met Bo Diddley once in San Diego in 1985 when he played at a club where I worked called the Belly Up. I wrote this for the newsletter I designed each month for the bar.
hey got the people dancing, that's what's happening."
Bo Diddley is standing by the backstage curtain and hugging up on Barbara, his traveling companion, while watching Preston Smith and the Crocodiles onstage opening the show. Somebody says they sound like Oingo Boingo gone blues.
"Naw, they're alright," Bo says. "The people are moving."
The Crocodiles launch into a cover of "Banana Boat Song" and Bo wanders around backstage yodeling "Day-O!" and talking to his local backup band, the Careless Lovers.
"I was talking to one of the guys in the band,' I say to Bo, "and he said you don't use the Bo Diddley beat anymore."
"Well," Bo says, "I play the old Chess songs, but I don't use the Bo beat. It's too hard, most people don't get it right today. They use it, but it's not the correct way."
"You said somewhere that you got part of your sound from the music of the sanctified church."
"I didn't get no Bo Diddley beat from the church, I got my . . ." He thinks a moment. "What I'd call, I guess, that rhythmic feeling, that drive, came from the church."
"Whose idea was it for those "Say Man" songs you and Jerome Green used to do?"
"That was just me and Jerome, me and Jerome did that."
"Did you improvise that stuff or did you plan it out before you recorded?"
"We improvised it." Bo grins. "Yeah, me and Jerome, we always kind of thought alike." He laughs.
"The other day I was listening to a Sonny Boy Williamson record, and Leonard Chess was in the studio producing and telling Sonny Boy what to do and Sonny Boy got mad and started cussing him out. Did Leonard Chess try to direct your recordings like that?"
"Naw, no one knew what the hell I was doing. But Leonard was a very clever man, and Phil Chess. They knew, since I was moving into what you call the white vein, going from the black vein into the white vein. Because you look in the crowd, how many brothers is it do you see out there? You don't see that many. So I crossed over. They knew the white people, and the types of rhythms and stuff that they dug. So they kind of guided a little bit, but they didn't tell me what to do."
"You're in that George Thorogood video—"
Barbara, who has wandered over to join us, says, "I love that video."
"Who would really win if you and George Thorogood played a game of pool?" I ask.
"George. George would win because I can't play pool." We all laughed, and Bo says, "That's my buddy, man, I love him."
"What did you listen to growing up, besides gospel music?"
"Well, that's all my folks would allow me. You didn't come in the house with no other shit."
Barbara asks him, "So how did you start rock and roll?"
Bo says, "I kind of sneaked it. My mother didn't allow that shit."
"But," Barbara says, "you must have heard some kind of music to give you the—"
"Well, I heard music, but it wasn't nothing called rock and roll. It was boogie woogie, Chicago blues, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, all them."
I say, "The humor in your songs reminds me of those old hokum blues guys, like Bo Carter. Did you ever listen to him?"
Barbara asks, "Who was Bo Carter?"
"He was one of the Chatmon brothers, back in the 20s and 30s they did all this hilarious dirty acoustic blues, almost jug band kind of stuff."
"Woooo," says Bo, "I ain't that old, baby, I'm only 56 years old."
o hits the stage dressed in black from head to toe, carrying a square guitar that flashes his name in red lights and has a lot of built in controls usually found on an amplifier, like delay and reverb, so he can plug in anywhere and get the same sound. He starts out by himself playing a screaming version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Barbara leans over and shouts in my ear, "The first time I saw him do this I asked him later what he thought of Jimi Hendrix's version of it and he goes, 'Jimi did this?'"
Bo goes through his moves, doing the Bo Breakdance, mugging for the young ladies, clowning for the photographers. As he and the band feel each other out, they begin to lock into a groove, doing ten and fifteen minute versions of classics like "Who Do You Love," "Mona," "Roadrunner," and one of "I'm A Man" that sounds more like Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy" than Bo's 1955 version. The famous shave and a haircut beat is missing, but Bo has picked a few tricks from John Lee Hooker about extended boogie, and the first set alone runs over two hours. Bo even sits in on the drums for a while and is surprisingly good. Barbara tells me that Bo has a 20 year old daughter that plays drums and Bo records with her sometimes.
On the last song of the first set, the drummer kicks it off by pounding out the Bo Diddley beat. Bo turns around and stares at him, but the drummer just stares back and keeps drumming. Bo starts to grin at him, then turns around to the microphone and starts to sing, "Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard . . . ?"
After the show I head backstage because Bo said to come back and talk some more. He's sipping Grand Marnier and signing autographs, and once the crowd thins down to a few select ladies, one by one Bo takes each woman into a dressing room and closes the door for some alone time with them. Barbara is talking to the band, seemingly amused by it all. I don't bug him anymore because he's having way more fun in there than talking to me about the good old days like they're over or something.