Bo Diddley used to live on Rhode Island Avenue and had a recording studio in his house. Where exactly was that? After a night doing sound for bands at DC9, I drive a long stretch of Rhode Island Avenue home. Often, I’m the only car on the street, and I find my mind wandering as I wonder “Is it that one?” I’m not gonna go knock on the door and ask for a tour. I just want to be able to give it a nod and a wink when I pass by.
— Randy Lancelot,
Bo Diddley — he of the famous beat, boastful lyrics and rectangular electric guitar — lived in three places during his stint in the District in the early 1960s. He had a recording studio in two of them: first at 2614 Rhode Island Ave. NE, then at 812 Rittenhouse St. NW. (Diddley is also associated with 1724 Newton St. NW in Mount Pleasant, but that was an apartment building, and it’s unlikely he would have recorded there.)
If you look under the Ms in the 1962 Washington City Directory, you will find “McDaniel, Ellas (Ethel S)* musician” living at 2614 Rhode Island Ave. NE. (Born Otha Ellas Bates, Diddley took the name Ellas McDaniel after being taken in by his mother’s first cousin. Ethel was his then-spouse.)
Diddley was originally from Mississippi but was raised in Chicago. That’s where he came to the attention of the Chess brothers. His eponymous first Chess Records single — with its signature bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp BOMP BOMP beat — was a hit when it was released in 1955. Other Diddley songs include “Who Do You Love,” “Road Runner” and “Pills.”
Violinist Eddie Drennon was a student at Howard University when he met Diddley and was asked to record strings with him. He said the guitarist moved to Washington around 1957 or 1958 and stayed until 1966 or so.
In 2006, Diddley explained his decision to settle in the District to The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington. “I just wanted to be in Washington, D.C., around the Howard Theatre,” Diddley said. “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.”
The District was more than just a convenient travel hub for Diddley. He recorded the album “Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger” here. And Diddley threw open his doors to D.C. artists. Among those he worked with were soul singer Billy Stewart and a vocal group called the Marquees, which featured a singer named Marvin Gay, who later added an “e” to his last name.
“Bo Diddley was a really nice man who liked to help people,” said Sandra Bears, who sang in one of the D.C. groups that Diddley recorded: the Impalas, later known as the Jewels. “For him to reach back and help different artists, I thought that was really a nice thing.”
Sandra said the Jewels sang backup on the song “Bo Diddley Is a Lover” and around 1960 recorded a few of their own tunes in his Rhode Island Avenue basement studio, including “I Need You So Much” and “For the Love of Mike.”
“It was not a big studio, but since we didn’t know anyone else who had a studio in their house, that was a big studio,” Sandra said.
Besides being a rhythmic innovator, Diddley was a technical innovator, said Eddie, who recorded on Rittenhouse Street. “It was a four-track recorder, which was unusual for that time,” he said. Working there was the first time Eddie saw one of Diddley’s inventions: a Y-cord. It was a cable that split the signal from an electric guitar or violin in two, allowing sound to come out of two amplifiers.
“When we played the Avalon Theater in San Francisco in 1966, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin were the opening act,” he said. “When they heard the sound, they were amazed what was coming off the stage. They went and bought the music store out. They came back the next night and had electric everything. They didn’t realize it wasn’t only the equipment, but it was the person who created it.”
Diddley continued to tour regularly after leaving Washington. He eventually settled in Florida, where he died in 2008.
The current owner of the Rhode Island Avenue house is Sandra Mavin, director of nursing at Howard University Hospital. When Sandra bought the house in 2000, the previous owners told her it had once been the home of the famous musician. No trace of his presence remained, she said — no rusty microphones or dusty boxes of forgotten master tapes. She liked the house in the Woodridge neighborhood because it offered off-street parking and had a nice back yard.
Sandra said the house — now painted a fetching pale green — hasn’t attracted any gawkers or obsessive rock-and-roll fans, but about five or six years ago, one of Bo Diddley’s daughters came by.
“She wanted to just walk through,” Sandra said. She opened her door and welcomed the woman in.
Maybe, if they listened carefully, they could hear that Bo Diddley beat echoing down the years.
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