive attack. "I believe in making my instrument do things that make people wonder, 'What the hell, how does he do that?' That's where I'm coming from."
He approached his career with much the same focus he did his guitar playing.
"I kept pounding at it," Diddley says proudly. "It was like being in jail and you've got a chisel and a hammer and the chisel is dull, but you keep beating at that same spot and eventually you're going to get a hole through there. It might take a little while, but you keep pounding. And you might not get out but you can see through it, dig?"
Diddley was one of the first rockers to boast about himself -- thus a rap model as well as a rock one -- but occasional desperation can be sensed by looking at the chronology of self-celebrations recorded for Chess between 1955 and 1968: "Bo Diddley," "Diddley Daddy," "Diddy Wah Diddy," "Hey Bo Diddley," "The Story of Bo Diddley," "Bo's Guitar," "Run Diddley Daddy," "Diddling," "Bo's Vacation," "Bo's Blues," "Bo Diddley Is a Lover," "Bo Diddley Is Loose," "Bo's Bounce," "Bo's Twist," "Bo's a Lumberjack," "Bo Diddley's Dog," "Bo's Waltz," "Bo Diddley's Hootenanny," "You, Bo Diddley," "Bo Diddley-itis," "Bo-Jam" and "Bo Diddley 1969."
There were dubious exercises (including "Surfin' With Bo Diddley" and "Bo Diddley's Beach Party"), and there were times -- on stage and on record -- that Diddley seemed bored and out of steam. With the arrival of acid rock in the late '60s, he started working with pick-up bands in each city he played (at least they knew the basics, which he'd set). At one point in the '70s, Diddley gave up music to serve as a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas, N.M. (he has just moved to Albuquerque after living for many years in Florida). Carrying a .38, he was able to live up to another album title, "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger," though he was more likely to issue autographs than citations.
"I'm a taxpayer and I just figured I was happy to be a part of the community," says Diddley, who hopes to pin on the badge again. Doing the right thing is important to Diddley, who has received numerous plaques and awards for his involvement in anti-drug education programs in the Southeast. In his hotel room, he proudly plays a tape made in Florida just a few days before. Diddley is addressing an auditorium-full of junior high school kids, in both song and speech. "This is the generation that I have captured again," he says, and while it's a captive audience, it's also a receptive one.
He recently taped a "Sesame Street" episode with Bo Jackson and completed work on a film called "Book of Love" (he's on the theme song and in the movie, as well as in "Rockula," a two-year-old vampire-rock film finally seeing the light of day). Diddley's also working on autobiographies (one print, one video, the latter drawn from a substantial collection of historic footage he's accumulated over the years). Last year's "Breaking Through the B.S." was Diddley's first album of new material in 15 years; another is planned for next year.
Meanwhile, the education of Bo Diddley continues on the road.
"This wasn't something that I strived for. I went to seventh grade and quit, which was a mistake," he muses. "But if I hadn't, maybe I wouldn't be Bo Diddley. It made me come up with something and I got lucky and became Bo Diddley. I came up with a thing that was unique. I didn't know it was unique but it worked."